St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

People of the Promise

Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Mark 8:27-33
One of the things that causes the most confusion, when reading the Old Testament prophets, is when we ask “what time was this prophecy referring to?”. It’s a problem that we tend to have somewhat hidden from us in the advent season, as we read short snippets of the prophets speaking words that are relatively easy to identify with Jesus – and there’s a sort of unspoken implication that Jesus is the object of the rest of the prophecies as well.

But when you read these passages in their wider context the story becomes more complicated. Sometimes the prophet seems to be speaking of current affairs, sometimes of a time soon to come, sometimes of a more distant future, and sometimes of the end-times. The language is often seemingly deliberately ambiguous and hard to pin down.

But I think this confusion comes from us treating Old Testament prophecies as if they were essentially history told in advance. Whereas in truth the prophets were speaking much less about the particulars of history than they were speaking about the nature and character of God, and about the relationship between God and the people of God, and the peoples of God’s world.

Which is why many prophecies are deliberately unspecific about times and dates and places and people; because the particular events of history are understood as illustrations of the way that God is with the world; the prophets draw attention to those patterns and use them to teach people about God and what it means to follow God.

So the Old Testament prophets again and again speak of fall and exile and disaster as a consequence of the people’s failure to serve God; but even more strongly speak of redemption and hope and reconciliation as a consequence of the unquenchable love of God.

And I suspect that Jesus is doing the same when he speaks in Mark chapter 8. These words have been read throughout history as referring to contemporary events – from the fall of Jerusalem onwards, Christians have seen Jesus’ words – the distress of the nations, fear and foreboding, the powers shaken – in the events that have shaken their world. And throughout the ages Christians have heard in these words warning, encouragement, and instruction.

And so we read them today. And we read them in the light of our times, our troubles, our fears.

Most of us here have been fortunate enough to live most of our lives in times of peace. Since the end of the second world war – which some of you recall, though it now lies seventy years in the past, we have, for the most part, been able to live in Australia in a time of unprecedented peace and security. Though there have always been conflicts, and Australia has been involved in many of them, they mostly haven’t reached deeply into our lives. Of course there are those who have been effected by conflicts overseas, who have lost loved ones, and I don’t for a moment want to minimise the personal stories of tragedy, but as a society, as a whole, we have been blessed to live in peace.

But as we moved into the 21st century that has changed. And the world that our children, or grandchildren, are growing up in is very different. Starting, perhaps, in September 2001, and recently reignited by the attacks in Paris, we have known the fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, we have seen our powers shaken, we have seen distress among the nations as we face the rise of a militant, extremist strand of Islam, and the threat of terrorist attack that seems able to reach right into our cities and strike at unprepared, civilian targets.

And Jesus’ words for those who faced the fall of Jerusalem echo through the ages to us today. “When you see these things,” he said, “stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near…. When you see these things taking place you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

And throughout history people have taken these words to mean that the troubles of their day were signs of the end times, that the second coming, Jesus’ return, was at hand. But given the observation that each generation before who have predicted the end times have been proven wrong, we might revisit these words in the light of what we have said about prophecy: that it is not so much about specific events as it is about a pattern, about the way of God in the world.

The rapid growth in the early Church corresponded to times of persecution and troubles; the first explosion in the numbers of the faith recorded in historical documents outside of the scriptures came in time of plague – when Christians responded not by fleeing, but by staying to care for the sick.

And of course today the fastest growing Christian faith communities are not in traditionally Christian countries like ours, but in China, in Indonesia, in India – in places where the faith has been supressed, persecuted, outlawed.

When you see these things, you know that the Kingdom of God is near. For this seems to be the way that the Kingdom of God has worked – most visible not in times of ease but in times of pain, conflict, disaster.
It is seen in the Bonheoffer’s and Schindler’s of the world, facing the rise of evil with courage, compassion, and decisive action.

It is seen in the welcome given by so many in our community to refugees fleeing from the conflicts of the world, in the welcome we are offering to Syrian refugees in Australia at this time.

