Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Luke 19:1-10 Jesus and Zacchaeus
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
I’ve been trying to remember the last time I climbed a tree. I know that I climbed a tree when I was 19. Some friends had found a tree swing way out on someone’s property that we probably weren’t even supposed to be on. You had to climb the tree, which had a hornets’ nest in it, by the way, to reach the swing. When you leapt off, it swung you way out over a gully about 60 feet in the air. When you wanted to get off the swing, one of the taller guys would have to grab your legs as you swung by and another one would grab the swing to help you get down. Of course, we went out to the tree at dark thirty at night with only 2 pen lights and 4 teenage boys to lead us. This was one of the more ill-advised things I did in 1999. I don’t think I learned much about Jesus up on that tree. I did learn to ask a few more questions before following my friends into the woods.
I remembered another story that reminded me of today’s reading, though I didn’t climb any trees in that one. I've told it before, but I like it, so I’m going to tell it again. In 1996, the Summer Olympics were going to be in Atlanta, Georgia. While my family had no to plans to go, I was going to be able see the Olympic Flame when it came through Knoxville, Tennessee. Coach Pat Summitt, who was not Jesus, but was and is quite beloved back where I’m from, was to carry the flame into downtown Knoxville. She was the coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team and a former Olympian herself. I was in a summer program at UT that year and walked over with friends to see her carry the flame into downtown.
Well, once we got there, we realized that half of East Tennessee had had the same idea. Thousands of people were there. Even though I was able to squeeze my way pretty close to the road where she was running, my friend Nedja and I ended up stuck behind two very tall guys. There was no way that we could see the road from where we were. There wasn’t even a tree close by that I could climb like Zaccheaus. As time grew closer for her to arrive, I just figured I was going to miss it, because there were too many people, and too many of them were taller than me and in front of me.
I said something to Nedja like, “Awww, I can’t see anything. I’m too short.” Two very tall men in front of us heard us talking about not being able to see. Then, surprisingly, they turned around and offered to let us slide in front of them! And, we did! We were so grateful! When Coach Summitt ran by, we could see her, holding the torch proudly. We, and the tall guys behind us, and the thousands of other people, cheered until we were hoarse because we got to see someone who was a hero to us doing something very special. It was a pretty good night.
Now, what have you done to see someone who was important to you? Were you like me, and just complained out loud, hoping some stranger would have mercy on you? Or, were you like Zacchaeus, and took some initiative to make sure you could see the person you wanted to see? I have always enjoyed this story about somebody who was so interested in learning more about Jesus that he climbed up a whole tree so that he could see him better. That is some dedication. Sycamore trees are not easy to climb! Would you be willing to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus?
Today’s reading happens just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the occasion that we remember as Palm Sunday. When we read this story about Zacchaeus, we should understand it as setting the scene for Jerusalem... for the triumphal entry, for the conflicts in the temple, for the trial, the execution, and the resurrection. It helps set the scene by showing us a person who had been making a living by cheating people choose to live differently after encountering Jesus. And, it shows us Jesus confirming that his mission is to the ones who need him most.
Zacchaeus had a very visible job in their community. He was the chief tax collector. Every single commentary I read this week reminds us that tax collectors, who worked on behalf of the oppressive Roman government, were considered traitors. And, many, in addition to taking a job that their neighbors found morally suspect, added insult to injury by taking more than they were required. They padded their own pockets and the people whom they cheated had little recourse. Zacchaeus appears to have been not just a tax collector but a cheat who stole more than was required. No wonder the crowd dislikes him. I’d probably dislike him, too.
If you were Zacchaeus, would you have been surprised if Jesus called up to you and asked to come over to your house for dinner? My hunch is that you might be. The crowd sure seems surprised, and annoyed, that Jesus is spending time with him. What kind of example is Jesus setting by spending time with cheats and traitors? Some might have even begun to mistrust Jesus because he was spending time with someone who had done so much harm.
