I hate weeks like this. A couple months ago, as we were beginning to speak about Stewardship in the Vestry, I was challenged by a couple members about my lack of sermons on Stewardship. Their concern was certainly legitimate. During the search process, some on the Vestry and Search Committee had been excited that my own sense of my call had coalesced around a stewardship sermon I gave as a much younger layman in charge of my sending parish’s Stewardship campaign. Not unsurprisingly, eyes lit up at that story. You mean you are not afraid to talk about money? You mean you pay attention to secular concerns? I had not preached specifically on money since my arrival at Advent. Understandably, this had some of us a bit concerned. But I started going through the lectionary with Gregg. We had not had many “money” opportunities. To be sure, I had preached on stewardship in other areas of our life, but I had not hit the wallet or checkbook. That got us looking forward. Somewhat surprising to us both, there was no real reading on money until the Widow’s Mite. But, it was in November and stewardship would be ramped up by then and it would work.
For two months or so, I was pretty certain what I wanted to preach on today. Then the week hit. Try as I might, I could not bring myself to preach on the widow’s mite today. Believe me, I tried hard. But for some reason I felt the knowing urge to go elsewhere today. That being said, at least in naming the sermon I am not preaching, maybe you will hear an old one in your minds and mull it over more in your prayer life this week. Or maybe, if you prefer, ask a friend what his or her preacher said about the widow’s mite and giving to the church this week.
Instead, I was drawn to Ruth. Like Job, Ruth is one of those books that we ignore to our own detriment. Heck, it is a book that ought to appeal to those of us who love Outlander, Game of Thrones, a love story, a bit of suspense, a bit of tragedy, and an incredible ending. For those who have forgotten the story, Naomi and Elimelech are suffering from a drought in the beginning of the book. Faithful Jews, they are tending the land promised to them since the time of Abraham. Those who farm often live on the edge. I know the joke is that there are few atheists in foxholes, but there are fewer even in farming. Farmers can do everything right, everything from plowing to adjusting the pH of their soil to selecting their crops, but if the rains do not come in a timely fashion, or if the scorching heat and freezing cold occur at just the wrong moment, all their hard work can be undone. Many pray to God for the weather, because they recognize He sets the patterns in place.
Naomi and Elimelech are so on the edge of starvation that they eventually abandon their inheritance. I have explained to you several times that living in the Promised Land was much like us sharing the Sacrament. It was that outward symbol of God’s grace and promises. Imagine choosing to give up the Sacrament. Maybe it is not so hard for us today either. Many of us know people who cannot find time to attend church, who’d rather be golfing or sleeping than giving thanks to God for what He has done in their lives. Perhaps some of us have been in that mood as well. In any event, Naomi and Elimelech hear that life is better in Moab. Moab of all places! What in the heck is going on with God? He is causing rain among one of the enemies of His people but is withholding it from His people? Is He asleep at the wheel? Has He forgotten His instructions? No, of course not. This is the time of the Judges. People are doing as they see fit rather than listening to God.
Naomi and Elimelech head to Moab and begin scratching out a living with their boys. Eventually, the time comes for the parents to find brides for their sons. Faithful Jews would look from among the Jews, right? That’s what God commanded. Naomi and Elimelech, unfortunately, look locally. They choose two Moabite women as brides for their sons.
Not unsurprisingly, the story goes downhill from there. Elimelech and the two sons die. We, as students of God’s instructions, know that this is clearly His judgment on the family for forgetting God and His commands. They left the land, they went to Moab of all places. They chose Moabite women as wives for their sons. Maybe they should have flipped God off as they went about their life. Clearly, this book is about judgement. The patriarch sins and God exercises vengeance against him and his sons, just as He always promised He would.
As the story continues, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are in tough shape. Naomi hears that things have improved back in Israel—God has opened up the heavens again. So she determines to head home. Before leaving, the seemingly accursed mother-in-law frees her daughters-in-law from her. She tells both that they are young and able to find new husbands. Were she even of a mind to try a Levirate marriage, they would be well past child-bear age once she produced another son for them to marry. Not surprisingly, Orpah heads back to her family, though after an emotional parting. Clearly she loved Naomi. But, she accepts Naomi’s wisdom and heads back into Moabite society.
Ruth, on the other hand, refuses to leave Naomi. Naomi’s God has become her God, and she will forsake neither. Though Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth is determined. So the two widows set out for Israel.
