Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wedding Day

Ruth 4
by Daniel Harrell

When last we left Ruth the Moabite she’d hauled a shawl full of barley given to her by Boaz the Bethlehemite, a token of his good faith pledge for her secure future security and for the security of her mother-in-law, Naomi. However, for this secure future to come to pass, somebody had to marry somebody; but for those somebodies to be Ruth and Boaz, a certain somebody else had to be gotten out of the way. That Boaz and Ruth were entwined at all, you’ll remember, occurred on account of a conniving, albeit successful, scheme hatched by Ruth’s good Jewish mother-in-law to help her land a husband. Knowing Boaz to be kin and exceptionally kind toward Ruth, Naomi sought to cash in on this stroke of providence by instructing her daughter-in-law to wash up, dress up and then go down to where Boaz worked late and drank late. Once Boaz became Tired-az and conked out, Ruth was to crawl under his covers and wait to see what happened. Of course, everybody knows full well what usually happens given a scenario such as this. But what actually happened was that Boaz got the chills, woke up, grabbed for his covers only to get a handful of Ruth, who, unwilling to wait to see what Boaz would do, took the initiative and brazenly demanded Boaz tie her a marital knot.
To recap one last time how we got here, it all began with Naomi, her husband Elimilech and their two sons, Chilion and Mahlon, fleeing Bethlehem because of famine. They sojourned to the fertile yet contemptuous country of Moab; a stinking, obstinate and despicable nation, contemptuous due to a long line of bad blood. Descended from the offspring of Abraham’s cousin Lot and his drunken incest with one of his daughters back in Genesis, Moab was a constant thorn in Israel’s side. Moab meanly blocked Israel’s passage out of Egypt during the Exodus, salaciously seduced Israelites into pagan idolatry, and once even hired a psychic to hex them. Given the sordid history, an Israelite would normally never step foot into Moab. But Moab had food, and people have to eat.
Tragically, no sooner did Naomi’s family make it to Moab, than Elimelech the patriarch died. Attempting to save the family tree, his sons snatched two local girls, Orpah and Ruth, to be their wives, but then the sons died with no kids to show for it. Orpah and Ruth and Naomi were now all widowed and childless in a culture where for women, marriage and children were the only means of  security and survival. Naomi became convinced that God was out to get her. Yet rather than wallowing in her bitterness, Naomi stormed back into Israel and back into the presence of God, casting her burdens in his lap, though not first without trying to ease those burdens by persuading Orpah and Ruth to remain in Moab. She told them what they already knew: there was no future for either of them as widowed and childless outsiders in Israel.
Orpah took Naomi’s advice and stayed, but Ruth stuck to Naomi, for better or worse, declaring that “your people will be my people and your God my God” despite God’s less than stellar track record thus far. Jewish tradition teaches that these words denote Ruth’s come-to-Yahweh moment, but unlike what we hear from most conversion testimonies, Ruth’s life only went from bad to worse. No husband, no kids, no country, and now no money, she was forced to scavenge for her supper from the grain inadvertently dropped on the ground during harvest. (You’ll note by this point in the story that the famine had eased). Ruth was humiliated, which in the Bible usually means you’re ripe for some divine intervention. As the psalmist sings, “the LORD adorns the oppressed with salvation.”
Providentially, unbeknownst to her, Ruth ended up scavenging, or gleaning, for grain in the field of Naomi’s cousin Boaz. Having heard of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi, Boaz delivers Ruth from her humiliation by granting her privileged status in his field and all the grain she could eat. Boaz’ kindness inspired Naomi to play matchmaker. As it turned out, again providentially, Boaz was not only a kind man but a kissing cousin, meaning he was available to genealogically reverse the women’s ill-fated circumstances.
