Shavuot: Musings on Law and Spirit and Reading the Book of Ruth

It is traditional today, on Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, to read the book of Ruth. What is Ruth, a simple love story set in the time of the Judges? No, Ruth is a tale about how lovingkindness (Hebrew חֶסֶד hesed) changed the lives of a group of people and led to the coming of Messiah to the world. How does the Book of Ruth lead to Messiah? The last word in the book is “David,” and Ruth who was from Moab but who clung to the Israelite Naomi, became a mother in the line of Messiah himself.

For those of us who are Messianic Jews, there is something even more profound about reading the book of Ruth on this holiday. Messianic Jews have something to celebrate and remember at Shavuot which mainstream Jews do not. In traditional Judaism, Shavuot is more than a wheat festival. It is a day to remember the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai. It is the day the law was given.

But something happened on this day which matters quite a bit to Messianic Jews, but which does not register at all for mainstream Judaism: a group of Jesus-following Jews was in the temple and the Holy Spirit came down on them, filling them and displaying to onlookers a visible sign of miraculous speech and divine glory that appeared as minute flames above each one of them (full story in Acts 2:1-13). It is like Isaiah’s vision in which the Spirit would be poured out from on high (Isaiah 32:15).

Shavuot is law and Spirit. Many think the two are oil and water. Spirit to many people is spontaneous, free religion and law for them represents stilted, bound legalism devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. The two meet, for example, in the book of Ruth.

Elimelech and family departed from the Law, from the covenant, when they emigrated to Moab during a famine. They looked for blessings from nature that should have been found in the covenant made at Sinai. God himself showed Israel what would bring rain and abundant crops: dedication to the Law. But Elimelech followed a different path, fleeing the land with its supernatural promise and looking for blessing outside of the covenant. Instead of blessing, Elimelech and his sons found death. In fact, even their Moabite wives produced no children from them. So Naomi wound up widowed and childless when her two sons followed their father into death.

But she had with her still Ruth and Orpah, the Moabite wives. There was no reason to stay connected with them. It was best that they return to the house of their mothers and let Naomi return in grief to Judah, to her people. She said to Ruth and Orpah, “May Adonai do hesed with you as you have with your dead [husbands] and with me.”

But did Naomi really understand and believe in hesed (lovingkindness)? Ruth would show her what it means and also Boaz. Hesed is really what the Law is all about and hesed is the spirit of the law.

“I will go where you go,” Ruth said to Naomi, refusing to go back to the house of her mothers. “Your God will be my God and your people my people . . . where you die I will die and there be buried.” It seemed at this point to Naomi like a burden, not a blessing. Returning to Judah with Ruth in tow, Naomi said to the women of Bethlehem, “I went out full; I have returned empty.”

Empty. Ruth was as nothing to her.

But soon she would see other wise. “Permit me to go out into the fields and glean among the sheaves of grain, behind someone in whose eyes I will find favor,” Ruth said as she and Naomi settled poor and without means in Judah. Ruth’s intention in returning with Naomi was not to live off of her mother-in-law, but to provide for her mother-in-law. And from there the story is a chain of acts of hesed leading to Messiah. Ruth chances upon the field of Boaz, a relative of Naomi and a rare God-fearing man in a dark period in Israel’s history. The two chances upon each other and fall in love. The community overlooks the fact that Ruth is a Moabite and accepts their love. Naomi is provided for and even receives on her knees a child, redeeming her from the grievous loss of her two sons in Moab. Layers of redemption, love, acts of loyalty and kindness, overflow in this sweet little book which we read on Shavuot.

What does lovingkindness (hesed) have to do with the Law and the Spirit? It is the point of intersection between them. The Law (Torah) commands numerous deeds of hesed. Leave the corners of your fields for the poor and immigrants to eat from. Love the immigrant as yourself. Do not take vengeance. Assist your enemy’s donkey. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be holy as I am holy.

Later, God added something for humanity to what he had already done before, grace upon grace, truth upon truth, a second gift which was even greater than the Law: the sending of his Son to repair the world. Messiah appeared among us and his identity was divine as well as human, in a great mystery which seems not to be fully understood by Judaism nor by Christianity.

There are things which Law can never do, such as give the ability to keep its commandments. Neither Judaism nor Christianity, in and of themselves, have the power to make people good. Torah alone lacks the power to bring about perfection. Faith alone also lacks the power to perfect and transform. Law and Spirit work together, with Law as the teaching and Spirit (such as was poured out on those Jesus-believing Jews at the temple in Acts 2) as divinely-empowered transformation.

This is why Moses said both, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” and “Hashem your God will circumcise your heart” (Deut 10:16; 30:6). This is why Jeremiah said, “I will write it on your heart,” and Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and new spirit I will put in you” (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26). Through Law we begin to learn about God’s ways of life and love. Waiting on the Spirit, we acknowledge that God alone can transform us.

Jesus showed us hesed on a new level. Being perfect, bearing in himself all the glory of divinity, he counted it as nothing. He gave sacrificial love and cared nothing for his reputation. He came as a servant. The hesed that Ruth embodied when she followed her mother-in-law back to Judah was a Jesus-like act. Hesed is the essence of being human in God’s eyes.

Those of us who know Jesus and who understand him in the full sense of biblical revelation understand several key truths. We have not yet been transformed. Rather, we have been freed from condemnation and freed to pursue life. Torah is not yet written on our hearts. But we are free to write it there while we wait for the day in which God will complete the task.

Right now while we wait, the Law teaches us and the Spirit is something we must choose again and again. Paul says is that “the Spirit of life” has set us free from the “law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2). This is commonly known in theology as justification. It means we know beforehand we will be vindicated in the final judgment. We have the promise. But as for attaining to the perfect love that God calls us to live, we have not yet attained the ability to do this. It remains for us to “walk according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). In other words, our nature is not yet changed. Rather, we have freedom from condemnation.

The freedom of the Spirit is the liberty to forgive ourselves, permission to believe we can be perfected in love. We may not have been with that group of Jesus-believing Jews in the temple courts on the day of Shavuot in the Acts 2 story. But according to the apostles of Jesus who interpreted that event for us, we receive of the same Spirit. Always before us is not only the teaching of the Torah (Law), but also the knowledge that we may either live according to the “flesh” or follow the inner urging of the Spirit.

Choosing Spirit again and again strengthens us, moves us closer to the time when God will remove from us hearts of stone and put hearts of flesh in us, with a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:24-26). We are to “set the mind on the Spirit” which is “life and peace” (Rom 8:6).

Shavuot is Law — the giving of the Ten Commandments — and it is Spirit — the Shavuot of Acts 2. The book of Ruth is a human drama about the essence of the Law (lovingkindness, hesed) and how it leads to the repair of the world through the coming of Messiah and God himself giving us the very thing he commands.

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