It is seen even in the bravery of those who stand with the tradition of Islam against the violent distortion of faith, in stories of Malala and the many others who continue to work for education and justice within the communities of their faith.

It is seen in Christians sharing the good news of Jesus, sharing the stories of hope and reconciliation, the stories of justice and restoration.

The story of advent begins in a time when the people of God were oppressed by a pagan power. It tells the story of a baby forced to flee to a distant land by the violence of a corrupt state. It tells the story of the way that a people who were seeking military restoration were offered instead a different way.

Stand up, Jesus tells us, when you see these things happening. Because the Kingdom of God is near. Hold up your heads, and tell again the story of Christmas; a story of refugees and persecution, of suffering and slaughter; but in the end a story which is not one of fear, but of the triumph of hope, of justice, of righteousness, of love, of reconciliation, of God.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but this story will never pass away, not until all these things are done and we come at last to the final fulfilment of Jesus’ prayer, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.



Psalm 93 | John 18:33-37
The last Sunday in the Church year is traditionally known as the festival of Christ the King. And it’s a celebration that I think many of us in the modern world find slightly awkward, a little anachronistic. After all, we don’t really care much for kings nowadays – even most royalists in Australia would object to the idea of the monarch having absolute power over his or her kingdom.

But there is no getting away from the fact that the word “kingdom” has been at the heart of all of Jesus’ preaching: his opening words of ministry “the Kingdom of God is at hand”; in the Lord’s prayer “your kingdom come”; in parable upon parable “the kingdom of God is like…”.

And in our reading today, taken from Jesus’ trial, that teaching has brought him finally before the face of another kingdom; Pilate, the representative of the Kingdom, the empire, of Rome.

And so we hear today a dialog between Pilate and Jesus, a dialog about Jesus as King. Jesus has, essentially, been accused of treason, of setting himself up as a king against the rule of the emperor. Pilate asks him if this is so, if Jesus is indeed the king of the Jews. And, after a bit of to and fro, Jesus makes a profound declaration about the nature of his Kingdom.

“Are you the King of the Jews,” Pilate asks. And how we read Jesus’ answer crucially shapes how we understand our faith, what it means to be people of Jesus, people of the Kingdom of God.

In some versions of the English language Bible Jesus’ reply is translated “my Kingdom does not belong here”; others have the ambiguous “my Kingdom is not of this world”. Both of which allow a highly spiritualised understanding of the Kingdom of God, as if Jesus were saying “you don’t get it. My kingdom isn’t here! When I talk about a kingdom, it’s a kingdom that isn’t part of this world. It’s totally elsewhere, it’s a spiritual reality, something people can only really experience in the next life.”.

It’s an answer that makes sense, and fits with a certain pattern of understanding of the Christian gospel: God’s kingdom is elsewhere, this world, this life, is just about getting ready, about getting people saved so that when they die they will be able to join God’s kingdom.

It’s an answer that makes sense. It’s just not the answer Jesus gave, at least as recorded in John’s gospel.

Jesus gave the answer three times. The first two times the language is ambiguous. Often – and safely – translated “my Kingdom is not of this world”. But the third time the phrasing is different. “But as it is, my Kingdom is not enteuthen” is the greek, “from here”, or “out of here”. It’s the word used when you say “go from here” (or “get thee hence” to make it sound more Biblical), or, as a visitor “I don’t come from here”. It’s the same root word as that used of childbirth “Jesus was born from Mary”.

Far from replying “my Kingdom doesn’t belong here”, Jesus in fact replies “my Kingdom doesn’t come from here”.

This isn’t Jesus telling the secular authorities “look, we can live happily together. My kingdom is just a spiritual one. It doesn’t belong here on earth, in the nuts and bolts of politics and empires and public policy. My kingdom belongs in another world”.

That wouldn’t have been a threat to Rome. That wouldn’t have got Jesus crucified.