Naomi’s marital trap should have been easy to spring—Ruth was a looker. But Boaz, besides being kind, was also keen to the fact that there was another, closer cousin who by law had first dibs. This has confused scholars since Ruth’s situation did not qualify for what is known as a levirate situation. Under ancient Jewish family law, the younger brothers of a deceased husband (called “levirs”) were obliged to marry the dead brother’s widow (if she was childless) so to perpetuate the deceased brother’s name by having children who would be considered his offspring. Among the worst fates to befall a family in ancient Israel was for their name to die out. But Ruth had no brothers-in-law under Jewish levirate obligation. She wasn’t even Jewish.
The right of first refusal to which Boaz referred had to do with a piece of real estate owned by Ruth’s dead father-in-law. Elimelech held privileges to land that would have passed on to his sons, but since they were dead too, it now passed on to the next closest male relative, one cousin ahead of Boaz. Your Bible, read for us this morning, has Boaz calling this cousin “friend” in verse 1, but the Hebrew word is literally cousin “So and So.” Boaz knew his cousin’s name, but the narrator leaves it out for reasons that become clear later. In verse 3, Boaz informs cousin so and so in front of ten witnesses, that “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.” Unfortunately this is something of a misstatement too on Boaz’ part. The land was not really Naomi’s to sell. Had she owned it, presumably she would have already sold it or used it to rescue herself and Ruth from their poverty. But in this patriarchal culture—where everyday was Father’s Day—wives did not inherit from their husbands, which was why widowhood without sons was so precarious. 
Not that people in our culture ever actually own the land or homes that we buy either. It’s why we call home-ownership the American Dream. And we use the word mortgage instead of loan to describe the money we borrow for real estate because mortgage means pledge unto death. You promise to pay back the bank or you’re dead—or at least your credit score is. For Naomi, without a related man (called a kinsman-redeemer under Jewish law) who was willing to honor the mortgage on Elimelech’s parcel, she remained financially dead and homeless herself. Only a kinsman-redeemer could keep the land in Elimelech’s name. Moreover, the kinsman-redeemer would be morally obliged to provide for Naomi too.
So Boaz says to cousin so and so, “If you want this land, then buy it here in the presence of these witnesses. But if you don’t want it, let me know now, because I am next in line to redeem it after you.” To which cousin so and so rightly replied, “I’ll take it!” And why not? There was no financial risk. The land would expand cousin so and so’s holdings and harvests and eventually pay for itself. He’d also have his standing in the community heightened by the purchase and by helping out Naomi. And since Naomi was too old to have any more kids, he wouldn’t have to worry about divvying up his inheritance any further.
But then Boaz pulls a bit of a fast one. He says to cousin so and so verse 5: “Just so you know, the day you acquire the field from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” Now this did not mean that cousin so and so would be purchasing Ruth along with the land. What it did mean was that the moral obligation to Naomi stretched to include Ruth who was of childbearing age and connected to Elimelech through his dead son which meant producing heirs with Ruth to whom this land would go and who wants all that hassle to own a piece of land that you wouldn’t technically own and so cousin so and so says no and no, he’ll pass because he doesn’t want to mess up his own children’s legacy. At least that’s the reason he gives. But back in chapter 3, Ruth was described as having a citywide reputation as a woman of noble character. She was a certified catch for the most part. Surely cousin so and so was aware of this, especially being related to Boaz and Naomi. He knew Ruth was part of the package. Yet it sounds as if what he didn’t know was where Ruth came from. As soon as Boaz disclosed Ruth to be a despicable, loathsome and malicious Moabite, the cousin pulled back. Jewish tradition teaches he refused to redeem for fear that Ruth would contaminate his family’s bloodline. His prejudice is why his name is never worth mentioning.
