04 November 2018

‘Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God’

A selection of tallitot or prayer shawls in the synagogue in Chania in Crete … the number of knots and fringes represent the 613 commandments in Jewish law, but which is the most important? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 4 November 2018,

The Fourth Sunday before Advent (Proper 26).

11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Readings: Ruth 1: 1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9: 11-14; Mark 12: 28-34.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There are two different, contrasting and interesting people in our Lectionary readings this morning:

● A woman who is an outsider, pushed to the margins, whose voice did not matter, but who becomes central to God’s plan for salvation; and a man who is very much an insider, and comes to grasp what is at the heart of God’s plan for salvation.

● One is a woman, whose name we know, the other a man who remains unnamed and anonymous.

● One makes a choice when it comes to her religion, and because of her faith and faithfulness is blessed in love; the other, a religious person, comes to realise that love is at the heart of the true choices demanded by his faith.

Psalm 146 reminds us how God loves those who follow his ways, cares for the stranger in the land, looks after the orphan and the widow, and upsets the plans of the wicked.

The story of Ruth is set ‘in the days when the judges ruled,’ before the institution of the monarchy.

Ruth was born in the land of Moab, a border nation and a frequent enemy of Israel. Her name means ‘female friend.’

Because of a famine in Judah, Elimelech and his family become migrants and move to Moab, to the east of the Dead Sea. His two sons marry local women, but the men then die. Three widows are left powerless and destitute when news arrives that the famine is over. They set out to return to Judah, but Naomi suggests the other two women go back. Naomi has no more sons to marry Orpah and Ruth, who might be eligible husbands for her widowed daughters-in-law.

But Ruth remains constant. Out of love and loyalty to her mother-in-law, Ruth travels back to Bethlehem with Naomi, while Orpah stays in Moab.

This morning’s reading concludes with that memorable poetic passage that Leonard Cohen sang at most of his concerts:

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)

When they arrive back in Judah, Naomi steers Ruth towards a relationship with a distant relative, Boaz. He marries Ruth, and she is rescued from the sad life she would face otherwise as a widow. Ruth abandons her home and her traditional religion, and she becomes a Jew by choice.

Ruth is marked by her kindness and loyalty, she is a woman of integrity who maintains high morals, and she is a hard worker in the fields, gleaning leftover grain for Naomi and herself. Ruth’s deep love for Naomi was rewarded when Boaz marries Ruth and she finds love and security.

Ruth’s life seems to be a series of timely coincidences, but this is a story about the providence of God, leading towards the birth of David, then from David to the birth of Jesus.

She plays a key role in the unfolding of God’s plan for salvation and the coming of the promised Messiah. The Gentile ancestors of Jesus include Ruth. Ruth and Boaz are the parents of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, and Jesse fathers David, Israel’s greatest king.

Ruth is one of only five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus, along with Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Mary (see Matthew 1:1-16): all women on the margins and the outside, the sort of women people at the time might have been embarrassed to find on their family tree in some Biblical version of Who Do You Think You Are?

Ruth becomes a strong female figure in the Old Testament, not only because she becomes the great-grandmother of David, but because of her humility and her kindness too.

The setting for this morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 12: 28-34) is the Temple in Jerusalem. Christ is teaching in the Temple, where the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the elders have challenged his authority to teach (Mark 11: 27-33), where he has been challenged by some Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 12: 13-17), and where some Sadducees question him too (Mark 12: 18-27).

Now it is the turn of a Scribe to have a go at him, this time a Scribe who has overheard all these questions, answers and arguments. He is impressed by Jesus’s answers and the way in which he has avoided falling into the traps. This Scribe has a question of his own, but he is asking genuinely without seeking to set another trap for Christ.

The Scribes pay attention to the law and have intimate knowledge of its content. They are responsible for making copies of the law and teaching it to others (see Ezra 7: 6; Ezra 7: 10-12; Nehemiah 8: 1, 4, 9, 13).

In New Testament times, the Scribes are usually Pharisees. They support but sometimes also supplement the written law with their traditions (see Matthew 23: 2). In the Gospels, the titles ‘scribes’ and ‘lawyers’ are often interchangeable (see Matthew 22: 35; Mark 12: 28; Luke 20: 39).

