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Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

The Way of Love

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 4 November 2018Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Ruth 1:1-18 and Mark 12:28-34. 


Good morning, sisters and brothers in Christ! Have you heard at least a story/joke about mothers-in-law (MIL)? Was the story/joke good or positive? Was it bad or negative?

There are many bad or sad stories about MIL. Sometimes, the storyteller even uses “monster-in-law” instead of mother-in-law. One website of ‘mother-in-law stories’ includes a Korean proverb that says, “Toilets are like mothers-in-law: the farther away the better.” Through Google, I tried to find why mother and DIL tend to have such unpleasant relationships, as the stories or jokes portray. The common response I found is that there is often some jealousy and competition between the two women for attention and control (by the mother of her son and by the DIL of her husband).    

But there are also positive stories about mother-daughter in-law relationships. The story of Naomi and Ruth is one great example. As the story goes, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are from Bethlehem in Judah. Due to the drought/famine in their country, they migrated to Moab with their sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Moab was a hilly country, generally fertile with a mild summer season and ample rain in spring. Many Moabites were polytheists (i.e. worshipping many gods) and practiced human sacrifices. It is said that the Moabite King Mesha sacrificed his own son and successor to their main god Chemosh.

As migrants/foreigners in such a land, Elimelech and Naomi must have struggled to raise their sons in their own monotheistic faith and cultural ways. Then Elimelech died (the story has no details of why or how). The two sons took Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, as their wives. After living in Moab for around 10 years, the two sons also died, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth as widows, with no children. Without a father, husband or son, these three women lost their usual access to economic security.

Then Naomi heard the news that the famine was over in her homeland. She decided to return to Judah. Ruth and Orpah decided to follow her. But shortly after starting on their journey, Naomi told them to go back as they would be better off in their homeland. Why did Naomi change her mind? Perhaps Naomi worried about the reception from her people, especially that she would be taking her two Moabite daughters-in-law. She knew fully well that Moab was among the most despised foreign nations. After much crying, Orpah agreed and returned to Moab. But Ruth clung to Naomi and said:       
"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" (vss. 16-17) 
   
Today, such beautiful words are often quoted in wedding ceremonies. But as we can see, the context of these words is not a wedding; not the exchange of vows between the bride and groom. The context is the painful moment when a MIL tells her DIL, “You shouldn’t come with me.” The words are Ruth’s oath/pledge of loyalty to Naomi, declaring her willingness to go with her wherever she would go. The words are a gentle yet firm assurance to Naomi of companionship, support and love. Even though Naomi had lost her husband and her sons, and one daughter-in-law has decided to return to Moab, she still has Ruth, who refuses to abandon her, but instead commits herself to her welfare, come what may. What a way of love, indeed!      

The beauty of this story is that here is Ruth, a Moabite, whose people and religion were different and despised by the Jews of ancient time. Although an outsider, especially to the ancient Jews who were so particular about ethnic and religious purity, Ruth showed her readiness to embrace Naomi’s land, home, people, and God. This reminds me of a quote from a poem by Edwin Markham, an American poet (I will change the pronoun from male singular to plural):
They drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took them in!

Indeed, Ruth’s offer of faithful presence, loving companionship and continuous support to Naomi did eventually become an offering for the whole of Israel, and even for the whole world. As the rest of the book of Ruth attests, she would become part of the genealogy of David, through whom the Messiah, Christ Jesus, would come. 
    
Today’s gospel reading is a concise summary of the commandments or the law. Asked by a scribe which commandment is the first of all, Jesus responded: “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. (And) You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This means that while loving God is foremost, one can only express one’s love for God through the love of one’s neighbor. By neighbor is meant someone around or near us. In the story of the Good Samaritan, it is someone in need. In another sense, it is a brother or sister with whom we share our common humanity. In the story of Ruth, it is a DIL or MIL, someone who is not related by blood, who may be from another country/race/ ethnicity, another culture or religion.

Loving the neighbor demonstrates loving God. As I John 4:20 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Interestingly, Jesus has clearly said that loving the neighbor is to be in the same way as loving oneself. This shows that he expects us to love oneself first. Self-love is therefore not bad or wrong as long as it is not the end-goal of one’s life. Otherwise, if it is the end-goal, then it would result in selfishness and greed. Rather, self-love is to be the measure of one’s love of the neighbor, the sister or brother in need; it would be the basis or model for loving the neighbor. So this is the way of love!

If the flourishing of one’s potential is the end-goal of one’s life, then we would love the neighbor by helping them to realize their potential – e.g., through learning new skills, developing their talents, or harnessing their capacity for a bigger task or responsibility. If abundant life is the end-goal of one’s life, then we would love the neighbor by helping them experience or attain that abundant life for themselves – a life that has freedom, security, health and wholeness, peace with justice. This is the way of love! 

Through the story of Ruth and the gospel passage, we have seen that the biblical commandment to love God, the neighbor, and oneself are the most important of the commandments. Jesus showed that one’s love of God can be demonstrated by loving one’s neighbor; and that loving one’s neighbor is to be in the same way as one’s self-love. This is the way of love!


Let us hope that when we are able to keep the love of self, neighbor and God in balance, we would hear Christ Jesus say to us as he did to the scribe, “You are not far from the reign of God.” May it be so.        

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, November 04, 2018



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