Today’s first reading narrates one of the most important events in Jewish history. I always insist my students know the year it happened - the easiest date in all Scripture to remember: 1,000 BCE. Before “all the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron,” Jews were divided into two tribal confederations: Israel in the North, Judah in the South.
Until the northern tribes met with David in Hebron, he was only ruler of the South. But once they “anointed him king of Israel,” he became ruler of a united Jewish nation, eventually leading up to “the glory” his son Solomon enjoyed. His Hebron anointing ushered in the most remarkable period in Jewish history. Though, as Hans Walter Wolff always reminded us, “While David is Scripture’s lousiest parent, he is, at the same time, Israel’s greatest king.”
On this day dedicated to kingship, I trust we won’t get lost in the glories of that position. Instead, it’s far better to reflect on a recent Call to Action talk by Sr. Diane Bergant. This scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures zeroed in on the importance of an oft-forgotten biblical person: Ruth.
Diane pointed out that this fascinating woman wasn’t even a Jew. She belonged to a despised people: the Moabites. But after the unexpected death of her Jewish husband, who had migrated to Moab with his mother Naomi, Ruth unselfishly stepped forward and offered to travel to Israel and care for her widowed mother-in- law. It was a heroic gesture. Normally it would condemn the young foreigner to a life of widowhood. But because of her dedication to Naomi, she eventually marries Boaz, a wealthy landowner, and as we read in the book’s second last paragraph, “Yahweh enabled her to conceive and she bore a son . . . . They called him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
The author of Ruth did his or her best to remind the Israelite readers of the book that the only reason their greatest king even existed was because his Gentile great-grandmother had been willing given up her own future and dedicated her life to caring for her Jewish mother-in-law.
In a parallel way, Luke wants us also to zero in on the dedication dimension of the crucified Jesus. Though “above him there was an inscription that read, ‘This is the King of the Jews,” Luke’s Jesus demonstrates his kingly power not by saving himself, but by his concern for one of the criminals sharing Golgotha with him that fateful Friday afternoon.
Jesus answers the dying man’s request to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom with a promise far beyond anything the thief could have expected. “This day,” he assures him, “you will be with me in Paradise.”
Knowing this, the most important line in today’s Colossians pericope becomes the statement, “He (Jesus) is the head of the body, the church.” Jesus is both the person and force who points the direction into which we Christians should always be traveling. Though Jesus is “... the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” he’s also the person we daily strive to imitate.
Commenting in a recent Church Chat column about his recent visit to the traveling Vatican Splendors exhibit, Tom Smith writes, “All that Vatican splendor washes away the human service inspired by the gospel, ignores the experience of genuine faith communities, and enshrines the institutional church. The splendor of the art obliterates the splendor of a humble, lived faith.”
I’m certain if Ruth lived long enough she would have often reminded her great-grandson that self-giving is at the heart of faith, as the kingly Jesus once reminded us from Golgotha. True faith revolves around it.