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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 32 - Year B
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman ( 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'.

Ordinary Thirty-Two (Proper 27) B

RUTH 3:1-5, 4:13-17      The climax to the story comes through a clever
plan by Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, to provide Ruth with security by
marrying her kinsman, Boaz.  Behind this plan lay the ancient Israelite
custom of the nearest relative having responsibility for a widow's care.
The child of Ruth and Boaz became the crowning glory of the whole story as
the grandfather of King David.

PSALM 127                This is one of the Songs of Ascent believed to
have been sung by pilgrims approaching the temple for great festivals.  It
celebrates the virtues of strong family life as the basis for national
HEBREWS 9:24-28          Reiterating the supremacy of Christ as the only
true mediator between God and humanity, this passage points out how this
differs from the Hebrew sacrificial tradition.  Instead of repeated
offerings, the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross has eternal
effectiveness.  The reading also cites the early Christian belief in the
return of Christ when salvation will be complete.

MARK 12:38-44            Approaching the temple, Jesus condemned the
hypocrisy of the scribes who were experts in religious law.  He re-
emphasized the point by drawing attention to the sacrificial offering of a
poor widow in contrast to the large donations of the wealthy.
This incident declares a whole new principle for charitable giving which
can be as effective today as ever.  Christian stewardship is best measured
not by how much we give, but how much we have left for personal use and
discretionary spending.


RUTH 3:1-5; 4:13-17   The central focus of the story is clearly stated in
vs.1.  Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, had devised a clever plan to provide
Ruth with security by marrying her kinsman, Boaz.  The barley harvest had
arrived and Boaz was busy winnowing the grain.  That ancient agricultural
process involved throwing the reaped and threshed grain into the air on a
windy day so that the wind would separate the grain from the chaff.  In
the Jewish tradition, this story is read on Shavu'ot (also called the
Festival of Weeks or Pentecost) which celebrates the end of the harvest.
There is also a morally symbolic element in winnowing: it separates the
good from the bad.  For these two widows desperate in hard times, they had
to choose what was their best option.  Was this what we would call
"situational ethics?" 

Naomi's scheme was for Ruth to wait until he had retired after his evening
meal; then she was to seduce him in his bed.  When he discovered Ruth
during the night, Boaz dealt gently with her, advised her of a
complication in taking care of her as both of them desired, and provided
her with food as her cover for spending the night with him.  Behind this
plan lay the ancient Israelite custom of levirate marriage.  This required
the nearest relative of a widow to redeem her by marriage.  If the next of
kin did not choose to do so, he still had the responsibility for a widow's
care.  Boaz was not Ruth closest relative, so he had to negotiate with her
next of kin before he could marry her.  That process is described in 4:1-
The climax to the story comes through the child of Ruth and Boaz: he was
the grandfather of King David.  But there is a curious twist in 4:16-17.
When Naomi became the child's nurse, the women of the neighbourhood
thought the child was hers.  Surely the women knew the difference but
played along with the older widow's game.  Could this have been a subtle
way of making the Moabite ancestry of David more acceptable to an
Israelite audience? 

PSALM 127   While there is no conclusive evidence that the Songs of Ascent
(Pss. 120-134) were sung by pilgrims approaching the temple for one of the
great festivals, this remains the most likely hypothesis for their
collection as a set of liturgical hymns.  Several of them are oriented
toward the temple (Pss. 122; 125; 129; 134), while others do not have any
particular reference to pilgrims.  A late Mishnah tract speculates that
they were sung by the Levites on the fifteen steps leading from the court
of women to the court of Israel (for men only), but this has been regarded
as unlikely by most scholars.  More probably, they came from several
sources and were redacted as a book of devotions for pilgrims.

Psalm 127 celebrates the virtues of strong family life as the basis for
national security.  It has several characteristics of other wisdom psalms
(Pss. 1; 49; 73 128).  These show a concern for moral principles and
practices of a secular nature which provide for the greatest possible
happiness.  This one expresses a strong interest in ordinary family life
expressed in very humane terms, yet rooted in a humble piety.  The opening
couplet makes this very clear as does the very descriptive reference to
marriage, sexuality and a large family in vss. 3-5.  The mention of male
progeny only reveals the typical male-dominant attitudes of Judaism where
only men could be "b'nai b'rith - sons of the covenant." 

