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Ruth: Outside in

The Book of Ruth comes after the violent and bloody Book of Judges in the Old Testament, and I think it is well placed. After all the stories of battles and atrocities, some described quite graphically, it’s a relief to lose yourself in a little romance, and that’s what the Book of Ruth is – a Harlequin Romance of 964 BC.

But the Book of Ruth more than just a romance. There is an underlying message in Ruth that was so strange and so shocking to the Jewish listeners of the day, it must have rattled their teeth!

As the story opens, there is a famine in Bethlehem, and Naomi and her husband Elimelech, and their two sons pull up stakes, and move to Moab where there was enough food to support the family. Starvation was an ever-present danger in ancient Israel, and people would sometimes go to great lengths to survive, even selling themselves into slavery. But the family finds stability and prosperity in Moab, and settles down there.

Unfortunately, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi and their two sons who have married Moabite women, one named Orpah, and the other Ruth. Scripture doesn’t say whether Naomi approved of these marriages, but traditionally these mixed marriages were looked on with suspicion. These were women of another culture, that was one thing, and the Israelites wanted to keep their race pure. The danger was that the Moabite women would entice their husbands to worship their false gods instead of Jehovah, and if that became common practise, it would mean the death of Jewish society. But here they were, both sons married to Moabites, but no children were born to either couple. Still, they continued to live in Moab for the next ten years, at which time both of Naomi’s sons died, and her family became a household of widows.

Life for widows in ancient Palestine was precarious at best, a struggle just to survive. What Naomi and her daughters-in-law needed was a man around the house. It was customary among the Israelites, that if a husband died leaving no sons, then a near relative of the man would marry the widow and their first born son would be considered the deceased man’s offspring and heir. The man who stepped in to marry the widow and assume control over the property was called a redeemer. Gosh! Where have we heard that term before? But there were no relatives of Naomi or Elimelech in Moab, so there was no future for Naomi or her daughters-in-law there. Right then she hears that the famine in Judah has ended and immediately resolves to return there with Orpah and Ruth.

Then on the road, she changes her mind.

“Go back,” she tells them, “each of you to your mother’s house.” But they say, “Nuh-uh. We’re going with you.” And Naomi replies, “I have no sons to give you. I have no security to give you. I have no future to give you. Go back.” And this time Orpah listens to her, kisses her goodbye and returns to her home. And Naomi says to Ruth, “Your sister-in-law has returned to her people and to her gods. Time for you to go too.”

And this is where Ruth utters one of the most beautiful speeches in the Bible. It’s often read today at weddings, but originally these words were a young woman’s pledge of undying faithfulness and loyalty to the older woman she loved:
Whither thou goest, I will go;
Wither thou lodgest, I will lodge;
Thy people will be my people;
And thy God my God.

One of the things I most like about this passage, is where God comes on the list – dead last. Ruth could have put God at the beginning, where we might think would be the proper place. But it was in Ruth’s loving care of Naomi that she would demonstrate her fidelity to God. Ruth’s devotion went deeper than pretty words – she would prove it with her actions. Christ himself was to say, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these my little ones, you do unto me.” How we treat one another is how we treat God, and Ruth was treating God with great love. So Ruth accompanies Naomi back to Bethlehem, and they arrive there right at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Now Ruth, once they were settled, wanted to go to work right away. If she didn’t, they would starve. Simple as that. In Jewish law, widows and foreigners were permitted to go into a field that was being harvested, and pick up the leavings, whatever was left behind. Farmers were forbidden to glean their fields twice so something would be left behind for those in need, and that could be the difference between life and death for them. So Ruth presents herself in a nearby field and asks permission to glean behind the reapers. She doesn’t have to ask for permission, but perhaps does so to avoid giving offense, as she is a foreigner, and she wants to make a good impression.

Unbeknownst to Ruth our heroine, the field she’s working in belongs to Boaz, who just happens to come on the scene right at this moment, and Boaz is a relative of Naomi. Now the story of Ruth would have been circulated as an oral tradition long before it was written down, you know, passed around the campfire sort of thing. And at this point in the story, the audience would have started to buzz – “He’s a relative! He could be her redeemer! He could marry Ruth and everything would be all right!” And the narrator would say, “Hey! Who’s telling the story here? Don’t get ahead of me.”

Boaz seems quite taken with this new arrival and asks one of his workers who she is, and who does she belong to. He’s asking, “Is she married? Got a boyfriend?” The worker does not call Ruth by name, but identifies her as a foreigner. “She is the Moabite.” She’s not one of us. She’s an outsider. But she came back with Naomi from Moab, asked permission to glean here, and has been working hard since early this morning.”