Eventually, they arrive back in the area of Naomi’s family. There they meet a kinsman of Naomi named Boaz. Boaz, we are told, is a righteous man. In fact, when he sees Ruth gleaning the field, he instructs his workers to give her something to drink and assist her, because of her faithfulness to Naomi. He tells the men not to hassle her. He even instructs her not to go to anyone else’s field. I need not remind you all of the vulnerabilities faced by women in the ANE. Imagine being a young, beautiful, immigrant woman in that day and age. I don’t have to because I have met lots of Ruth’s. The more things change the more they stay the same. Yes, faithful Jews were supposed to let the poor and foreigners glean the fields. Yes, the faithful Jews were expected to be gracious hosts and to remember above all else that the Lord their God loved the widow and the orphan. Of course, faithful Jews were supposed to keep the Land their Lord had given them. Faithful Jews were not supposed to marry Moabite women. Boaz stands out because he lives his daily life in testimony to his Lord. He does his best to do as God instructs.
As a curious side note, Boaz even explains to Ruth the source of his seeming generosity. He has heard how she gleans for Naomi, how she left her home and land and travelled to Israel in faithful service to his kinswoman. And for her faithfulness he offers a prayer of blessing. He prays that God will bless her and reward her both for her service and for seeking refuge under His wings.
This is where our story picks up today in our readings. Naomi asks her daughter-in-law to trust her, but that she needs to get her some security. Naomi instructs Ruth to bathe, anoint herself, and dress and then sneak into the threshing floor after the men have fallen asleep for the night. She tells Ruth to observe where he sleeps. Once he is asleep, she is to uncover his feet and do as he says.
I said that the story is like Game of Thrones or Outlander. It is more so like the latter, but it has some good sexual innuendo in it. The Hebrew word for feet is also the Hebrew word for another part of the male body. I see you get the danger of the passage now. Naomi may well be pimping her daughter out for their mutual security. Such was the likely outcome of widows.
We already know, though, that Boaz is a righteous guy. We have been told that, and his actions have backed up what has been described to us. He has told the men not to harass Ruth. He has told them to share their water with her. Heck, he has even given her as much as five gallons worth of grain for gleaning! Nevertheless, hearing this story for the first time, we should probably hold our breath. What will he do? When Boaz wakens and finds Ruth at his “feet,” he blesses her for what she has done. On the righteous hand, she has loved Naomi enough to have offered herself to Boaz so that he might redeem Naomi and her family by giving her a son. On the other hand, she has trusted Naomi even to the point of prostituting herself to care for her mother-in-law. She has defied common sense and normal relationships. She has come to truly care for the mother of her husband, the lady who instructed her in the love and grace of the Lord.
Boaz does not seem to think himself to be quite the catch. He is neither young nor rich nor hunky. Ruth, in his mind, should have been chasing after young men, wealthier men, or more handsome men. She has chosen instead to trust the advice of her mother-in-law. But a problem remains. There is a kinsman who is closer to Naomi than Boaz. Before Boaz can redeem his kinswoman, this closer relative needs to give up the right in front of the elders at the gates.
Boaz may be righteous, but he is nobody’s fool. He seeks out the kinsman and asks if he has heard that Naomi is back and that her sons are dead. The implication is, of course, that the old woman needs someone to care for her and to try and father a child on her for poor Elimelech. The kinsman wants nothing to do with the cursed hag mentioned by Boaz. So Boaz offers to redeem his kinswoman in this guy’s stead, as well as the Moabite hanger-on. For different reasons, both are excited to do this in front of the elders at the gate. The closer kinsman wants freed of his responsibilities to Naomi. Boaz wants to marry the faithful beautiful daughter-in-law of Naomi.
Plots, intrigue, some comedy, a little sex—the story seems right out of prime time network television, does it not? In the most amazing way, God answers Boaz’ prayer. Never in a million years did he think himself anyone’s answered prayer; yet God used him to redeem the family of Naomi and Elimelech. Both lived happily ever after, it seems, yet we are given an amazing footnote. Boaz did indeed know his wife and she conceived a son. His name was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David.
For her faithfulness, this Moabite widow is not only grafted into the vine of Israel, but she becomes one of the matriarchs of the Holy Family. Yes, the town to which Ruth and Naomi returned was Bethlehem. Yes, Ruth is the grandmother of David, the king of Israel. More amazingly to a foreign widow and to us, she now stands in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David.
