*Please note that the first reading was taken from the previous Sunday (Ruth 1:1-18, Proper 26B) in which we used the All Saints' Day readings in place of the lessons assigned for that Sunday.
Almighty God, may you guide us to seek the Truth: come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might. Amen.
The freedom to choose is a blessing, but over the past several months, choice has seemed more like a burden than anything. We’ve had billions of dollars spent trying to influence our choice, we heard the debates, and we made our choices- both as individuals and a nation. The one refrains I heard lead up to this past Tuesday was “I can’t wait for it to be over.” We’re exhausted from making choices. So I suspect that “just tell us the Good News preacher” might be your desire for this sermon. The issue is that there is still one more choice to make. There is one issue that was left off the ballot that is worthy of our consideration this morning.
When we make choices, we often think that we’re exercising freedom. If you’re not free, then you can’t make a choice- or so goes the standard logic. But this morning we’ll wrestle with that assumption. Can you have your hands tied and yet remain free? I’d like to take a very rare opportunity to lift up two women as examples. It isn’t rare that women are deserving of being great examples of faith, but just rare that that we get stories told about them in a male-orientated Bible. Ruth and the widow in Mark will be our lens for exploring choice this morning.
And I want to make it clear, I’m not lifting these women up on a pedestal, but rather am pointing to them as examples. There is a problem with calling people heroes or saints because it makes their actions and sacrifices seem unattainable. We often think of people such as Mother Teresa, inner-city teachers, or today on Veterans’ Day, wounded veterans as heroes to be honored. And while we should honor them and thank them for their service, there is a great danger in lifting them up too highly. Saints and soldiers accomplish courageous and amazing feats, but that does not mean we can’t follow in their footsteps.
The widow in Mark and Ruth, in the same way, should not be seen as being on a level that we’ll never get to. We do heroes a disservice when we name streets after them and enshrine them in stained glass as a way of domesticating them and protecting ourselves from being asked to make a similar choice. But their choice is our choice. Just because they accomplished something great does not mean that we are excused from greatness. Rather, they are examples of regular people who step out in faith. The best way to honor these heroes isn’t with words and statues, but it is to make their sacrifices worth something by continuing the work that they began. So with that in mind, the widow and Ruth are great examples of making a choice, but not in the way we might expect.
We’ll begin with Ruth. The book of Ruth is relatively short and would make for great Sunday afternoon reading if you’re interesting in reading a good story. Elimelech and Naomi have two sons and lived in Moab, and their two sons married two Moabite girls. This passage is often read at weddings because of the wonderful words that Ruth speaks to Naomi later in the passage. But it’s rather ironic that the story begins with the death of the three husbands; not sure that this reading bodes well for the husbands at weddings.
Anyway, the men all die. Naomi was a Jew and had heard that God had provided food in Israel, so she begins the long journey back to her native land. But she tells her daughters-in-law to return to their families in Moab. And Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave this woman who had become family to them. But Naomi insists that they leave her. Naomi knows it is a long journey, and she knows that as a widow, she will be dirt poor and unable to find much food when she returns home. We see this reality in our reading from Mark. That widow only had two coins to rub together. Naomi also knows that two foreign women will not fare very well in her hometown. She says “what, do you think I’m going to bear new sons for you to marry?”
And Ruth responds with the wonderful song, saying “where you go, I will go…your people shall be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” It seems that she has made a choice to stay with her mother-in-law. But how much of a choice was it? If she stayed in Moab, where there was a great famine, what chance did she have of surviving? She herself was a widow, so her prospects for remarriage or escaping poverty were slim to none. It doesn’t really work this way here, but in many cultures when you marry someone, you don’t just marry the individual, but the entire family. Ruth captures this sentiment when she says “your people will be my people.” The fact that her husband died didn’t change her relationship to Naomi; they were still kin.
So I’ll ask, what choice did Ruth really have? Could she have done anything other than remain dedicated to Naomi? My response is no; she had no choice. But you might say, “Robert, that’s ridiculous. She very much had a choice. Even if the choices were bad, she still had freedom. Look at Orpah, she clearly made a choice to not stay with Naomi and Ruth could have done the same.” And I would still respond that Ruth had no choice.
So why is Ruth worthy of being an example to us if she didn’t really make a choice but was forced into a decision? Ruth is an example to us not because she made a choice, but because she exercised a choice. Even if you don’t have a choice, as I am suggesting that Ruth did not, how you handle living that choice makes all the difference. What Ruth did to make her worthy of our emulation wasn’t her making a bold choice, but rather was her embracing the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed is a wonderful word in Hebrew that, unfortunately, can’t easily be translated into English. It is defined in many ways such as “goodness,” “loving kindness,” “fidelity,” or “steadfast love.” Some scholars say that hesed is the most important word in the entire language of the Bible. In most instances, hesed is the primary word to describe God in the relationship to Israel. God loves Israel unconditionally and shows goodness towards the people.
One of the few places that we find the word hesed applied to a human in the book of Ruth when Naomi extols Ruth for showing hesed to her. Ruth is an example of faith, not for making a choice to live hesed, but rather in her exercising of that hesed. We are all called to love like God does. In our Baptismal Covenant, we are all called to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Embodying God’s unwavering and total love of hesed is something we all strive towards. It isn’t a choice anymore than choosing to be born is a choice. It is simply what we are created to be.
