Proper 27, Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 11, 2012

Reading 1: Reading 2:
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17Mark 12:38-44

By Russell Pregeant

One of the gifts of a process-relational approach to scripture is permission to re-read stories. By re-reading, I do not mean simply replacing one story with another, so that the entire meaning-structure of the original is destroyed. I mean approaching the story from a different perspective than we usually read it from, so that we are able to find new meaning in it. The “old” perspective might be any of these: 1) a standardized point of view delivered to us through tradition; 2) the way in which the original audience might have heard it; 3) the dominant strain of meaning within the story itself; 4) the presumed intention of the author. The “new” perspective is a combination of insights gained from our contemporary experiences and undercurrents of meaning in the story itself—that is, themes that stand in tension with (or even contradiction to) the dominant strain.

This Sunday’s readings from Ruth and Mark provide a good test case for the interpretive process I envision. The two stories are united by a focus on characters who are marginalized in multiple ways. Both are female, both are widows (and thus without male protection), and both are poor. Ruth, moreover, bears an additional burden as a Gentile and a childless widow. In each case, the character appears in a positive light, and the story as a whole critiques oppressive elements in the social structure in which it is set. As we will see, however, both stories involve complications that cry out for a degree of re-reading in our time.

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

A sermon making significant use of the reading from Ruth, I believe, needs to tell the whole story. Fortunately, the selection for this Sunday contains the verse (4:15) that needs to take central stage for the kind of re-reading I envision—a reading that can greatly enhance the liberative elements that the story clearly contains and suggest ways of extending their field of reference. In celebration of the birth of Ruth’s son, “the women” say to Naomi, “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you is more to you than seven sons.” To appreciate the full potential impact of this verse, however, we will have to understand how it cuts against some elements in the story as it functioned in its original life setting.

When Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth return to Judah following the death of Naomi’s husband Elimelech and her two sons, they are in an almost helpless condition as childless widows. Thus, the appearance of Boaz, who allows Ruth to glean in his field, comes as unexpected good fortune; and the fact that he turns out to be a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband makes him a potential mate for Ruth under the provisions for levirate marriage and purchaser of the parcel of land that had belonged to Elimelech.

Naomi thus conceives a plan to unite the two by sending Ruth to the threshing floor in the evening, when Boaz has reclined, to “uncover his feet and lie down.” When Boaz spreads his garment over Ruth, this signifies an agreement to marry her, and the only impediment is the existence of a closer relative who would have priority both with respect to the right to buy the land and to take Ruth as a wife. When Boaz explains that Ruth would come with the land, however, the next-of-kin refuses the deal in order to protect his own inheritance, and Boaz and Ruth are free to marry. The story concludes with the birth of Ruth’s son and the notation that the son became the grandfather of David.

The story is thematically rich. It is, on one level, a story of loyalty—Naomi’s to her God and her homeland, Ruth’s to Naomi, and Boaz’s to family. It is also a story of courage—Naomi’s in making the long trek home with no guarantees, Ruth’s in journeying to what is for her a strange land and in taking the bold step of following Naomi’s instructions regarding Boaz. No less is it a story of kindness, as Boaz allows gleaning rights and bestows unexpected favors on Ruth. On another level, the story contains a gentle critique of social exclusion. As Kathleen Farmer notes, Ruth functions in the plot as a redeemer-figure, since it is her action that saves Naomi from her poverty and unprotected status. And this gives the story a “parable-like structure.” The disruptive element is that Naomi is a foreigner, “the representative of a group that Deut 23:3 refuses to admit to ‘the assembly of the LORD.’”

Thus “[t]he admirability of the ‘other’ in the story (be they Samaritan or Moabite) should serve primarily to convict us of our own repeated failure to recognize the despised ‘other’ as an agent of God.”[1] The story is also disruptive simply by virtue of its portrayal of women. Not only are the two primary characters women, but all three women who appear show admirable traits. As Alice Laffey comments, their “courage is outstanding. Orpah was willing to leave her homeland to be with her mother-in-law; Ruth insisted on doing so. Naomi wanted to leave her daughters-in-law in Moab, even though that would mean going back alone to Israel and a future alone.”[2]

Strong women are by no means unknown in the Hebrew Bible, but their presence is nonetheless a countercurrent within a primarily patriarchal framework. And although there are strong liberative elements in the story that no adequate interpretation can ignore, it also reflects elements of a patriarchal system that it does not directly challenge. Laffey thus notes that some feminist interpreters argue that interpreters “should denounce the phenomenon that a woman not attached to a man is powerless, denounce the law which provides for a widow’s marrying her husband’s next of kin, denounce women’s lack of choice and lack of opportunity.”[3] The story itself, however, does not do any of this—at least not explicitly. As Norman Gottwald writes, “[i]t is precisely the happy coincidence of the story that the women are able to find joyful fulfillment within the male-headed social structures in such a way that both sexes profit. It is not difficult to imagine that this story was framed by a woman confidently at home in her social world.”[4]

Gottwald also notes, however, the emergence of the difference between male and female perspectives at the end of the story. “The male elders celebrate Boaz’s good fortune in finding Ruth because she will give him children. By contrast, the women who gather around Naomi at the birth of Ruth’s child rejoice in the son who will bring consolation and pleasure to the aging grandmother. They go on to exclaim that the quality of Naomi and Ruth’s love for one another counts for more than bearing seven sons!”[5] One might be inclined to hear such a declaration as an innocent hyperbole, but Laffey hears it otherwise: “On the lips of the women,” she opines, “is an altered consciousness, a challenge to the presuppositions of the patriarchal culture.”[6]

