While the parable of the Prodigal Son is my favorite story in the New Testament, the story of Ruth is my favorite story in the Old Testament. Both are stories about love in action. Both are stories about love prevailing in spite of many reasons for it not to. Both are wonderful examples of why love is the greatest of the gifts of God.
While most people can talk a good game about how they love everybody, when it comes to actually doing it in real life the number drops considerably. A man came home from work one day to find a tragic scene. His dog had run through the freshly poured concrete driveway of his next door neighbor, and the neighbor shot the dog. He went over to confront his neighbor about it. He said, “How could you do this? I thought you told me you love dogs?” The neighbor said, “I do love dogs in the abstract, but I hate dogs in the concrete.”
And that is the heart of our problem. We love people in the abstract, but when they come with names and faces and annoying habits we have a lot more trouble loving them. And when they look different, speak a different language, practice a different religion, then it gets even more difficult.
The people of Israel have had a real struggle with this because they have two understandings of what God calls them to do with regard to the stranger. On the one hand, God told Abraham that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. A number of times in the Old Testament it is said that Israel is called to be a light to the nations, the servant of God by whom the nations will come to God and be blessed.
But on the other hand there are many teachings in the Old Testament about the importance of keeping totally separate from those who are different. There are commands not to intermarry with foreigners, commands to destroy whole towns of foreigners because living among them will taint the faithful. There are laws that Jewish people may not touch, associate with, or eat with non-Jewish people. So how are you going to reconcile these two approaches?
I’d argue that most people tend to view the world in us versus them terms. Jews v. Gentiles. Christians v. non-Christians. Hatfields v. McCoys. Montagues v. Capulets. Crips v. Bloods. Haves v. Have-nots. In crowd v. Out crowd. Republicans v. Democrats. Americans v. Rest of the World.
So breaking into this black and white mindset is the charming, non-preachy story of Ruth. It isn’t interested in propounding law or philosophy. It is interested in telling a story about ordinary people in difficult situations and how they move beyond old teachings and understandings to live faithfully and lovingly in the context in which they find themselves. To take out of context a line from a seventies song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, they learned that if you can’t be with the ones you love you can love the ones you’re with.
Naomi and her husband and two sons lived in Bethlehem. Life was hard and growing harder due to a famine. They learned there was food to the east in the country of Moab, so they packed up the family and moved. Moab was a near neighbor and frequent enemy of Israel, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
Clearly Naomi’s family was welcomed and integrated into the community. Both sons ended up marrying Moabite women. This is forbidden in their religion, but what are you going to do when you are marrying age and your family has moved to a foreign country and settled in?
More tragedy came in time. Naomi’s husband died. Then both sons died. In grief and bitterness Naomi makes the decision to move back to Bethlehem. The two daughters in law prepare to travel with her but she discourages them. She has no other sons they can marry, so they should stay among their own people and start over. Perhaps she also imagined that as foreigners they would not be well received if she brought them to Bethlehem and did not want to subject them or herself to that.
One of the daughters in law heeded her advice. The other, Ruth, steadfastly refused. “Do not ask me to leave you or turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where 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.” We immediately begin to get a picture of Ruth being a very remarkable person who either has come to love her foreign born mother in law deeply or else has an unshakable sense of duty and responsibility which will not be compromised. Throughout the story Ruth strikes me as a realist who doesn’t sit around moaning about how things are or how they ought to be. She just jumps right in and does whatever needs to be done in each situation without questioning, without complaining, with a good attitude. Hers is not a sentimental kind of love, it is love in action.
So Naomi and Ruth make the journey to Bethlehem. When they arrived, the whole town started buzzing and tongues started wagging and soon the story of all that had happened was known by all. Naomi told them all to call her Mara, which means Bitter, because she had received nothing but bad from the Lord’s hand.
Ruth didn’t have time for sitting around complaining and feeling sorry for herself, though. It was time for the barley harvest, and she asked permission from Naomi to go glean in the fields so that they would have food to eat. One of the very humane laws in Israel was that when you harvest your fields you are to leave the edges and scraps along the way so that widows and others in need may come along behind the harvesters and glean these scraps for their subsistence. This is what Ruth planned to do.
And she did so. Bethlehem was a small place, and when Boaz, she owner of the field she was gleaning in, came to check on things he saw Ruth and did not recognize her. So he asked his workers who she was, and he was told: “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi. She has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”
Boaz was impressed and went to speak with her. He told her to come to his field every day and he would watch after her. She said, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” Boaz said, “All that you have done for your mother in law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Ruth continued to glean in the field of Boaz through the whole harvest season. Naomi was amazed as she watched and heard about all of these events. Eventually she hatched a plan for Ruth to basically offer herself as a wife to Boaz. It turns out he and Naomi were related, and the laws of Israel provided a way for widows to be married to the closest male relative of her deceased husband, so Naomi was relying on this to persuade Boaz to act.
One of the questions we might ask is why Naomi took so long to take this action, or why she planned it out in a secluded place under the cover of darkness. My guess is that she didn’t even expect Ruth to be accepted by her people when she brought her to Bethlehem, since she was a foreigner. She would have thought it presumptuous to ask a relative to marry a foreigner. It was only after hearing all the stories of Boaz’s kindness towards Ruth and fondness of Ruth that she was willing to give it a try. But she would not want to put him on the spot by asking him to take on this responsibility in a public place, but wanted to do it discreetly so there would be no shame or embarrassment for anyone if he was not willing to do this.
But as it turns out, Boaz was not only willing to marry Ruth, he was overjoyed and humbled. Apparently he was considerably older than Ruth and he would not have asked her because of the age difference. He spoke to her with gratitude and respect, and told her that there was one person who was more closely related than he so he would have to talk with that person first. He did so the next day, and that person was not interested, so the marriage of Boaz and Ruth became reality.
When the marriage takes place at the city gates, the elders of Bethlehem said some interesting things to Boaz. They said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah, and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
If you know those names, this is a heady message. Jacob fled his home when he tricked his brother Esau and his father Isaac, and he went to Mesopotamia where Abraham had started out, to live with his mother’s brother, Laban. He married both of Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel. With these Mesopotamian wives he had twelve children whose families became the twelve tribes of Israel. Tamar was married to Judah’s son. Her husband died and she was married to another of Judah’s sons. The second son died as well. Judah was scared to give her another son, so he did not follow the law in marrying her to him when he became old enough. To teach him a lesson, she tricked Judah into having sexual relations with her thinking she was a prostitute. She had a child as a result, named Perez. Perez, born of this unsavory tryst, was an ancestor of Boaz. So everything the elders reference is outside the bounds of how marriage and family was supposed to work in Israel, but God used each episode to bring about something good and important. In their blessing they pray that God will continue to do this through yet another non-traditional marriage, the marriage of Boaz and Ruth. And indeed, they have a son whose name is Obed. Obed has a son whose name is Jesse. Jesse has a son whose name is David and he becomes Israel’s greatest king. Keep following the line and you eventually come to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
As the story comes to a close, Naomi is contentedly sitting with a grandson in her lap and the women of the town come to share joy and bring congratulations. They also remind this woman who had asked them to call her Mara because she was bitter towards God that she has a lot to be thankful for after all. They said, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter in law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
The story ends, and we are left, as Israel was, to mull the implications of all that love in action for the living of our own lives in our own day. Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian November 8, 2015