A sermon delivered on 20 June 2010 © by Rev. Fred L Hammond to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
Reading: 1 Samuel 18: 1,3-4
Now when he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. … 3 Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 And Jonathan took off the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, even to his sword and his bow and his belt.
“Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The LORD do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.” (Ruth 1: 16-17)
These beautiful words from the Book of Ruth have been read at hundreds of wedding services to assist in building the covenant between a man and a woman. But these words are not about a covenant between a man and a woman but a covenant between a woman and a woman.
The book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures is about loyalty and love. Here is the story which makes these words so powerful.
Naomi and her husband Elimelech move to the country of Moab because there was a great famine in Judah. Elimelech dies and their two sons, Mahlon and Chileon married Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. After about ten years these two sons also die, leaving no children. Naomi, now alone decides to travel back to the home of her husband’s in Bethlehem in the country of Judah because she heard that the famine was over. So Naomi and her daughters-in law begin the trek back to Judah.
In these days, women were considered property and if Naomi had additional sons they would have been expected to take Orpah and Ruth as their wives in the hopes of giving their brothers sons. But this is not the case and Naomi is of the age when remarriage and child bearing is not an option for her to produce sons who then could grow up and marry her daughters in law. And if such a thing were possible would it be fair to make them wait? So for them to return to Naomi’s husband’s family meant that they would be sold into slavery when her husband’s property is sold. And Moabites while a peaceful people were considered deceivers that lured people away to false gods. This was not a happy prospect.
Naomi beseeches her daughters-in-law to return to their own families so that they will not be sold into slavery, into a life of unknown poverty, into a life of further degradation. They weep at this request. Orpah decides to take Naomi’s advice and return to her people. It is from this culture that Ruth’s words are spoken. It is from this realization of her future prospects that she declares these words to Naomi. “Entreat me not to leave you, Or to turn back from following after you; For wherever you go, I will go.”
Now the story has a happy ending. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem. Naomi despairs of her bitter fate but Ruth goes and gleans the fields that belong to a man named Boaz. It was a practice of the Jews to leave one tenth of the harvest so that the poor may glean the fields in order to have food. Ruth did so behind the reapers and gained favor of the land owner. Boaz, was a relative of Naomi’s husband and considered a protector of the family. He admires the devotion that Ruth shows his kin’s widow and decides to try to make things right for them. He purchases the land that belonged to Naomi’s husband and takes the hand of Ruth in marriage. Naomi’s future is secured and Ruth becomes the great grandmother of King David.
Now, the story of Jonathan and David does not have a happy ending but it is an important story. Our reading this morning begins after David had slew Goliath, the Philistine. King Saul wanted to know who this warrior was and had called him to his court. King Saul is so impressed with this young man that he invites David to live with them. During this audience with King Saul, Jonathan and David meet for the first time. It was as the romantics might say, love at first sight.
David proved to be a great warrior and the country begin to sing his praises which made King Saul envious of David. So envious that Saul made plans to have David killed. But Jonathan interceded on David’s behalf on several occasions telling his father that his hatred towards David was unfounded. Jonathan renews his covenant with David and has “David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (1 Sam 20:17) But Saul’s hatred against David grows and at one point rebukes Jonathan for his love, saying “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20: 30) Jonathan sends David away in order to save David’s life. “David …prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other; David wept the more.” (1 Sam 20:41) Saul and Jonathan die in battle and David laments: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Sam 26)
What is important in both of these relationships is that they were mutual, each person choosing the other as equals. Marriage as found in the Hebrew Scriptures is rarely on a mutual standing. The marriage arrangements are coerced or arranged by a third party. The woman is considered property of the man and therefore has no say in the relationship. If there is love it is generally love that is developed later or it is one sided.
The word love as it applies to Jonathan and David is discussed in the Mishnah, the first major written redaction of the oral traditions of the Jewish faith. It is contrasted to the word love as it pertains to another story in David’s life, the rape of David’s daughter Tamar by her half brother Amnon.
In the story of Amnon and Tamar, it is written that Amnon loved Tamar and craftily found a way to have her come to his chambers. He feigns illness and asks that she bake him some food. She does so and enters his chamber to feed him. He requests that she lie with him. She resists and he rapes her. Then what she declares an ever worse offense he rejects her, going against Jewish law that states a man who rapes a virgin must take her in marriage. This leaves her desolate, no longer eligible for marriage.
