You are not far from the kingdom of heaven, 22 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2006

November 5, 2006

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 or Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 119:1-8 or 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34 

This is one of those gospels that when we hear it, we can get all comfy in our pews and say, “Oh well, of course. How lovely that thought is: Love God, love our neighbors. That’s what it’s all about. No problem.”

That’s what we might call “squeeze me, Jesus” theology – when we get all comfy with ourselves and think that just “love” is the answer. Thousands of popular songs have been written using those very words, heart-style jewelry is in every catalogue, movies by the score are based on our romantic notion of love. So, loving God and loving neighbor should be easy. Love should be the answer and everything would be all right. But we look at our world. We look at our church. What’s the problem? What aren’t we understanding?

Important questions! If we believe what Jesus is saying to this scribe, we have to admit that love is the answer. But really to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to define what we mean by love and perhaps more importantly –because it’s so easy for us to get comfortable with the familiar – we need to define who our neighbor is.

First, we need to understand that the love Jesus is talking about has to do with loyalty. The Valentine heart thing is all well and good, but this kind of love is a deliberate mind thing – a deliberate choice. It’s a commitment to living the kind of life Jesus lives. Jesus is telling his followers that to love God is to be loyal to God both when it’s easy and when it’s difficult. We must be willing to be loyal to the end no matter what.

But even if we can wrap our minds around the concept of being loyal to God – of trying to live a godly life – we have to remember that this love, this loyalty is bound up, as Jesus says, in loving our neighbor. We can’t choose to do one or the other.

Then, of course, comes the sticky part. Just who does Jesus mean by our “neighbor”?

We know the answer to that: everyone is our neighbor, both those who are like us, those who are easy to love – but also those who aren’t just like us and those who are pretty difficult to stand, let alone love. Not an easy thing to do. Our neighbors are also those whom we may never meet, but who might be touched through our outreach and prayer. The good news here is that they just might touch us.

Loving our neighbor isn’t just about benefits we confer on them. Remember the Old Testament lesson for today, that wonderful story of Ruth and Naomi. That’s a story of love going in both directions. It’s a story about real loyalty. Orpah wasn’t being mean or disloyal when she chose to return to her own mother’s house, to her own people. That was a perfectly sensible and honorable thing to do in that culture. Ruth and Orpah weren’t Jews – they were Moabites. We can sense the love that Orpah had for Naomi, but she chose to take a chance at being remarried, perhaps among her own people. Ruth on the other hand, made a radical and courageous choice. Her love, her loyalty to Naomi was so fierce and dedicated that she couldn’t abandon her mother-in-law even if it meant she might never be remarried – a problem for women in that culture – and might never be accepted by Naomi’s people.

Barbara Keener Shenk in her lovely book The God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel puts words in poetic form to Ruth’s decision to stay with Naomi. Ruth says to Naomi:

“Your inner flame warmed me and helped me see
That loyalty and truth form bonds … and last eternally.
I came to share your bitter dregs with you
And found the cup was filled with joy for two.”

That kind of love asked a lot of Ruth and it asks more of us, too. Remember at the end of our Gospel passage, Jesus said to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” (But you’re not there yet.) And no one dared ask him any more questions. Being brought face to face with that concept of love – the kind Jesus is really is talking about, the Bible’s kind of love – was maybe quite enough for Jesus’ followers right then. They didn’t yet understand love as Ruth did. Some of them eventually understood. Others walked away.

So, what now? We may be perfectly willing to accept the full responsibility of this kind of love, but we’d like some guidelines. Jews seek to live out of Torah. We seek to live out our baptismal covenant. Take a couple minutes when you have your prayerbook in your hands, and read pages 304 to 305. You’ve already said yes to this covenant at your baptism. Let the story of Ruth and the words of the baptismal covenant strengthen your heart.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of contextual education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

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