When Dawn and I took out a death pledge on a condo in Boston, we experienced some similar prejudice. Our condo was in South Boston, or Southie, which if you’ve ever lived in Boston, you know hasn’t always enjoyed a particularly stellar reputation. Southie implies Whitey Bulger and the Irish Mob, welfare families and hard-scrabble life, that’s been depicted in recent movies like The Departed, Good Will Hunting, Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone. This is especially evident when compared to other tonier Boston neighborhoods such as the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, or the hipster South End. Setting aside our own prejudice, we moved into Southie and mostly enjoyed it, even as outsiders ourselves. One night, however, not long after moving in, we decided to order pizza from a favorite shop called The Upper Crust. Their take-out menu said they delivered to all of Boston, so I called them. The guy who answered and asked where I lived must have thought I said the South End because he went on and on about how of course they delivered to the South End and what a cool neighborhood it was what would I like and what an honor it would be to serve and…. I had to interrupt to correct him: No, I live in “South Boston.” Silence on the other end. I could feel the disappointment. The condescension. From a pizza delivery guy. Oh, he finally said. And then: “We do not deliver to South Boston.”
When we relocated to marvelous Minnesota, we left behind such petty prejudice, since here everyone is nice and above average and just happy to have you. We took out a death pledge on the corner of 54th and Drew, which happens to be the borderline between Edina and Minneapolis. It’s easy to tell which is which. Drive down 54th and you’ll marvel at the beautiful new pavement—on the Edina half of the road. Soon after Dawn and I moved in, we’d tell some folks our address, and the delight some would express at our having chosen to live in Edina was positively radiant. So much so that we’d have to interrupt their gushing to explain: “No, we actually live on the… Minneapolis side of the street.” Silence. The disappointment. Pity even. Oh, they’d finally say. “Well. I'm sure your daughter will be able to get into a fine junior college.”
It’s how I imagine cousin so and so sounding. He was all ready to redeem that land and the noble Ruth too until Boaz mentioned Ruth was a Moabite. Oh, he said. The disappointment. The condescension. And then verse 6: “I can not redeem it.” Which had been Boaz’ plan all along. Playing to his cousin’s prejudice, Boaz was able to make good on his pledge. Cousin so and so took off his sandal and handed it over to Boaz (an ancient way of formalizing agreements) and now the land belonged to Boaz, signed, sealed and sandaled. But Boaz cared much less for the land than he did for Ruth. He loved her. Which is why the elders who witnessed the transaction offered their blessings in verse 11 not for the acreage, but for the nuptials. They asked God to make Ruth into a woman like Rachel and Leah, Israel’s founding mothers. And like Tamar too, another childless widow whose redemption led to the birth of Perez, the progenitor of Boaz’ own tribe. And with that Boaz and Ruth tied the knot and had a son named Obed, whose name means to worship. Praise the Lord.
The story ends with the whole neighborhood praising the Lord for his goodness and with the formerly bitter Naomi getting some of that goodness herself. As the psalmist sings, “the LORD adorns the oppressed with salvation.” Naomi cradles a grandson who would end up the grandfather to King David himself—the savior of Israel as a nation—whose own descendent, the Son of David, will save the whole world. This is why Ruth warrants an entire book of the Bible to herself. But still, you’d think that if celebrating King David’s royal line is of primary concern, the last thing any Bible would want to do is highlight genealogical impurities. If your concern is for the royal bloodline of Israel, why in the world devote an entire book to the icky Moabite blood that snuck in no matter how sweet the story? If anything, you’d think that the Bible would have wanted to cover that up!
However Scripture is not concerned for the upper crust of King David’s bloodline, but for the inclusiveness of the Kingdom of God. It is the oppressed—the outcast, the stranger, the enemy and the sinner—whom the Lord adorns with salvation. But just in case getting adorned makes you feel all uppity and better than everybody else, Ruth provides a check. How uppity can you get when your salvation is despicably dependent on a match made in Moab?

Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to trust in God’s goodness amidst your bitterness. Chapter 2 challenged you to expect grace you’re desperate. Chapter 3 reminded you of the rewards of faith and trust, and encouraged you to be people worthy of them. May chapter 4 compel you to lay down your disdain—toward whomever you may feel it—and love the way Boaz loved a disdained Moabite; the way that Jesus loves—you.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How To Catch A Husband

Ruth 3
by Daniel Harrell

First off a Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, including those reading this on your computer or listening to the podcast while sitting by a lake somewhere. Or on a lake somewhere. That’s where my Dad is this morning—skipping church to fish for a largemouth bass. He’ll joke he caught his favorite largemouth 53 years ago. That’s how long my parents have been married—and happily so. They met each other in elementary school. They still possess some of the notes they passed to each other in class. Studies show that before a man even speaks a word, the way he stands counts for over 80% of woman’s first impression. Good thing my dad didn’t slouch. Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania assert that most people make a decision regarding a person’s attractiveness within three seconds of meeting them.

A few other random facts about relationships: If a man can’t decide what to wear on a date, he might want to wear blue. Studies show that women are attracted to men in blue. One way to impress somebody is to mirror their body language. This impresses a date because it subtly conveys interest to the other person. However, one should avoid copying every move. In the online dating world, men are afraid of meeting someone “fat.” Women are afraid of meeting a serial killer. The good news for women is that only about 3% of men are psychopaths, of which only a tiny percentage are serial killers. Then there’s this from A survey of 5000 single people revealed that what mattered most to prospective mates is fresh breath. This was followed by stylish clothes, a sexy fragrance, good skin and great hair. This is even true in the Bible.

In our passage from Ruth 3, a desperate mother-in-law instructs her widowed daughter-in-law on how she might catch a husband. She’s told to take a bath (a rarity in ancient cultures), put on sexy fragrance and stylish clothes, then go down to where her prospect was working late. Studies show that four out of ten workplace dating relationships result in marriage. The daughter-in-law is then told to take note of where her intended beds down for the night (so she wouldn’t get the wrong man). And then after he’s had dinner and a little wine and is fast asleep, sneak up on him, uncover his legs, lie down and wait for him to tell you what to do. Just reading the Bible here.
Our story began with an Israelite family escaping famine by sojourning into enemy territory. No sooner did they arrive than the father of the family inexplicably died. In an attempt to salvage the family tree, his two sons abducted two local women, but neither bore children despite ten years of trying. The two sons then died, leaving the three women on the verge of destitution. Theirs was a culture where husbands and children were the only means of social security. Bitterly convinced that God was out to get her, Naomi, the matriarch, nevertheless determined to go back to Israel and right smack into God’s hands—but not before first trying to smack some sense into her two daughters-in-law. With no future as widowed and childless Moabites in Israel (meaning they were not only aliens but enemies), Naomi released Orpah and Ruth from any obligation to her. She sent them back to their mamas to start working on getting new husbands for themselves from among their own people.

Orpah heeded Naomi’s sensible advice, but Ruth refused, irrationally choosing to cleave to Naomi in terms the Bible typically reserves for marital commitments. What inspired such loyalty and love? Certainly not Naomi’s bitterness. Studies show that happiness is contagious and that it’s hard to walk away from happy people. But so with bitter people. Misery may love company, but it’s not likely to find any. And yet Ruth inexplicably abandoned her own country, her family, her friends, her culture and her religion to follow Naomi into Israel. Judaism has always viewed Ruth’s decision as a religious conversion, a dramatic come-to-Yahweh moment. However Yahweh’s plan for her life was a degrading one. Force onto welfare, Ruth had to glean for her supper, a back-breaking practice where the poor were permitted to scavenge grain inadvertently dropped during harvest, not unlike the poor of our day scavenge for aluminum cans. 

It was humiliating, but a girl’s gotta eat. So Ruth found a field to glean. But as providence would have it, the field she found was the property of Naomi’s cousin Boaz, who unexpectedly flung wide the gates of grace, granting Ruth privileged access to his fields, his workers, his table and his provisions. By the end of her first day, Ruth had gleaned more grain than one normally collects in a month. She hauled it all home and Naomi obviously flipped, especially once she learned that cousin Boaz had been behind it all. Again by God’s providence, Boaz turned out to be a kinsman-redeemer: an ancient title within Jewish family law denoting one’s responsibilities to preserve and care for one’s tribe. Kinsman-redemption sometimes included the social redemption of childless widows through marriage. The wedding bells went off in Naomi’s head.