It is interesting how short this story is. Dr. Wil Gafney points that out in her commentary on this text that we don’t see the meal at all. All that is recorded for us is that Zacchaeus quickly came down the tree and was happy to welcome Jesus. And, then, the grumbling starts from the crowd. In the midst of the grumbling crowd, Zacchaeus says, “I will give have half of my possessions to the poor. And, I will pay back anyone who I cheated not just the amount I took from them, but four times that amount.” Dr. Gafney reads Zacchaeus’ statement as one coming from a person who has spent time with Jesus and has been convinced to change. That is how I’ve read it, too. But, we see none of that conversation at the house here in the story.
In his commentary on the text, David Lose argues that the original Greek is flexible enough that Zacchaeus might not be reporting on his plan to change his life in the future, as our translation read, but, instead, he is stating that he is already doing this... that he has already been changed and is already sharing half of all he got from his shady job and paying restitution to the ones he cheated. Lose seems to think that Zacchaeus’ statement could be an explanation to the grumbling crowd, before he and Jesus even get to the house, to justify Jesus’ invitation. Lose thinks it could be a kind of confession and a description of how he will make amends... showing both Jesus and the crowd that he has been changed by what he has already learned from Jesus, thereby justifying Jesus’ kindness to the crowd.
That being said, whether Zaccheaus’ words are evidence that he has been convinced, over the course of a long dinner, to change his future behavior, or whether they are a description of a plan that has already been put to action that he wants to share with the community he has harmed, Jesus acknowledges that it is a good and faithful plan. He says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus, too, is finally living into the promises of the covenant, that is loving God and loving neighbor, and reclaiming his place among the people who follow this covenant. Then, Jesus says that the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. Thank God Zacchaeus allowed himself to be saved. Thank God he was willing to be changed by Jesus, as we can see from his commitment to atone to his community after hurting them. May we learn to change and make amends, just like Zacchaeus did. And, may we ask ourselves, “what will you do to see Jesus?” Because there are so many more trees to climb. Just... keep an eye out for hornets while you’re up there.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-2
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-3/commentary-on-luke-191-10-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 17 (Closest to August 31), "Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Carolyn C. Brown: https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4364/worship-for-kids-november-3-2019
Mark 12:28-34 The First Commandment
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
As I reviewed today’s reading, I was glad to be reminded by Dr. Wil Gafney’s commentary that Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question demonstrates just how good of a student of his own faith that Jesus was. This reading is part of a rigorous conversation Jesus was having with biblical scholars in the temple not too much before he went to Jerusalem for his final Passover. You may have noticed when Maryelise read it, that translation calls the conversation a dispute.... like a fight. Dr. Gafney argues that the text isn’t showing us a fight. It is showing us vigorous discussions between learned and devout people. When you get a bunch of people together who all think faith is important, like Jesus and like these scholars, you’re bound to have vigorous conversations. That’s what scribe means here... scholars, not simply people who write down things that other people say. Today’s reading is one part of this conversation. It’s a part when a new person to the conversation shows up and asks him what he thinks is the heart of Jewish religious law.
Love God and Love your neighbor. That’s what Jesus says: Love God and love your neighbor. The scholar who asks the question agrees with him. This scribe sees Jesus’ wisdom and Jesus sees his. This affirmation of sound, shared teaching is enough to make the conversations around Jesus’ teaching stop, at least for the moment. As Bonnie Bowman Thurston says in her commentary on this text, this portion of story shows us that Jesus and the scribe alike know that the Law is intended to be a gift from God to the people, a gift that shows the people how to relate to God and, frankly, to other people. If your behavior is rooted in the covenant, it consistently demonstrates these two commitments. It’s like they are both saying, “God and neighbor are a package deal.” If you don’t love both, you aren’t living into the promises you made in the covenant. Nothing more needs to be said.
