Saturday Night Theologian
8 November 2009

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 (first published 9 November 2003)

Sex is not a four-letter word, but many Christians, particularly those of a conservative bent, act as though it were. Modern Western culture has its sexual morés, influenced by Christianity to be sure, but also shaped by such cultural movements as Puritanism, Victorianism, and the sexual revolution. The latter movement sought, among other goals, to liberate women from a sexual ethic defined by men, one in which they were considered inferior to men, the weaker sex (i.e., unable to control themselves sexually), and in need of male protection. Despite the influence of Christianity, Western culture has always had one rule for men and another for women. Remember the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery? She was dragged out to be stoned, but where was the man? American vernacular English demonstrates the lack of parity that continues to exist between men and women on matters of sex. Promiscuous men are studs; promiscuous women are sluts. Both words imply sexual promiscuity, but the term for men has a positive connotation, while the term for women is decidedly negative. Even within an explicitly Christian context, proper sexual norms are a matter of fierce debate. The consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church this past week is a case in point. Many Christians would like to retreat to the safety of the biblical text when dealing with such issues. Contemporary teens and adults are often counseled to live according to the precepts of the Bible in regard to their sexuality. However, any close reading of scripture reveals sexual practices in the ancient world that were quite different from those accepted as normative by many people today. Polygamy (but not polyandry!), concubinage, and what moderns would call pre-marital sex were accepted at certain times during the biblical period and in certain contexts. Today's reading from Ruth is a good illustration of this point. Both Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi have lost their husbands, but Ruth is a young, attractive woman, Naomi's last hope for happiness and security. Naomi hatches a plan based on the custom of levirate marriage, in which the nearest male relative of a childless widow's husband has the obligation to take the woman as his wife--regardless of his current marital status--and raise up children to take the name of his deceased male relative. Boaz, a close relative of Naomi's dead husband Elimelech, has already noticed Ruth gleaning grain in his fields. Naomi takes this as a sign that Boaz is likely to welcome Ruth's sexual advances and assume the role of kinsman-redeemer. Naomi instructs Ruth to wait until Boaz has eaten and drunk his fill (playing on the aphrodisiacal effect of alcohol) and lain down to sleep on the threshing floor. She is to go and "uncover his feet," where "feet" is a euphemism for genitalia. She does so as Naomi instructs, and she even goes farther, inviting Boaz, after he awakes surprised to find Ruth at his side, to "spread your cloak over your servant." "Spread your cloak" is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Having washed and anointed herself to enhance her beauty to its fullest extent, Ruth is inviting Boaz to have sex with her. However, both know that if Boaz accepts, he has committed himself to fulfilling the role of kinsman-redeemer for Naomi. Boaz does accept, and (after craftily removing a rival redeemer) he takes Ruth as his wife and fathers a child in the name of Elimelech. While some might consider the story of Ruth told this way to be shocking, it is important to understand that it is not a tale that advocates sexual promiscuity. Nor is it a story about true love. Rather, it is a story about two women who use feminine charm and accepted custom to achieve security in a world where they were on the verge of desolation because of their circumstances. It is also a story about a man who willingly fulfills his obligations to his kinsman, regardless of the potentially reduced inheritance to his existing children. Finally, it is a story about the providence of God, who uses wise women, good men, and changing sexual customs to bless those who are faithful.

Psalm 127

"Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." I've seen this statement on plaques in people's houses, and I've heard sermon preached on the text. The way the verse is usually read is this: "God might not be involved in the building of your house, but I know for a fact that God has built mine. Because I go to church, pray, act as a good neighbor, and show compassion for those in need, God will reward me." That might be a comforting way to read the verse, but that's not what it says. What it actually says is that God is sovereign, and God alone determines the success of a family or a nation. The next verse is similarly misread most of the time. Americans in particular like the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." It's a catchy little saying, and it supports capitalist economics pretty well, but it's just the opposite of what the psalmist says: "It is vain to rise up early and go to bed late, eating the bread of anxious toil." As in the first verse, the psalmist portrays God as sovereign, and the fate of an individual lies entirely in the hands of God, not in a person's tenacious commitment to make something of him- or herself. The reason we often misread these verses is that we assume that we are in fact God's beloved, to whom God gives blessings even while we sleep. And of course, God does often give us blessings, but what about those whose lives are not blessed, whose families fall apart, whose nations are overrun or reduced to killing fields? When bad things happen to good people, does that mean that the people were really not good? Does it mean that God does not love them? When things are going well for us, or if we're fortunate enough to live in a country that is economically prosperous and relatively free, we may think so. More likely, we just accept that our blessings prove that God loves us and our way of life, and we try not to think too much about those around us who are suffering--not to mention those in other parts of the world who are suffering in even greater numbers. I don't think that this psalm should be read to say that blessings prove that God loves us, but neither do I think it should be read to say that nothing we do matters, because God will do what God will do. I read the psalm as saying that human effort is a good thing, but we should give credit for our successes to God. When our best efforts don't produce good results, it doesn't mean that God has decided not to love us, it just means that things happen in the world that are outside human understanding.