Far from being a declaration that his Kingdom is no threat to the secular world, Jesus words read more like a subversive manifesto. “My kingdom doesn’t come from here… but I was born to be a king, and it was to be a king that I came into the world… and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

The prayer at the heart of the Christian faith begins “Father in heaven, your name is holy, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. There is a kingdom elsewhere, where God’s will rules supreme: Jesus taught his followers to pray that it would come into this world. And now Jesus says

“My kingdom doesn’t come from here, but I came into this world to be king.”. The language is more like that of the leader of an invading army than a spiritual guru.

Except that that doesn’t quite fit either. For Jesus links something else to the not-from-here nature of his Kingdom. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over”. The leader of an invasion from another nation, whether it be an invasion by overt strength or covert subversion, would surely not be taken without a fight?

So Jesus accepts the label of King, declares that his Kingdom is an invasion from another place, but in the same breath contrasts himself with any military or political leader Pilate had ever encountered.

It’s as if Jesus – as he so often did – was answering a question by, in effect, saying that they it is the wrong question. Pilate asks him “Are you the king” and Jesus replies “the question is, what sort of kingdom?”

And if you want to know what sort of Kingdom, you might start by looking at where it has come from. Looking at its source of power and authority. For if you know where a kingdom draws its authority from, you will know a great deal about what sort of kingdom it will be, what it will value, what it will fight to protect. The Roman empire drew its power from order and structure; the disciplined military, the systems of administration and taxation; the rapid and ruthless suppression of anything that threatened law and order. A great deal was permitted, as long as it did not interfere with the smooth running of empire.

Other empires in history have drawn their power from the generation of wealth; whether that be the commercial European empires of the nineteenth century or the corporate empires of the twentieth. Such empires will turn a blind eye to many things, as long as they do not impinge on the profit that is their lifeblood; but will be ruthless in their assaults on anything that does – going to war over trade routes – and unable to comprehend a leader whose power did not depend on wealth, as the British showed in their failure to understand the power of Mahatma Ghandi.

Or of course today we face new would-be empires, going by names such as D’aesh or ISIS, which draw their power from fear and a sense of “us” and “them”, and operate which by acts of terror designed to create an atmosphere of mutual distrust.

This is the contrast Jesus paints for Pilate. Your understanding of king, he tells him, is shaped by Rome. You can’t imagine a king who does not draw his power from an army, who does not fight to be kept out of the hands of his enemies. I’m a king, but my kingdom doesn’t come from the things of this world. It isn’t built by power and wealth or by structure and order. It doesn’t depend on those things. It can’t be judged by income or population or geographic extent.

It’s here, under your nose. The Kingdom of God at hand, but you can’t fight it, because you don’t understand it, and because it doesn’t answer to your weapons. It’s not built on the foundations you value, you know how to use.

The Kingdom of God is from beyond; it draws its strength, its authority, its power, from beyond. Which is why it can never be measured by the metrics or standards of the world. Because you cannot measure an act of sacrificial love. You cannot measure the meaning of sitting with a homeless man and sharing a meal with him. You cannot measure the joy of a young women like Arishna given the opportunity to attend university against all the odds, or the wonder opened up to the children of Vanuatu when they are able to learn to read. You cannot measure the second chance given by reconciliation, the ripple effect of those who stand for justice, the difference made to the world by acts of random kindness and beauty. You cannot measure the meaning of generation after generation meeting to worship God.

You cannot measure them, but they are the things of the Kingdom. They don’t come from here, they don’t follow the rules of the world. They may even be judged foolishness by those who can see nothing beyond the kingdoms of man.

The foolishness of the King who died, the King to whom we pledge our allegiance week by week, day by day.


Christmas Services

Lots of different services in December to help us get ready to enter into the great mystery of Christmas….

Sunday December 6th
At 9:30am, our Christmas Pageant – an unrehearsed dramatic telling of the Christmas story, with a part for every child. Come in your own costume, or borrow one of ours! It’s a chaotic celebration of the Christmas story.

At 6:30pm, a change of key – a Blue Christmas worship service, especially for those for whom Christmas can be a time of pain as well as celebration.

Sunday December 13th
At 9:30am, our regular Sunday Morning worship (with Kids’ Church). Look out for the young people’s band playing carols for us…

Sunday December 20th
At 9:30am, Sunday Morning worship and communion (with Kids’ Church).
Then at 7pm, the St. John’s Choir leads us in traditional and modern carols from around the world.

