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Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

We live in a truly global world today, where we can access almost any place in the world in less than a day’s flying time. And it has become very normal for people to leave their place of birth and live in another country. But this wasn’t the case for people living in the time of the Book of Ruth. If people did go to live in another country in those days, it was generally because they were forced to go in order to survive a natural disaster, such as a famine, which is exactly the situation we find in this morning’s reading from the Book of Ruth.

We are told that in “the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land”. The phrase “the days when the judges ruled” refers to the period of time between the death of Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites, and the anointing of Saul as the first king of Israel. It was a period of some two hundred years, roughly between 1250 and 1050 BCE. During those years, the nation of Israel was ruled by a series of “judges”, who were not judges in the sense of a modern day judge that we know, but were rulers who often had significant military roles. It is thought to be towards the end of this time, that the Book of Ruth is set. 

There is a famine in the land inhabited by the nation of Israel, and so Elimelech, together with his wife Naomi and their two sons, leave their home in Bethlehem in Judah, to go and live in the country of Moab. This move is not without significant risk, because the people of Moab, the Moabites, were enemies of the Israelites.

Having made the move, Elimelech himself dies, and his two sons both marry Moabite women. However after about ten years the two sons also die, leaving their mother Naomi alone with her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, who are both foreigners. Naomi gets news that the famine in her homeland is over, and that food is plentiful again, and she decides to return. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers’ homes where they can find another husband among their own people who will take care of them. Orpah eventually does as Naomi urges her to do, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. Ruth declares that Naomi’s people will be her people, but even more importantly, that Naomi’s God will be her God as well. Ruth renounces the Gods of her people, the Moabites, and instead embraces the God of Israel. 

In much the same way that Ruth’s religious loyalty is transformed, in today’s second reading, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews describes the transformation that has occurred in Jewish religious practice through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Verse 12 of today’s reading from the letter mentions the Holy Place. This a reference to the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle which housed the Ark of the Covenant that contained the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The Tabernacle, where God’s presence appeared, was the tent the Israelites carried with them during the time of the Exodus from Egypt until the time when they settled in the land of Canaan. 

The Holy of Holies was covered by a veil, and no one was allowed to enter into it except the High Priest, but even he could only enter once a year on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), to offer the blood of sacrifice and incense before the mercy seat, which was the gold lid on the Ark of the Covenant where it was believed God would appear. 

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus entered the Holy of Holies, not with the blood sacrifice of animals, but with the blood of his own sacrifice, and therefore obtained eternal redemption for all people. By his death Jesus has established a new covenant, which redeems those whom God calls from the sins they have committed under the first covenant. 

During his ministry, much of the teaching of Jesus was aimed at the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders, who were the guardians of these different religious practices. So it comes as no surprise that, in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, several Pharisees and religious leaders come to Jesus and try to trap him with a trick question. 

They ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a Jewish person to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not. Not long after the Romans took over the administration of the region of Judea, Samaria and Peraea in 6 CE, they imposed a highly unpopular tax, a poll tax, which had to be paid in the form of a Roman denarius coin, which bore the image of the emperor. So this is a very dangerous question for Jesus to answer. 

If Jesus supports the unpopular tax, then he stands to lose the support of the people–which is the one thing that protects him from his enemies. If he advises against paying the tax, then he can be reported to the Roman Governor under the charge of inciting a rebellion.

Jesus very cleverly handles the situation by calling to see a denarius and asking his adversaries whose head is on the coin. They have no choice but to answer that it is the emperor. So Jesus tells them to “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor” and to “give to God what belongs to God”, which is really his way of saying that people should pay the tax, but they should only do so in the knowledge that although they have an obligation to the emperor, they have a far more significant obligation to God. 

Another of the Jewish religious leaders then asks Jesus which is the first or greatest commandment. Jesus answers by citing the opening verses of the Shema, the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy recited morning and evening by observant Jews, both then in the time of Jesus, and also today: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.” But then Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The religious leader agrees with the answer that Jesus gives him, and adds the comment that these two commandments are much more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices, which is a reference to the cult of sacrifice that was practiced under Jewish law. This was not really anything new, because down through the centuries the prophets of Israel had pointed out to the people and their religious leaders that God demands more of them than just burnt offerings or sacrifices. God requires a greater commitment from them to a relationship with Him, and also a strong commitment to Social Justice. And this is what we see echoed in the teaching of Jesus. 

I hope that what I’ve shared with you this morning gives you a better understand of the meaning behind each of the three passages that we have examined. But what do we learn from today’s readings that we can take away with us that will help us in our daily lives?

The message I would like you to take away, is the same message that Jesus proclaimed. The most important thing we can do in our lives is to focus on our relationship with God. If we can love God with our whole being: that is, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; then that love will flow over into every single activity of our daily lives, enriching not only our own lives, but the lives of everyone we come into contact with.

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