The Mishnah states, “If love depends on some material cause and the cause goes away, the love goes away, too; but if it does not depend on a thing, it will never go away. What love depended on something? The love of Amnon and Tamar. What love was not dependent on something? The love of David and Jonathan.”
The Hebrew word for love in the text is Ahava. Ahava is used some 250 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is used to refer to the sexual as in the very poetic Song of Songs. It is used to refer to the love of a husband for a wife. It is used to refer to passion in illicit relationships. It is used to refer to the love of Jonathan and David, and Ruth and Naomi, and it is used in the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as one self. And while we translate ahava as love, it literally means “I will give.”
Rabbi Kelemen discusses love from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. He states if you ask an Orthodox Jew if they are in love, “[they have] to stop and ask … a completely different set of questions. He has to ask himself — How much am I willing to let go of what I want for her sake? How much am I willing to sacrifice for the sake of my beloved? What am I willing to let go of for her? It’s all about “her”, “her”, “her”. It’s all about the other. Ahava, I will give. If I want to know if I’m in love, if I’m in ahava from a Jewish perspective, the question is not how does he or she make me feel good or what he or she does for me but rather how much am I willing to let go for the sake of the other.
It is this kind of love that is evident in the relationships of Naomi and Ruth and Jonathan and David. Ahava. I will give. “…wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” Ruth was giving up her culture, her home, her opportunity for safety, her gods, everything for the sake of being with Naomi.
Jonathan gave up his birthright claim to the throne. He gave up his place in commanding the armies of the kingdom. He gave up his father’s favor for his love for David.
In terms of gay and lesbian relationships today, it is this form of love that I witness in my friends. What have they let go of in order to be with the one they love? A lot.
In 30 states it is still legal to fire or refuse to hire someone solely on the basis of their sexual orientation; an additional eight states still allow discrimination based on gender identity or expression. In 20 states hate crime legislation either does not exist or does not include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. In six states there are laws prohibiting the adoption or recognizing the adoption of children by same sex couples. Three states restrict the placing of foster children in gay households, single or coupled. By not having their marriage relationship recognized federally, the couple is restricted from 1,138 benefits including the marital communications privilege which is the right not to testify against ones spouse. They are denied survivor benefits and spousal benefits from social security. They are denied medical decision-making power and hospital visitation rights.
This means that to have an Ahava, I will give, love relationship with a person of the same sex or gender, the person must be willing to give up the heterosexually acceptable act of holding hands in public because if they are seen by someone they know, their job might be in jeopardy. They must be willing to risk homophobic attacks; verbal, emotional, and physical because these are not considered to be hate crimes. They must be willing to risk losing the child they raised together if their partner dies because they were not allowed to mutually adopt the child. The couple must be willing to endure the heartbreak of not being able to be present when the other is dying in the hospital. He or she, after the death of their spouse, must be willing to step aside when the family swoops in and claims possession of the house and their belongings they shared.
Now there are ways to minimize these risks but they are not guarantees against these risks. In many states blood relations trump live in relations even if there is a will designating the partner as surviving heir to the estate. Without the legal protection of marriage, a family can make and will win legal claim as next of kin. There are couples across the country who thought they had cobbled together the legal protections available to them under the current laws only to find out these laws are not strong enough or sufficient enough to protect them.
Such was the case of Tim Reardon and his partner Eric in Minnesota. Tim and Eric had filed all the papers and paid all the legal fees only to find out that they had missed one, the right for Tim or Eric to have final say over the physical remains of their loved one. Eric died of brain cancer and Tim was not allowed to claim the body. In Minnesota the state can seize the property, the house shared by both partners, if a partner dies and there is a lien on the property. Legislation, entitled The Final Wishes Act, was passed in May of this year that would have repaired this inequity of privileges that are automatic for heterosexual couples but the governor of Minnesota vetoed this legislation.
In California the battle over Proposition 8 continues. The state of California voted to overturn a court’s ruling to allow same sex marriage. 18,000 same gendered marriages were performed before the ruling was overturned by the referendum of the state’s voters. This has now been debated in the District court for the last six months. The judge is expected to rule in a few weeks. There is much that a same sex couple will be losing should the judge rule in favor of the referendum. The defendants want the 18,000 same sex marriages also annulled and made illegal. There is much that love, ahava, is willing to give in order to be a same sex couple throughout the country today.