Thursday December 24th
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and at 6:30pm we’ll join together to sing traditional carols and hear again the Christmas story as the evenings draws in.

Friday December 25th
At 8am – A joyful family celebration of the birth of Jesus!


Mark 13:1-8 | Hebrews 10:19-25
The Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus day was far, far more than a building. It was the religious centre Jewish life, the place that every Jew would try to visit, on pilgrimage, at least once a year for one of the great festivals, if they possibly could. It was one of the four pillars of the whole Jewish identity: One God, One People, One Law, One Temple.
But by the time of Jesus the status of the Temple had become more complicated, more ambiguous. It was known by this time as “Herod’s Temple” – for Herod the Great had invested considerable resources in expanding the Temple. Now Herod was a convert to Judaism, but had been installed as king of Israel by the Roman empire, so his loyalty to the people was never truly trusted, and the large stones and great buildings that the disciples speak of in Mark 13 were laid through oppressive leadership and ruinous taxation.

So while the Temple was a religious centre, at the same time, to many, it was a symbol of the realpolitik of collaboration with Rome; a centre of power for the Priests and Sadducees, who were prepared to work with Rome, but not for the Essene, the Pharisees, or the Zealots, all of whom saw compromise with Rome as a betrayal of their faith, their identity, their God.

So to praise the buildings was not an architectural observation: it was a political position. And to declare that they would be thrown down, even more so. To admire the construction of the Temple was to give tacit approval to Herod, and to the uneasy partnership between the Temple leaders and the Roman occupiers: to speak of these things being destroyed was to declare that relationship void. But at the same time to imagine the Temple being destroyed was to reject a central pillar of the Jewish faith.

And of course, it’s a simple fact of history that, within an couple of decades of the life of Jesus, the great stones of the Temple were indeed thrown down. The uneasy relationship between Jerusalem and Rome had given way to outright rebellion, and the Roman legions had sacked the city, destroyed the Temple, and shattered the heart of the Jewish nation.

For when the destruction of Jerusalem occurred – it was a cataclysmic event. For those willing to accept compromise with Rome it was a betrayal by an ally – a reminder that they were nothing more than an irritation to their imperial masters. And for those who rejected Rome, it was a salutary lesson in the destructive power of the empire. It was a story of Roman power, a story of the triumph of military might, a story of the rejection of faith.

But the words of Jesus, remembered and passed down by those who were there, allowed the early Church to tell a different story. A story that proclaimed “this is not the end”, “this too will pass”.

The early Church lived with the reality of rejection by their community and persecution by Rome. They had a habit of getting the short end of the stick: when the Jews were persecuted in the first century, the Christians were lumped in with them; but at other times they were singled out for persecution – emperor Nero lighting Rome with human torches being perhaps the most gruesome example.

But in all these times, there was a refrain within the faith, captured in the words of the letter to the Hebrews we heard read:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another

The response of the people of Jesus to persecution: hold on. Don’t give up. Don’t stop meeting, for you need one another. Don’t pull back into your shell, and pretend to be no different from anyone else – hold fast to your confession. And rather than getting defensive or negative, and rather than fighting back or standing on your right – encourage each other. Provoke one another to love and good deeds.

I just love that phrase – provoke one another to love and good deeds. Our translation today, “help one another” really doesn’t do it justice – the word in Greek, paroxuno, literally means to jab someone, to poke them, spur them on.
It’s as if the author is saying – when things look bad, when you want to hide, when no one is listening, hold on to your faith, keep meeting together, and when you meet, nag one another into doing what is right, what is good, what is loving.

That’s the calling of the gospel – bug one another into doing what is good.

Now there’s a caveat here, of course – for the Christian Church, in its institutional form at least, doesn’t always
have a great history with giving people authority to tell others what they ought to do in order to properly love and serve God. While a Godly leader or mentor can provide great help and assistance and encouragement, especially to one younger in the faith; and while parents, in particular, have a crucial role to play in leading their children into a well lived life, the history of authority in the Church has often served to illustrate the truism that power corrupts.

