Monday, April 4, 2016

The Story 9. The Faith of a Foreign Woman

Readings: Deuteronomy 25:5-10, Psalm 61:1-5, Luke 7:1-10, Ruth 1:1-5
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 6th, 2016

Chapter Nine of "THE STORY" covers just one biblical book, the Old Testament Book of Ruth. In the midst of all the smiting and fighting and terratorial disputing, Ruth is a breath of fresh air. It's a shame that this chapter didn't come on Valentines Day because, at it's heart, it is a romance that declares "Love will find a way."

It doesn't start out well. Naomi and her husband Elimelek live in Bethlehem with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. A famine comes to the land and for the sake of survival they are forced to move to Moabite territory. Moabites and Israelites were not friends and we'll see their continuing conflict in future chapters.

Whilst in Moab, the two sons fall in love with a couple of Moabite ladies, Orpah and Ruth. After a few years, Naomi's husband dies. Then her two sons die and Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are left widowed. Naomi's reaction is to say to her daughters-in-law, “Look there's nothing here for me now. I'm a hindrance to you, you need to find two good Moabite men to look after you. I'm going back to Bethlehem.”

Orpah reluctantly takes Naomi"s advice, but Ruth is having none of it. Ruth has a deep love for her mother-in-law and we are given one of the tenderest statements of solidarity in all scripture. Ruth 1:16-17 Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Do not underestimate the depth of love in that statement. Ruth is saying that the country of her heritage was less important than their relationship; that she would rather leave the religion that she was raised in than be separated from Naomi, and that even in death, she wanted to be identified with Naomi and with Naomi's heritage.

Naomi and Ruth head to Bethlehem. Naomi is under no illusions about their situation. She tells people, don't call me Naomi (a name meaning “pleasant”) call me Mara (which means “bitter.”)

Every culture has their unique customs and at that time Bethlehem had a few that are unfamiliar to us. One of them was the practice of gleaning. Gleaning was a way to provide for the poorest in the land. When ever a field was harvested, around the edges, grain and produce was left unharvested so that those who had no other way of making a living could gather enough to survive on.

Ruth goes gleaning in a nearby field. What she and Naomi did not know was that this particular field is owned by a local farmer called Boaz. Boaz is the son of guy called Samon and his wife Rahab, (the same Rahab, whose family was saved from the destruction of Jericho because of her faithfulness to Israels God). Furthermore Boaz is a relative of Naomi's, which as the plot unfolds, becomes very significant.

One fateful day Boaz comes riding into the field to check on how the harvest is progressing and there is a "Zing" moment. What's a "Zing" moment? When somebody sees somebody across the room and they think "Who's that lady?" Zing. Boaz quizzes his servants and finds out as much as about her as he can.

He rides over. "Look I just heard about everything amazing you have done for your mother-in-law. You can come here any time you like." He orders his servants to make sure she was taken care of. He even invites her to share lunch with him and sends her home with a sack full of goodies. This was not normal behavior.

Ruth is suitably impressed (and seems to be having a bit of a "Zing" moment of her own.) When she gets home and shares the days events with mother-in-law Naomi, Naomi's mind starts working overtime. Not least, because Boaz is a relative, and close kin.

Here's another law of the culture that is essential to understand in the story of Ruth. The role of a Kinsman-Redeemer. There was an ancient tradition, going back to the days of Moses, instituted to help family members take care of each other. One of the provisions was that a male member of kin could pay off any debts incurred by a relative in order that their property could be returned to them.

The other part of the deal was, that as women at this point in history were considered a husbands property, the closest kinsman had a duty to marry the widow of their nearest kin; in order that children may be born and the family name continued (along with the inheritance that went with that families name.)

Complicated? Well, yes it was! Just to make things more complicated any deal that was outside those restrictions had to be approved of by the city elders and sealed with a ceremony that involved taking off a shoe. Naomi has a plan. And it's here that the story gets really juicy and even has the potential for scandal.

At the end of the harvest season there was always a big party, where the wine flowed freely and people ate and danced the night away to celebrate a successful year. Naomi tells Ruth to put on her best clothes and when the party ends, and Boaz lays himself down to sleep, go and snuggle up near to him.

