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I want to stop and take stock of where we are in the lectionary year. November provides the final four segments of Year B, years that typically end with the dramatic Second Coming readings from each of the three synoptic Gospels, this year represented by Mark 13. The lectionary obviously has us heading toward Jerusalem and Jesus teaching along the way, but it is in Lent that the Passion story itself is told. We have selections of readings from Mark, then, that come from chapters 11 and 12. Jesus has reached Jerusalem and triumphally entered before adoring crowds. He then turns to address in turns the religious leadership whose opposition to him has already been narrated and anticipated by Mark.
This focus on the Second Coming at the close of the year is not accidental. It is significant for its own sake and it also serves to anticipate Advent of the ensuing Christian year. The first Sundays of Advent also speak directly of the second Advent – hard sometimes to hear given the busyness of Christmas in the Cultural Year of Commerce. The one who comes in the cradle at Christmas is the King who will come again and whose coming is the very goal of history itself. Christ is our times and seasons, from his beginning and ending, gathering up our own, in Israel and in all nations under his reign. Before he goes up to Jerusalem to give his life as a ransom he draws attention to where this final death reaches out to gather up all time and space. Year B consists of 52 Sundays of reading, tracking the narrative-line of Mark’s Gospel this year, and providing a rich symphony of readings drawn from every corner of the Old Testament. Including from those psalms whose ancient word resonates in accompaniment with the readings, giving us a seat in the symphony hall before and alongside Jesus, Ruth, David, Elijah and Elisha, Esther, Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Eldad and Medad and on the list goes. The accomplishment of the lectionary includes continuous readings from Acts and the letters of Paul, as well as the catholic epistles and Hebrews, our reading at this juncture of the year. In addition, for a great bulk of the year one can hear an effort to provide a continuous reading from the Old Testament, though its size makes for the necessity of a selection. For this Sunday, following the notes set forth in the final chapter of Proverbs, concerning the woman of valor, we move to Ruth. She joins Esther and Lady Wisdom from Proverbs and Hannah, whose song comes at the final Sunday of this lectionary year.
We are in that section of Mark’s Gospel where the conflict and tensions are heightening, and from various directions. After the triumphal entry Jesus cleanses the temple. He curses a fig tree in what is an ominous gesture. In the temple, he is confronted by the chief priests and scribes and elders and questioned about his authority to act as he does. The parable of the vineyard is delivered and received as a direct accusation, including their murderous intentions, and his arrest is considered and then rejected as potentially too inflammatory. Pharisees seek to trap him into seditious talk vis-a-vis the Roman authorities, a trap he parries with ease. Then the Sadducees engage in a ridiculous resurrection scenario, given that they do not believe in it; it is their chief identity marker. This sets off a dispute amongst themselves, to which today’s Gospel reading makes reference. A lone scribe, “seeing that he answered them well” poses a question of his own.
The passage is remarkable for several reasons, which should be clear given all we have witnessed about the way Jesus has responded all along his way to this point, with those he encounters. Luke and Matthew go a slightly different way, and make the questioner, consistent with other exchanges, negative. But on Mark’s landscape the encounter is positive, and a welcome sign that there is hope for all, and that belonging to a hostile grouping need not prevent one from seeing the truth. “Not far from the kingdom of God” is high praise from this Jesus.
Jesus summarizes the Law by reference to the Shema of Israel’s confession, found in our OT reading for today, from Deuteronomy 6. The first table of the decalogue is covered by the phrase “the first commandment” and the second table by the “second commandment.” The quote itself is taken from the 19th chapter of Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is enjoined of Israel where the neighbor is a fellow covenant member, but also, at the close of the chapter, for those gentiles who have come into the fellowship of Israel, in both cases reinforced by the solemn refrain “I am the Lord you God” – a nice inclusio which returns to the logic of the first commandment itself.
We could easily move to the Ruth reading at this juncture, which makes the point nicely in narrative form. More on that in a moment.
The scribe commends the summary, and in a striking move, covers the same ground himself in almost the same form exactly. It is this collation, “One Lord God, love neighbor as oneself,” spoken by Jesus and reaffirmed by the scribe, that brings forth the commendation. “Not far from the kingdom of God” means then, even if not knowing that the One Lord God Jesus worships faithfully through his obedient life, is making himself known in the Jesus standing before him, he is close to that truth by what he has said after Jesus has said it. More could be said here given the next section of Mark, where Psalm 110 is interpreted by Jesus as elevating the Messiah to the Lord that David himself addresses. But the conjunction only reinforces the point being introduced here. The Shema is not being rejected, but within its logic Jesus himself shares the identity of the one God who has sent him, whose love of neighbor as self extends to the giving of his life in love, incarnating the love of God himself for all, Israel and Gentile both. In responding to the scribe as he does, Jesus may be speaking metaphorically, but also, in addition, geographically. The Kingdom of God is standing before him. Its loving expression will take place on a hill not far away. “You are not far from the kingdom of God” is literally true. Deuteronomy six gives indication in textual form of the commandment to which Jesus and the scribe refer, as well as the express charge that it be taught to every generation, at all times and at all places, the point being made quite vigorously.
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Jesus is himself this doorpost and this public display, and his words to the scribe make clear there is no separation between his own faith and his own person, the one David himself addressed long ago as Lord. “The Lord said to my Lord.”
We conclude with our Track One OT reading.
It would be hard to imagine a story with more drama and more pathos being told in such a compact and economical way as the opening paragraphs of the book of Ruth. It truly speaks for itself in just the way it speaks and in that way, so commentary must defer to the text’s own unfolding. Read aloud it cannot miss its target. Famine, risky relocation, death of one husband followed by death of two sons and two husbands. Three lone women at a time when inheritance and home is all there is, such as it is. Naomi wisely counsels the Moab daughters-in-law to stay among their kith and kin. Orpah wept aloud, kissed Naomi and followed her advice. But Ruth clung to her and offered up the words we read.
Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. May the Lord do thus and so to me…
And in lifting up the sacred name “the Lord,” the Lord God of Israel is now her Lord. As to the question of Naomi, auspiciously posed, “do I still have sons in my womb?” we must wait as the story unfolds. This book has a surprising ending, is all we can say for now. Though it is a bitter—Naomi—moment, the Lord God of Israel will have the last word.
As the psalm puts it, and as we shall come to learn, “happy are they–Naomi and now Ruth the Moabitess—who have the God of Jacob for their help/ whose hope is in the LORD their God.”