One day Jesus was confronted by some who weren’t so sure of his beliefs…they had watched him heal on the Sabbath, eat with sinners and tax collectors, they had listened to his teachings and they wanted to know more about what he believed and why.
They knew he read the same Bible as did they. He called himself rabbi as did their religious leaders. But there was something about him they didn’t trust. What they really wanted to know was whether he was one of them.
And so one of the scribes asked him, “Teacher, which of all the commandments is the greatest?” Jesus said, actually there are two commandments that rise above all others. Love God and love your neighbor. And for more than 2000 years his followers have struggled to understand those two simple rules of life.
Seems simple enough. Love God, love one another. But then real life happens. We encounter those who are not so easy to love. How do we make room for them and Jesus? We begin to parse the words, dissect the meaning. “What is love?” we ask. Loving God is relatively easy. Right? After all God is in Heaven, up there, out of sight and all that it apparently takes to love God is to say we do.
But this “neighbor” stuff…well, who is our neighbor? Surely not everyone. What about those illegals immigrants? Those homosexuals, those alcoholics, there are bullies, Muslims, criminals, radicals, socialists, conservatives, liberals, Tea Partiers…oh my the list is long. We read the papers and know that among our neighbors are people named in the blotter briefs and on the list of sex offenders. The newspapers and the politicians want to make sure we know when they are our neighbors…and not so that we can love them.
Well…maybe we can solve the problem by simply moving to a better neighborhood. OR we can say we love the sinner and hate the sin? We can teach our fellow Christians to be in the world but not OF the world. All of that has been tried but it’s hate and distrust that grows…not love.
When Jesus first said it, it all seemed so simple and clear and easy, at least it seemed simple to him…the scribe even got it. Jesus said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” And the scribe said, “You are right, Teacher—this is much more important than going to church and singing the hymns and saying the prayers.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But…is it that simple? No…let’s face it, it’s not. If it were that simple, the world would be a far better place for children and other vulnerable lives.
Let me tell you a story that may help. Once upon a time a man named Elimilech lived in Bethlehem, not coincidentally the town in which Jesus would be born hundreds of years later. He was married to Naomi. They had two sons. The family were members of the Hebrew tribe of Judah.
A famine in their own land forced them to immigrate to the country of Moab, one of Israel’s enemies. But they had to find food even if it meant living among those they were told to despise and whom they were told despised them.
They were able to find food but Naomi’s sons also found, among the Moabite women. And contrary to everything they had been taught in the Temple, the young men married the Moabite women. Naomi’s life was made worse when her husband died and then both of her sons died, leaving her alone with the two Moabite widows of her sons.
One day, Naomi told them, “I must return to my homeland. I’ll miss you, but I’m just an old woman. I am too old to even produce other sons for you to marry. There’s nothing I can do for you.” Naomi knew the Moabite women would not be well received back in Bethlehem. She urged them to return to her home and to her gods.
But one of them, Ruth, begged, “Let me go where you go. Your people will be my people. And your God will be my God.” Reluctantly Naomi agreed. And the two women travelled for many days until they finally reached Naomi’s hometown, a place called Bethlehem.
It was hard for two women living alone with no help or protection form a man. Fortunately they lived in a land where the law and the scripture protected the poor and required the wealthy to share. Not only did the law assure foreigners the means to survive with some measure of dignity, it commanded the people of Israel to treat even Moabite aliens living in their midst as though they were “native-born,” admonishing them to “love them as yourself,” and reminding them that they, too, were once foreigners in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34).
Exodus 22:21-22 echoes this reminder of the time when all of Israel were aliens in Egypt, forbidding any mistreatment or oppression of aliens. Even though Ruth was not a native-born “citizen” of this adopted land, even though she was born of the enemy Moabites, she was to be afforded certain protections under the law that ensured her survival.
And so when the harvest came, it was shared with the poor even when they were foreigners. “It’s time for the barley harvest,” said Ruth to Naomi. “I will gather enough leftover grain that we will be able to eat.”
A man named Boaz owned the field and wondered who she was. “She came back with old Naomi,” said his foreman. “All day long, she has worked hard.” Boaz told his workers to help Ruth.
One night, Naomi told Ruth to go to the threshing floor where Boaz was sleeping. She told Ruth to wait for him there. When Boaz awoke he was surprised to see Ruth. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Naomi has sent me,” said Ruth. “Since you are her nearest relative, I have come to ask you to care for us.”
“God bless you,” said Boaz. “And don’t be afraid, for I will take care of you.” He also said, “Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and put it on her.
Naomi the Hebrew rejoiced when Ruth the Moabite and Boaz the Jew were married. And Ruth became the great-grandmother of the great King David and Jesus of Nazareth was born to that line of family!
Think about it…the story of Ruth answers the question of just what Jesus meant when he said to love our neighbor as ourselves.
It’s lesson is the one the world needs to hear as it continues to wrestle with what Jesus said about loving our neighbors. Isn’t it curious that the God who inspired this book used the words of a marginalized, despised, lowly Moabite woman to explain love?
When Ruth said, “Your people will be my people. And your God will be my God” she explained all we need to know about the greatest commandment. Think about this…the book of Ruth comes immediately after two of the most violent books in the Bible, Joshua and Judges…where story after story is told of the slaughter one by the other of Hebrews by their enemies including the Moabites. It was the Moabites who fought against Israel…the Moabites who enslaved Israel for 18 years…under Ehud, the Israelites slaughtered 10,000 Moabites…these two peoples have a history of hatred and violence.
So when the Moabite woman, Ruth, says to the Hebrew woman, Naomi, “your people shall be my people and your God will be my God” we are getting a lesson on just what Jesus meant when he said love your neighbor.
Imagine a community, a nation, a world…where people who have hated one another for generations, Jews and Arabs, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Christians and Muslims…imagine a world defined not by prejudices but by relationships. A world where your people will be my people.
See in your mind for a moment those you fear, dislike, those you don’t understand, those who believe and behave different from you, who confound and confuse and frighten and anger you, those whom you have been taught are sinful, distrustful, unclean and distasteful…those are the ones Jesus said we must love as ourselves.
Can you see them?
Now look in their faces and repeat after Ruth of the Bible, “Your people will be my people. And your God will be my God.”
And then listen quietly to Jesus say to you as he did to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”