While this is the end of today’s reading, it’s not the end of the conversation in the temple. I think it’s worth talking a little more about the rest of the conversation, say, up to verse 44. While the end of our reading says that no one asked him any more questions, that doesn’t mean he stopped talking. In the verses just after today’s reading, Jesus shifts his focus from this one scholar back to the crowd that was listening. And, he asks them a question: How can the Messiah be the son of David? According to the scholar Richard Horsley, Jesus asks this question and expounds on it to indicate that he disagrees with any scholarly take on the Messiah that will lead the people to believe that the Messiah is a militaristic leader who will restore Israel through war. Jesus doesn’t think that the Messiah will be a soldier king like David was. This was perhaps a way to prepare people for the fact that Jesus was not a soldier, but a servant... a servant who was called to love God and neighbor.
With this disagreement in mind, Jesus, as a burgeoning leader, takes other leaders to task. In verse 38, he says to beware of scholars and leaders who like to appear holy and insist on being treated with a certain amount of deference in public but then fall short of the demands to love God and love neighbor. Jesus makes it clear that he has no patience for people, especially leaders, who are more concerned about their reputation and image than love and justice. He names particularly the plight of widows, many of whom, as Debie Thomas notes in her commentary, are generous with what little they have and supporting the scholars and priest of the temple with their meager amounts of money and simple offerings. Any scholar or priest who swans around town in fancy clothes and makes a show of their public prayers but ignores the care of those who give everything to support the temple has forgotten their obligations not just to the widow, but to God.
The scholar who asked Jesus the question about the greatest commandments would have likely agreed with Jesus. In the part Maryelise read, you’ll remember that he said loving God and loving neighbor was more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices... that is all the ritual obligations that also materially supported priests and scholars of the temple. Emerson Powery, in his commentary on this text, wanted readers to make sure to notice that. This scholar probably knew that people in his position took advantage of it, too. When powerful people pretend not to know that some people take advantage of that same power, it only protects abusers and manipulators. The Scribe knew that.
In verse 41, Jesus describes an example of the kind of person who is often taken advantage of: a poor and devout widow who gives what looks like very little money but is a significant amount of what she has. In her commentary, Debie Thomas argues that part of the reason that Jesus lifts up this particular example isn’t to push other poor people to give too much money but instead to describe the shameful behavior of the community leaders that would leave this woman so destitute to begin with. I think Jesus telling the people who were listening, and probably us, too, that if someone claims to have any concern for the covenant and for building a relationship with God, they can’t care more for their reputation and for the institution that supports them than for the people whom God loves. And, God particularly loves the vulnerable: the immigrant, the orphan, the widow.
Given that Christians broke off from Judaism and stopped following all the temple practices described here, it can be tempting to distance ourselves from these leaders who took advantage of the rules of their institution. Look at them, over there, back then, doing this bad thing. Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, reminds us that we can build up our own version of these hypocritical practices in our time and in the places where we are trying to live out our faith. I’m sure you’re thinking right now of some ways you’ve observed or maybe even some ways you’ve participated in this same kind of devouring, showboating faith that Jesus is calling out. For example, in her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney notes that far too often, Christians decide that some people... women, LGBTQ folks, people who don’t share our faith, poor people, immigrants... are not worthy of being considered neighbors to whom we are called to love. She even goes so far to say, “If our Gospel proclamations are not true for the most marginalized among us […] then our gospel is not true.” It is both necessary and wise to spend part of our time as the body of Christ examining how we are living and moving in the world to see if our outward manifestation of Church is actually living up to our call to love God and love our neighbor. This is the very first thing Christ asks of us. Everything else is distant second.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Sarah Henlicky Wilson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Debie Thomas- http://www.journeywithjesus.net/theeighthday/446-the-widowed-prophet
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4
Richard Horsley's commentary is in the footnotes to the Gospel of Mark in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (ed. Michael Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2004)
Wil Gafney, "Proper 16 (Closest to August 24), Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Psalm 47:1-2, 5-9 God’s Rule over the Nations
To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1 Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
5 God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
Clap one time if you hear me.
Clap two times if you hear me.
Clap three times if you hear me.
Clap four times if you hear me.
