Proper Sacrifices -- A Lectionary Reflection
|Ruth and Naomi|
During the two wars that America has fought in the first decade of the 21st century, few sacrifices were asked of the American people as a whole. Young men and women volunteered for military duty and put themselves in harm’s way. Some did so out of a sense of patriotic duty, while others saw the military as a means of improving their lot in life – though knowing that there was risk involved. But for the rest of us, nothing was asked. The United States government paid for these wars on a credit card. For the first time in American history, taxes were cut rather than raised during a time of war.
What does any of this have to do with the lectionary readings for this week? Well, neither military nor tax policy are present in the texts, so that can’t be the focus. But there is the question of sacrifice present in each text, though at points its presence is subtle rather direct. The question then becomes -- what am I willing to sacrifice for the good of the other -- my family, my community, the world? Indeed, what am I willing to sacrifice for my own good? After all, I am called to love my neighbor as I love myself. And how should I perceive the sacrifice that Jesus is said to have made on the cross?
I’ve chosen to focus this week on the reading from Ruth 1. It’s a story that many are familiar with. Naomi, a Hebrew, a resident of Bethlehem during the time of the judges, migrated to Moab with her husband and two sons, due to a famine in the land. This isn’t the first time that a people has been forced by weather or politics to migrate, and it wasn’t the last. Naomi’s ancestors had moved to Egypt for the very same reason. Her descendants would be forced to migrate due to political considerations. While in Moab, her husband died, leaving her with two sons. They married Moabite women, suggesting that they intended to settle down in this foreign land. But, before long, they die leaving their mother and their wives Orpah and Ruth behind having to fend for themselves. It’s at this time that Naomi, realizing that she had no one to support her and her family, and hearing that there was food back home, she contemplated migrating once again. The three women and possibly a few children as well, begin the journey. Naomi, realizing that she couldn’t provide for her daughters-in-law told them to return to their homes and perhaps they, being young, could find suitable husbands. Neither of the younger women wanted to do this, though in time Naomi persuaded Orpah to return home. The story goes on without Orpah, but we shouldn’t forget her in our movement forward. Orpah did as she was asked, though she was saddened by the request. She made a sacrifice, believing that her return home would benefit not only herself but Naomi, who would no longer feel the burden of an extra person to care for. Besides, who knew how they would be received back in Bethlehem.
Ruth chose to continue the journey with Naomi, and it involved sacrifices as well. I would assume that the move cut her off from her own family of origin (and that may have already been true through her marriage to a foreigner). But notice how Ruth replies to Naomi. She puts her own life and future in the hands of Naomi, who at this point doesn’t know how she’ll fend for herself – “wherever you go, I will go . . .” Not only that, she says – “Your people will be my people.” In taking this journey with Naomi, she exchanges her national/ethnic identity for that of Naomi. Surely that was a difficult choice. Finally, she told Naomi – “your God will be my God.” She exchanges her faith for that of her mother-in-law. And remember that in context one’s allegiance to a particular god/God defined one’s identity. All of this represents a sacrifice – could we call it a proper sacrifice. She laid down her life for another, in support of that other person, and for that she was blessed and became a blessing to many.
The reading from Hebrews speaks directly to the question of sacrifice. It’s a much different text from the Ruth text, for it speaks of the role that Christ plays in the transformation of the sacrificial system. Jesus is not only the righteous high priest, who has entered into the holy of holies to make sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, but he is himself that perfect sacrifice who once and for all “wash[es] or consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God.” Again we have what appear to be the building blocks of a penal substitution view of atonement. God’s justice requires a righteous victim to assuage God’s wrath, and Jesus performs that job. But, is that the intent. We don’t see a transactional effort here, but instead a cleansing one. Even as the baptismal waters are an appeal for a clean conscience, so Jesus’ own death cleanses us, so that we might have a clean conscience. There is a concern for purification that occurs through sacrifice, but it’s not a case of proper punishment – it’s rather the proper means of cleansing that which is soiled. The differences may seem slight, but I think they do change the way we envision God’s work in Jesus. For the Christian, Jesus becomes the focal point of our connection to God, through the eternal Spirit. There is, it seems, at least an implicit hint of a Trinitarian view of God, or at least it’s possible to find it there!
In the Gospel reading from Mark 12 we hear an exchange between a “legal expert” and Jesus about which commandment is most important. If you have to choose, which one would stand at the top of the list? Instead of laying out the Ten Commandments, as Jesus does in a similar conversation with a wealthy young man, he turns to Deuteronomy 6:1-9 (another lectionary text for the day), and pulls out what is known as the Shema. “Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Jesus then adds a second concerning love of neighbor that is drawn from another part of the Torah (Leviticus 19:18). The key phrase here comes not from Jesus’ summation, but the legal expert, who notes that Jesus has answered well – noting that love of God and love of neighbor is “more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices” (12:33). Whatever value sacrifices have, and I don’t think either Jesus or the legal expert would dismiss the value of the Temple sacrifices and offerings, but both agree that they pale in comparison to the command to love. And Jesus takes note of the wisdom of the response saying “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.”
A proper sacrifice, whatever its nature, is rooted in one thing – love of God and neighbor. Ruth exemplified both expressions of love. She showed love for God by embracing Naomi’s God, pledging to live her life completely in relationship to this God of Israel. But she also showed love for Naomi, but devoting herself completely to Naomi’s welfare, so that not even death would end her commitment, for “where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Nothing could separate them, not even death. With that, Naomi stopped talking about it!