Pentecost XXIII Ruth 1. 1-18; Mark 12.13-17, 28-34
What is the first commandment?
Jesus is asked, and he responds in words which are very familiar to us. The first commandment is to love. Specifically, to love God with our entire beings, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
A commandment we hear most every time we gather for worship. In Mark’s account of this ask, the scribe agrees, and elaborates on Jesus's answer with a surprising insight of his own: to love God and neighbour is much more important than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Adds the scribe. 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 words, he proclaims that the scribe is not far from the kingdom of God. Everyone listening in on the conversation falls silent, not daring to ask Jesus another question. Our Gospel story ends in stunned silence. Ruth’s version of love, which we heard today in the Old Testament reading, is the version that silences the crowd in Mark's Gospel story, centuries later. Ruth’s words spoken in the aftermath of catastrophic loss, and on the cusp of ongoing uncertainty and danger.
The ancient stories of scripture can help us redefine our understanding of love. The primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. When Ruth pledges to ‘walk in love’ with Naomi, she knows that her path will be unfamiliar. It will be costly. 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.
Turning from Ruth and Naomi’s story to our own story of love and commitment – 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? Silence is the appropriate first response to the radical love we are called to.
We dare not speak of it glibly. We dare not cheapen it with shallow sentiment or piety. We dare ask for the grace to receive it as the scribe received it. In awed and grateful silence.
The love which flows from God knows no barrier of skin colour or national boundary or pronoun. This love burns on the lips of those who would cage up the refugee, ostracise those who are different, or condemn those of different beliefs.
This love which gives rather than takes, which forgives rather than condemns, includes rather than exclude, is ultimately taken outside nailed and crucified by the nails of people who live not in love but in fear.
However, this love is stronger than any cross, any nail, any fear-based belief. This love lives in our heart, and in our soul, and in our strength, and in our mind enabling us to do more than merely obey the command to love, we live that love. We are that love.