Now, I have taught you one of the greatest ways to get the attention of a room full of teenagers at a youth retreat. Ask them to clap along! Even if they don’t, it eventually gets too loud and distracting for them to keep doing what they were doing. There is something about clapping that gets people’s attention. And, there’s something about clapping that gets you to pay attention. Today’s reading opens with that exhortation: “Clap your hands, all you peoples,” and continues with an invitation that feels a little like an order, “shout to God with loud songs of joy.” If you were going to shout out a song of joy, what would it be?
In his commentary on this text, Joel LeMon says that Psalm 47 is an enthronement Psalm. That means it is part of a group of psalms that celebrates one particular way that ancient Israel understood its relationship to God... The people understood God to be what Dr. Wil Gafney calls “a sovereign monarch.” LeMon notes that it is possible that this Psalm was used as part of a regular ritual to celebrate God’s enthronement. There may have even been special procession with the Ark of the Covenant, which is known as the Throne of God, marching it up the temple mount and back into the temple. Now, I have never been to a parade celebrating a monarch, which, frankly, I’m a little relieved about. The legacies of many human monarchs leave me leery of the institution and of anyone who seeks the power of the authoritarian or supposedly “god-ordained monarch.” However, an Episcopal colleague of mine is fond of saying (and I’m probably paraphrasing), “I view God as sovereign, and no one else.” While it’s not my favorite of the many metaphors for God in the Bible, I can hang with my colleague’s sentiment. God is a sovereign worth celebrating. The party described in this Psalm? It’s worth attending.
In her commentary on the text, Wil Gafney clarifies why the celebration is necessary. It is rooted in the covenant between the people of Israel and God. Unlike our country, their nation was organized around a specific religious identity as the Chosen People of God. Others nations, including factions in our own, occasionally assert an identity as people adopted in to the Chosen-ness or even talking about replacing those who are Chosen. Unfortunately, too often interpreters use the idea that they are Chosen by God to excuse really terrible behavior on both individual and national levels. When powerful people start to claim God made them powerful, suspicion is a righteous response. We would do well to remember that God, throughout the Hebrew Bible and in Jesus’ ministry, sided not with the powerful but with the powerless. It is one thing for people who have been beaten down to remember that God is still in covenant with them. It’s another for those who are doing the beating up to claim they are doing God’s will.
The portions of Psalm 47 that Dr. Gafney suggested for the reading for today demonstrate a people celebrating God who has chosen to be in covenant with them, that is God who in relationship with them and has made promises to them. This isn’t a monarch who is disconnected and distant. No, this is a God who is with them, tending to their well-being and offering both support and accountability. The shouts and songs and hand-clapping are a celebration of God’s graciousness and the on-going relationship between the people and God. Dr. Gafney reminds us in her commentary that central to a covenant is an oath, a promise, with mutual obligations. God will tend to Israel’s well-being. Israel will tend to the well-being of the orphan, the immigrant, and the widow. And, regularly, they will gather to remember that covenant, give thanks, and importantly, celebrate.
Earlier, I asked you what might be your song of joy. As I was working on this sermon, I remembered a flash of something I’d heard about a song that I consider quite joyful and perfect for a procession through the city, the song “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. You might remember the opening verse:
Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand-new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
They're dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
In New York City.
Now, I think of this as a joyous party song. But, somewhere... I think on a commercial for a tv series about music... I heard someone say that this was more than a party song. It was a protest song. I went to try to find more information because that is very interesting to me.
I found an interview with the journalist Mark Kurlansky, who wrote a book in 2013 where he describes “Dancing in the Street” as more than just a very good song of the summer. He called it a “protest anthem.” The song came out in 1964, right in the midst of the civil rights movement and literally two days before the War in Vietnam escalated due to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Black churches were being burned and protesters were being arrested. Because of all the turmoil, people were looking for connections and for ways to find meaning in a confusing world. Kurlansky thinks that this song helps to do that. He said “Dancing in the Street” is powerful because “it makes you feel like doing something.” What you do depends on what you are called to do in that moment: have a party, go to protest, sing with your friends. “It doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there.” Sounds little like church, doesn’t it? Sounds a little like a protest, too. Or a really good street dance. The Psalm and the song, when read and sung together, remind us that these three things aren’t really all that different.
