Hospitality and Sacrifice 11/8/09

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Mark 12:38-44

As the Psalm states today, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  We will see in our two major narratives that God is building his house and there are common threads that become foundations for the house God is building.

The Back Story on Ruth

We don’t get to hear the whole story on Ruth from this short passage that we heard today.  Before our passage begins, we hear of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech who move to Moab because of a famine.  As often happens when people move, they begin to settle into their new location. Their two sons grow up and marry two local girls – Orpah and Ruth.  More time passes and all three men die: Naomi’s husband and her two sons.  She decides to return to her family of origin and entreats her two daughters-in-law to return to their own families.  After first refusing, Naomi insists and so Orpah does return to her family in Moab.  Ruth, however, will not be moved and we hear one of the most lyrical parts of Scripture when she says:

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)

This passage is often used at weddings (it was at mine!) and it occurs at a point in the narrative when a marriage is not even a remote possibility for any of our characters.  Ruth returns with Naomi, and they set about the task of surviving as widows in that society were forced to do.  In this patriarchal, biblical society there were certain safeguards that protected them somewhat.  One of those safeguards was a rule concerning harvesting: landowners were only to do one gleaning of the land and then allow strangers passing through or those with no family or means of survival to come through after their first wave of workers and get the harvest that had not been easily picked up.  So Ruth goes to the fields every day and works back-breaking work to find enough food for her and Naomi to live.

This is how we come to know that Boaz is a righteous and respectable man.  Some landowners paid heed to the letter of this harvesting law, while they paid extra workers to glean extra carefully so that there was no harvest left for those who might come after.  But Boaz paid heed to this biblical requirement … and then he went further.  He notices Ruth everyday and asks about her … in this way, he finds out about Ruth’s loyalty and faithfulness to her mother-in-law, Naomi. 

As the story progresses, Naomi is concerned for Ruth’s future and so she tells Ruth what to do and Ruth goes to the “threshing floor” and to Boaz.  Naomi is relying on another safeguard in her society – that of the redeemer.  When a woman is widowed, her husband’s family is allowed/obligated to marry her and provide for her.  In our jump from chapter 3 to chapter 4 we find out that Boaz is not the nearest relative so they must first find out if that nearest relative wants to marry Ruth.  Once he refuses, Boaz is free to marry Ruth and we find the happy ending that is not just a wedding, but is also a child: Obed, “child of destiny” who is a “servant of God.”[1]  God is at work here, even in this happy ending.  Obed, we discover becomes the father of Jesse who becomes the father of David, who after slaying Goliath becomes King David – the greatest king of Israel’s history. 

The Lord is building a house, and who does God choose to help build this house?  A Moabite woman and an Israelite farmer in a mixed marriage.  God chooses Ruth, a foreigner who at her mother-in-law’s advice throws herself at Boaz in desperation. God chooses someone who is not purely an Israelite.  Rather God chooses someone whose compassion, fidelity, trust, loyalty and strength sets her apart as a woman of worth.  God chooses Boaz, a wealthy farmer who is fair, trustworthy, compassionate, and powerful.  This new family is building a house that will create the foundations of our faith.  Martin Copenhaver notes, “The family and the church are both places where we have the opportunity to learn to live with people we did not choose.  Our fidelity to those we are stuck with can be a reflection of the fidelity of a God who is stuck with us all.” 

Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz are wonderful examples of extra-ordinary care for one another.

The Challenge of the Widow’s Mite

We hear about another widow in Mark, and she presents us with a very uncomfortable picture of disparity.  A widowed woman, who probably had to evade both Roman authorities, and temple scribes in order to put her money in the treasury, puts in all the money she possesses … Into a treasury that Jesus points out helps to keep her in her destitute situation.  “They devour widow’s houses …”  This is an uncomfortable passage because though we like our churches and would like to think of them as better than these corrupted temples, we can all recount stories of churches, church members and leaders that harmed just as many as they healed.  The church, as an institution, is just as vulnerable to corruption as any other human institution.

So why does Jesus point out the widow?  Where is the hope in this passage?  Pete Peery helps us to riddle this out in his commentary:

Jesus calls the disciple to notice that this widow gives all that she has – literally, “the whole of her life.”   She gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned … this is the last scene of Jesus’ public ministry.  From here all that remains in Mark’s telling is the temple discourse and the passion narrative.  So this widow offers a glimpse into what Jesus is about.  He is on the way to giving “the whole of his life” for something that is corrupt and condemned: all of humanity, the whole world.[2]

The widow’s mite has nothing to do with money and everything to do with sacrifice and trust.  She perhaps has no way of changing the structure of her church, no way to eradicate the corruption present, but we do. 

What does this mean for us?

God has been building a house on the foundation of care and concern for the other.  “The poor widow gives her whole life for that which is worthy only to be condemned.  Is this the calling Jesus lifts up for the entire church?[3]” How do we care for the world around us?  How do we try to quell the urge for power to corrupt?  What is that the church is called to do and sacrifice in order for Christ’s truth and message to be real in this world?  One of the confessions in our constitution states:

“The Church is called to be a sign in and for the world of the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ … by healing and reconciling and binding up wounds … ministering to the needs of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the powerless … giving itself and its substance to the service of those who suffer … sharing with Christ in the establishing of his just, peaceable, and loving rule in the world.  The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life.”[4]

Perhaps there are more important things than the mere survival of the church.  In a culture where churches often define success as growing in numbers, success must also be measured relationally.

Hospitality and Sacrifice

Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz are points of great hope for us because they show us that it is possible to live out a covenant of care, and they show us how.  Practically, relationships are the way to make sure that the church is working for the good of all.  We need to not only serve others … we need to care for others: learn their stories, share their pain, walk with them in trouble, and celebrate with them at weddings and births.  “Ruth and Naomi’s survival skills are less important than the depth of concern for each other, for that kind of concern, called hesed in this story, is something to build churches, communities, and a better world upon.”[5]  A good host or hostess not only tries to provide for the needs and the comforts of their guests, they also take the time to care for the person where they are.  How does the church show hospitality to the community?  How do we welcome guests on Sunday morning?  How can we do all those things better?

Your people shall be my people, and your God my God

God is still building a house, and you and I are invited to be part of that foundation.  We are invited to share in a covenant of care where we love each other deeply and walk the road together.

[1] G. Malcolm Sinclair.  Feasting on the Word: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, pg. 267.

[2] Pete Peery.  Feasting on the Word: Mark 12:38-44, pg. 289.

[3] Pete Peery, pg. 289.

[4][4] The Constitution of the PC(USA). Part II,  Book of Order, G-3.0200-3.0400.

[5] Kate Huey.  Weekly Seeds. “Risk and Restoration (Nov 2-8).


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