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.