There’s a part of today’s reading that describes God as a sovereign who actually loves all nations... is potentially in relationship with all nations, not just one. This is not a sentiment held by all the Psalms. But, it is the sentiment of this one. Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem all that different from “Everywhere around the world, they’ll be dancing. Dancing in the street.” If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend at least part of the rest of the day humming “Dancing in the Street.” Or, the Ode to Joy. Or this peppy version of “Breathe On Me, Breath of God” we sang today. I hope you will accompany this humming with a little clapping... you own procession to celebrate covenant with God. And, I hope you’ll hear the call to grab up a partner or two and connect with the world around you. The world needs our joy, our work, and our inspiration. God’s covenant requires it of us. So, clap your hands. And, get out to the streets!
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ascension-of-our-lord/commentary-on-psalm-47-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 15 (Closest to August 17)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Information about Dancing in the Street:
-Martha and the Vandellas singing "Dancing in the Street": https://youtu.be/CdvITn5cAVc
-Lyrics, "Dancing in the Street": https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/16308672/Martha+Reeves/Dancing+in+the+Streets
-Mark Kurlansky, Ready for Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013)
-In interview with Kurlansky about his book: https://www.npr.org/2013/07/07/199063701/how-dancing-in-the-street-became-a-protest-anthem
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Sometimes I feel like my sermons are about all the scriptures around the reading as much as they are about the specific scripture that is our reading for the day. Lucky for you, today is one of those days. You may be pretty familiar with the idea of Jesus as a shepherd. It’s one of the most recognizable ways that that he is described in Christian tradition. When Cyndi and I were looking for art work for this Sunday’s bulletin, we had a multitude of choices for Jesus as Shepherd. That is not true of every scripture.
So, what does the story before today’s reading tell us about how Jesus was a shepherd? I am grateful for the work of scholar Osvaldo Vena who pointed back to this healing story in chapter 9 to clarify the shepherd discourse in chapter 10. Dr. Vena notes that at the beginning of chapter 10, when Jesus says “Very truly, I tell you...”, the you is not a general you... an “all y’all who are listening”... but a specific “you,” that is, “you, the Pharisees who have been a part of the debacle around the healing.” I call this healing a debacle not because of what Jesus did or what the person who was healed did, but how the community leaders respond when they see that the man is healed.
The short version of chapter 9 is that Jesus healed someone outside the bounds of the community’s traditions around healing. The leaders of the community are suspicious of Jesus’ power, which is fair. The leaders couldn’t agree with one another about Jesus’ actions: some thought them wrong because he healed on the Sabbath, which was a kind of work that people were asked to refrain from, and some thought him right because healing is a sign of God and acts of mercy were allowed on the Sabbath. They questioned the man and his parents about how Jesus healed him. The three all say they don’t know. The man who was healed said that it would seem obvious to him that Jesus was sent by God based on the good he did. So, even if he didn’t understand it, he knew it was holy.
Well, as we all know, embarrassed powerful people can be mean. The leaders resented being lectured by a random guy with no education and no money. So, they kick the guy out of town! This poor guy... having a great day because he can see for the first time in his life and people are so suspicious of the miracle that they’d rather get rid of him than learn from it. Jesus then goes to find him and welcome him into the fold as a disciple. As he welcomes the man who had been discarded, Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39). The Pharisees who are close enough to hear this statement say “Surely we are not blind, are we?” The Shepherd discourse is the response to the Pharisees who wondered if they had made a mistake.
