For Sunday October 31, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Sometimes I wish we could coin a new word for love, a word unencumbered by the baggage of romance novels, Hollywood films, and greeting card sentimentality. I wish we could experience the subversive power of Christianity's love story with fresh, un-jaded hearts.
Our lectionary this week offers us two stories about love. In our Gospel, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus responds with an answer we church folks know so well, we barely register it: the first commandment is to love. Specifically, to love God with our entire beings, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the story St. Mark recounts, the scribe agrees, and elaborates on Jesus's answer with a surprising insight of his own: to love God and neighbor is “much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, love is more important than piety, ritual, tradition, or penance. Love is more important than religion.
When Jesus hears the scribe’s wise words, he says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God." Everyone listening in on the conversation falls silent, not daring to ask Jesus another question.
I pause over that silence each time I read the story, because it forces me to ask some hard questions: When was the last time I felt moved to silence by a call to love? How long has it been since the challenge and the beauty of the first commandment gave me pause? Undid me? Caused me to change course and reorder my life?
If I’m honest, I have to admit that it has been a long time. This is partly because I'm primed by our culture to think of love in affective terms. I hear the first commandment and think, “I need to feel love. God wants me to experience affection, affinity, attraction. This is a call to a lifetime of deep emotion."
To be fair, there is an emotional element to love. Love is not a grim duty; it’s a wellspring that originates in the heart. Of course it has an affective side.
But sometimes — especially in western Christianity — we focus so hard on the emotive and affective aspects of love that we forget its rigor, its robustness, its discomfort. We assume that loving God and our neighbors means expressing friendly sentiments to God in Sunday worship, and exchanging warm pleasantries with the people who live near us during the week. We forget that in the scriptures, the call to love is a call to vulnerability, sacrifice, and suffering. It’s a call to bear a cross and lay down our lives. Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a path we travel. As the children of God, we are called to walk in love. Think aerobic activity, not Hallmark sentiment.
But what does this kind of love look like in practice?
In this week's reading from the Hebrew Bible, a young woman named Ruth pledges love to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth’s storied vow is so impassioned and poetic, it’s often quoted in modern wedding ceremonies: “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”
I understand why couples include this beautiful promise in their marriage liturgies. But if we stay true to context, we have to remember that Ruth’s vow to Naomi is not the vow of a fresh-faced bride on her wedding day. It’s not the pledge young, ardent lovers make when their love is new, hopeful, and full of (untested) promise.
As the book of Ruth begins, Naomi and Ruth have both lost their husbands in a culture that has no safety net for widows. Naomi is a foreigner in the land who is well beyond the age of child-bearing. She is a woman who has given up, a woman so overcome with grief that she literally renames herself: Don’t call me Naomi (which means pleasant), she tells her fellow townswomen. Call me Mara (meaning bitter), for “the Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
I think it would be safe to say that Ruth’s pledge of fidelity is not made to a companion who is, at this point in the story, easy or fun to be around. Naomi is bereft, depleted, forlorn, and bitter. It’s possible that she’s suffering a full-blown crisis of faith, imagining that the God she thought she knew has withdrawn his love, and cursed her with unspeakable suffering.
Ruth’s vow, then, is a vow of tenacity, fortitude, and sacrificial loyalty as much as it is a vow of affinity, affection, or “love” as our culture might describe it. It is the vow of one grief-stricken, traumatized, and profoundly vulnerable woman to another. Ruth recognizes that Naomi is far too broken to offer her much reassurance or comfort. She knows that leaving Moab with her mother-in-law and traveling to Judah will render her an unwelcome foreigner in a culture that has a history of expelling foreign women as dangerous. She knows that money will be scarce, her prospects for remarriage uncertain, and any future reunion with her birth family unlikely. She knows that sticking with Naomi will require a reordering of her life. And yet she puts her legitimate worries, losses, and fears aside, and vows to love Naomi as herself.
I would venture to say that Ruth’s version of love is the version that silences the crowd in Mark's Gospel story, centuries later. Hers are words spoken in the aftermath of catastrophic loss, and on the cusp of ongoing uncertainty and danger. When Ruth pledges to “walk in love” with Naomi, she knows that her path will not be flower-strewn. It will be jagged. It will be unfamiliar. It will be costly. And yet, as we know from the end of Ruth and Naomi’s story, it will also be the path that leads to healing, redemption, joy, and new life.
Scholars often point out that God is not “overtly” present in the book of Ruth. We don’t see burning bushes, or hear voices thundering from the clouds. We only see and hear the divine in the quiet choices and actions of the book’s all-too-human characters. In this sense, Ruth is a strikingly contemporary book. Because isn’t it the case that we, too, primarily experience God’s faithfulness in our daily interactions with each other? Isn’t divine love made manifest to us in the brave choices and right actions of the people who commit to treating us as their neighbors? Isn’t the kingdom of God revealed when we opt to walk in love for each other, even on paths that are hilly, thorny, and arduous?
We can't easily coin a new word for love, but perhaps the ancient stories of scripture can help us redefine our understanding. How many times have you been loved when you were bitter and bereft? When has someone loved you in the midst of their own vulnerability? How often have you pledged your fidelity to the vulnerable, the lost, the defeated, the hopeless — and discovered that God meets you in that pledge? When have you embarked down a loving path, not because of what you felt, but because you responded in obedience to the first and greatest commandment?
I’m glad that our Gospel story this week ends in stunned silence. Silence is the appropriate first response to the radical love we’re called to. We dare not speak of it glibly. We dare not cheapen it with shallow sentiment or piety. Rather, let’s ask for the grace to receive it as the wise scribe received it. In awed and grateful silence. Then, when we’re ready, let’s walk.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com