In the original Hebrew there are all sorts of linguistic double meanings and possibilities to these events. When Boaz does go to sleep, it is on the threshing floor. The threshing floor had a reputation as being a place .. well... where couples could be very intimate with each other. Even couples who weren't married.

Ruth is told to "uncover Boaz's feet." Well, this too, in Hebrew literature had different connotations than just being about feet. You can picture the original hearers of this story thinking, “Wooh! How's this going to turn out!"

I've used this passage at youth retreats about relationships, because there are numerous ways this could have played out. This was a dangerous act on Ruth's part and could have backfired. Boaz, especially as he had been drinking and this was a party, could have taken advantage of the situation.

Yet the despite the electric charge in the atmosphere, despite the chemistry of developing attraction and love between them, they both behave in a respectful and exemplary way. Ruth is quite clear to Boaz that she is indeed in a position of attraction to him and would love to have his help. There is something sacrificial, yet guarded, in her approach to the situation. She exposes her vulnerability.

Boaz turns out to be the perfect gentleman. Far from taking advantage of the situation, he tells Ruth, that, for sure, he found her attractive, but that if they were going to be together, than it was going to happen in the right way and everything would be above board. He gives her another bag of grain (in our culture that would probably be an engagement ring), tells her to go home, rest easy, because he will say nothing about her even being there with him, lest it could damage her reputation.

There is a problem if they are going to be together. He was not the nearest kinsman entitled to marry her. And there was property owned by Naomi that was a part of the deal. So, he sets up a meeting with the guy who was the next in line.

At first it seems things are not going to work out. When the nearest kinsman discovers that he has a chance to inherit some land from Naomi, he's like "Yes! Of course I'm up for that!" Then Boaz tells him "On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man's widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property." (Ruth 4:5)

Well, he is not up for that. Maybe he couldn't face telling his wife "Hey good news, we've inherited some land. And by the way, there's also this girl I've got to have some babies with to keep the family line going. That O.K. with you?" You can see how that might not work out. So, Boaz and the other guy do the shoe thing and Boaz gets to be the Kinsman-Redeemer.

Love has found a way. Boaz and Ruth are married and it is not long before there's the patter of tiny feet and their first son, little Obed, a name meaning "Worshiping Servant" is born. Ahh! See? I told you. Ruth is one of the greatest love stories in all the bible!

What is fascinating in this story is that the means in which God"s "Upper Story" purposes are revealed is through the very "Lower Story" natural process of human attraction, romance and love.

Sometimes we put God into compartments. "Yes" I'll trust God in this area of my life, but not that in area. Yes, when it comes to my eternal destiny, I'm glad that You have that covered, but, God, trust You in the matters of relationships and human love? I think I'll handle that myself!"

Relationships are a minefield and if ever we needed help with an area of life on earth, then surely it is right there. The Good news is that God is able, even in the midst of all that human interaction involves, to be a living and active presence, if only we'll allow God to guide us in those areas of our lives. It's all a part of "The Story".

The conclusion of the chapter is remarkable. Ruth is after all, a foreign woman, part of a people called the Moabites who were bitter enemies of Israel. Read the closing genealogy. Little Obed becomes the ancestor of Jesse, who becomes the father of a boy called David, who becomes not only Israel's greatest King, but also part of the family line of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Who knows what blessings our faithfulness can bring, not only to our present life, but even to the lives of those yet to be born? Who can fathom the possibilities of what God can do, even in the arena of human love and relationships?

The Story of Ruth. Chapter Nine in our journey. So now we come to the table of communion. Jesus is sometimes pictured in the New Testament as being our spiritual brother. We also speak of Him as the one who gave His life to save us. Truly, He is our Kinsman-Redeemer.

There are many tender aspects to the story of Ruth that connect us to His ministry. The risks He took. Both the responsibility and the vulnerability we see in His life. The healing power of love that He exemplified through all that He did.

Next week, we'll begin the story of one of Ruth's descendants called David. But today, let us nurture ourselves with bread and wine for the days that lie ahead of us, whatever they may bring. And to God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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