In Chapter 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of the shepherd to explain how he will use his power. He used metaphors they’d understand. Jesus said that he was both the gate and the shepherd, letting people into beloved community and laying down his life to protect his fold. Our reading today is his description of what it means to be a “good shepherd.” In his commentary on this text, Dr. Obery Hendricks Jr. points out several other places in the Hebrew Bible that call upon the image of Shepherd as someone good and holy. For the Pharisees, who knew their scripture well, they might have understood Jesus to be invoking those scriptures to explain his own mission. Like the shepherd in Psalm 23, Jesus was offering the man he healed access to good pasture, safe paths, and cool water. Like the shepherd in Ezekiel (34:1-10), Jesus sought out the lost and wounded sheep. Like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:10-11, Jesus comforts and heals his sheep. When asked to explain himself, this is what he says: I offer comfort, safe passage, and healing. “I am the Good Shepherd. I am more than a hired hand. I will call out to his sheep and they will know me. I will lay down my life to save them.”
As I read over this scripture, I remembered something I read about the Shepherd imagery in John. I think it was in Karoline Lewis’ book about John. She said that if you pay attention, Jesus acts like a shepherd through the whole book. In chapter 10, he says that the shepherd will call out the sheep’s names, identifying them as his own. In the stories recounting the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ own resurrection, Jesus called out to Lazarus and called out to Mary Magdalene to claim them as his own. In fact, he found each of his first sheep, his disciples, and called them to ministry alongside him. He also kept his sheep safe at the time of his arrest, giving himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. Remember, a good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people.
In another commentary on this text, Karoline Lewis also notes that Jesus seems to be training up apprentice shepherds... that is, the sheep can also shepherd the rest of the flock. Several chapters after today’s reading, in the days after the resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter he, too, needed to be a shepherd. In John 21, Jesus says, "Simon (that's one of Peter's names), do you love me more than these?" Peter said of course he loved him. Jesus told him, "Feed my lambs." Jesus then told him, "Tend to my sheep." And, a third time, Jesus said, "Feed my sheep." Jesus was not the only shepherd, Lewis argues. His followers may shepherd, too.
In her commentary on this text, Dr. Wil Gafney points out this fascinating bit about “the sheep who do not belong to this fold,” but are nevertheless Christ’s. Who is this other flock that we don’t know? I mean, I can think of people who aren’t always welcomed in the flocks I’ve been a part of: unhoused people who don’t have regular access to showers or medication, people who aren’t white, people who struggle with alcohol or drug addiction, people who have been hurt by the church, people who have been in prison. Thank God this scripture reminds us that we aren’t the only ones claimed by Jesus. There’s this whole other flock! Shoot, maybe we’re the other flock, waiting to be called by Christ and joined into one body with all his beloved sheep. Perhaps this is our question to consider for the following week. How can we live in a way that is open to Jesus calling us to follow him and also open to all the people, the ones we know and the ones we don’t know, who Jesus is also calling along the way. May we learn to be one flock, made stronger by our differences and made whole by Jesus’ call on our lives.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-being-the-good-shepherd
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4
Wil Gafney, "Proper 14 (Closest to August 10)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Obery M. Hendricks, "John," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
The Genealogy of David
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
That Boaz is a good man, even if he’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes. I mean, sure, he could have taken Naomi and Ruth in immediately when they got to town. He didn’t. He must have been distracted that day... it was the beginning of the harvest. Do you know any farmers? They are always thinking about the harvest at harvest time. But he stepped up, once he realized who this young foreign woman was gleaning in his field among the others who counted on the faithfulness of strangers. Once he found out that this woman was the woman who had bound herself to Naomi, he knew that he had a responsibility to help her... to help them. Not only had God called on him to help the immigrant and the impoverished and widows. His community also expected him to care for his relatives. Naomi was his relative, though distant, and Ruth had become Naomi’s family. He just needed to be reminded a little.
Who among us hasn’t been at least a little like Boaz? Knowing that we have a call to justice and hospitality but also caught up in the regular responsibilities of our lives? I mean, the harvest still has to come in, even if there are also strangers and long-lost family members to tend to. Thank God for the Ruths of the world who show up, work hard, and make the most of the few opportunities they have. In her essay on Ruth called Women at the Center, Judith Kates writes about how Boaz needed to be “mobilized” from passively following his religious obligations, as in, leaving grain to glean, into actively working for the good of Ruth and Naomi. Yes, he needs to be mobilized, but once he gets going, he does pretty well.
