Ordinary Time 25: Against Greatness

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 & Mark 12:38-44


Once again the Gospel of Mark and Ruth fit together seamlessly and preach a unified message. These are the easiest weeks for me, because I do not really have to explain anything. Hopefully, I can just get out of the way and let the texts speak for themselves.

This second week of readings from the book of Ruth tells how a no-account foreigner came to be an ancestor of the Israelite [and then Judahite] royal family and of the messiah. Ruth came to the land of Israel without any special skills and benefited off of the social welfare system that God had set up for the poor, specifically Israelite AND foreigner (Lev 19:9-11 & Ruth 2:2 [we should note, the Leviticus passage is only a few verses before the commandment that Jesus said is the second most important]). Ruth specifically appealed to Boaz’s responsibility to take care of Naomi and herself, and Boaz praised her for it (Ruth 3:9-11). Boaz then went to the city gates and, through a bit of wordplay, arranged to claim the right to provide for Ruth and her dead husband (Ruth 4:2-6).

Think about this for a second. Boaz, who was a wealthy property owner, fought for the opportunity to provide for a foreigner from a despised people-group. Boaz was the grandson of Nahshon, the prince of the Tribe of Judah (1 Chron 2:11). Boaz could have sat in his home, enjoying his family wealth and concerned himself with nothing. But he went to the harvest and the threshing floor to work with his workers. He gave food to his servants, and protected the women who gleaned among his harvest (Ruth 2:9, 15-16, 22). Boaz shunned the trappings of power and associated with the lowly in order to take care of them. Why?

Boaz was from a family of power, to be sure. He was grandson of the Prince of Judah, and his great-grandson would be King David. But his mom was a Canaanite woman who was widely known as a prostitute and a traitor to her own people (Matthew 1:5). Boaz grew up in a household in which prestige, shame, Israelite and Canaanite legacies mixed. It is little surprise that he was particularly sensitive to the plight of foreigners – each of his parents was a foreigner to the other. Remember too that the Israelites only entered the land in the previous generation from Boaz. Thus everyone in the story, and not just Boaz, would have had parents who entered the land as foreigners, hoping to have a bit of that famous milk and honey for themselves.

My point here is that Boaz had every right and ability to eat, drink and be merry (and indeed, he did! Ruth 3:7), but he also refused to be alone in his wealth or celebration, and fought for the chance to provide for poor foreigners who came to him. He refused to be merely a publicly-great, wealthy man and instead associated with his own workers and the foreign beggars who relied on his graciousness, generosity and welcome.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus commands his followers to also refuse to be publicly great. Jesus said to beware those who wear fancy clothes and say long, fancy prayers for the sake of appearances (Mark 12:38, 40). Beware of those who demand respect, whether in language from others or in positions at any kind of assembly (Mark 12:38-39). Not to put too fine a point on it, but those who go on TV with fancy suits and say long fancy prayers should be worried. Those who travel around the world, demanding respect while trying to make themselves “great” should be worried. That is opposite to the way of Jesus.

Imagine, for a second, the scene that Mark laid out here: Jesus was near the temple treasury, ridiculing the pretentiousness and hubris of those who sought to demand respect for themselves because of their wealth or power. Then, suddenly, a poor widow dropped a couple of almost-no-value coins into the offering, because that was all she had (Mark 12:42-44). Jesus said that she had done more than all the others who gave out of their abundance. Jesus had no time for the showy acts of “great” men whose every action was designed for people to be impressed and respect them. Jesus praised the actions of a humble, poor widow.

The implications for Christians should be clear. Not only do loud, showy bragging and demands for respect not impress God, but these words and actions lead directly to great condemnation (Mark 12:40). If one is rich, the right path is to emulate Boaz, who associated with the lowly, gave up the right to live in a bubble of wealth, and welcomed the poor, Israelite and foreigner alike. He celebrated when others made claims of his responsibility to provide for them. Christians would do well to emulate Boaz’s seizing of the opportunity to serve.

The widow’s actions were the only ones this week to be praised by Jesus. She too recognized her responsibility toward God and toward providing for others and gave all she had. She did not put on a show of her monetarily insignificant gift. But the messiah saw her humble generosity and memorialized her for all time. It is the humble and lowly who are great in the eyes of God!

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