However Boaz—whether due to loss of interest, shyness or fear of commitment—failed to take any initiative. Studies show that nearly 40% of men do not feel confident meeting women. Therefore, being a good Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi took matters into her own hands. But why all the sneaking around? If kinsman-redeemer obligations were in effect, why not just make arrangements directly? Why cook up this conniving plan? After all, the threshing floor, the place where edible grain was separated from unwanted chaff, was a notorious party scene. Harvest time had men working late and staying the night, getting wasted and hooking up with prostitutes. Who’d knowingly send their daughter into that, even if studies do show threshing floors to be good places to meet people? Rather than the light of day, Naomi sent Ruth under cloak of darkness. The whole “uncovering his legs and lying down” was loaded with sexual innuendo. The chances of Ruth’s being misinterpreted or misused were enormous. Then again, maybe this was Naomi’s intent. She was a desperate for Ruth to get Ruth married she’d do whatever it took.

Except men only take advantage of women like this; they don’t marry them. This is why dating experts typically suggest not being too available. Play hard to get because the longer the chase, the more likely love will blossom. Nevertheless, Ruth crawled right under Boaz’ covers and pulled them onto herself, so that when the night turned cold and Boaz—in a contented mood, we read—went to grab his blanket, he ended up grabbing Ruth. Again, all sorts of reactions were possible, from umbrage to embarrassment to delight. Boaz began with the obvious. He asked, “Who are you?” Here Ruth departed from Naomi’s script. Rather than waiting for Boaz to tell her what to do, Ruth told him. “I’m Ruth. Marry me.”

OK, so she didn’t use those words exactly, but she might as well have. To ask a man to “spread his cloak” (or literally his wings) over you was tantamount to popping the question. Talk about being forward. Not only does the woman propose marriage to the man, but the younger to the older, the employee to the boss, a reviled Moabite to an Israelite. Ruth then went on to demand Boaz do his duty—all despite studies showing that men hate demanding women. “You are a kinsman-redeemer,” she insisted, “Redeem me.” All of which Boaz interprets not as some brazen act of desperation, but as a beautiful act of loyalty. Not only did Ruth degrade herself as a gleaner for Naomi’s sake, but now she risks any reputation she had left to secure the future of her mother-in-law’s family. “May you be blessed by the Lord,” Boaz replied, “This last instance of your loyalty—your devotion, your kindness—is better than the first.” And then, apparently flattered that Ruth would chase after him, he added,  “You have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”

No doubt this was part of Naomi’s scheme. She hoped Ruth’s advances would flatter Boaz that she’d end up in the in-law apartment. But as it turned out, all the scheming was unnecessary. Boaz, renown as a man of noble character, responded in kind: “Don’t worry about a thing, my daughter,” he says to Ruth. “I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you to be a virtuous woman.” Boaz allayed any concern that Ruth might have acted presumptuously or offended him by her forwardness. He assured her that all would know there was nothing wrong in her coming to him with the request to marry. There was just one problem though. Verse 12: “There is another kinsman more closely related than I.” By law and custom, this other cousin had the right of first refusal. Naomi probably knew this too. So why did she send Ruth to Boaz instead? Because Naomi also knew that the noble Boaz, faced with responsibility, would always do the right thing.

It’s not something you see a lot of in our day. This morning’s paper reports on the ongoing sad saga that is the Jerry Sandusky trial, the Penn State assistant football coach accused of abusing at-risk young boys. It’s a story of so many people knowing the right thing but refusing to do it—other coaches, eyewitnesses, Sandusky’s wife, authorities, university presidents. James Davison Hunter, professor of religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia, in his book The Death of Character, writes that while most people “think of their lives in moral terms and want to live good lives,” we “are more uncertain about what the nature of the good is…. We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social, but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn’t bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents. We’ve moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality. The etymology of the word character is that it’s deeply etched, not changeable in all sorts of circumstances. We don’t want to think of ourselves as transgressive or bad, so we tend to personalize our understanding of the good.”

