This morning we are continuing our series on the book of Ruth. Ruth is an Old Testament book set in the time of the Judges, when the Bible says everyone did what was right in their own eyes, before Israel had a king and instead chieftains ruled 12 tribes. It's like a play. In Act 1, Naomi and her family move from Israel to Moab because of a famine. While there, her husband and sons die, leaving behind Naomi and the sons' wives, Orpah and Ruth. Hearing that the famine in Israel has ended, Naomi decides to return there. Her daughter-in-law Orpah stays behind in Moab to build a new life for herself. But Ruth pledges to go with Naomi and be family to her. Act 2 is the story how they try to survive. Ruth decides to take advantage of some ancient laws that allowed the poor a share in the harvest. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Israelites were instructed to avoid harvesting in the corners of their fields and vineyards, and to only pass through the fields once. What was left was for the poor to gather as they could. It was called gleaning. So in order to keep them from starving, Ruth goes out to glean some food for herself and Naomi.
Scripture Reading Ruth 2:1-23
Narrator: Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a well-respected and manly man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi,
Ruth: “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.”
Naomi: “Go, my daughter.”
Narrator: So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. And she chanced by chance to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers,
Boaz: “The Lord be with you.”
Narrator: They answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers,
Boaz: “To whom does this young woman belong?”
Narrator: The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 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. ”Then Boaz said to Ruth,
Boaz: “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 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.”
Narrator: Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him,
Ruth: “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”
Boaz: “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: “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.”
Narrator: At mealtime Boaz said to her,
Boaz: “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.”
Narrator: 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. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men,
Boaz: “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
Narrator: So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about 30 pounds of barley.
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. Her mother-in-law said to her,
Naomi: “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.”
Ruth: The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.
Naomi: “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead! The man is a relative of ours, one with the right to redeem.”
Ruth: “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’”
Naomi: “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.”
Narrator: 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.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The hardest thing about understanding the Bible is knowing what to do with all the things it doesn't say. These stories always have only as much description as is required to move the story forward. We rarely get to know about the characters' thoughts, feelings, or motivations. Which, honestly makes the stories feel a little flat sometimes. But it turns out that flat surface makes a great mirror because we wind up projecting our own thoughts and feelings and motivations on to these characters. We aren't told how Ruth feels in this story, so we imagine how we would feel in that situation and suddenly we are in the story. And maybe we see something about ourselves that we didn't see before.
This is certainly the case with the book of Ruth. On the surface it's a really nice story, almost like a rags-to-riches fairy tale. But you scratch the surface, and you start to see that things aren't so clear-cut. Ruth could be a strong woman who makes some bold choices, or a hopeless case who does what other people tell her. Naomi could be a loving and accepting mother-in-law, or a scheming old lady who uses her clueless daughter-in-law to promote her own survival. The folks in Bethlehem could either be generous villagers who welcome Naomi and Ruth, or they could be narrow-minded bigots who will never let Ruth forget where she was born. We get to decide.
One of the most challenging characters in this book is God! God could be working behind the scenes, orchestrating every "chance" encounter and taking none of the credit, or God could be mostly absent, letting famine and death and harvest run their course, passively watching what humans do with the whims of existence. We get to decide.
And we get to decide for our own situations. We get to decide where and how and to what extent we see God at work in our world, not only in biblical miracles like parting seas and fiery furnaces, but even more so in our everyday joys and struggles. Because honestly, the Bible paints it both ways. Sometimes it sounds like God is responsible for everything that happens. And sometimes it sounds like we have most of the control. So which do you believe? Which do you WANT to believe, because you can make a case from the Bible and even from this very book for whichever you choose.
Many of us have been raised in religious systems heavy on logical convincing and light on spiritual experience. We come and sit and listen to the person with the education present what is hopefully a well-crafted bit of persuasion, and then we mentally agree with what we've heard, and that counts as faith. And while there are some things about that system that I think are helpful, and obviously I benefit from it, I think it doesn't quite do enough to encourage each of us to take responsibility for our own faith, our own trust, our own experience of the sacred, our own relationship with God. What do you sense is happening around you? What kind of a spiritual reality do you want? Because in a large part, you get to choose it.