A very colourful set of tribal images lies behind these same verses.  A
man's sons came from the marriage of his youth (vs.4).  The greater the
number, the better for him, as indicated by the vivid image of a warrior's
quiver full of arrows (vs.5).  In his old age, he took his place as an
elder seated at the town gate debating and giving judgments with his
contemporaries.  He had his opponents, of course.  Jewish men loved to
argue minute details of the law.  The fact that he had many sons gave
greater strength to his arguments.  His enemies knew that family loyalties
had persuasive force.  The threat of vengeance prevented them from shaming

An interesting article by an Arabic scholar in the New York Times
discussed the current destabalized tribal life in Iraq following the
defeat of the Sunni dictator Sadam Hussein.  He cited the old Arab proverb
that a tribe cannot be bought, but it can be rented.  He then interpreted
the proverb by describing the persuasive power of tribal leaders and the
endemic rivalry between and within tribes.  Tribal vengeance is an
significant part of this ancient power structure.  Tribal leaders keep
their power by dispensing greater means of prosperity among their tribe.
They lose power if a neighboring tribe or someone within their own tribe
gains that advantage.  Applying this to the current Iraqi turmoil, this
scholar urged the use of these ancient tribal customs to lower the level
of guerrilla warfare fomented by the defeated Tikriti tribe.  This, he
believed, could be the best means to bring greater stability to that war-
torn country still suffering from murderous attacks by guerrillas. 

HEBREWS 9:24-28   Like so much else in the Letter to the Hebrews, this
passage exhibits an extensive knowledge of Jewish sacrificial practice.
The liturgy of the Day of Atonement is the central focus here.  This was
the one occasion in the whole year that the chief priest could enter the
holy of holies, the most sacred shrine of Israel symbolic of the invisible
presence of Yahweh.  There he would perform three distinct sacrificial
acts to atone for sin. 

The first rite used smoking coals to cense the shrine so that the high
priest himself might be safe from the divine mystery.  After prayer in the
nave of the temple, the high priest returned to the holy of holies to
sprinkle the blood of a slain bull as atonement for all the priests.
Finally, after slaughtering a scapegoat chosen by lot from one of two
victims, the high priest entered the inner shrine a third time to offer
its blood on behalf of the people.  The second scapegoat was then driven
out of the temple and city into the wilderness with a red ribbon tied
around its neck.  When it was pushed over a cliff to its death, a similar
red ribbon on the door of the sanctuary turned white as a sign that the
sins of the people were forgiven.

Reiterating the supremacy of Christ as the only true mediator between God
and humanity, this passage points out how Christian faith and practice
differs from the Hebrew sacrificial tradition.  Instead of repeated
offerings, the one all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross had
eternal effectiveness.  The writer enumerates the differences: (1) The
sanctuary Christ entered was heaven itself (i.e. the real presence of
God), not a temple built with human hands which supposedly was a copy of
the heavenly dwelling of God (vs. 24).  (2) He did not offer himself again
and again, as in the annual ritual, nor year after year, as did the high
priest (vs. 25).  (3) He offered a single sacrifice, once for all (vs.
26).  (4) Having died once bearing the sins of all people, as all mortals
die who then face judgment, he will return, not to judge sin, but to save
those who in faith eagerly await him (vss. 27-28).

By citing the belief in the return of Christ when salvation will be
complete, this passage draws the indelible boundary of discontinuity
between the Christian and Jewish messianic traditions.  For Christians,
Jesus is the Messiah/Christ.  He came, lived and died, as do all humans.
But his death was different.  Not only did he sacrifice himself to atone
for the sins of all people, he will come again to bring them to eternal
life in the presence of the eternal God.  As Messiah/Christ, he is both
high priest and victim, and as such his death on the cross is the divinely
appointed means of atonement between God and humanity. 

There is only one thing more for the author to add.  It is by faith in
what Christ has done by his all-sufficient sacrifice that Christians must
live and die.  It is this final thought the occupies him for the remainder
of the letter.