So in the light of that, I’d like to offer three simple tips for how to prod others into love and good deeds.
The first is right there in the words of the reading: “provoke one another”. This isn’t a one-way street. If it’s my job to prod you into doing what’s right, it’s also your job to prod me. Even when the relationship has a natural power imbalance, as with a parent and a child, the provocation to goodness goes both ways. After all, is there anywhere that those of us who are parents learn more about our own failings – or anywhere where we more strongly desire to be better people – than with our children?

The second suggestion is this: that we do not seek to provoke one another into doing the good we would do if we were them, but the good that they would do if they were true to themselves and their faith. Hold others, as it were, not to your standards, but to theirs. In the mutual mentoring of a mature Christian friendship this is about asking others how they are seeking to live out their faith, and then gently poking them to stay true to their goals. It’s a principal of alcoholics anonymous; once, and only once, someone has decided they want to stay dry, others can hold them to their word. Accountability, not control.

But I’d like to give the last word to Jeyanth, my son. On Friday night I was talking with him about the service today (I really was that desperate about the fact that I hadn’t even begun to write this sermon), and I asked him how he could, encourage Maya, his younger sister, to, for instance, be generous, or kind. Without a moment of thought he replied “by being generous and kind to her”.

We love, because we are first loved.


Christmas Pageant

This year our Christmas Pageant service will be on December 6th, at 9:30am. This service is one of the highlights of the season – every child has a part in an unrehearsed telling of the Christmas story. Kids can come along in costume, or we have plenty to hand out on the day!

Art @ St. John’s Mission Focus

As the next in our series of “Mission Focus” services, on Sunday 29th we’ll be spending a little time talking about Art @ St. John’s and their work reaching into the community. As part of that event, after Church, at morning tea, there will be an exhibition and sale of works, with the proceeds going to the Vanuatu Literacy Project. So come along, hear about Art @ St. John’s, and get an original artwork for a good cause!

Boaz and the scribes

Ruth 4:13-17 | Mark 12:38-44
There’s a bit of a problem with the story of the widow’s mite, I reckon. I mean, it’s a great little story about the importance of generosity, and an encouragement to those who feel that they have so little to give (whether in time or talents or finances). It establishes that, in that hackneyed old saying, it really is the thought that counts.

But there’s still a problem. And I don’t mean the obvious problem: that for those who were reliant upon the charity of the Temple collection (for the Temple was the social security net of it’s day, and helped many who fell upon hard times) the actual amount of money put into the box might determine whether they would eat that day or not.

No, my problem with the story is this: it doesn’t seem to offer me anywhere to go. By which I mean – what do I do with this story, myself? I’m not a poor widow. I’m not in the position of “two small coins” being all I have to live in; and nor, I guess, are any of us here. Many of the early Church, of course, were.

So what am I to do with this story?

Of course, the context gives us a bit more to work with, as is so often the case. In the first half of our gospel reading, Jesus has been speaking out against the scribes: this is the latest episode in Holy Week, or, as I now think of it “Jesus’ week of making enemies”. And his words for them are ferocious – they like to walk in long robes (clothing ill-suited to manual labour, worn, as a way of indicating their difference from the common crowd), to be greeted with respect, and to have the best seats in the synagogue and the place of honour at banquets. They want, in other words, everyone to know how important they are – and to top it all, for the sake of appearance, they say long prayers – presumably so everyone knows how religious, and how theologically educated, they are as well.

But there’s one more piece to Jesus’ condemnation: “They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes” (literally, they “devour widow’s houses”). The accusation levelled is that, perhaps in order to pay for those long robes, those privileged seats, those banquets, the scribes were taking advantage of their power, their authority, their status as the interpreters and appliers of the law, to fleece those least able to protect themselves, those who may even have come to them for help and advice. Charged with the frequently repeated command in the law to protect – in particular – the widow and the orphan, Jesus accuses the scribes of doing exactly the opposite; of living, as it were, a reverse Robin Hood – taking from the poorest, to give to the rich (in this case, themselves).

