The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27, 8 November 2015

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
I Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146

Hebrews 9:24-28
St. Mark 12: 38-44

Background: Women in these readings

The combination of Track 1’s reading from Ruth, and Track 2’s reading about the widow of Zarephath, along with the reading about the poor widow, give us an opportunity to think deeply about the role of women in the Scriptures, and their role in daily life in the last few centuries before the birth of Christ. In both case of Ruth and the widow of Zarephath, their very future is threatened. In the case of the widow, it is literally threatened by the lack of food – and I guess the same could be said in the Ruth story as well. What may pass us by, however, is the threat that the death of husbands, and especially in the case of the widow, the passing of a son and heir meant. Such was their lot, that the passing of these males meant that there was no future for these women. Another aspect to Ruth and the widow of Zarephath is that they are foreigners, outside of the social conventions and protections of Israel.

Although we know now that women could and did own property during this time, and that they could and did make significant decisions for themselves and their households, the common understandings of society underscore the counter-cultural message that is made in each of these readings. Ruth literally takes matters into her own hands in being straight forward and courageous with Boaz. The widow of Zarephath, however, has no such options. She depends upon the man of God that wanders into her life. And the widow in the temple – It is likely that Jesus and the disciples encountered multitudes of such women. They depended on little, and yet were faithful in believing the promise. What do we overlook in the lives of women today?

Track One:

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do." She said to her, "All that you tell me I will do."

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Why is this story preserved in the Hebrew canon? Some see in it an “ur-story” that begins to lay the foundations for the David story – Ruth being an ancestor. Other see in it, especially if it was written right after the release of the Israelites to their own lands under Cyrus the Persian King, a background to the insistence in Ezra that foreign wives be put away (see Ezra 9-10) and a kind of opposition to that train of thought. The argument here is that even David had “foreign” ancestors.  What is clear in this story is the need for a future – the need for connection to a family. We have several examples of how women would secure their rights under the Levirate law to have children by their next of kin should their own spouses have died. Ruth exercises those rights most explicitly when she spends the night on the threshing floor and “uncovers(s) his feet (a euphemism) and thus secures the possibility of a future. It’s all rather casual, even in our time it seems so. There are some parallels in this story, the nature of which is to describe the protection that Ruth (and Naomi as well) seeks and that which Boaz seems willing to offer. Boaz is asked to “spread his cloak” over Ruth, and himself, describes God’s wings (same word as cloak) and the protection that they afford. There are depths here – worthy of exploration.

Breaking open Ruth:
  1. What motivates the relationship of Naomi and Ruth?
  2. How does Naomi attempt to save their situation?
  3. What courage does Ruth exhibit?

Psalm 127 Nisi, dominus

Unless the LORD builds the house, *
their labor is in vain who build it.

Unless the LORD watches over the city, *
in vain the watchman keeps his vigil.

It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; *
vain, too, to eat the bread of toil,
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Children are a heritage from the LORD, *
and the fruit of the womb is a gift.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior *
are the children of one's youth.

Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! *
he shall not be put to shame
when he contends with his enemies in the gate.

The superscription to this psalm, “A song of ascents for Solomon”, suggests that we might read “temple” for house in the first verse. Keeping that in mind renders two separate understandings for the remaining verses of the psalm. It is the second verse that connects this psalm liturgically to the first reading, with its themes of protection and vigil. In the succeeding verse, however, we are suddenly involved in more mundane things, the long workday, bitter toil, and the sweet prospect of deep sleep. Once again we are shown a multitude of euphemisms, arrows and quivers are unmistakable in their meaning. All of this, however, addresses the future – the gift of home, family, and sons. It is, on one level, a poem about sexual prowess, and the gift of vigorous sons – these were the protections of Israel. Yet, if it is indeed the Temple that is being built here, then it is the future and vigor of the nation that is held up.

Breaking open Psalm 127:
  1. How does God build up your home?
  2. How do you hold up your family?
  3. Who is your family?


Track Two:

1 Kings 17:8-16

The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied; neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

Unlike Ahab, who chooses to follow the Ba’alim, the gods of Jezebel, the Phoenician widow woman seems to recognize the goodness and protection of the God of Israel. It is a turn-about. She comes to this position in the midst of a great personal distress, attempting to survive the famine, which the biblical text lays at the feet of Elijah, for it is he who pronounced the curse of a drought to the evil Ahab. Elijah challenges this incipient faith, “but first make me a little cake.” She, like the widow in the Gospel, is asked to give all of what she has. And now Elijah makes the opposite of his curse to Ahab. Instead of drought and a dry land, he promises abundance and life. Like Mary, the widow “went and did”. And we soon discover that the protection was not only of this woman and her son but also her “household” as well. Many lives were impacted by her act of faith.

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. What is the courage, if any, of Elijah?
  2. What is the courage of the widow?
  3. What have you given up that was replenished?

Psalm 146 Lauda, anima mea

Praise the LORD, O my soul! *
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous;
the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.

The LORD shall reign for ever, *
your God, O Zion, throughout all generations.

This is a praise psalm with verses that celebrate God’s gifts in general rather than in particularity. In approaching this thankful view of God, the psalmist first wants us to understand the frailty of human relationships and institutions, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth.” Having established that understanding of what the world is like, the psalmist then goes own to talk about the support that God gives. In that regard there is a great deal of particularity in terms of the kinds of goodness and benefit that God affords: Justice, food, freedom, sight, lifting up, care for everyone, and help to widows and orphans. Would that our rulers and we be guided by such acts of care and attention. The psalmist heightens the beauty and justice of God’s beneficent gifts by comparing, in the final verses, the frustration of the works of the wicked.

Breaking open Psalm 146:
  1. What kinds of trust have you put in the rulers of the earth?
  2. How do you trust God to help you in times of trouble?
  3. How do you help others in their time of trouble?

Hebrews 9:24-28

Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

We are in Plato’s cave here, “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one.” As in earlier passages, the heavenly Christ not only succeeds his earthly counterparts, but also surpasses them. The author is guiding us to see the work of earthly priests, especially on the Day of Atonement, and the entry into the Holy of Holies, and the splashing of the victim’s blood, with the blood that is shed upon the cross. This one act is sufficient not only to the moment, but for all time. We begin to anticipate Advent in this reading, “Christ…will appear a second time.” The second appearance will not be a priestly act but rather one of saving those who wait for him.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What do you expect of priests here on earth?
  2. What do you expect of Jesus?
  3. What is the difference?

St. Mark 12:38-44

Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

Mark has Jesus comment on the Scribes, a caste of learned people who not only had the gift of literacy, but also served as lawyers and theologians as well. Jesus holds them up to a scrutiny of holiness, and they do not pass. Their actions of vanity, and egoism sets them apart from those they should have been serving. The comparisons of the psalm augment this view of the Scribes by Jesus. Jesus, however, has his own point of comparison – their exact opposite. The widow did not enjoy any of their privileges or distinctions. As a woman she was separated from much in the social and political life of Israel, as a widow she was doubly removed from these spheres. We do not know whether or not she had children, specifically sons, who would have been of benefit. I suspect she did not, for it emphasizes the comparison that Jesus wishes to make here. She is also poor. And yet, it is she who really understands what God wants and how God acts. Again the psalm provides a roadmap of the justice that God wants, and that the woman enables by her deep sacrifice. Later Jesus will give his life, but he indicates here that she has already given up her life.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does it mean to you to sacrifice?
  2. How significant was the widow’s sacrifice?
  3. How might you sacrifice today?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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