Sunday 11 November 2012

2nd Chances

An address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 11th November 2012, the 3rd Before Advent.

‘Beware of the scribes’, Jesus says, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’ (Mark 12:38-44)
·        Now, Jesus’s words make me feel rather uncomfortable. Here I am dressed up in a long cassock with a flowing surplice. Of course it’s just a uniform, based on the plain clothes of long ago, but perhaps it would be better if I wore a decent suit, not long robes, to lead worship. I like to be treated with respect too, just like everyone else. And you probably think that the prayers I lead are too long. Perhaps you should beware of me! I try not to devour widows’ houses though.
·         The scribes were the leaders of society in Jesus’s day. Today we might identify them with the professional classes – the lawyers, the doctors, and the business leaders; the developers, the bankers, and the politicians - as well as the church hierarchy. The widows, on the other hand, were among the most vulnerable and marginalised of the poor – in today’s terms they might be those trying to live on social welfare or the minimum wage.
·         Jesus is criticising the well-got for feathering their own nests at the expense of the poor and vulnerable – ‘they devour widows’ houses’, is the cutting way he puts it. What a contrast to the generosity of the poor widow who gave all she had – two small coins worth just a penny – to support worship in the Temple!
·         As we approach the budget in December, we hear a torrent of voices calling for cuts which will hit the poor and vulnerable hard, and we hear the same voices assert that the well off can’t afford to pay more in taxes. I think we too should ‘beware of the scribes’. The truth is that the rich - the 1% -  can afford to be generous in their support of the poor.
·         But that is not what I want to focus on today.

Instead let us reflect on the story in the 1st reading (Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17) about Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
·         First, what's the context of the story - just who are these three characters.
·         Naomi and her husband, with their two sons, had left their home in Bethlehem years before for the land of Moab to escape a famine. Naomi’s husband died there, and then her two sons who had married Moabite women died as well. Naomi had lost her whole family, and decided to go back to her home place, Bethlehem. But Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law, insisted on going with her. She said, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’. Ruth must have loved Naomi very much.
·         It was the time of the barley harvest when Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem. It was a Jewish tradition to leave the corn in the corners of the fields to be harvested by the poor – this was called gleaning. Ruth went out into the fields to glean to support both of them. There she met Boaz, the owner of a field, who was a relative of Naomi’s late husband – that’s important as we shall see. Boaz had heard about all that Ruth was doing to support Naomi, and praised her for it. And because he was a kind man, he made sure that Ruth was able to glean enough for two of them without being harassed by the young lads doing the harvesting. This is where today’s reading begins.

I found the reading rather odd when I first looked at it – perhaps you did too.
·         It sounds almost as if Naomi puts Ruth up to seducing Boaz, tricking him into marrying her. It sounds rather unsavoury. But that is only because the reading jumps from ch3 v5 to ch4 v13 - for some reason the good compilers of the lectionary have missed out an important piece of the story.
·         To understand what really happened we need to understand another Jewish tradition, called ‘levirate marriage’. In levirate marriage, if a married man died without leaving children, his next of kin - his brother or another close relative - could choose to marry his widow, and this was seen as a good and righteous thing to do. It kept the property in the family. It ensured the future of the widow. And any children of the marriage would be treated as children of the dead husband.
·         No doubt Naomi could see how Boaz was attracted to Ruth. So she sends Ruth to ask Boaz if he would marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth does as Naomi suggests. She uncovers Boaz's feet and lies down beside him, and when he wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who legally should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he, Boaz, will. And Boaz is careful to guard her reputation and sends her away with a present - 6 measures of barley she could hardly carry.
·         Boaz is entirely honourable by the standards of his society and he is as good as his word. The next day he goes to talk to the closer relative in front of the elders. He establishes that the closer relative does not want to marry Ruth – in fact he persuades him that he shouldn’t! And then Boaz says to the elders, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to (her husband and sons). I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite … to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance’.
·         In this way Ruth becomes Boaz’s wife, and with Naomi they live happily ever after. Their son whom Naomi nurses is the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph.

It’s a charming story - a love story really. But why should it have been included in our Bible, and why should we still read it in churches today?
·         I suggest it is because this very human tale illustrates how God works in individual human lives.
·         Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. Ruth had lost her husband. Suddenly they had become impoverished widows dependent on charity. It must have seemed as if the very heavens had fallen in on them. It would have been so easy for them to give in to  depression, to become bitter and angry, people no body likes to be with. But they didn’t. Instead they make the best of their situation, showing their love for each other.
·         And then good things start to happen. They meet a good man, Boaz, who is attracted by the love Ruth shows Naomi. He wants to help them and sees how he can do so. New life and hope comes into all their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.
·         This, surely, is how God works in our lives, if God forbid dreadful things happen to us. If we hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even when it seems we have been abandoned, even when we find ourselves in the depths of depression, then suddenly we will notice good things starting to happen. Our spirits will rise and we will start to discern new life and happiness. This at least has been my experience.
·         This is redemption from evil. This is God redeeming us. This is God acting like our loving Father. In the words of the Benedictus, sung in the temple by Zechariah,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
In the house of his servant David.

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