Clearly, the worker is impressed with her.

This tells Boaz a few things – first, that Ruth is a strong, courageous woman who left her homeland and everything familiar to her to live in a land of strangers for the sake of her mother-in-law. It showed that she was willing to do anything to provide for Naomi’s survival and comfort. And it also told him that she wasn’t married! Aha!

So Boaz ambles on over to Ruth and says, “My daughter, do not glean in another field or leave this one. You just stay right here. Stay close to my women workers, and I’ve told the men not to bother you.” Uh-huh. He has to order his men not to bother her? That’s a telling statement. And a whole other sermon, so I’m just going to continue with what I’ve got going here. :-) In any event, Boaz is assuring Ruth that she would be safe in his field. And when she was thirsty, she was to go and get a drink from the vessels provided. And instead of saying “Thank you! I really appreciate it!” Ruth throws herself herself face down on the ground and his feet. Boaz takes a step back and says, “Whoa! Now that doesn’t happen every day. Must be a Moabite thing. You OK down there, sweetheart?”

“Yeah. I’m just really, really grateful for everything you’ve done for me!”

“Oh well, listen, after everything you’ve done for Naomi, it’s the least I can do.”

Then at lunchtime, he invites her over. “Come sit over here by me.” And he gives her bread and wine to dip it in – very Eucharistic when you think about it. But the people listening to the story would have thought, “Oh my! He’s feeding her, giving her food! That’s what a husband does! Could that be foreshadowing?”

Why yes, yes it could.

Then Boaz instructs his reapers to let Ruth glean among the standing stalks, the good stuff, and he tell them further to deliberately drop handfuls of barley from the bundles where she can find them, and be discreet about it. That is so sweet. Clearly Boaz is smitten!

That night, Ruth brings home everything she had gleaned plus what she had left over from lunch. Naomi takes one look at the huge pile of food on the table and says, “Holey moley girl! Where did you work today?”

And Ruth says, I worked in the field of a very kind man by the name of … oh what was it now? Oh yeah, Boaz!”

And Naomi lets out another yelp, “Praise be the Lord God! Boaz is a kinsman of ours…and a close one too!” And the audience would have started buzzing again, “Oh, he could be the redeemer! He’s the redeemer, for sure! Here comes the happy ending!”

Not so fast! There’s a problem coming down the road.

But Ruth does work for Boaz through both the barley and the wheat harvests, and then Naomi finally says, “Ruthie, it’s time I did right by you, secure your future. So here’s what you do – go take a bath, put on some perfume, and get yourself all dolled up. Boaz will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. Get yourself down there, but don’t reveal yourself until Boaz is finished eating and drinking. Then go uncover a place at his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.” He will tell her what to do?!! Nothing at all disconcerting about that! But Ruth did what Naomi told her.

By the time Boaz was ready to turn in for the night, Scripture says he was in “a contented mood,” having eaten well, and had a glass or two or ten of wine, which Naomi knew he would. It was all part of her plan. So Ruth sneaks up to him on tiptoe, carefully uncovers a place at his feet and lies down.

Interesting sidebar. I hesitated to share this with you because it’s a little, well, you know, but then I remembered in my first sermon I actually used the words “Jesus in a strip club,” and nobody threw anything at me. I’m taking that as a good sign. So, interesting sidebar. Here’s what I learned in theological college – in the Old Testament, the word “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism…for something else. Meaning? Meaning something got uncovered on the threshing room floor…but it wasn’t feet. You mean Boaz and Ruth…? Weeeelll, the Scripture writer seems to be hinting that maybe they did. At least, that’s what they taught me in holy school. I’ll leave it to you to decide.

At midnight Boaz was startled (as well he would be) when he turned over, and there was a woman!

He says, “Who are you?!

And she responds, “I’m Ruth. Marry me!”

And Boaz says, “What?”

“I’m Ruth. You’re my next of kin. So, you know, spread your cloak over me, or jump the broom, or whatever it is you Israelites do, and marry me. Let’s get married…right now!”

Naomi had said that Boaz would tell Ruth what to do, but it’s the complete other way around.

Anyway, Boaz is quite touched by Ruth’s proposal. “Aw Ruthie,” he says, “I would love to marry you. I would. In a heartbeat. But here’s the thing.”

And the audience would start to murmur, “What thing? What is he talking about? There’s no thing!”

“Oh yeah, there’s this thing. You see, I am your kinsman. But there’s someone closer to you than me. And by law, he has first dibs. If he wants to redeem Naomi’s land, and if he’d willing to marry you, that’s how it will be. But if not, I will, I promise.”