Not all same sex relationships are able to survive in a society where the pressure against them is strong. Sometimes what one is willing or able to give is simply not enough to sustain the relationship. In order for any relationship to survive, to thrive in the day to day difficulties, regardless of societal acceptance or not, there is another quality that is essential. Both Ruth and Naomi and Jonathan and David had this quality between them.
There is another Hebrew word that has been translated as love but that is not an accurate translation. The word is Chesed. It has been translated as Love, as loving –kindness, as faithfulness, as loyalty, as mercy, as covenantal-love, as grace, as steadfast love. Even these words combined do not seem to capture the full essence of the word Chesed. The words as they are used in the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of Jonathan and David are in connection to a covenant that binds them to a higher purpose, to God, to their higher selves.
Rabbi Keleman states that “The … Orthodox Jews, … believe that the model of a perfect spouse is God. They have this wild belief that human beings were created in the image of God, and because they were created in the image of God they have God-like potential. And therefore, at least in terms of character, they could become like God. Now if you add to this that they believe that God is pure ahava, He is pure giving.”
The Covenant that God made with Abraham is one based in pure ahava, it is chesed, an undying, ever binding, unconditional, merciful, steadfast, loyal, faithful love to Abraham and his descendants. The marriage covenant also reflects this attitude of chesed.
Rabbi Keleman tells this story he heard about “Christopher Reeve, Superman, so he had this terrible accident and when he woke up from surgery they informed him that he was probably going to be a quadriplegic for the rest of his life. No movement from the neck down. And shortly thereafter he had a discussion with his wife. His wife visited him there in the ICU and he said to her — ‘Sweetie, you know, I understand. I don’t mind if you divorce me. It’s okay.’ She looked at him and she said — ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean if I want to divorce you? I’m not going to divorce you.’ He explained — ‘No, no. I’m a quadriplegic now, I can’t take care of myself, I can’t do anything for you. I understand if you divorce me.’ And she very beautifully responded — ‘Why would I consider divorcing you?’ Because the reason she married him was she just wanted to take care of and love him. Now he couldn’t do certain things for her, that was irrelevant. She wanted to take care of him.” This story reveals the quality of Chesed. It is more than just what she will give, ahava, but also what she expresses loyalty to in the relationship.
It goes beyond love, beyond ahava, I will give. It is bound in covenant even when tragedy strikes. It is bound in covenant that is renewed even as one fails to honor it. It is bound in covenant even when employment is lost. It is bound in covenant even when disappointments abound and dreams are lost. It is bound in covenant even when health is failing. It is bound in a covenanted relationship that calls for the highest purpose, the highest expression of our selves. The Orthodox Jews might express it as reaching to become like God in character, pure in ahava.
Jonathan and David expressed this depth of love, chesed, in a covenant between each other. The word covenant as used in the Hebrew text is the same word used to describe a marriage vow. They remind each other of this covenant as they figure out how they were going to deal with the death threats against David made by Jonathan’s father.
Sometimes, the most loving thing to do is to let the other person leave. Jonathan could have been selfish and insisted that David stay in the vain hope of turning Saul’s heart once again, but to do so would have meant certain death to David. The notion of ahava, I will give, sometimes includes I will give up the relationship in order to fully love and respect your inherent worth and dignity.
With Naomi and Ruth, Boaz uses the word chesed in recognition of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi and her seeking to abide by Jewish customs. This is a quality that is noticed and admired. It is a profound quality that endears Ruth to Boaz to see her not as foreigner, or a servant, but as an equal in status, appropriate as a wife for him.
The Mishnah states, “If love depends on some material cause and the cause goes away, the love goes away, too; but if it does not depend on a thing, it will never go away.” Naomi and Ruth, Jonathan and David had a love that was not dependent on some material cause, on some circumstance or event that held it in place, or on some societal more of what is acceptable or not acceptable. Theirs was a love that was based on something elemental to the human condition that transcended material causes or circumstances. May we all have the opportunity to experience this ahava, this chesed, this depth and breadth of love in the living of our days. Blessed Be.
Boswell, John; Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. P 136.
 http://www.warmwisdompress.com/dating/gtr/kelemen2.aspx as accessed on June 19 2010.