They are teachers of the people (Mark 1: 22) and interpreters of the Law. They are widely respected because of their knowledge, dedication, and law-keeping.

The Scribes act responsibly and seriously in their task of preserving Scripture, and they copy and recopy the Bible meticulously, even counting letters and spaces to ensure each copy is correct.

But in the Gospels they are often charged with ignoring the spirit behind the Law, so their regulations and traditions added to the Law become more important than the Law itself. They know the Law and they teach it to others, but they do not always honour the spirit of the Law.

The Scribe in this reading asks Jesus in the Temple, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ (Mark 12: 28).

In Jewish law, there are 613 commandments, precepts or mitzvot. They include positive commandments, to perform an act (mitzvot aseh), and negative commandments, to abstain from certain acts (mitzvot lo taaseh). The negative commandments number 365, which coincides with the number of days in the solar year, and the positive commandments number 248, said to be the number of bones and main organs in the human body (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b–24a).

The number of tzitzit or knotted fringes of the tallit or prayer shawl worn by pious Jews at prayer is connected to the 613 commandments: the Hebrew numerical value of the word tzitzit is 600; each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13; the sum of these numbers is 613. This reflects the idea that donning a tallit or prayer shawl with tzitzit reminds its wearer of all 613 Torah commandments.

Later in this chapter, in the reading provided for next Sunday (Mark 12: 38-44), Christ refers to the fashion of the Scribes walking around in long robes (Mark 12: 38), perhaps a fashion for ostentatious prayer shawls that indicate a claim to observing each and every one of the 613 commandments.

But this Scribe wants to know which of one of these 613 is the most important.

In his reply, Christ offers not one but two commandments or laws. But neither is found in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20: 1-17 and Deuteronomy 5: 4-21). Instead, Christ steps outside the Ten Commandments and quotes from two other sections in the Bible (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5, Leviticus 19: 18).

The first command Christ quotes is the shema, ‘Hear, O Israel, ...’ (verse 29), recited twice daily by pious Jews. The shema is composed from two separate passages in the Book Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, 11: 13-21), and to this day it is recited twice daily in Jewish practice.

Christ links this first commandment to a second, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (verse 31). Once again, he is not quoting from the Ten Commandments; instead, here he is quoting Leviticus (Leviticus 19: 18).

Christ combines these two precepts into a moral principle, linked by love. But he is not the first, nor is he the last, to do this, and the combination is not unique for the Scribes or the Pharisees.

Hillel the Elder (ca 110 BC to 10 AD), who was asked a similar question, cited this verse as the most important message of the Torah. Once, he was challenged by a gentile who asked to be converted if the Torah was explained to him while he stood on one foot. Drawing on Leviticus (Leviticus 19: 18), Hillel told the man: ‘Do not do to anyone else what is hateful to you: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a).

The Scribe agrees with Jesus and elaborates. Both precepts are much more important than all the burnt-offerings and sacrifices in the Temple (verses 32-33).

For responding in this way, Christ tells this Scribe that he has answered wisely and is near the kingdom of God (verse 34).

And that silenced everyone who was listening, and it put an end to the debates … for the moment.

So, to conclude:

1, Silent people, who are pushed to the margins, may have more to say about God, about truth, about love, and about the true meaning of religion if only we would allow them to move in from the margins and listen to what they have to say.

2, People who ask questions about religious values are not necessarily trying to upset our faith and beliefs. They may actually be calling us back to the core values.

3, Named or unnamed, male or female, insider or outsider, we each have a place and a part in God’s plans. Being open to love, especially to the love of others, is the key to finding ourselves in that place.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘Adoration of the Torah’ by Artur Markiowicz (1872-1934) in the Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue, Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 12: 28-34 (NRSV):

28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29 Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32 Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33 and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”, – this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

‘Teacher and student’ by Judel Gerberhole (1904), in the Jewish Museum in the Old Synagogue, Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


592, O Love that wilt not let me go (CD 34)
515, ‘A new commandment I give unto you’ (CD 30)
358, King of glory, King of peace (CD 21)

So [Ruth] … came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers (Ruth 2: 3) … harvest fields beside the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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