Sermon for May 30th, 2021

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Ruth 4:1-22

Today's scripture reading is the final chapter of the Book of Ruth, chapter 4, verses 1-22, which you can find on page 243 in your pew bibles. As we prepare to hear God's word, let us pray...

Redeeming Love: The Story of Ruth, Part IV

We'll get to the story of Ruth in just a moment, but first... It was memorial day weekend at a small church in a small town, and on his way to the sanctuary the pastor saw a little boy standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at a new display on the wall. The display was filled with dozens of pictures--some black and white, some more recent. Next to each picture, a small American flag was pinned.

The pastor stopped and said hello to the boy, and the little boy asked him "Pastor, who are all those people?" In a sad but proud voice, the pastor answered, "Those are pictures of church members through the years who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country." The boy seemed confused at this, so the pastor tried again. "Those are all the young men and women from our church who died in the service." When he heard this, the little boy froze and turned as white as a sheet. In a trembling, quiet voice, he said, "Pastor...did they die in the 9:00 or the 11:00 service?"

Humor aside, Memorial day is one of those holidays that originates in tragedy--loss of life; loved ones who never came home. And yet we also recognize on Memorial day the great blessings that come from such great sacrifice. God turns our sorrow into gratitude, and so we respond by promising to always remember.

The story of Ruth is much like this. It begins in tragedy, loss of life, loved ones who never came home. And yet, through the course of the story, we see God's providential hand at work, putting lives and families back together, building and strengthening a nation, and turning sorrow into gratitude as the dead are honored, remembered, and their purpose carried forward.

Last week in our story, the two widows--Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi--conspired to bring about a match between Ruth and Boaz, a kind older man who is related to Naomi's family. Their hope is that Boaz will act as a גואל (goel) or kinsman redeemer, who (according to ancient Jewish law) will marry Ruth and carry on the family line of her deceased husband. Boaz has agreed to do this, but has also pointed out that there is a closer relative with an even stronger claim which must be settled first.

Verse 1: No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. 2 Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down.

It should be noted that the city gate, in the ancient middle east, was the place where judicial transactions took place. Kind of like a modern-day courthouse. Boaz has gathered up the elders of the city, who act as both witnesses and judges for the case. He calls his relative, the one with the stronger claim, "friend" and proceeds to lay out his case.

Verse 3: He then said to the next-of-kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” So he (the other relative) said, “I will redeem it.”

This is an interesting approach. At first, Boaz says absolutely nothing about Ruth, which is the real purpose of his suit. Instead he mentions a parcel of land which belonged to their mutual relative, Naomi's deceased husband Elimelech. It is also a kinsman redeemer's obligation to keep land in the family, and so the relative quickly says, "Yeah, sure, I'll buy it. Sounds like a great deal."

Why does Boaz start with the land, and not with Ruth? Well, in agrarian cultures, the land would likely be seen as the more valuable of those two things. Land produces more wealth, and with it more status. A marriage by contrast, is a cost--another person to feed, to clothe, to care for. If it's a marriage to someone of a higher social status, it could be advantageous, but remember that Ruth is a poor widow. From a questionable country.

I also think that Boaz is trying to be completely above reproach here: If he mentions Ruth first, and the other relative rejects her (as is quite likely) it could later be said that Boaz only married Ruth in order to get the parcel of land. But by first putting on the table the one thing that everyone else would have considered the "real" value (the land), Boaz quietly lays the groundwork to gain what in HIS eyes is far more valuable--the woman he (and he alone) already knows to be faithful, kind, hard-working, and honorable.

This is an important lesson for us: The greatest value doesn't come from the obvious things, from material possessions, things that generate wealth or status. The greatest value is often hidden--it comes from relationships, from seeing the dignity and worth in another person, and from doing the right thing, regardless of the cost.

Now that the other relative has publicly agreed to "redeem" the parcel of land, Boaz makes his move.

Verse 5: Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.”

Oh and by the way...that parcel of land? It comes with some legal strings attached. Now if it were just a parcel of land, you could claim it free and clear, and pass it down to your children and their children and so on. But since it comes with a widow, you would be obligated to marry her and produce children... and that parcel of land would then go to her children... and since they would also be your children, the rest of your land (or at least part of it) would also go to them. Oh, and that widow? She's from Moab, the land of our enemies.

I imagine the smile quickly fades from the face of the other relative, as he considers the wife he already has, the children he already has, the land he already has, and the reputation he already has. Alternatively, if he has no wife and no children yet, that means that whatever children he might have with Ruth would inherit ALL of his land, but they would then legally carry the land AND the name of Ruth's deceased husband, and not HIS name.

Verse 6: At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

In other words, hard pass. Why don't you take that parcel of land, Boaz?

Verse 7: Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal. 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon (his sons). 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.”

Boaz could have glossed over that last part, hoping it would be forgotten, but instead he makes clear to all his intention to be a good גואל (go-el), to be a husband to Ruth, laying aside his own inheritance and name in order to carry on the line of another person. The elders of the town recognize the generosity, the risk, and the noble sacrifice that Boaz is making, and they respond with a blessing.

Verse 11: Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, 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; 12 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.”

That last part, about Perez the son of Tamar and Judah, is a reference to another PG-13 story from the Book of Genesis, but a far less romantic one. Both of these stories together are a reminder that we all have questionable characters and unsavory secrets in our family trees--and yet God has a funny way of turning our scandals into successes, and our sadness into celebration.

Verse 13: So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 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.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

(As in "King David" the one described by the Bible as a man after God's own heart).

18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19 Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21 Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22 Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.

As you can see, the name and lineage of Boaz are not forgotten--in the telling and retelling of this story, both his name and the name of Elimelech's sons are preserved and carried on. This looks like the perfect "happy ending" but wait... there's just a little bit more.

1,000 years after the time of King David, in the town where Ruth and Boaz met and married and started a family (a town called Bethlehem) another descendant was born to them. His name was Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. Most of us know that story pretty well--his ministry, his teaching, his death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension to heaven.

And several hundred years after the story of Jesus began to make its way through the world, medieval scholars and students of the Bible noticed a striking similarity between his story and the story of his ancestors, Ruth and Boaz. They compared Ruth to the broken and hurting people of the world--people who have experienced loss and rejection, suffering and sorrow, exiles in a foreign land. And they compared Boaz to Jesus, a גואל (go-el), a kinsman-redeemer who laid down his heavenly inheritance for the sake of his beloved bride--his church, his people--rescuing them and redeeming them, reconciling them to the family of God, and preparing a place for them in a new home, a new land, a new kingdom.

That story--the story of Jesus--has been called the greatest story ever told. Like the story of Ruth, I think it's a love story. A redemption story. A story of redeeming love. It's your story, and it's my story. Oh, and--spoiler alert--it also has a very happy ending.