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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 31 - Year B
Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary Thirty-One (Proper 26) B


RUTH 1:1-18         The delightful short story of Ruth has an unusual place
in the Old Testament.  It is a beautiful folk tale which became a moral
tract about welcoming foreigners as one of the people of God and ancestor
of Israel's greatest king, David.  The theology behind the story assures us
of the working out of God's purpose in human affairs.                       
                          

PSALM 146           This is the first of the final five psalms often
referred to as the Hallel Psalms because they all begin with the Hebrew
words for "Praise the Lord."  It recites a number of reasons for trust in
God.


HEBREWS 9:11-14     This brief reading presents another in a long series of
arguments for regarding Jesus Christ as the one mediator between humanity
and God.  It declares the supreme efficacy of Christ's sacrifice on the
cross in contrast to the repeated sprinkling of the blood of animal
sacrifices on the temple altar customary in the Hebrew tradition.           
                         

MARK 12:28-34       Having arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus confronts strong
opposition to his teaching.  Unlike Luke who added the parable of the Good
Samaritan to this incident, Mark merely used it to summarize the whole of
the Jewish law in two brief commandments.  In one sentence Jesus offered
his challenger the key to entering God's kingdom: to love God and neighbour 
as oneself.
   
No one has ever devised a better way to live in the real world.  As someone
had rightly said, it isn't that we don't know how, it is rather a matter of
doing it faithfully all the time in all our relationships. 

************

RUTH 1:1-18    The delightful short story of Ruth has an unusual place in
the Old Testament.  Several different hypotheses have been proposed as to
its origin and purpose, none of them entirely satisfactory.  It may have
been a simple folk tale from a specific community frequently repeated by a
traditional storyteller.  It may have had such a humble beginning, but was
intentionally rewritten at the royal court to emphasizes its royal
significance.  It may have been composed during the 4th century BCE to
offset the dissolution of mixed marriages mandated by Ezra-Nehemiah.  Or it
may have been a tract designed to promote the Moabite ancestry of David.
The Moabites, a tribal society living on the eastern side of the Jordan
River, had been one of Israel's ancient enemies.  Whatever its original
purpose, the story is almost unique in the whole of the Old Testament as a
complete narrative, paralleled only by the Joseph narratives in Genesis 37-
50 and perhaps The Book of Jonah.  It also shares with the latter a sense
of universalism reminiscent of the late prophetic period most fully evident
in Isaiah 40-66.                       

The hidden theology of the story assures us of the working out of God's
redemptive purpose in human affairs.  Yet providence is not without human
intervention in the person of Naomi who directs most of the action in
keeping with the traditional custom of levirate marriage.  This custom
required the closest male relative to provide support for widows in his
extended family, usually through marrying the widow himself (Deut.25:5-10).
Another, more obvious theme of the story is the preference of genuine human
kindness over conventional duty.  This finds expression through Naomi's
careful scheme for Ruth to marry Boaz and his acceptance of it despite the
difficulties he faced in not being her closest kin. 

That the story was carefully composed or revised as a literary document can
be seen in the poesy of the responses of Ruth (1:16-17) and Naomi (1:20-21)
to specific situations.  In the first instance, Ruth rejects Naomi's urging
that she return to her people and her gods with her sister-in-law, Orpah.
While it cannot be scanned in the traditional Hebrew form, it does feature
the parallelism of ideas typical of Hebrew poetry and quite evident in the
English versions.  These words are often quoted as the supreme example of
mutual human devotion.  It has been used occasionally in marriage
ceremonies, but if spoken only by the bride the words express both
sentimentality and sexist attitudes unacceptable in contemporary Christian
liturgy.

Another hidden theological facet of the story can be recognized in the
transition from traditional henotheism in vs.15 where god, land and people
are inseparable to the monotheism of vs.16.  In the Hebrew text, Ruth does
not used the word "elohim" for God as would be expected of foreigners, but
"Yahweh." In so doing the author indicates that this foreigner worships the
one true God.

While commonly placed between Judges and Samuel in the Christian canon, the
book has a place of special liturgical significance in the Hebrew canon.
There it is found first among five small festival scrolls immediately after
Proverbs.  Ruth is read in its entirety at Pentecost (Shavu'ot or Feast of
Weeks) marking the time of the barley harvest (Ruth 1:22), Ruth's
acceptance of Judaism (1:16), the tradition of David's birth and death at
this time, and Israel's acceptance of the Torah at Sinai seven weeks after
the Passover and Exodus.  The others include in this collection of
*megillot* are, in canonical order, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes,
Lamentations and Esther.  Like Ruth, each is read at a particular festival
in the liturgical calendar of Judaism.


PSALM 146   This is the first of the final five psalms often referred to as
the Hallel Psalms because they all begin with the Hebrew words for "Praise
the Lord."  While the other four Hallels were clearly composed as
congregational psalms, this one has a more personal sense of devotion.  It
tends to contrast the different capabilities of Yahweh and humans to
provide help in desperate circumstances.  As such, it appears as a reaction
of the religiously oriented to an increasingly secular attitude to life.
Thus, in a modern context, it has considerable relevance. 

The psalmist recites a number of reasons for trust in Yahweh.  Unlike
political leaders who die and disappear, Yahweh is eternal (vss 3-4).  As
creator of all that is, Yahweh provides justice for the poor and oppressed
(vss. 5-7).  Yahweh frees the prisoners, gives the blind their sight, lifts
up the fallen, loves the righteous, watches over strangers and supports
widows and orphans (vss.8-9).  All these divine initiatives represent
Yahweh's eternal and universal sovereignty (vs.10).
              