Not so with Boaz. His righteous character surfaces even in the shadiest of circumstances. He’s like Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” also cited in this morning’s Sandusky article. Sir Thomas dismissed his daughter’s pleas to compromise his ideals and save his life. In stead he says: “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.” Therefore Boaz swears “as the Lord lives” to do right by Ruth. If the closer cousin rejects her, Boaz will marry her. And then so that no one got the wrong idea, so to guard her reputation, Boaz had Ruth remain nearby for the night and depart early in the morning, before everyone else woke up. He then gave her more grain so as not to return to Naomi empty-handed. More than food, the bread symbolized Boaz’ good faith pledge for her guaranteed future.

What to glean from all this? There is Naomi’s outrageous trust in Boaz’ character. There was nothing in the kinsman-redeemer code that mandated Boaz marry Ruth and care for them both. Boaz could have easily told Ruth she was off her rocker, especially since Ruth was a Moabitess. Maybe Naomi figured that the only shot she had was to display Ruth’s worthiness as a wife while at the same time making Boaz an offer he couldn’t refuse (especially if he’d been drinking). But to do this, Naomi had to have faith in Boaz to get the message and do the right thing. Most importantly, Naomi had to have faith in God, despite the Lord’s recent track record on her behalf. Far from taking matters into her own hands, Naomi’s plan could only work if God was in it. She trusted both the character of Boaz and the eventual goodness of God.

Then there’s Ruth’s loyalty toward Naomi; a loyalty that carried her to Boaz’ bed in the middle of the night. She too trusted Boaz to do the right thing. How else to explain her refusing to follow through with the seduction and be honest instead? Choosing to trust is a cornerstone of any relationship. We used to speak of getting engaged (from the word meaning to pledge something) as being betrothed. Rather than just pledging something, betrothal is specifically about pledging troth. It’s choosing to trust. Trust is a move of loyalty, a determination of will and of faith. It’s why we ask in wedding ceremonies not “do you love” or trust, but “will you love, will you trust, for better or worse, no matter what, as long you both shall live?”

And finally there is Boaz’ character. Refusing to misinterpret Ruth’s advances, he attributed to her only the best intentions. He chose to think well of her even when things looked bad. This is not a consequence of any naïveté on his part, but an act of Biblical kindness that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” It’s a kindness which refused to exploit Ruth’s vulnerability. Rather than looking for what he could get, Boaz concerned himself with Ruth’s reputation, her security and best interests. He did the right thing. It’s a act many interpret as typifying Christ’s own as our kinsman-redeemer. Coming among us, like us, in our direst straits, Jesus redeemed us with his own body and blood, moving us out of our impoverishment to partake of his glorious riches, betrothing himself to us as his bride, and then providing for us his own body as bread; a good faith pledge for our guaranteed future.

Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to believe in God’s goodness amidst your bitterness. Chapter 2 challenged you to expect grace you’re desperate. Here in chapter 3 you are reminded of the rewards of faith and trust, and encouraged to be people worthy of it. May the character of Christ—his characteristic love, loyalty decency and kindness—be the characteristics others can trust in us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gleaning on the Everlasting Arms

Ruth 2
by Daniel Harrell

Often when I return to the South to visit, folks can’t resist a playful poke at my living in the North. These days it’s all about enduring winter, bland Scandinavian cooking, loons and Garrison Keillor up in Minnesooota (you betcha). Before that the joke was about “Bahstan” where they “pahk the cah” and blow 15 billion tax-payer dollars on a Big Dig tunnel that still leaks water. Behind the mockery lies unsaid befuddlement as to why any God-fearing Southern boy would abandon the Promised Land of azaleas and sweet tea for such northern, liberal landscapes, both of which were our enemies in the War of Northern Aggression. I’ve tried to assuage my Southern cousins by telling them how both states in which I’ve live do vehemently hate Yankees (the pinstripe variety), but they’re not much impressed. Neither have been my Northern neighbors. Whenever my residual twang betrays my origins, eyebrows raise in skeptical befuddlement up here too. What’s a grits-loving, NASCAR wahoo doing so far from home?

