Here are my thoughts for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Ruth 3: 1 – 5, 4: 13 – 17; Hebrews 9: 24 – 28; and Mark 12: 38 – 44.
There was an interesting article in Christian Century this past week about biblical literacy (see http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=7927). It does repeat some information that I have used in the past from a 1997 Barna Survey (such as 12 percent of adults think Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark and about ½ of those surveyed don’t know that the Book of Isaiah is in the Old Testament) or a 2004 Gallup survey that showed that nearly one in ten teens think that Moses was one of the 12 apostles.
This article looks at the impact of scriptural illiteracy and ways of overcoming it. It is important to consider this because there are too many ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular that come from a lack of knowledge about the one document that is the primary source of information.
Now, I am only mentioning that because of what I see in the readings for today and what they mean for us in this day and age. And, for me, this is an important distinction. If you do not know the basic facts about the Bible it is very difficult to understand what the words mean. And it is entirely possible that you will find a different message in the Scripture readings for today than the one I found. And there is nothing wrong with that because, if nothing else, it means that you are thinking about what you have read. The Bible should never be viewed as fixed in time because to do so is to remove the meaning from the words.
And so it is that I have to wonder why the Book of Ruth is part of the Old Testament. Now, one answer is found in the concluding part of the verses today. Ruth and Boaz had a son who is named Obed. And Obed will become the father of Jesse and Jesse will be the father of David. And, as the hymn goes, from the branch of Jesse’s tree shall come the Messiah.
But, there is more to the story than just the establishment of the royal line that will lead to Jesus. Or at least that is the way it seems to me. The story of Ruth is a recounting of tribal and societal policies, of making sure that everyone has the basic needs. It is in Ruth that we learn that farmers were told not to take the entire crop from the field but leave some on the edges so that the poor would be able to have some grain. This is also a tale about the nature of society where widows were often left outside the care of society.
Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is a widow whose two sons have also died. To be a widow without children, especially sons, in that time was to be put outside the safety net of society. There was no security for Naomi and even less for Ruth. If Naomi is to have any sort of future, she must return to her homeland (having moved to Moab early in the story) and hope that her family will take her in. Ruth, being a Moabite, does not have that security and Naomi has suggested that she return to her family as well. But unlike her sister-in-law, Orpah, Ruth says that she will follow Naomi, even though there is no guarantee of security for her.
Now, the Gospel reading for today also speaks of a widow and most of the time we speak of the generosity of the widow (who gave everything) as compared to those who gave a portion of their abundance. But while we remember that part of the Gospel reading, we often forget the first part where Jesus said that those who “devour widows’ homes and say long prayers for appearance only” will be the ones who are condemned.
I think that we spend so much time in today’s society trying to make the Bible fit our view of the world that we forget what it is that the Bible is trying to tell us. And even if we did at one time know what was in the Bible, we have cast it aside in favor of whatever information we might think is in the Bible because it enables us to have our own view.
The Bible’s main message is that we must care for each other first. The poor get a better treatment in the Bible than they do in real life today, even though there are so many people today who say they are Christians. We may argue that capitalism is or isn’t the best economic system available; we may argue that there are other systems that are better for today’s economy. I am not much of a Bible scholar and I am not much of an economist. But I do recall what John Wesley said about earnings.
John Wesley had no problems with people earning as much as they could; in fact, he encouraged people “to earn as much as they could.” But such earnings came with the condition that you didn’t do it at the expense or “on the backs” of others. In other words, if your employment required the exploitation of others, you were in the wrong business. Your gain should not be at the expense of others.
Unfortunately, when you look at the disparity in incomes today between the various economic levels, it would be hard to say that the very, very rich are not exploiting the poor and under-classes. And the reports that I hear that tell me that local food closets are being pushed to the limit each week with more and more families seeking assistance in putting food on the table says that we have forgotten the Biblical imperative to leave some of the abundance for others.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t finish the John Wesley trilogy on finances. Not only did he say that one could earn all that they could, he said that one should save as much as they could and then give all that they could. It has long been noted that Wesley was one of the highest paid clergy in England but that the British tax collectors could not find his wealth.
They never could understand how someone earning as much as John Wesley was earning could not have anything. But John Wesley had figured out what it would take for his family to live and everything above that amount was given away.
Early Methodists followed his example, living simple lives and saving their money. But they saved their money not to hoard it but to give it away. It has long been noted that most people today do not save enough and our own society seems directed towards getting as much as one can for one’s own benefit as possible with little concern for others.
And yes, this is about health care. I am not going to make a plea for one form of health care or another. But it strikes me that too many people on both sides of the debate are offering plans that are “me-first” in nature and what is it going to cost me instead of trying to determine what is the best for all people. Yes, it is going to cost some people some money but is that a reason to say that others should not get some sort of decent health care? I am not interested in the argument that one plan is going to create some sort of gigantic bureaucracy when the private plans have already created a gigantic bureaucracy devoted more to making a profit than to insuring that people are healthy. Everything in the health care debate and the debate/discussion about the economy seems to be directed towards insuring the well being of the one individual who already has and not providing for the well being of those who have nothing. This is in direct contrast to what the basis for the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today.
The futility of these arguments can be said in what the writer of Hebrew tells us about the futility of the priests who offer sacrifices time and time again. The only true sacrifice is the one that Christ made for us. As long as our attempts to resolve societal issues focus on ourselves long before we worry about what others need, we will never find the answer. On the other hand, if we, like Christ, focus on others before ourselves, the answers will come quickly and easily.
The basic needs of people need to be answered before we even think about the superfluous needs of individuals. Let us pause and think about that as we enter the last days of the Pentecost season and prepare for Advent and the coming of Christ.