Saturday, November 07, 2009

Pentecost 23

Seventy one years ago tonight was the night that changed the world, the night whose ugly consequences are still unfolding in the world we live in, the night of broken glass, Kristallnacht.  The night on which the Nazi regime in Germany, supremely confident of its power, unleashed a wave of vicious riots against its own Jewish population that by morning had seen the destruction of 267 synagogues, 7,500 Jewish businesses, untold numbers of Jewish homes, hospitals and schools, and left 91 Jewish people dead.  For years, Nazi propaganda had systematically demonised and blamed Jews for the problems faced by ordinary Germans – hyperinflation, unemployment, loss of confidence – the consequences of the humiliating terms laid down at Versailles.  Kristallnacht translated German insecurity into Jewish terror.

It’s not just a German phenomenon.  Human beings react to insecurity by trying to see the world in black and white categories.  When we are faced with situations beyond our control, whether financial insecurity, war or climate change, human beings look for scapegoats, we project the blame for fearful situations onto those who are different from us, whose language or religion are different from ours.  Kristallnacht paints in stark and fearful terms the dilemma faced by human beings who feel powerless in a world of instability and shifting power – how do you feel safe?

Over recent months we’ve seen an echo of this in our own, largely tolerant, country - as the nightly news brings us images of asylum-seekers arriving on Ashmore reef or intercepted by military vessels further north in the Indonesian Archipelago.  It exposes a deep division in our national psyche, a raw nerve we thought had long since healed over.  How welcoming are we?  Are we secure enough to react with compassion to the obvious distress and the basic human need of families, men and women and children forced away from their homes by conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Sri Lanka to soften our hearts? Or will we react defensively, fearful for our economic well-being, our national security?  A caller on talk-back radio last week told us he had a sure solution for the problem of asylum-seekers aboard the Oceanic Viking refusing to leave the vessel and go to the detention centre the Indonesian authorities have prepared for them.  ‘Just tow them out to sea and sink the vessel’, he told the radio announcer.  ‘Then they’ll get off for sure’.  Global conflict, terrorism, global financial crisis, global climate change.  In a world where tens of millions of people are displaced by events beyond their control, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of desperate people see our own country as a safe refuge, how do we ourselves feel safe?

The story of Ruth and Naomi is perhaps a good reminder.  Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, is a refugee twice over.  With her husband, Elimelech, she has fled her home in Bethlehem, a town whose name, ironically enough, means ‘house of bread’, to escape a fearful famine.  Elimelech and Naomi find refuge in Moab, again ironically enough, as Moab was a feared enemy-state, one of the ‘ axis of evil’ states that the invading armies of Israel believed God had ordered them to destroy.  Ten years later, on the deaths of her husband and her two sons, Naomi is forced out of her home yet again.  She wants to change her name from Naomi, which means, ‘pleasant’, to Mara, which means ‘bitter’.  Fair enough, and to make matters worse her clingy daughter-in-law Ruth, also newly-widowed, refuses to abandon her.  It’s hard to imagine two more fragile individuals – the middle-aged Naomi returning to her home country without a husband, and Ruth the feared Moabite, venturing into a foreign country without friends, family or prospects.

Naomi, fortunately, is nothing if not wily.  The younger woman can work, the older one knows the ropes.  She knows, for example, that family obligation is the glue that holds her community together, even for a widow who traditionally was regarded as little more than a liability.  And she hatches a plan.  Firstly, Ruth must go into the barley harvest to glean the stray heads dropped by the young men cutting the standing grain and gathering it together.  This isn’t particularly presumptuous, in ancient societies it was a sort of social safety net, more or less the equivalent of the dole.  In fact the Law of Moses commanded it, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 9 says when you harvest your field you are not to reap to the very edge or gather in all the loose grain, you have to leave some for the poor and the alien – and then in verse 10 comes the reason why: because I am the Lord your God.  The implication is clear as crystal – when you were aliens in Egypt God had compassion on you.  So what do you reckon you should be doing?

So Ruth goes gleaning in the field of Boaz, who Naomi tells her is a relative, and so has an obligation to her.  Here’s something else to notice – Ruth, the foreigner, the enemy alien, actually has a tenuous status in this strange foreign land because she belongs to Naomi.  And she does pretty well because the righteous Boaz not only respects her right to glean but goes further than the Law of Moses demands, telling his workers to deliberately leave some standing grain for her.

