The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27, 11 November 2018

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: Levirate marriage

The name of this social custom comes from the Latin word, levir, which means “the brother of a husband. It is the natural outcome of a patriarchal society in which women are subservient to and dependent upon men, and was common in the ancient near east. There were economic consequences to the practice in that the first child born from this union would then be the heir to the deceased brother’s estate. Those wishing to investigate this custom further are invited to explore the following texts: Genesis 38, and Deuteronomy 25:5-10.There were conditions that applied to levirate marriages (yibbum).

1.     The brothers needed to share a common father.
2.     The dead brother had no surviving children.
3.     The surviving brother needed to be born before his brother’s death
4.     The surviving brother needed to be physically capable of fathering a child.
5.     The widow needed to be physically capable of bearing a child.

No marriage ceremony was required since they were already bound to one another by the Law. In later law, the couple could perform a ceremony called maamarin which they would recite the usual blessings, and assent to a prenuptual agreement. Only the eldest brother could perform the levirate obligation, unless he refuses and then any brother is eligible. 

Track One:

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

Naomi her mother-in-law said to Ruth, “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.

Naomi prepares Ruth for the rights that she should enjoy as the widow of a Jewish man. The legalese is left aside, and we are left with a somewhat erotic telling of the tale. Ruth is told how to dress, how to present herself, at what time it would be best to meet Boaz (after he had eaten and had drunk – a happy time), and what her overture should be – to uncover his feet. Some commentators have seen this as a euphemism for exposing the man’s genitalia – others do not agree, and see Ruth lying literally at his feet. Naomi advises Ruth, however, “do not make yourself known to the man.”In other words, Ruth should not have intercourse (to know) with Boaz. 

Naomi is hoping for something more than just a sexual union for Ruth, but is looking for marriage and acknowledgement of kinship. The second paragraph of the reading sees the realization of that hope. Some of the nomenclature surround Boaz in the story is interesting, especially “restorer of life”, or “redeemer.” The closing lines connect the birth of the son, Obed, to the geneology of David, and thus to a royal line.

Breaking open Ruth:
  1. Where do you see courage in Ruth?
  2. Where do you see wisdom in Naomi?
  3. How is Boaz a “redeemer”?

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 ascription for this psalm is, “A song of ascents for Solomon.” In the first line we can see the wisdom behind this ascription as it talks about the building of a house. The connection is that Solomon built the Temple, and the psalm is about the building of a home and a family. The verses contrast that which is built in holiness and righteousness, the building of the Temple being the ideal model, and ordinary building for an ordinary purpose. Such building is “in vain”, and its labor is difficult, followed by a meal of “the bread of toil” (see Genesis 3:17).

At verse four the theme of building in vain is left behind and the focus is on building a home, family. This translation removes the masculine intent of the psalm, and translates the Hebrew banim rightly as “children.” The remaining verses, however, are quite masculine with warlike images and vocabulary. Considering the culture of the time, that must have been the intent of the poet. Our time can see beyond that however so as to include both the male and female aspects of God’s gift of the family.

Breaking open Psalm 127:
  1. How have you built a home?
  2. Where are religion and faith in your home?
  3. Where is God in your home?


Track Two:

First Reading: I 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.

There are a couple of interesting aspects that come to us with this reading. The first is that Elijah is called to go to a place and a woman not of Israel, and thus we have a hint of universalism in this reading from Kings. Thus the author recognizes the common culture that embraces both and over arches the religious life of the people living in the Levant. The second aspect is the acknowledgement of the consequence of God’s judgment on Israel. A glance at the beginning verses of this chapter sets an ominous stage: “And Elijah the Tishbite, of the inhabitants of Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD God of Israel lives, Whom I have served, there shall be no rain or dew except by my word.”[1](I Kings 17:1). There are victims to this pronouncement by God, indeed the first is Elijah himself, whom the Lord bids hide in the Wadi of Cherith, where he will find water and sustenance. The other victims are the widow and her son. She has an interesting role – victim of the drought, and agent of the God of Israel. Elijah asks for some impossible tasks, to fetch him scarce water, and to bake for him a bread from precious little resources. The widow owns up not only to her own fate, but also the fate of her son, both signs of the consequence of God’s judgment on Israel that has spilled over into Phoenicia. The whole of the region suffers because of the sins of Israel. As Jesus will do later, in the same region, Elijah tests the woman’s faith. Now it is YHWH, the God of Israel, who enters the scene and makes a redemptive promise. The flour, the oil, they will be replenished so that all might live. Thus, it seems that God is not only God of Israel, but of the earth.

