Sermon for May 23rd, 2021
Today's scripture reading is chapter three of the Book of Ruth, which you can find in your pew Bibles on page 243. Just as I have for the past two weeks, I'll intersperse the reading and the story with the sermon itself. So as we prepare to hear God's word, let us pray: (prayer for Illumination).
I feel like I need to give you an extra warning today--Chapter three of the Book of Ruth should be rated at least PG-13, if not R. If you haven't figured it out yet, Ruth is a love story, a biblical romance story. And often, in a romantic movie or story...things can get a little steamy. Of course, most English translations of the Bible try to hide this a bit, or downplay it--but it's there, and it's there for good reasons. So I'm not going to dance around it. There's still plenty of time to send your children to the playground if you're worried.
But first, to recap from the last two weeks: Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth are both widows. Their husbands died in the land of Moab, making them destitute, and so they have returned to Naomi's home country of Judah, where Ruth has been working in the field of a man named Boaz. Boaz, though presumably much older than Ruth, has shown kindness to her, and we have learned that he is actually a close relative of Naomi's deceased husband Elimelech.
Redeeming Love: The Story of Ruth, Part III
Chapter three, verse 1: Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
Nothing like a little bit of stalking to get a relationship going! That's a joke (stalks of wheat? threshing?). Although it does seem like Naomi is coaching Ruth in the arts of a more traditional kind of stalking. Ruth is instructed to put on her best clothes and anoint herself with oil--which would be the equivalent of modern day perfume. But what's really interesting is that Naomi tells Ruth to wait until Boaz is asleep, and then to "uncover his feet and lie down." Why would you uncover someone's feet in the middle of the night? That doesn't sound nice at all! Unless feet aren't really feet.
In several places in the Old Testament, as well as in Jewish Rabbinic literature, feet are often a euphemism for the male reproductive organ. Reading the story this way, it starts to make more sense...and is probably more familiar, too.
Verse 6: So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7 When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his "feet," and lay down. 8 At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his "feet," was a woman!
The word that the NRSV translates as "and there" is my favorite Hebrew word: הִנֵּה (hine) which older versions sometimes translate as "Lo!" or "Behold!" but I prefer Thomas Cahill's translation of that word, using the modern day acronym WTF. Because that's probably what Boaz actually thought--WTF, there's a woman!
Verse 9: (and you have to love the awkward comedy in this!) He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”
And BAM! Right there with those simple and direct words, Ruth lays everything on the table (literally and figuratively).
Spread your cloak over your servant. For a man to spread his cloak over a woman--covering her nakedness in the act of intercourse--is essentially a marriage proposal. So Ruth is saying to Boaz--propose to me. But it's more than that; it's also a beautiful metaphor. Because back in chapter two, when they first met, Boaz prayed that GOD might spread his wings over Ruth to shelter and protect her. Now it's as if she's saying, why don't you make that prayer come true, and act on God's behalf?
But there's still more: Spread your cloak over your servant...for you are next-of-kin. The Hebrew word for next-of-kin is גֹאֵ֖ל (go-el). It literally means "redeemer" or "rescuer" but as we've seen before, in Old Testament law it meant the relative of the deceased husband, who was required to marry the widow and therefore carry on the family line. Not only is Ruth saying, "propose to me, Boaz." She's saying "You must propose to me Boaz--it's your duty."
Don't let anyone ever tell you that women in the Bible are weak, passive, or submissive. Ruth is clearly in charge of the situation here. She is bold in her actions, clever in her words, but she has also taken a great risk here. She's out on a limb, perhaps wondering if she is out of her league.
Verse 10: [Boaz] said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.
Here we learn what we suspected all along--Boaz is significantly older than Ruth. And he expected she would seek out a husband her own age. When Boaz refers to Ruth's "first loyalty" he means her faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi. But when he praises even more "this last instance of your loyalty" he's not talking about himself. He realizes something quickly in the moment: If Ruth had gone after a young poor man, she wouldn't have been able to take care of her mother-in-law. And if Ruth had gone after a young rich man, her mother-in-law would be fine, but the name and lineage of her deceased husband would fall into obscurity. Ruth's first loyalty was to Naomi. But her last loyalty, her greater loyalty, is to the family of Naomi and her husband, and her sons--which also happens to be the family of Boaz.
Verse 11: And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people (in other words, that family you've just shown your loyalty to) know that you are a worthy woman. 12 But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. 13 Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”
In saying this, Boaz shows honor for the traditions of his people, respect for his family member, and he shows honesty and transparency to Ruth.
Verse 14: So she lay at his "feet" until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
Some things never change. Boaz is protecting Ruth from the walk of shame, from the rumor mill and the gossip column.
Verse 15: Then he said, “Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. 16 She came to her mother-in-law, who said, “How did things go with you, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, 17 saying, “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” 18 She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”
I love this image of Boaz: When he has decided on a course of action, he will not rest until things are settled. Next week, we'll find out exactly what happens, and how the story ends. But since today was what they call in the film industry our "meet cute," our funny, awkward, cute, and beautiful beginning of a legendary relationship, I thought we could maybe cover a few "relationship principles" from our story. Here's the first one:
1. Some things are NOT important. On the surface, it would seem like Ruth and Boaz have nothing in common. They come from two entirely different countries and cultures, entirely different socio-economic classes, and even two entirely different generations. And yet all of these differences seem to work in their favor. There is "chemistry" between them (another great euphemism) but even here their approach to each other is different: One is cautious while the other is bold. We have no description of their physical appearance, and they don't seem to focus on that much in any case. Compatibility for Ruth and Boaz looks completely different than everything we've been taught to look for. Which leads me to the second principle:
2. Some things ARE very important. But they aren't the ones we might expect; they aren't surface level things. They are the deeper things, the core values and beliefs that connect us. It's obvious that Ruth and Boaz both value loyalty to their family; they both make a point to show kindness and respect to others; they both share the same faith in the God of Israel; and they both honor the customs and traditions of their land. What's more, they recognize and acknowledge those things in each other, often pointing them out and praising each other for them.
3. One more principle. The title of this sermon series is "Redeeming Love: The Story of Ruth". And the story centers around this idea of the גֹאֵ֖ל (go-el), the kinsman redeemer. I'm going to talk more about that next week, but for now, as far as relationship principles go, love is powerful precisely because it has the power to redeem--to rescue and re-value things that the world too often rejects and throws away: A widowed mother-in-law. A foreign outcast. An old man.
When we see others the way God sees them; when we love others the way God loves them; when we treat others the way God wants us to treat them; then we discover a whole new ecosystem of value within the people around us and within ourselves. Yes, you may be an outcast. You may be poor, or old, or young, or whatever label the world bestows upon you in order to put you in your place. But that's just surface level. At the very core of your being, you are fundamentally a beloved child of God, created with infinite dignity and worth.
We have been redeemed from the world, and rescued by God's love. In your most intimate relationships, and in all of your relationships, help each other to seek and to find that kind of redeeming love.