All Saints’ Church
November 11, 2018
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
In the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.
As the All Saints’ family knows, I just started seminary this fall. So before we ask together what God is saying to us in today’s readings, I want to begin by sharing the best thing I’ve learned so far in my 10 weeks of theological education. Like everyone else in the first year, I’m taking OT 101: Intro to the Old Testament. And one central concept we’ve discussed is tsedeqah. It’s Hebrew. Just say that with me: tsedeqah. One more time: tsedeqah.
This word is all over the Hebrew Bible. What does it mean?
In our English Bibles tsedeqah is usually translated as “righteousness” or “uprightness.” But in the original Hebrew, as one scholar put it, tsedeqah “refers more specifically to the virtue of fulfilling one’s social obligations to others, particularly defending those most vulnerable in ancient society; the orphan, the widow, and foreign immigrant” (Carr, 67).
To live with tsedeqah means to be proximate to people who are up against it, who live close to the bone. Tsedeqah means to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting, and to stand up for them when they call. Tsedeqah is an ethical and political vision that remains foundational for many of our Jewish siblings in this very city—and we stand with them in solidarity in a time of anti-Semitic intimidation and violence.
Tsedeqah was also the standard for political leadership in ancient Israel, in the time of King David. Psalm 72 says:
Give the king your justice, O God,
…May he judge your people in tsedeqah.
May he judge your people in solidarity
and your poor with justice!
6: May [the king] be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
12-14: For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life
[they are precious in his sight].
In these days I am moved to see a full-throated declaration that the powerful are judged by how they stand with the least powerful. Yes, King David was expected to be a brave military leader, and the chief executive of the royal court. But the king was also explicitly tasked to defend the most vulnerable, to hear their appeals for help, and to answer. In our own time, we are talking about the person struggling with addiction without health care, the asylum seeker, the trans woman, the person of color harassed by the police with impunity, the child prosecuted as an adult.
Ancient Israel expected its king to defend the most marginalized and at risk because their image of human justice was based on their idea of God’s justice. Another Psalm says:
[The Lord] judges the world with righteousness [with tsedeqah]…
The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9:7
Friends, it is as true today as it ever was, regardless of who was elected this week, or who will be elected in 2020. The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
I’m going to turn to today’s readings in just a second, but there’s one more thing I want to say about tsedeqah. It isn’t just a social responsibility, a duty. It is the way of life. The way to life. Rich, deep, joyful, vibrant life. Let me give you one more psalm, one I bet you know by heart:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness…nah.
The Lord restores my soul: the Lord leads me in the paths of tsedeqah.
The Lord restores my soul: the Lord leads me to embrace those who grieve, into solidarity with the oppressed, into joy with those who are being liberated and empowered—why? Because God wants to restore my soul. Because God wants me and you to really live. And the way to life is love, love that goes down to the bottom. Because our own joy cannot be complete unless there is justice for all; because our own liberation bound up with the liberation of “the least of these.”
Ruth knew it. And Naomi knew it. The poor widow who put two copper coins in the collection plate knew it. Throughout scripture, we see women who act in solidarity with one another and with the most vulnerable in their communities; women who thus show us what God is like.
The part of the Ruth story we read today presents Ruth as an important figure because of her ties to men: her new husband Boaz, and her great grandson, David. There’s no getting around the fact that this book was written in a time and a place where the value of women was defined by their relationship to men. But when I read this story, I like to think that it’s David who is important because he is the great-grandson of Ruth! Whose example inspired him? Who taught him about solidarity, who taught him that fidelity to the least in our communities, is the path of life? I think it was Ruth.
You may remember the story. Ruth and Naomi have met in tough times. A famine in the land of Israel has forced Naomi and her husband and their two sons to flee to the land of Moab. In other words, Naomi and her family are migrants. They are refugees. Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. But then, without much explanation, the story says that Naomi’s husband dies, and then her two sons die. And suddenly she is alone, a woman in a time and place where widows beyond the age of childbearing are among some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Now Ruth still has a good chance of remarrying, and thus recovering what security and status was available to women in her society. But Ruth will not seek her own security and happiness if it means that Naomi will be left alone and put at risk: “Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay: your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” Ruth says. Your future is bound up with my future, Ruth says. Your safety is tied up with mine. So Ruth walks beside Naomi as she journeys back to Bethlehem: because of her commitment to Naomi, Ruth becomes the foreigner, the immigrant.
Our reading today begins here, with Ruth and Naomi’s roles reversed. It’s now Naomi who tells Ruth, “I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” My need, Naomi says, my heart’s desire—is to ensure your well-being. So, doing what she could do in that situation, she sets Ruth up with Boaz. When Ruth indeed marries Boaz and bears a child, Naomi shares in that blessing. They have borne grief and struggle together; now their joy is shared. This child, this new life, is a symbol of the bond that has led both Ruth and Naomi in the path of life. The path of tsedeqah of solidarity is not an easy road; it’s not without risk. But its blessings multiply.
That is why, friends, the two copper coins the poor widow gives in Mark’s gospel are worth so much. Here we have another woman who shows us what God’s generosity is like. Another poor widow, another vulnerable person, who with two pennies declares that her own flourishing cannot be separated from the flourishing of the whole community. That is tsedeqah. That is the standard my wife Meg and I are thinking about as we discern how we are going to give to All Saints’ in the coming year. How can we participate in the flourishing of the whole community. I think that question is at the root of what Jesus invites us into, the Jesus who comes among us to restore our souls. The core of Jesus’ message was tsedeqah. He just didn’t use that word: he said Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and love your neighbors as yourselves.
Give others what you would want to be given.
Don’t withhold from others what you would not want withheld from yourself.
In Mark, Jesus has harsh words for the scribes: they have power and status, but Jesus insinuates that they have stolen from the estates of widows. Whether or not that was literally true, Jesus condemns them for flaunting their wealth while the poor around them are exploited. And he lifts up the abundant generosity of the widow. Though she has little, she knows that to really live—she must share what she has with others. She must link her own life to those around her.
So may the Lord lead us to embrace those who grieve, into solidarity with the oppressed, into joy with those who are being liberated. May we be servants of God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s joy. So may the Lord restore our souls, restore us to life. Amen.