July 9, 2017 / THE STORY OF RUTH - PART 2 / Katy McCallum Sachse / Ruth Chapters 3 and 4
Last week, we talked about the beginning of the book of Ruth. Before we jump into the next part of the story, let me just remind you quickly of a couple of important things about this story. One: this book starts with and revolves around the experience of immigration. Naomi, her husband, and her sons flee Israel in the midst of a famine and move to Moab, a neighboring nation which is also one of Israel’s biggest enemies. In today’s terms, the United Nations defines a refugee as someone who must leave their country because of war, violence, persecution, or natural disaster. That makes Naomi and her family refugees. And when Naomi returns to her home country years later after her husband and sons have died, her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth, who has insisted on going with her, is now an immigrant – and one who is not likely to be welcomed. Everyone in this story lives on the margins, at the edges, at least at some point. That’s where this whole story takes place.
Two: this story was written in a time when Israel was undergoing a big discussion about who really belonged in their country and what it took to be a ‘real’ Israelite. At least some scholars believe Ruth was written soon after the Israelites returned home from their exile in Babylon, and were trying to rebuild their community. Identity was a big and important question in those days, and there were certainly movements in Israel to push out all the foreigners, all the immigrants, all the people who ‘didn’t belong,’ and preserve Israel for the REAL Israelites. Someone, during that time, looked way back in Israel’s history and found the story of King David’s great-grandmother, Ruth, who just happened to be a Moabite, which is like if someone right now looked back in American history and wrote the story of the grandmother of George Washington except she happened to be a member of Al-Qaeda. I realize all the historical inaccuracies I have just promoted, but the point is this: when faced with a question of how inclusive a nation and community should be, the story the bible tells us is about how you cannot be a people, a nation, or have a future WITHOUT the immigrant, the refugee, and the foreigner in your land. There is not future without them. Make no mistake.
So. That was chapter one. And now today we want to tell the rest of the story.
Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth have returned to Israel with not much hope for their future. While they were in Moab, Naomi was a foreigner; now that they are in Israel, it’s Ruth who is the outsider. Either way, someone does not belong. The ordinary kind of future most people will have – that is, having children and grandchildren and so on – has not happened for Ruth and Naomi, and there’s not much chance it will. So these two women are in the most vulnerable position you can be: they are widows, and they are immigrants. These, by the way, are two of the kinds of people that God is most concerned about. Over and over again in the Old Testament, God commands the people of Israel to show steadfast kindness to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger – or, in other translations, immigrant. But God commands that protection because life is not easy for these folks.
Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, the city that Naomi and her husband left many years before. It is the beginning of the barley harvest. Part of the protection for widows, orphans, and immigrants that God has commanded is for those who own fields of grain to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that those vulnerable people can gather some small harvest of their own at the end of the day. This is called gleaning, and it’s still something people do, even today. Ruth – or, as the story insists on calling her, “Ruth the Moabite,” because this story will not let you forget how people saw Ruth every time they saw her – Ruth the Moabite tells her mother-in-law that she will go and glean something for them to eat from a neighboring field. It so happens that this field belongs to a man named Boaz, who just happens to be a relative of Naomi. Boaz notices Ruth and he asks his servants, “who is this young woman?” and they tell him two things about her: “she is the Moabite woman,” they say, because again, that’s what people know about Ruth, that she’s a foreigner; and two, “she is the one who came back with Naomi from Moab.”
Boaz now knows two things about Ruth: that she is an enemy, or at least, that she’s from an enemy country; and, that she has made a risky and unusual choice to come to Israel with her mother-in-law, something she was in no way obligated to do. We, the readers, know one thing about Boaz; which is that the story describes him as a ‘man of worth.’ Many bibles translate that as, ‘a prominent rich man,’ which is certainly one way of interpreting the word ‘worth,’ but certainly not the only way. This is a question the rest of this story will now ask of us: what makes someone a person of worth? Hold onto that question for a bit.
Naomi, meanwhile, knows one thing too: that Ruth has discovered a possible future for them that was unthinkable just a short time ago. She has discovered a relative, a ‘kinsman’ the story says or, in Hebrew, a go-el. A go-el, a redeemer, has a particular role in a family; it is the redeemer’s job to marry a widowed woman of the family. This is the custom of Levirate marriage, in which a brother is commanded to marry his late brother’s wife so that she can have children and continue the family line. Boaz is not a brother. But he is a relative. He is a possibility. And he gives these two women the possibility of a future they had thought was gone.
And so Naomi hatches a plan. Remember the question we started with today about a risk you’ve taken in your life and what happened as a result? The thing about risk is that you do not know, by definition, how it will turn out. You might triumph. You might lose everything. You might land someplace in-between. But if you go down, you’ll go down swinging for the seats. And that’s what Naomi proposes.