Now there’s a strong temptation, for a social justice minded preacher like me, at this point to talk about the way that we, often unwittingly, do the same; the way that our economic system, especially international economics, is dominated by rich nations and, even more, by huge multinational corporations; the way that those nations and companies bend, manipulate, or simply write, the rules to the benefit of themselves and their shareholders, and at the expense of the poorest of the world, forced into a destructive race to the bottom to get even crumbs under the table.

And I do think that would be a fair enough direction to go. But today, inspired by our Old Testament reading, I’d like instead to look at another wealthy, powerful, respected man: Boaz.

Because Boaz was a man who was gifted with an opportunity to “devour the widow’s house”. He was a relative of Naomi – not close, but close enough that he had the a claim (second claim, if you read the story) on her land; and with it the responsibility to marry Ruth.

And it would have been very easy for Boaz to take advantage of this situation to his own benefit. But the story of Ruth paints a very different picture of this powerful landowner.

When his workers harvest the grain in his fields, they obey the law; they don’t go back and pick up the stalks of corn that fall from their bundles. The Levitical law said “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor”. The law was structured to allow the poor an opportunity to work for their own keep; it prevented the total exploitation of natural resources, even by their legal owner, in order that all might share at least something from the harvest that God had granted.

But of course a young woman collecting gleanings out in a field amongst the workers was very vulnerable; and it is here that Boaz begins to show his true colours. He instructs his young men to leave her alone, gifting her with the protection that his authority affords. He tells his workforce to share their meals and water with her. And then he even gives instructions that as they gather his corn, they are to be sloppy – inefficient, even – to miss stalks, to drop more than they need, to leave a wider edge unharvested.

The law required Boaz to act with a very basic, minimal sort of justice; to allow that what God had given was, at least in small token, to be shared.

But Boaz’s understanding of what is right goes further. The law would forbid him to abuse a young woman alone in the fields, but he makes sure no one else does either. The law allowed Ruth to glean, but he offered her food and water as well. The law required that the corn that fell be left for the poor; Boaz instructed his workers to pull handfuls of corn from their bundles and allow them to fall.

Boaz was a respected man: he was a landowner, employer of many, known enough that he could ask an audience of the elders of the city and have it immediately granted: like the scribes of Jesus’ day, he would have the place of honour at banquets, the respect of those in the market-place. But what he does with his position could not be more different.

It’s hard – probably even foolish – to draw specific lessons from Boaz, or the story of Ruth. But those of us who have more in common with Boaz than with the widow commended by Jesus for her gift might none the less learn something from him – something about the use of power, of privilege, of influence, of wealth; something about going beyond the basic requirements of the law.

Something about how justice, generosity and faith come together.



Next week on Wednesday evening (11th), at Roseville Cinema, there’ll be a special screening of “unIndian” organised by Wahroonga Rotary Club, in support of the Rotary Shelter Box scheme.

Find out more here

Syrian Refugee Update

Ku-ring-gai council, in partnership with Wahroonga Rotary (among others), are proposing to produce welcome packs for Syrian refugees being settled in the area. It is anticipated that the majority of the estimated 6,000 who will be arriving in NSW will be women with young families and orphaned minors, so the welcome packs will be targeted correspondingly – toys, games, books, nappies, toiletries, school equipment etc..

I’m going to be going to an information evening on this project on November 16th, so expect more information thereafter!

Ruth and the greatest commandment

Ruth 1:1-18 | Mark 12:28-34
I reckon if you took a straw poll of lifelong Church-goers, and asked them what their favourite book of the Bible was, Ruth would come out pretty near the top of the pack. ‘Cause in a Bible packed with ambiguities and difficulties, here we find a story which is just… well, just good. Wholesome, almost.

And there’s a sense in which that is exactly it what it is there for. In the Jewish scriptures Ruth is part of what known as “The Writing” – along with Psalms, and Proverbs, it is neither Law nor Prophets, but almost a commentary on them, and on what it means to be God’s people, what it looks like to live according to the Torah, the way of the people of God.