But Naomi has an even more cunning plan which, for all the euphemisms and indirect hints, we recognise as nothing less than the instruction to Ruth to offer herself to Boaz on the threshing floor, traditionally a symbol of fertility and a scene of merrymaking and high jinks when the harvest had been brought in.  And it might have been an OK plan except for the integrity of Ruth, and the compassionate integrity of Boaz.  And perhaps the plan of God.

I have to say, I can’t understand the writers of the lectionary who unfailingly leave out all the most exciting bits.  Suffice it to say, in ancient Israel feet are a euphemism for something else – but far from uncovering the feet of Boaz, Ruth reveals her growing understanding of the local customs by delicately suggesting to Boaz that she is available for marriage and inviting him, as her nearest kinsman, to ‘spread his cloak over her’, in other words, to take responsibility for her.  Boaz, as she finds out a few moments later, is actually not her nearest kinsman – Naomi has gilded the lily a bit on that one too – not the relative who, according to the Law of Moses, was sort of obliged to marry the dead man’s widow to ensure the continuation of his lineage.  But the story ends well because Boaz – perhaps influenced just a bit by the fact that Ruth is rather a smasher, again goes one better than the Law of Moses demands, out-manoeuvring the actual next-of-kin in order to marry Ruth, thus ensuring that the great King David would have as a great-great grandmother – and Jesus a great-great-great ...great-great grandmother - a woman who for all time has been regarded as the epitome of courage and loyalty, even if she was a refugee Moabite who God had commanded his people to wipe out. 

So if it’s not ethnicity, or religion, or blood ties, what is the basis of our deepest obligations to one another?

Our Gospel story this morning shows Jesus, in the Temple during the last week of his life, giving us a clue what he thinks the answer to that question might be.  If you thought, when you heard this reading, I’d be telling you that Jesus thinks this widow putting her last 20 cents into the collection plate was a good idea and that you should do exactly the same thing, then you’re wrong because there’s absolutely no indication in the story that Jesus thinks it’s a good idea at all.  Before this lady comes along Jesus has been pointing to a whole bunch of priests, and maybe the odd bishop, dressed up in our long robes looking all holy, and he says to his disciples, ‘watch out for them, this lot exploits little old ladies’.  And when she puts her two little coins into the collection plate and he hears the little chink, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘see, that’s all she had to live on.  The bigwigs – not, in my own defence, just the clergy but in the context of ancient Israel also the professional classes and public servants, maybe merchant bankers thrown in for good measure as well - being socially respectable and outwardly pious doesn’t cost that lot anything at all really, but it’s the poor who suffer from what they preach. 

And when the disciples say, ‘yes, but look at this great church – after all, it’s going to take a fair bit to maintain it and every little helps’, Jesus tells them the Temple doesn’t matter – it’s all going to be rubble in a few years anyway.  Priests come and go – so they tell me – what matters is compassion.  What matters is that God’s gifts are meant for giving back to God – through acts of compassion and justice.  Jesus in this story is telling us that compassion out-trumps religion, that recognising and responding to human need is where God’s priority number one lies.

The point is that God’s perspective on kinship and social obligation is wider than ours, God’s perspective on what matters and who matters cuts right across every human institution.  God doesn’t recognise national boundaries – wouldn’t you think a people whose whole history was based on God’s remembering them when they were slaves in Egypt would have cottoned onto that?  God doesn’t recognise kinship boundaries that include some people and exclude others – wouldn’t you think a people who believed God had created all human beings in his own image would have understood that?  God doesn’t believe in religion when that religion is used as a way of saying that some of us are OK and loved by God and that others are wrong and dangerous and should be kept out.  Wouldn’t you think a people who believe God took on human DNA in Jesus would realise that all human life is holy?

Taking a God’s-eye view of the world we live in means putting compassion ahead of self-interest, ahead of national interest, and especially it means remembering the humanity of those whose difference and whose desperation makes them an object of fear.  It means, like Boaz, going one better than you have to in practising hospitality and welcome.  It means refusing to live in fear, even in a world of danger.  It means remembering that God’s blessings are for giving, never for keeping.  And it means finding your own security in the God who created you.