Sermon for May 16th, 2021
Today's scripture reading comes from the Book of Ruth, chapter 2, which you can find on page 242 of your pew Bibles. We're going to read the entire chapter, but since it's a long passage I'll intersperse the reading with the sermon. So as we prepare to hear God's word, let us pray.
Redeeming Love: The Story of Ruth, Part II
An old couple is sitting on their couch one day and the man asks his wife, "If I die, do you think you'll you get married again?" The wife replies "Well I don't want to be lonely... So, probably yes." The husband furrows his brow at this, and says "Will you live in our house?" The wife replies "Well, it's already paid off... So yes, I think so." By now, the husband is quite concerned. He says, "Are you gonna let him use my golf clubs?!" And the wife replies "Of course not...he's left handed."
Last week, we heard the story of two widows, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Having lost their husbands in the land of Moab, Naomi decides to come back to her home country of Judah (in Israel) and Naomi decides to come with her, famously (and perhaps stubbornly) telling her mother in law that "Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
In today's scripture passage, Ruth and Naomi have arrived in Judah, with no resources, no protection, no other immediate family beyond each other. It's not exactly a hopeful situation.
Verse 1: Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” 3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. 4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” 6 The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”
According to the ancient law code of Israel, "gleaning" or picking up the leftover grain in the fields, is a legal right for certain groups of people. The book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 24, spells this out clearly: "19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings."
This is repeated again in the book of Leviticus, chapter 23: "22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God."
Ruth meets every one of these categories: She is an alien or foreigner. She is a widow. She is poor. And as we saw last week, she's probably an orphan, too.
However, Ruth is not just any foreigner. As we learned last week, she comes from Moab, the land of Israel's most bitter and hated enemies. In Deuteronomy, just one chapter before the law about letting foreigners glean in your field, Deuteronomy states that no Moabite shall be admitted in to the Assembly of Israel, even down to the tenth generation of descent. Deuteronomy 23:6 goes so far as to say, "You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live." In other words, Moabites like Ruth are the exception to all the rules of hospitality.
When Boaz, the owner of the field, asks who this woman is, the first thing the servant says is, "She is the MOABITE, who came back with Naomi...from the country of MOAB." The emphasis is clear. It's as if he's saying to Boaz, "What are you going to do about it?? Your reputation is on the line, here!" But Boaz hears something different. He hears the name of Naomi...the widow of his relative, Elimalech. I suspect he also takes notice of her determination and work ethic. The servant says that "she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment."
Verse 8: Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “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. 12 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!” 13 Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”
Here we learn the initial reason for Boaz's interest in Ruth: He knows about all she has done for Naomi, his relative. He's making sure that Naomi is taken care of, something noble, but also something that would have been expected of an Israelite of his station. You take care of your own people. But I've always wondered how he might have acted if Ruth the Moabite had been just...Ruth the Moabite, and not the daughter of Naomi? Would he still have followed the laws of the land, which clearly said, "You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live."
It's worth a little detour here to ask the question, "why were things so bad between the people of Israel and the people of Moab?" By the time the Book of Ruth is written, they have been fighting each other for centuries, and like many long running feuds, chances are the people involved have long since forgotten why they began fighting in the first place. But there's a hint of a backstory in that verse from Deuteronomy that I mentioned a minute ago:
Deuteronomy 23: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you."
This may sound petty to us, but in the Ancient Middle East, hospitality was a big deal. Hotels didn't exist, and all travelers had to rely on the simple hospitality of local people. So, when the Israelites were themselves foreigners, wandering through the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt, they wandered into the land of Moab. Instead of offering them food and water--the minimum standard for basic assistance--the people of Moab cursed them. In time, that little slight grew into full-fledged hostility.
Boaz has fulfilled his obligation to his relative, Naomi. But Boaz owes nothing to Ruth. He might very well have said, "Your ancestors did not offer food or water to my people when we were in need, why should I do anything for you?" And yet...
Verse 14: At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
How do you break a generational curse? How do you undo centuries of violence and warfare? Forget about negotiated treaties and peace accords: Change begins with simple, individual acts of kindness and hospitality. Looking past the way you (or your ancestors) were slighted in the past, letting go, and starting a fresh new chapter. Peace begins when we offer food, drink, and shelter to those in need. The criteria is not whether it is deserved, or earned. Just whether it is needed.
Verse 17: So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley.
For what it's worth, an "ephah" of barley is about 8 pounds worth of grain. Or for those who are interested in these things, that's about 42 loaves of bread...or 490 bottles of beer.
Verse 18: She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. 19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.
That's the end of chapter two, and if I've kept your interest so far, know that the story really heats up in chapter three--which we'll read next week.
But before we end today, I want to quickly highlight three principles we can "glean" (pardon the pun) from chapter two of Ruth's story. I've already talked at length about the first principle, which is hospitality. When the other workers in the field saw the "Moabite foreigner" in their midst, few of them could have imagined that she would someday be, along with Boaz, the owner of the field. Fewer still could have imagined that they were looking at the great grandmother of Israel's most beloved king. The book of Hebrews in the New Testament puts it this way: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unaware." It would be good for us to imagine that every stranger we meet might someday be very, very important to us--and extend our hospitality accordingly.
The second principle is initiative. When Ruth arrives in Israel, she doesn't passively wait for someone to rescue her, or feed her, or show kindness to her. She tells her mother-in-law, "Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain." And then she works hard throughout the day. Likewise, Boaz, when he sees a Moabite woman gleaning in his field, doesn't say, "well that's interesting." He takes initiative. "Who is she? What's her story? How can I help?" And then he springs into action.
God is present throughout the Book of Ruth, guiding and directing random encounters. But the central characters do their part. They work hard. They ask the right questions. They defy conventions and take responsibility for their lives and their circumstances. The next time you are waiting for God to bless you, to rescue you, you might also ask yourself, "what's my part in my story?" I believe that God blesses our initiative, our hard work, and multiplies it beyond our imagination.
The third and final principle that we can glean from our story is perhaps the most important: Community. Ruth leans on Naomi when she has no one else. Naomi leans on Ruth when she enters a new land with new and unfamiliar conventions. Boaz comes into this community, honoring his family ties and in the process making new ones. Without any one of these three, the hopes and dreams of the other two would completely fall apart.
Hospitality opens the door to new relationships and new opportunities. Initiative walks through the door, seizes the opportunities and brings those new relationships into fruition. But community nurtures and sustains them both, cementing us in our new life, allowing us to put down deep roots, to grow and to thrive.