The Greek OT (LXX) ascribed this psalm to Haggai and Zechariah, minor
prophets who lived in the late 6th century BCE.  Proposals for a much later
date has greater internal force because of the number of Aramaic words, its
debt to other psalms known to be late, and the influence of the didactic
style of the wisdom school.  Furthermore, it is not God's majesty or
interventions in history, but a sense of social justice similar to that of
the great prophets which moves the poet to praise Yahweh.  This motif found
expression in relatively few psalms, (e.g. Pss. 10, 15, 24, 37, 94, 103)    
                                                     
                                   
HEBREWS 9:11-14   This brief reading presents another in a long series of
arguments for regarding Jesus Christ as the one mediator between humanity
and God.  It declares the supreme efficacy of Christ's sacrifice on the
cross in contrast to the repeated sprinkling of the blood of animal
sacrifices on the temple altar customary in the Hebrew tradition. 

From the internal evidence of this letter, some scholars have concluded
that the audience for this whole argument were Jewish Christians who may
have been in danger of reverting to Judaism from their recently acquired
Christian faith.  Others have proposed that these new Christians were not
necessarily Jews, but were in danger of falling away from their earlier
confession.  The historical-critical data suggests that while no one key to
its interpretation has been found, the background of the document may have
been some form of Hellenistic religious speculation.  Brevard Childs
describes it as "a word of encouragement" based on 13:22. (*The New
Testament as Canon,* Fortress Press, 1984, 404)  On the other hand, for
Childs, the reception of the document by the Christian community was the
chief factor in its inclusion the canon. 

According to Childs, the letter presents a "programmatic statement of the
theological relation of the two covenants which receives its content from
scripture and not from its historical setting."  This lectionary reading
gives ample support to Childs' conclusion.  In these few verses, the author
is saying that atonement for sin, abolishing of guilt, reconciliation with
God and sanctification for a new and holy life come only through the
sacrifice of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer.  As
modern Christians will recognize, these are the traditional themes of our
Reformed theology.

The author has an intimate knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and of the
continuity of the Christian faith with those scriptures.  He is
particularly responsive to the prophetic element in the OT which emphasized
the spiritual reality that the living God speaks both judgment and mercy to
people with whom God has made an eternal covenant.  God's purpose is to
create a faithful people within a renewed creation.  God has accomplished
this through Jesus Christ, God's Son, who offered himself as the all-
sufficient sacrifice on the cross instead of the repeated sacrifices of the
Hebrew covenantal system.  The task of the Christian believer in this new
covenant, therefore, is to accept this new relationship with the living God
so provided and to live out this new relationship with purified conscience
and grateful worship in the ordinary round of daily life.


MARK 12:28-34   His traveling days done, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and
confronts strong opposition to his teaching.  The first part of this
reading (vss.28-34) are more familiar to us in Luke's version.  Unlike Luke
who added the parable of the Good Samaritan to this incident, Mark merely
used it to summarize the whole of the Jewish law in two brief commandments.
The first commandment is the traditional Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4.  This
has been described as "the central confession and self-definition of
Israelite belief." (*The Complete Gospels*, Robert J. Miller, ed., 43n) 
The scribe's response shows how much this expert in the Jewish Law felt at
ease with Jesus' teaching at this point.

The second commandment is from a more obscure passage in Leviticus 19:18.
There it appears at the end of a long sequence of ritual and moral dictates
of the Holiness Code coupled with the prophetic refrain given as its divine
warrant, "I am the Lord."  In its Levitical context the commandment has the
effect of countering vengeance within one's own extended family or tribe.
It is probable that this did not extend to those of another tribe, as many
of the OT narratives show.  Was that how Jesus understood it too?  Or Mark?
Or Paul (cf. Gal. 5:14? Or James (cf. Jas. 2:8)?  If Mark, Paul and James
are representatives of the earliest apostolic tradition as they had
received it from remembered sayings of Jesus himself, it is obvious that
they recognized a much wider scope for this commandment that did the
framers of the Holiness Code several centuries earlier.  With these
commandments, Jesus offered this expert in casuistry so common in the
interpretation of the Law the key to entering God's kingdom he had come to
establish.

One might well ask what "lordship" and "kingdom" meant to Jesus as he
approached the cross.  We can only speculate on such topics because we read
his sayings through the prism of the early Christian community as they
sought to clarify the continuity and discontinuity of the Old and New
Covenants.  We can believe, however, that if he was fully human he made no
claims for himself as sovereign Lord.  Perhaps he did not fully realize
until Gethsemane that the sovereignty of God in his and all human life
would involve his own death at the hands of his enemies.  Jesus' perception
of his mandate may not have extended beyond that ascribed to him by the
scribe in this instance, "Teacher."  Possibly this went no further than the
traditional wisdom teacher of the previous few centuries.  Is there some
inkling of that in the way Mark tells how Jesus reacted (vs.34) to the
scribe's approbation and praise in vss.32-33?  Does this come to the fore
in the fact that whereas he had several times previously quoted Jesus
teaching about his death, Mark makes no mention whatsoever about the cross
at this place in his narrative? 
     
So clear and memorable in their brevity, no one has ever devised a better
way to live in the real world than by following these two commandments.  As
someone had rightly said, it isn't that we don't know how, it is rather a
matter of doing it faithfully all the time in all our relationships.
Without entering into Christological debate currently so divisive within
our own tradition, we can speak of these commandments in terms similar to
the late Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, renowned Canadian scholar of world
religions.  Smith frequently expressed the view that when these
commandments are faithfully implemented in human affairs, and especially
between the members of different religious traditions, the love of God
revealed in Jesus will also be disclosed in the historical traditions of
others.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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