You may have heard me mention the Hebrew word chesed before. It means, according to Kates, “generosity beyond obligation.” Kates notes that God is often described as behaving in ways that demonstrate chesed, that is, a generosity beyond obligation, towards humanity.
Remember, God and Israel had a covenant. A covenant implies that both parties have an obligation. Israel is obliged to God in certain ways and God is obliged to Israel in certain ways. Boaz’ behavior is driven by this obligation to God. It is because he is living out his faith that he chooses to respond to Ruth and Naomi out of chesed, loving-kindness beyond obligation. God both exhibits chesed and is witnessed at work in the world through chesed. Kates argues, and I agree, that once Boaz sees Ruth, whom he claims has been demonstrating chesed through her love and loyalty to Naomi, he is motivated to chesed. It first happens at the field where she is gleaning, and it happens again on the threshing floor when he is startled awake and sees her near him. Today’s reading is the result of Boaz’ inspiration. Ruth risked so much to try to get him to tend to his familial obligations. How could he not respond to her bravery with loving-kindness?
So much of this reading is a less clear than it could be because both the legal practices and cultural practices around marriage are drastically different in the era described in this story. I am grateful to the scholars who help modern readers parse it out. Kates helps to set the scene in her essay by noting that the loving-kindness that Boaz needs to enact to care for Ruth and Naomi is not simply interpersonal support. At this point, to care for them best, he needs to shift into actions in the public and legal sphere. And, Mary Joan Winn Leith notes in her commentary on the text, legal matters were settled in a space at the city gate where elders gathered. These elders were respected community members, usually men. Boaz must direct his appeal and plan towards them.
In the reading for today, we learn that apparently Ruth and Naomi’s husbands still had a little property back in Bethlehem. But, according to Leith, women could not sell land that their husband’s had owned. But, a man in their family could assume the responsibility... and the wealth... if he were a woman’s next-of-kin after her husband died. In the verses just before our reading for the day, another male relative had shown up, hoping to claim the land and the wealth for himself. He expressed no concern for Ruth and Naomi. Boaz outmaneuvers him, saying that he plans to marry Ruth to produce an heir with an equal claim to the land as the unnamed, shady possible next-of-kin. According to Leith, the unnamed man, unwilling to accept the financial complications that would come with claiming the land without marrying Ruth, drops out of the running for kinsman redeemer, leaving Boaz. Boaz, who is a good man, even if he needs a little reminding sometimes.
If there is one last lesson to be learned from the book of Ruth, it is this: be willing to be reminded of your obligations when you fall short. And, when you are reminded, act on them with wit, creativity, and gusto. Make a good plan that outsmarts the ones who are just in it for them money. Make sure that your plan does the most good possible, which, in this case, means securing the long-term well-being of two women who really need someone to be on their side for the long haul. Our reading begins with Boaz’ public declaration of his intent to marry Ruth and have a child who will, according to their interpretation of their cultural practices, will be an heir to Mahlon, Ruth’s deceased first husband. If Mahlon has an heir, Naomi’s future is secure as well.
Ruth and Boaz have a son, named Obed. This child is understood to be Naomi’s child as well. And the women of Bethlehem shout with joy, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you without next-of-kin!” They call this infant “a restorer of life and a nourisher” for Naomi’s old age. These women speak of Ruth as the one who loves Naomi and “who is more to [her] than seven sons.” In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker calls Ruth “Naomi’s greatest blessing.” And, I’m inclined to agree.
Schifferdecker also summarizes the entire book this way: “Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the chesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.” And, that child they conceived, Obed, the one who brought hope to their little, unconventional family, his name will show up again. He is an ancestor to King David. Christian writings would go on and say that he was an ancestor to Jesus, too. Isn’t this how generosity works sometimes? One good act intended to save two people ripples out into love and liberation for countless more. May our faithful God grant us the wisdom to enact some of this hopeful generosity in our own time. And, may we be confident that our loving-kindness can ripple out into the world, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Judith A. Kates, "Women at the Center," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-4-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-41-22
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.