Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12:28-34
In the Gospel of Mark we have jumped two chapters to the other side of Palm Sunday. We have left the villages of Galilee, and finished the road to Jerusalem, and entered the Temple.
The Temple, where the rabbis taught and the schools debated, where the priests killed the animals and burned the flesh and offered the blood to sanctify the defilement of the people to permit them to worship the living God, and the focus of all the hopes and beliefs of Jesus and his disciples and his opponents, the very center of the Kingdom of God.
So it’s a riddling compliment for the Lord Jesus to tell the scribe that he was “not far from the Kingdom of God.” Could you get any closer? Well, soon, at the cross!
In the Temple, morning and evening, the Levites began the liturgy by singing out the Sh’ma, from Deuteronomy 6: Sh’ma yisro‘el adonai eloheinu adonai echad. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
So it’s no wonder that the Lord Jesus answered the scribe’s question by quoting what they heard, and what they themselves recited in private every morning. If Jesus had been a Protestant, he might have answered with one of the Ten Commandments, but for Jews, there are not just ten commandments, but 613 mitzvoth, all through the Torah, so neither was it odd that for his second great commandment, the Lord Jesus took one of the mitzvoth from Leviticus instead of one of the Ten.
Love is the heart and focus of the Law. Love is law because love is your duty to God. But love is also gospel because it’s good news about the nature of God. It is only a god who loves you who would want your love back, and only a god in whom love is supreme would expect your love as your supreme duty.
God expects of you what is consonant with God’s own being. And because God’s being is one and undivided, there is nothing in God that is not also loving, so that God requires your undivided love, from all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and mind.
How much is your “all,” how big is your “all”? How much love have you got in you to share? Is your love scarce or bountiful? You can’t be thrifty with love. Yes, love is a risk, and a costly investment, and it takes intention and you have to be wise, but if you are thrifty with your love then you will love only those people and things that are close to you and you get back from, which is really only loving yourself.
You could assume the scarcity of love, but you are called instead to believe in the bounty of love, and in your own capacity for abundance in love, that your own love can overflow, because you believe in the gospel of God, who is overflowing love beyond all measure.
Let me point you to our first lesson and the risky bounty of love in the young woman Ruth. Her mother-in-law Naomi represents scarcity, famine, and loss. Scarcity is a law for her. It tells her how to act. It was the scarcity of the famine that made her and her husband move to Moab. And now when she returns she expects a scarcity of available husbands for Orpah and Ruth, so she tells them to stay back in Moab.
Orpah gives in, but love abounded in Ruth, expressed in her famous speech that I had to memorize as a child: “Entreat me not to depart from thee, or to return from following after thee. For whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Ruth was loving her mother-in-law as herself. She offers to bitter Naomi the whole of herself, all of her, totally risking, totally investing, making bounty out of scarcity.
You could say that it’s a matter of seeing the glass half-empty or the glass half-full. Except that Naomi was draining the glass and Ruth was pouring into it. If you read the rest of the Book of Ruth you will see the young woman keep on doing this, until by the end she manages to fill the emptying glass of Naomi right up to the brim.
The Book of Ruth is a short-story, with several themes, but its primary theme is loving your neighbor as yourself despite the odds in real-life ways. Loving your neighbor as yourself as law, as obligation, not based on prosperity or good feelings, and also as gospel, how it can lead to human flourishing even in time of trial.
On this first Sunday of November it is my obligation to preach to you on tithing, and my take-home today is that tithing is an act of love. You think of charity as love, you might think of charity as gospel and tithing as law. Charity is the generous response to human need when you encounter it, and charity is your Christian obligation, but tithing is different.
Tithing expresses your inner desire and commitment. Tithing is not a response but an investment, which is like love, and tithing is challenging, like love, and risky and intentional, like the kind of love which God commands of you. But tithing is also gospel, because to do it makes you a fully-realized Christian, and you are a fully-realized Christian in order to be a fully-realized human being.
Tithing is when you make a challenging commitment ahead of time. Ahead of time, you commit a certain percentage of your money before you spend it on anything else. The ideal is ten percent, which is costly, but if you have to you start out less and then every year you challenge yourself another percent. Tithing is costly, just like love, but it’s a good work that converts scarcity to bounty.
I said that Ruth poured her love into Naomi’s emptying glass. She invested her love in Naomi, not that Naomi needed anything from her. So tithing is not a response to the need of the church but an investment in this community of Jesus and in its mission and in its vision. When you tithe you are saying that you want to strengthen this community of Jesus and support the mission and extend the vision to the heavens.
You do it because you want a practical way to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God every week by means of worship. You can do it, you can tithe, and do it to free yourself from the temptation of scarcity for the reality of abundance.
The conviction of the Bible is that by loving your neighbor as yourself and by loving God with all of yourself you become a full human being. Love defines your human nature just at love defines God’s nature, because you bear the image of God. And because the law of love makes you a full human being is also gospel. You can love like this, and your love will increase as you love.
We come back to the Lord Jesus conversing in the Temple. St. Mark’s gospel is the only one to put this conversation in that venue and at that time, just days before his crucifixion. In his answer to the scribe he was reporting what challenged him, the law of love that drove him to accept his death.
Across the temple courts he could hear the bleating of the animals as they were being killed for sacrifice, as he himself would soon be crying out. He would be doing it not because of any guilt that he had to pay but freely from the bounty of his love. He threw his whole self in for the universe of humanity, just as Ruth threw her whole self in for Naomi. Such abundance, so absolute, and because God was totally in him, therefore eternal and ever valid and once for all, the absolute expression of God’s love, the nature of God fully and finally exposed. "His nature and his name is Love."
Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.