Hebrews 9:24-28 (first published 9 November 2003)

Plato taught that the world we live in is inhabited by imperfect objects that are mere reflections of ideal heavenly objects. There are many trees on earth, for example, but there is only one perfect Idea of a tree. This concept is called the Theory of Ideas, or the Theory of Forms. The perfect Idea or Form exists only in the eternal realm, but it is in an important sense more real than the various imperfect manifestations of the Form that we find on earth. Understanding the basics of Plato's Theory of Forms is crucial to understanding the argument of the book of Hebrews. The author says that the earthly sanctuary was indeed a place where sacrifice could be offered and sins forgiven. Nevertheless, the fact that the high priest had to offer sacrifices every year indicates that the priest, the sacrifice, and even the sanctuary itself were all somewhat flawed. They were imperfect copies of something more permanent and authentic. Jesus was the ideal high priest, or, in Platonic terms, the Idea of the high priest. Similarly, the sacrificial death of Jesus was the Idea of sacrifice. But where did this ideal high priest offer the perfect sacrifice? In the ideal sanctuary, which is in heaven. By locating the ideal sanctuary in heaven and associating Christ's priestly activity with the period between his death and resurrection, the author melds the speculative ideas of Plato about the ideal realm with the Jewish concept of a physical heaven, producing a kind of Jewish-Christian-Platonic explanation of Jesus' death as the ideal sacrifice. Another indication that the author is drawing on Plato's Theory of Forms is his repeated use, both in this passage and throughout the book, of terms that contrast "the one" and "the many" (cf. also the opening sentence of the book, Heb 1:1-2). The author uses a particularly strong word for "once" three times in today's reading, a word that is often translated "once for all." He is driving home his contention that there is something profoundly unique about the life and death of Jesus. He was no ordinary prophet, though prophets were worthy of honor. He was no ordinary priest, though priests performed a vital role in the community of faith by offering sacrifices to God. Jesus was not merely the greatest of prophets or priests, he was the ideal prophet-priest. Indeed, he was the very Idea of prophet and priest, as far removed from ordinary humans who played those roles as the Platonic Form was removed from the imperfect copies that represented it so feebly on earth. Those who follow him can expect a deliverance that is far beyond any act of salvation in human history, one in which Christ will usher us into the heavenly, ideal realm itself.

Mark 12:38-44 (first published 9 November 2003)

Once there was a man who so humble that his church got together and decided to give him a special pin in honor of his humility. They soon had to take the pin back, however, because the man wore it. Some people actively seek recognition, and even those who don't, when they receive it, find it hard not to flaunt it at least a little bit. The scribes that Jesus criticizes in this passage from Mark were educated and respected religious leaders who let their accomplishments go to their heads. They wore clothes that drew attention to their piety, perhaps in the same way that some people today wear religious jewelry or clothing with religious slogans. They encouraged others to greet them with terms of respect, similar to the way in which some Christian leaders encourage others to address them with honorifics such as Doctor or Bishop (whether or not earned). They sat in positions of honor at banquets and even in the synagogue, maybe in the same way that some Christians assume that they are entitled to sit at the head table at all banquets. They said long prayers for the sake of showing their piety--who has not observed something similar in the church? Of course, not everyone who wears a cross, or is greeted with a respectful title, or who is honored before his or her fellows, does so for the wrong reasons, any more than every scribe in Jesus' day did so. We must all judge ourselves in this regard. The evangelist in this story and the one that follows, however, draws a sharp contrast between some who consider themselves religious leaders and the faithful poor. For the gospel writer, there is no doubt that the poor who are rich in faith are to be emulated over those who are rich but poor in faith. It is no coincidence that many of the most meaningful classics of Christian spirituality were written by those who were poor, either by birth or by choice. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are full of the wisdom of men and women who had left the temptations of riches in order to commune with God in the wilderness. The writings of those who left all to pursue God--such as Thomas à Kempis, who write On the Imitation of Christ; St. John of the Cross, who wrote The Dark Night of the Soul; Brother Lawrence, who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God; John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim's Progress; Leo Tolstoy, who late in life wrote My Confession; and Thomas Merton, who wrote The Seven Storey Mountain--continue to speak across the centuries, as do the lives of other saints who lived lives of economic poverty, like Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, and Clarence Jordan, to mention only a few. It is not that devoted Christians in positions of power have nothing meaningful to say. On the contrary, many have profound insights that are well worth considering. However, it seems evident that those who eschew the trappings of the world and become the poor of Christ are often the richest in their understanding of God and God's ways. Poverty in and of itself is not a condition to which we should aspire, and it is especially important to distinguish between the voluntary rejection of physical comforts and situations of widespread economic deprivation and social injustice, which the Medellín Document calls "institutionalized violence." Christians with plenty, who willingly relinquish some of their possessions in order to find God, have begun to understand Jesus' praise of the widow, who gave from her poverty to God.