I can’t imagine what Ruth must have felt. She will be getting married again, either to the man she is clearly attracted to, or to a stranger she hasn’t met. For all Naomi’s matchmaking and manipulations, and for all Ruth’s forthrightness and enthusiasm, the situation has been taken out of her hands. It will be decided by two men. She will have no say in the matter.

She must have been desperately disappointed. Boaz says to her, “Tell you what, stay the night.” And she did. Scripture says she stayed with him (specifically, laid at his feet) until morning, but got up before dawn. And like all lovers before and since, Boaz wants to give Ruth a present, a token of his love, something to ease her bitter disappointment. But it’s a threshing room for crying out loud – what could he possibly find there to give her? And then he hits on it – barley! Well, what woman doesn’t love barley? So he pours six measures of barley into her cloak.

How much was that? The Scripture isn’t clear – six measures is kind of vague, but some commentators estimate it was around 50 pounds! Now Boaz was smitten and all, but even so, I think 50 pounds is stretching it a bit. But say it was half that – 25 pounds of barley is still quite a bit of barley. What must have been her reaction? “Wow Boaz. A woman never really knows what to say when her boyfriend gives her twenty-five pounds of barley. Thanks?”

And when she gets home, and Naomi sees another huge mountain of barely on the kitchen table, she must have thought her plan worked. But then Ruth explains about the other relative, and Naomi tries to comfort her:

“Don’t worry,” she says. “Boaz won’t leave this hanging. You’ll know one way or the other by this afternoon.” And Ruth might have been thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

But Boaz was not a stupid man, really rather wily in his way. He assembles the town elders and tells the other redeemer that Naomi wants to sell off her husband’s land and that he has first claim on it, if he wants it. And the man replies, “Oh, I want it!” And the audience have said, “Oh, that’s it! It’s over! What a dreadful story this turned out to be!” But the narrator would have continued – “Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name and his inheritance.”’

The audience held its collective breath.

And the next of kin said, “I cannot redeem it without damaging my own inheritance. I give you my right of redemption. Redeem it yourself. Have a nice marriage.”

And the audience would have cheered! Love conquers all!

So what’s the big scandal about this story? It’s just a little romance isn’t it?

At the very end of the story is a little genealogy, all male names this time, but it shows that the great grandmother of King David was not Jewish, but a foreigner.

And then this foreigner’s name turns up in the genealogy of Christ. What’s it doing there?

Well, Jesus comes along and does provocative things like talk to a Samaritan woman about theology. And his disciples say, “Why are you talking with her? She’s a woman. She’s a foreigner. And she has a shady past.”

“Yes, I know,” Jesus replies, “and that’s the point. That’s exactly why I’m talking to her.”

Jesus heals ten lepers. Only one comes back to say thank you, and he is a Samaritan.

A Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. They go back and forth about dogs and crumbs, and then finally Jesus says, “OK, you’ve convinced me. Boom! She’s healed.”

The disciples come to Jesus and say, “We saw a man casting out demons in your name, but we told him to stop because he isn’t one of us.”

And Jesus said, “Then you can march right back there and apologize.”

“Why?!”

“Because there is no such thing as ‘not one of us.’ Don’t you get it, Chosen People? You’re not the only chosen ones! And the bloodline you were so concerned about keeping pure was never pure from the start! King David’s great granny was a Moabite who may have had a dalliance on the threshing room floor; great-great-granny was a Canaanite, and a prostitute; and great-great-great-great-granny may have been a Jew but she slept with her father-in-law! Oy! There’s an inconvenient truth for you! And here’s another one – from now on, I’m choosing everybody! Everybody gets a seat at my table – foreigners, Gentiles, women, the sick, the sinners, outcasts, untouchables, outsiders. And make room for the prostitutes ‘cuz they’re coming in too. And the kids. All the kids. Love the kids!

“The God you love and adore wants you to sit at my table…right beside the people you hate, the people you don’t love and adore, and who don’t love and adore you. But that’s my kingdom. Find a way to make it work!”

You see, the Kingdom of God isn’t something that’s given to us when we die. It’s not someplace we go to if we’ve lived a good life. The Kingdom of God is something Jesus commands us to create right here, right now, every single day of our lives. And how do we do that? Every time we forgive, every time we let go of our prejudice, every time we overcome our fear and reach out in love to someone we consider totally unlovable, the Kingdom of God is made manifest among us. And we get to take that with us straight into eternity. So who’s in the Kingdom of God?

Everybody.

Because in the mind and heart of Jesus, there is no such thing as not one of us.

This is the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and descendant of Ruth, the Outsider, Ruth, the Chosen.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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