Some significance may also be given to the possible historical setting for
this letter.  An interesting hypothesis holds that it was written for a
Jewish community struggling with their difficult situation prior to the
destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.  The Levitical priesthood was already in
serious decline and there was competition within Judaism from many sects,
especially the Essene movement centered in Qumran.  That sect looked for
an eschatological era when there would be a royal and a priestly messiah,
both subordinate to the archangel Michael.  Qumran literature also
associated Michael with Melchizedek.  A Jewish scholar, Yigael Yadin, has
argued that this is the background of Hebrews.  Some Jewish Christians may
well have been attracted to the Essene movement or were former Essenes
tempted to turn back to this sectarian belief.  The Letter to the Hebrews
could have been written to counter this compromise of the perfection of
their salvation in Jesus Christ.

All of this written in the idiom of lst century Judaism may have little
relevance to a 21st century congregation.  A modern interpreter of the
atoning death of Christ has written: "Unity between God and creation is
only possible if God knows what it is like not to be God.  This is the
unimaginable kenosis, the self-emptying of the Incarnation.  We can only
glimpse but not imagine what it would be like not to be ourselves.  But
this is not only the deep mystery of the death of Christ that helps to
heal us because it shows how love penetrates into the ground of being. 
How he dies is also of immediate and self-evident significance to us.  He
died loving.  Therefore he died whole.  He died humanly.  And his human
way of dying touches our humanity with an undeniable realism by showing us
what we are truly like, truly capable of being."  (Laurence Freeman, OSB
in *Christian Meditation Newsletter,* Vol. 24. No. 3, August 2003.)

MARK 12:38-44   The pilgrimage to Jerusalem was over.  While teaching in
the temple precincts, Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of the scribes
(experts in religious law).  This was a very controversial thing for him
to do.  Undoubtedly rabbis abounded in Jerusalem as did scribes,
especially at the festival seasons.  Although highly literate, scribes
were not mere copyists who transmitted the Torah on written scrolls.  They
were also well trained in the interpretation of the law.  Frequently, they
acted as legal counselors to the priests and to the Pharisees.  The gospel
narratives often link the three distinct groups in uncomplimentary ways.
Scribes did not create new law, they merely interpreted both ancient and
contemporary understandings of what already existed in the Torah.

This allowed the scribes considerable room for fudging the literal
transcriptions for which they may also have been responsible.  Jesus
forthrightly condemned this hypocrisy.  Apparently it had made some of the
scribes very rich.  Note what Jesus criticized most severely: their fine
robes; their proud appearance in public, possibly to encourage business;
their way of seeking the best seats on the synagogues because being seen
was also good for business; their cunning deceit of the most vulnerable to
gain control of widows' property; and their ostentatiously long prayers to
display their piety.  One is reminded of the public appearances, photo-
opportunities and television interviews modern politicians seek as the
time for elections comes around.

Mark tells us that Jesus re-emphasized the point he had made about
hypocrisy by drawing attention to the sacrificial offering of a poor widow
in contrast to the large donations of the wealthy.  Every one who entered
the temple had to pay temple tithes and taxes.  This passage indicates
that it was customary to make a voluntary gift to the temple treasury,
possibly something like a poor box.  The Mishna described a trumpet-shaped
vessel atop a chest in the Court of Women into which these monies were
cast.  Some gave substantial amounts; the poor widow had little to give,
but gave what she had nonetheless.  Mark did not explain how Jesus knew
about her financial status.  Perhaps it was no more than her ragged
wearing apparel in contrast to the fine clothes of the rich that gave him
the clue.

This incident declares a whole new principle for charitable giving which
can be used as effectively today as ever.  Good stewardship is best
measured not by how much we give, but how much we have left for personal
use and discretionary spending.  A recent newspaper report told of a 
Jewish businessman, presumed by many to be wealthy, but who died leaving a
relatively small estate.  After his death, it became public that for years
he had engaged his rabbi in helping him direct his fortune to those most
needing help in one way or another.  He had given his wealth away.  This
was the kind of private stewardship Jesus authenticated in this pericope.
It could well be the guiding principle for all churches in carrying out
stewardship programs and for governments in raising and investing public
taxation for the common good.

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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