I find it impossible to judge whether the author of the story intended such a thoroughgoing challenge to patriarchal presuppositions, since the story as a whole clearly operates within those limiting presuppositions. From the hermeneutical perspective I propose, however, the question is moot: the fact is that the women’s declaration provides the opening to make such a critique. Although the story does not follow up on that opening, there is no reason that interpreters (such as preachers!) cannot do so in good conscience. And the story does in fact provide a fund of values that we might lift up in contrast to the stereotypical patriarchal values such as sons-to-carry-on-the-name and male protection of females: the specific kinds of courage the women show, loyalty to what is truly worthy, and deep human affection.

Mark 12:38-44

The gospel passage embraces two distinct pericopes that are connected by the widow-theme on the one hand and contrasts between rich/powerful and the poor on the other. And they share with the Ruth story the notion of the widow as vulnerable in the context of the social situation as well as a perspective that takes the part of the marginalized. The scribes in 12:38-40 say long, hypocritical prayers in public but “devour widows’ houses”; the offerings of the rich in vv. 41-44 compare badly with the widow’s two copper coins, which represent “all she had to live on.”

That vv. 38-40 attack economic oppression is indisputable, even if the specific way in which the scribes “devour widows’ houses” remains unspecified. Ched Meyers mentions two possibilities. The first is that they directly exploit the widows while acting as their legal agents in settling their estates. The second is that the costs of the temple, with which the scribes are associated, “devour the resources of the poor.”[7] In favor of the former, the settling of an estate would directly involve the women’s homes. Myers leans toward the latter, however, since the setting is in the temple (11:27). And if this reading is accepted, the story of the widow’s mite that follows could serve as an illustration of the point—but only if we accept a particular interpretation of it.

The traditional and still dominant interpretation is that Jesus praises the widow’s action because it signifies wholehearted devotion that contrasts with the proportionally smaller offerings of the rich. Myers, however, endorses the reading of Addison G. Wright, according to which Jesus’ statement in vv. 43-44 is not a commendation of the woman but a lament over what she has been motivated to do by an oppressive value system and a condemnation of those who motivated the woman to drive herself into deeper poverty. (After all, Jesus says that the copper coins were all she had to live on!)[8]

It is difficult to choose between the traditional reading and that of Wright and Myers. We can invoke context in favor of the latter, since the preceding passage condemns the scribes and the material that follows (chapter 13) predicts the destruction of the temple. The passage itself, however, lacks an explicit condemnation of the rich, despite the contrast it draws, and it seems impossible to determine whether Jesus’ words in themselves constitute praise or lament. What I suggest, then, is that for the purposes of a sermon that takes the two pericopes (12:38-40 and 12:41-44) together, a choice may not be necessary. Eugene Boring seems to accept the traditional reading but nevertheless suggests that with the image of the scribes in mind a reader might well be motivated to ask the very kinds of questions at work in the Wright-Myers reading: “Is [the widow] poor precisely because the religious leaders have taken advantage of her vulnerable economic position? Does the Markan Jesus lament her foolish deed, duped by the scribes to give her whole living to their false program?”[9]

It thus seems legitimate to me for a preacher to raise these questions without necessarily suggesting that the Wright-Myers interpretation is the correct one. That is, one could present this possibility as a re-reading that makes uses of motifs that are suggested by the context even though not clearly evident in the passage itself. In that way, perhaps one could both praise the woman for her devotion and lament the system that exploits her.

To connect the gospel reading more closely to the story of Ruth, a different element of re-reading could be helpful. Whether we view the poor widow as a model of devotion or a victim who has been duped into self-destructive action (or both), Jesus clearly takes her part. And this is entirely consistent with the gospel portrayal of Jesus as squarely on the side of the oppressed and marginalized. Yet within the framework of the Markan story, Jesus’ own ministry is not entirely free of patriarchal elements, as Joanna Dewey has shown. On the one hand, “[w]omen are understood as people in their own right, no longer as property of men.” On the other hand, “women in Mark tend to be invisible, mentioned only when they are exceptional or required for the plot.”[10]

Most importantly, although women follow Jesus as part of his entourage, his inner circle of twelve disciples is entirely male. I can envision, however, an imaginative expansion of this story that makes use of its themes in such a way as to break down the patriarchal framework. Boring summarizes Mark’s point in this way: “the robbed widows, in contrast to the robber scribes, are those who truly serve God.”[11] But if the poor widow is indeed one who truly serves God, then it is legitimate to suggest that she qualifies not merely to be held up as an example of piety but as one of the inner-circle disciples with special responsibilities. Why not, then, add a scene to the story in which this marginalized person—poor, widowed, robbed and female—answers a call to such a role?

[1] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer, “The Book of Ruth: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 893.

[2] Alice Laffey, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 209.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Socio-Literary Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 557.

[5] Ibid.

[6][6] Laffey, 210.

[7] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988), 320.

[8] Ibid., 321.

[9] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 352.

[10] Joanna Dewey, “The Gospel of Mark,” Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, ed. Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 470-71.

[11] Boring, 353.