So even though Ruth didn’t make the choice to show hesed, since it was the only fitting thing to do, she still is a great example to us because she thrived in that hesed. Even though she had no choice, no real faithful option, other than loving and supporting her aging mother-in-law, she still exercised her choice, or lack thereof, beautifully.
So let’s now turn to the widow in Mark. We should not ignore the first half of this reading from Mark, as it sets the tone. Jesus begins by condemning the Temple structure that devours widows. The Temple has become a self-serving den of robbers where justice is not done. They do not practice what they preach. They have gotten too comfortable in their faith. So along comes this widow to put her offering into the Temple treasury. She comes and puts in her last two coins, making a choice to give it all. But was it really a choice?
You might say “okay Robert, I can get on board with the idea that Ruth only had one faithful option and it wasn’t really much of a choice. But this widow clearly had a choice. There was no gun to her head. In fact, the Temple was supposed to support widows, not the other way around; she didn’t have to give anything. And even if she did, giving half of what she had would have been more than enough. She obviously made a choice to give more. She had freedom, and she had a choice.” And again, I would contest that she had no choice, but like Ruth, she exercised her choice in a way deserving of our attention.
So this widow comes and gives, not out of her abundance, but out of her poverty. If you had two pennies, what good does it do you to keep one? What could this widow have realistically done with one, or even two, coins? It wouldn’t have bought her a house, wouldn’t have gotten her a meal. St. Chrysostom said about this widow that you can’t buy the Kingdom with money; and if you could, this widow wouldn’t get very much. But she clearly seems to be inheriting the Kingdom in her actions.
This widow was absolutely dirt poor, and in that culture, as a poor widow, and real no prospects for changing her life situation. There was no pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, no Medicare system to pay for her stay in a long-term nursing facility. She was totally dependent on the grace of God and the goodness of others. She depended on hesed. And hesed was the only choice she had in living her life.
I was talking recently with someone who works with the poor and homeless and he said the difference between the rich and the poor isn’t money, but choice. I could go out and give all of my possessions away today, but I have the intellectual and professional resources to get it all back within a few years through hard work. The poor don’t have that choice. The oppression systems that put them in poverty are designed to keep them there. The poor can’t choose to go out and get a job, to have people put away their racist and discriminatory points of view, or have the bank give a loan to someone with no credit history or stable income. They have no choice but to remain poor. And the widow had no choice.
But despite her lack of choice about being poor, she exercised hesed. Like Ruth, there really wasn’t an option other than hesed, but she still wore the garment of steadfast love with all the grace and beauty of a queen adorned with jewels and fancy clothes. Her life was made possible by the hesed of God, and the only fitting response, the only viable option, was for her to return this hesed. So she put the two coins in the treasury, not because she made a choice to do so, but because it was the only choice that she could live with.
In both of these examples of the widow and Ruth, their hesed defies explanation. There is no reasonable motivation for their actions other than being out of options. It is interesting that in these passages, the lowest of the low, the widow and the sojourner, those without the choice, are actually the ones with the greatest freedom. They are able to practice hesed like no one else. There are no boundaries or conditions for hesed. It isn’t just an attitude, but hesed is action. Their actions force us to consider our own motivations for action. What do our actions say about us? The text of Mark literally says that the widow gave her entire life. Where do you put your life?
Marriage is a good metaphor for this lack of choice. On your wedding day, regardless of how prepared you think you are and how well you know your future spouse, you have no idea what you’re getting into. I have a feeling that having a child will be a similar experience, and I’ll confirm that with you in a few weeks. But when we enter a relationship such as marriage, we commit to giving up choice. There are inevitabilities in marriage that we cannot be prepared for. Life circumstances change. People change and grow. But we stick it out. We don’t wake up each morning and decide to renew our wedding vows or put our rings on again. We live in hesed to each other, being reminded of God’s fidelity to us. Now, of course, in some sense I do have a choice in my marriage. I could do things that would be destructive to the marriage, but they don’t make sense to do so. They aren’t real options, I don’t have a choice. And in that lack of choice, there is a freedom beyond comparison.
We are free to not have to make millions of decisions each day. We don’t need to listen to debates or compare platforms. We don’t really have a choice in this. As Christians, we live in hesed. We are loved extravagantly by God, for no particular reason other than the fact that God loves us. And in turn, the only real choice is for us to abound in this love. The only fitting response is to love the Lord our God with all our soul, with all our heart, with all our might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This lack of choice doesn’t take away our freedom, but rather gives us the freedom to actually take the road that set before us, following Jesus on the way.
So today, we give thanks for the examples of Ruth and the widow. They aren’t heroes to be enshrined in stained glass windows, but are faithful witnesses to be followed. Neither of them had much of a choice to act with steadfast love, with hesed. There was only one way forward for them, but yet they exercised this inevitable choice with grace that inspires us to do the same.
The Good News comes when you look up the name “Ruth” in the index of your Bible. There is one place, outside of the book of Ruth, where her name shows up, and it is in the beginning of Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus. Ruth, by her hesed, became the great-grandmother of King David, who was one of the ancestors of Jesus. We never know what sort of impact our hesed might have. Again, Ruth chose hesed not because she necessarily wanted to, but because it was the only right option. And in her hesed she participated in bringing the Kingdom to reality, in enabling the way of salvation to come to all people. When we give up the idol of choice and instead accept the way of God as the only way forward, we too can participate in the miracle of God’s salvation. And to be clear, the way of God is the way of extreme love, of hesed. I started this sermon by saying that we have one more choice to make. But maybe I was wrong; maybe taking the path of radical and transformative love is our only choice.