We think we know what love is, but today’s readings remind us of its many dimensions.
Today in the Gospel of Mark, we read the familiar great commandment, as Jesus answers what is clearly asked as a test: “‘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.'” (Mark 12:29-31) This passage was memory work in my Sunday School in 3rd grade. I’m always intrigued about what I hear when we read such familiar words. Today, it was the way loving God was a full body experience: heart, soul, mind and strength.
We also see love that involves heart and mind and strength in the reading from Ruth. The custom of the Hebrews was what is called levirate marriage: a childless widow is expected to marry the next brother, and her first child with him will be considered that of her first husband. If that’s not possible, a woman should return to her birth family and be married again. Naomi has no more sons, and is to old to bear another. As a foreigner in Moab, Naomi is planning to return home: there she will not be a stranger but a neighbor. Ruth resists the rules of patriarchal society, refusing to return to her mother. Somewhere in the years of her marriage, Naomi had become important to her. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
We often hear this passage read at weddings, where the love and loyalty that creates unity is focused on husband and wife. But the love that frames the story of Ruth was not the conventional love of husband and wife, but the close ties between women across generations. That love was strong enough for Ruth to break the rules. She went with Naomi back to Judah, where she was a stranger and a foreigner. The familiarity of the passage obscures the risk that Ruth took.
Love, scripture repeatedly reminds us, is not easy, and it’s certainly not soft. The great commandment tells us that loving God takes everything we have; loving another human being, as Ruth does Naomi, is how we learn to take the risks, and maybe even breaking the rules, that loving God demands of us.