The story is a beautiful story and full of twists and turns and humor and sadness. On the surface, it is about the kinsman redeemer of Israel, the Go’el. None of Israel was to be dispossessed of their land. To be dispossessed from the land was equated with being cut off from the promises of God. Whenever tragedy befell families, God expected kinsmen to alleviate the suffering and eventually produce an heir, if possible, for the ones dispossessed. It is a simple and complex rule and was followed by the righteous and ignored by those who did as they saw fit.
Family dynamics are . . . .interesting, are they not? Most families, it seems to me, excel in putting the fun into dysfunction. But what we call dysfunction, God calls normal. Every family has its difficulties. Sometimes it is a black sheep; sometimes it is someone who besmirches the name of the family by their actions. We like to think such black sheep are distant cousins or weird aunts and uncles. But, with the holidays on the horizon, let’s be real. Some are far more closer to our immediate families than distant cousins or odd aunts or goofy uncles. Some are brothers, some are sisters, and some are seen by us in our mirrors.
At the deeper level, though, the story of Ruth speaks to all our need for a Go’el, a kinsman redeemer. We all need someone who will rescue our families from whatever systemic sin we find ourselves rooted. The story of Ruth speaks to that frailty, that weakness we all share with the One who came down from heaven and called Himself the Son of Man. At the deeper level, Jesus took on that title and uses this story to remind each and every one of us that He is our brother who has redeemed us. When we should have been cut off, when we should have been abandoned, He stepped in and adopted us into that same family that now counts among its matriarchs and patriarchs Ruth and Boaz. When we were the drunken uncle, when we were the crazy aunt that could not stop pinching cheeks, when we were the black sheep who hung out with the wrong crowd, introduced substances to our bodies that had no business being there, or sought comfort in the arms of one after another, He stepped in and reminded us that we were loved, that we were invited into this amazing holy family, that we could be white sheep, while retaining some of the unique characteristics that made us us. And the relationship He offers us is not one of tolerance, not one of “I only have to deal with you on special occasions like holidays,” but rather one of love! How do we know this? Because He died for us, knowing all our faults, long before we ever came to know and understand Him. He died for us even when we were fighting against Him!
And what does He ask of us? Everything and nothing. In one sense, becoming a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth is as simple as asking Him to come into our hearts and to rule our lives. When we sin against God or neighbors, we repent and try again. He has already born the true cost of our forgiveness on the Cross. On the other hand, though, becoming a disciple of Jesus, becoming a follower of the Lord, is the most difficult thing you and I will ever do. Accepting that relationship means that we become His hands and feet and voice in the world, a world which wants nothing to do with Him or us. Accepting that relationship means that we begin to live as if we believe the things He taught are true. Boaz had every reason not to want to father a grandson for Naomi. As a faithful man, he no doubt felt some twinge of guilt about marrying a Moabite woman as go’el. Yet, he also had the witness of Ruth’s service to Naomi before him. He knew she was different that her sister. He knew she placed her trust in her mother-in-law and, far more importantly, in her God of Israel. Knowing he was no looker and no longer young, Boaz likely understood there would be whispers and laughter at the man being taken advantage of by the Moabitess. But he was determined to follow God and serve him in all that he did. How he treated the poor and aliens before Ruth entered the picture is clear enough to us. And God blessed his faithfulness in ways this humble, faithful man could never have expected.
That same relationship is offered by our Lord to each one of us. Our Lord stands ready to redeem each one of us, not as a slave, not as a servant, but as a friend, a brother, and a sister. Our Lord stands ready to serve us even as He asks us to serve Him. Brothers and sisters, each of us has incredible misery in our lives. Were we honest and truthful with each other, we would all know, way down deep inside, that we are in a real way unlovable. Still, He loved us and died for us and offers to redeem us. All those secrets He knows, and still He suffered to redeem us!
His love for us will not make the hurt magically go away. Our decision to follow Him will in no way end all our suffering in this world. But our decision to follow Him, just like Boaz’, will have incredible opportunity for redemption in our lives. He will give meaning to the senseless in our lives. He will give value to the valuelessness of our lives. He will sanctify and redeem that which the world claims is not. And for our faithfulness, for our willingness to pick up a cross and follow Him, He will give us rewards even greater than Boaz received, for all eternity. That’s what it means to be THE GO’EL.