So after book on book of law, the story of Ruth stands as if to say “you’ve read all the rules; let me show you know what it’s supposed to look like”. Ruth is very much about not the letter, but ‘the vibe of the thing’.

And it’s therefore a fascinating story to place in juxtaposition with Jesus’ conversation with the scribe.

Now just to place this conversation into a bit of context – the story is set in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry, and after the cleansing of the Temple. By this point Jesus’ teaching has become quite explicitly set against the religious leaders of the day, and they in turn are actively seeking to get rid of him. The disputes that this unnamed scribe has overheard are between Jesus and the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees – arguments about tax, and about the resurrection, matters political and religious, gotcha questions designed to trick Jesus into either open rebellion against Rome, or to make some gaffe that can be exploited to turn the crowds against him. Not all that different to a lot of modern political journalism, when you think about it.

But when the scribe enters the piece and asks his question, something quite remarkable happens. Jesus answers the question, simply, and directly; in the cut and thrust of Rabbinic debate of the day this stands as an acknowledgement, a compliment, as if to say “now that is a good enough question to be worthy of a real answer”

And Jesus’ answer starts uncontroversially enough, quoting directly from the book of Deuteronomy, the book of the law; words recorded as spoken by Moses almost immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandment, and referred to in that very text as “the commandment” – singular – “This,” declares Moses, “is the commandment that the Lord your God charged me to teach you… The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. Any serious student of the law might well have given the same answer as Jesus did (although Jesus interestingly added the clause “with all your mind” to the commandment – as if to say “think about it”) – all those present would have been nodding along, but also waiting for what came next; for surely a teacher as experienced, as influential, as controversial, as Jesus would have something more to say than an answer that would be good enough for a middle-grade in an undergraduate essay – solidly reflecting the source materials, but showing no real insight or creativity.

And what came next – well, to be honest, equally uncontroversial. “And love your neighbour as yourself”. Not a direct quote from the law, but certainly not a radical departure from it, either.

As if they were a double act, it is left to the scribe who brought the question to deliver the punchline:

You are right, Teacher; … “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
Remember that context? Just a day or two before Jesus had cleared the Temple, thrown out those selling animals for burnt-offerings and sacrifices. Jesus’ simple and direct answer to a question, in stark contrast with the complex and indirect debating that characterised so much of the teaching of his day – including so much of his own – carried with it its own message: you’ve made things too hard. Too complicated. You’ve built up a religious system to try to sustain your identity, your faith, and in doing so you’ve lost something almost indefinable, lost the vibe.

Because one of the striking things – jumping back to our Old Testament story – one of the striking things about the book of Ruth, as an illustration of how life was meant to look under the guidance of the Torah is that there is no mention of any of the religious observances of the day. No Synagogue, no temple, no sacrifices. Not, I imagine, because they weren’t there, but because they really weren’t the point.

The heart of the law of God in the story of Ruth was found not in the synagogue or the Temple, not in offerings or sacrifices, but in moments in the story; moments which mirror Jesus’ summary of the law.

In our reading today, Ruth, refusing to leave her mother-in-law, declares her ultimate allegiance to be with Naomi’s people:

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried

She declares her total allegiance to be with the God of the people of Israel.

And then in moments throughout the story, the law of love of neighbour is illustrated; in the way Boaz treat generously the daughter of a poor widow collecting wheat in his fields; in the way the people gather in obedience to the law to ensure that the land due to the widow remains in her family to provide for her in her old age and to give a future to her daughter; even the way that Boaz arranges affairs to allow him to take Ruth to be his wife. Simple acts of compassion, of thoughtfulness, of love that light up the book of Ruth and make it such a popular story.

It’s not complicated, Jesus and the scribe tell those who listen. Love God, love others. The law is there to show you what that might look like, what it might mean. But that law is not an end, it is only the means to the end: love God, love others. Read the law in the light of that, and you will understand it. Read the law for its own sake and you will never get to the heart.

Love God, love others. It really is as easy and as radical as that.