There's a big gnarly theological concept called God's sovereignty, which basically means God's power and God's control. And many years ago, I made a statement that some of you might find to be heretical. I think, maybe, God is as sovereign as we allow God to be. If we believe God is at work in every aspect of our life, we will see things that we credit as miracles. If we choose to believe that God set the world in motion and now intervenes only rarely if ever, we will see things that we credit to human ingenuity or chance. And we will make choices for how we live based on our perspective. The point is, we each have to choose.
I used to want to have somer religious authority just present enough evidence to convince me one way or another so I wouldn't have to take responsibility for my own faith. But it just doesn't work like that. We all get to choose and then we are responsible to live in line with our choice.
So what does this have to do with Ruth? As I said, some of the biggest questions in this book are where is God and what is God doing. God is mentioned only a handful of times and usually it's within the context of one character blessing another. The text says Ruth "happened by chance" to enter the field belonging to Boaz. Does chance mean chance, or does chance mean God? You get to decide. And what you decide will shape how you read the rest of the story, and how you see your own life.
This interaction between human activity and divine activity shows up in Ruth in two major ways, which we got glimpses of this morning, but which we will see even more clearly next week. There are two concepts I want to point out to you.
The first is faithfulness. The Hebrew word is hesed, and it's used when Naomi says that someone (either God or Boaz, you pick) has not forsaken his hesed to the living or the dead. It also shows up in chapter 1 where Naomi first tries to send Ruth and Orpah back to their families with the blessing, "May the Lord do hesed to you as you have done to the dead and to me." This concept of hesed is thought by most scholars to be the key theme in the book of Ruth. It's a word that shows up 250 times throughout the Old Testament and is translated as faithfulness, loving-kindness, covenant love, steadfastness, and loyalty. Jews say it is one of God's 13 divine attributes and is always the attribute used when describing God's love for the world.
It is also the foundation for the statement in John chapter 1 that says the Word became flesh and dwelled among us full of grace and truth.
Hesed is not an attitude, it is always an action; usually the Bible refers to "doing hesed." Hesed is demonstrated by concrete actions carried out in the context of a relationship of mutual care and responsibility. The question in the book of Ruth, especially this chapter, is who is doing the hesed, because it can be done by God or people. And remember even more important than what we think is happening in the story is what we think is happening in the world.
The second concept is redemption. The Hebrew word is go'el and it shows up here where Naomi says there is a relative who has the right to redeem. Redemption is a word that we Christians like to use when talking about salvation and it has a wide range of meanings. It means to save from an error, to regain possession, to clear a debt, or to buy freedom. This is the first time we're seeing it in the story of Ruth, but it is the major concept in chapters 3 and 4. Many scholars get hung up on exactly what this means, but I'm going to suggest that when we try to define the word too precisely, we lose the power of the imagery. On a grand scale, to redeem something is to make it right. To take a situation that was wrong and to turn it around. And very broadly, I think that's a great description of what God does for the world that God so loves. But apparently, according to the book of Ruth, humans also do redemption.
There's a lot of things we don't know about the book of Ruth. But what most scholars agree is that the book is included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures because it paints of beautiful picture of what the world can be like when humans choose to mimic God. Regardless of how active we may choose to believe God is, most Christians agree that at heart God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness and redemption. If we choose to believe that God is actively constantly at work in the world, then obviously we would want to get in on that activity of faithfulness and redemption. If we choose to believe that these are attributes and values of a God who does not directly intervene in our world, then we have a great responsibility to carry out the work that is in line with who we believe God is. At Zion we honor a wide range of Christian belief and practice. Whatever we believe about God's sovereignty or God's power and control, we are united in our commitment to personally enacting more faithfulness, more love, and more redemption in a world that so desperately needs it. Amen.