Here’s a picture of the setting of chapter 3 of Ruth: the threshing floor. That might not mean much to us, but the threshing floor was a happening place during harvest. Imagine a small town where there are a lot of family farms, and on the small main street of this town there is a bar. And during harvest time, in the evenings, this bar is full of sweaty, tired, happy farmers whose work is done for the day and who are looking forward to having a beer with their buddies before they go home. Now multiply that by 100 and you have the threshing floor, where guys got pretty drunk and the parties were loud and obnoxious and the only women who ever went near this place were the prostitutes looking to make some decent money during the harvest.
This is where Naomi sends her daughter-in-law. Her widowed, foreign daughter-in-law. She tells her to wash and anoint herself, get dressed up, and wait for Boaz to finish eating and drinking. Watch where he lies down (or falls down, as the case may be), says Naomi, and when he’s asleep, go and uncover his feet and he will tell you what to do. And, lest you think Naomi is forcing Ruth into this plan, Ruth signs right up. ‘All that you tell me I will do,’ she says.
Let’s pause for a moment and remember that, by the time we get to the end of this book, we will know that Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, perhaps the greatest king of Israel and one of its treasured heroes. And where did he come from? How did he come to be? How did David’s royal family continue when it almost met its end in these two widowed women? David came to be because his great-grandmother and his great-great-grandmother decided to risk it all on this ridiculous, dangerous, possibly disastrous plan of dressing up like a prostitute, acting exactly like a prostitute, and hoping that the kindness Boaz had shown Ruth in the field was so engrained in who he was that his kindness, and not any other emotion, would determine his response.
Ruth lays down next to Boaz’s feet. And this is the part where I tell you something you cannot un-know once you know it, so sorry about that, but pretty often when the bible says ‘feet,’ it does not mean feet. Ruth lies down next to Boaz’s “FEET” (this is where we need an airquote bible) and she waits for him. And when he wakes up and sees her – and it’s dark, so at first he doesn’t know who she is – and she asks him to be her go-el, her redeemer, her next-of-kin, all the privileges of this situation are on Boaz’s side. He can do whatever he wants and no one will blame him, and probably no one will even know. He has all the power, and he turns to Ruth and says, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; do not be afraid. I will do as you ask, for all the assembly of my people who that you are a woman of worth.’
What does it mean to be a person of worth? We asked that earlier. Boaz is a man of worth, and now he calls Ruth exactly the same thing. And he calls her this after she has behaved in a way that is, let’s say, profoundly unladylike and terribly risky. She has broken the moral expectations and yet it is exactly that risk that makes the future possible, not just for Ruth and Naomi, but for the whole people of Israel. This is the story of their family, and it’s not a story of people who behaved themselves and followed the rules.
What does it mean to be a person of worth? In the story of Ruth, above all, it means to act with steadfast love. With faithfulness to the need and the humanity of the other person even when that means behaving in ways that other people might find weird, at best, or counter –cultural, or even bizarre. Because when we get to the end of this story, the part that Asher read for us earlier, we will see that, against all the odds, all the terrible losses that marked the beginning of this story have not been the end of the story. At the gate, the most public place in the city, all the people gather around Ruth the Moabite, and Naomi who thought she had no future, and Boaz who chose to honor his role as redeemer even though he could have walked away – all the people will gather around this strange, motely little family and say, ‘may the Lord make you like Rachel and Leah, two of our greatest matriarchs. May you, Ruth, a woman of our enemy nation, may you bear children who will become our people’s future and may your family be a blessing as you have been to us.’
There are times when I want to say one particular thing in a sermon, or emphasize one particular message in a biblical story, really come away with one particular lesson but part of the beauty of the story of Ruth is that there are so many ways to hear this story, react to this story, be changed and transformed by this story, that I cannot possibly limit it to one thing. What does this story mean for you? That’s a question for you to answer. What does it mean to you, to be a person of worth? What kinds of risks are you willing to take for the sake of the future of your vulnerable neighbors, the widows and orphans and immigrants of our day? What will it look like for you to live out of steadfast love when your privileges mean you could do exactly what makes you comfortable and no one will ever know? What surprising future are you a part of even while you are doing what seem like the small things that make up your every day life? What does it mean for you that God’s future comes not by war, or battles won, or clever speeches, or pristine theology, or perfect morals, but through the lives and decisions and risks of ordinary people, ordinary families, ordinary lives? What does it mean for you that every family has weird stories, and not just yours?
These are the questions Ruth the Moabite will not let us forget. As the band comes forward, I invite you to rest in those questions for a bit and begin to wonder what this particular love story will mean for you.