Breaking open I Kings:
  1. Who in your life or neighborhood has suffered from society’s consequences?
  2. What of your wealth, or poverty might you share?
  3. How would such an action be prophetic?

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.

The hopes of Isaiah, the redemption seen in the First Reading from I Kings, are all brought together in this psalm of praise. Justice, freedom, sight, food, sustainance – these are the gifts that God offers. The widow’s realization that she and her son might die because of the situation in the land was not uncommon. Dire circumstances were known to many, and yet the psalmist sees God reaching out to every man and every woman and offering redemption. 

Breaking open Psalm 146:
  1. Whom do you know who needs justice?
  2. Whom do you know who is hungry?
  3. Whom do you know that needs sight?

Second Reading: 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.

The author continues with a Platonic comparison of earthly realities and heavenly realities. Luke Timothy Johnson, in his commentary on Hebrews describes this relationship, “Within the biblical Platonism of Hebrews, as I have stated several times, the poles earth/ heaven correspond to less real/ more real.”[2]It is odd that we live in a time where the opposite has more currency. The Christ, that we honor and worship in temples made with hands, himself enters heaven itself to appear before God. It is not only the holy places which imitate what God has in store for us, but our very selves and lives offer evidence as well. So we will die and then be judged, but Christ offered once, appears a second time to lift us up from our sins. Sacrifice, Temple, Priest, Victim, Death – all of these have earthly and heavenly types. Christ, the great high priest gives us hope in every circumstance.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. How is your faith earthy?
  2. How is your life heavenly?
  3. How does your life exhibit God?

The Gospel: St. Mark 12:38-44

As Jesus taught, he 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.”

Hebrews offered us contrasts, and now so does Mark. The first pericope (verses 38-40) describes the hyper religious – in this case the scribes. We need to revisit an earlier pericope (Mark 12:28-34) to realize that Jesus does not generally condemn the scribes, but honors those who “are not far from the kingdom of God.” It is the ostentatious ones, who in their religious lives ruin the lives of the less fortunate, it is these who Jesus condemns. They are a contrast within themselves, actively religious and prayerful, but destroying the livelihood of widows. As countless prophets had pointed out, widows were the responsibility of the whole society. They had no rights of inheritance, and were relegated to whatever social programs or welfare that the community offered. You might want to especially look at Malachi 3:5,
“I will draw near to you for judgment,
and I will be swift to bear witness
Against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers,
those who deprive a laborer of wages,
Oppress a widow or an orphan,
or turn aside a resident alien,
without fearing me, says the LORD of hosts.”

The Torah was quite clear about this, and certain of the scribes seemed to have missed the mark.

Then for a point of contrast, Jesus takes an example from the victims of scribal hypocracy – a poor widow. She is not the only righteous one there – others were giving from their wealth as she had given from her poverty. She is singled out for her faithfulness, much like the widow of Zarephath. Each of them had something in their lives that kept them distant from society, and yet they gave. There is a lesson here for our time and our behaviors over against the poor. 

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. In what ways are you like the scribes?
  2. In what ways are you like the widow?
  3. Who are the widows and orphans in your life?

Points of Comparison           Living in Poverty and Living in Wealth

Comparison One:                  With what shall we live? What is Necessary?

Comparison Two:                  How do others see our lives? What do we do to keep up appearances?

Comparison Three:                What do we put our faith in in order to live?

Comparison Four:                 How does God redeem us?          

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 © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2013), Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 15529
[2]       Johnson, L. (2006), Hebrews: A Commentary (The New Testament Library)Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 6845.


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