Prejudice knows no prejudice. We’re all infected. Over and over again Ruth herself is derisively designated the Moabite, or Moabitess, which to Israel’s ears immediately ignited contempt given the bad blood between the two rival nations: think Shiite-Sunni, Hutu-Tutsi, Israeli-Palestinian, and most days Republican-Democrat. You can just hear the derision slithering off an erstwhile Israelite’s lips as he would say, “Moabitess.” Clearly aware of the racism, Ruth the Moabitess nevertheless abandoned her own country, her family, her friends, her culture and her religion to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, into enemy territory and a maw of bigotry. I mentioned last Sunday how Jewish rabbis have always considered Ruth’s extraordinary decision nothing short of a religious conversion. How else to explain her doing it if God was not involved? 

Especially given the evangelism methods Naomi employed. A bitter old woman bereft of husband and children, Naomi blames the Lord for all of her troubles. She tells Ruth to return to her own people. Not that Naomi had lost faith in God’s goodness, mind you, she was just angry that none of it was coming her way. Naomi’s invitation to Ruth was effectively “God loves you and has a horrible plan to ruin your life. Have faith in him.” Surprisingly, it’s a kind of invitation that ancient Jewish rabbis commended. We read in the Talmud:

If a person desires to convert to Judaism, he or she is to be addressed as follows: “What reason do you have for wanting to become a convert? Do you not know that Jews are persecuted and oppressed, despised, driven from place to place, and overcome with hardships? If he or she replies “I know and yet am unworthy of becoming a Jew,” he or she is accepted immediately.

And thus Naomi immediately embraced Ruth and escorted her to Israel, even though for Ruth being widowed and childless and an immigrant in that culture meant destitute social marginalization and financial calamity. Ruth was walking into deep trouble. Surprisingly again, however, Jewish law did provide a welfare safety net. God’s particular compassion for the alien, the orphan, the widow and the poor took shape in a Levitical practice called gleaning. Israel may have been God’s chosen people, but being chosen came with expectations of how you were to act toward the disenfranchised. God commanded that when harvesting a field, whatever produce accidentally dropped to the ground was to be left for the poor and the foreigner to gather. If your harvesting methods proved too thorough, then you were then commanded to be sloppier for the sake of the needy. We read in Leviticus, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Do unto others as God has done unto you.

So why not just give the poor the extra produce? Why make them pick it up for themselves? It was for the sake of self-respect. Gleaning allowed the unemployed to enjoy the dignity of work. It also allowed the poor and alien to be recognized as sharers in the fruit of the good land that God had given to everyone. Moreover, gleaning gave the poor access to worship. Throughout Leviticus, God provided discounts to the poor when it came to sacrifices. For those who couldn’t afford an animal to sacrifice, grain offerings could substitute. Gleaning supplied the grain. And finally, here the book of Ruth, gleaning will also turn out to be a good way to catch a husband.

Chapter 2 opens with Ruth knowing the law. She says to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” Her addendum “find favor” or “find grace” implied that the gleaning law, while compassionate, was not always complied with. We might assent to the idea that caring for the poor and the stranger are good things to do, but when it actually comes to doing them, prejudice rears its head. There’s a strange mixture of sympathy and scorn that accompanies an encounter with the destitute stranger. Living in the city, I was regularly awoken by those who pushed grocery carts in the early morning hours, scrounging garbage in search of recyclable cans. Few spoke English; and I usually ended up doing little more than making sure my bottles and cans were left on top. My neighbors tended to be more resentful of what these can-handlers were doing to the neighborhood. Then there was the harassment that occurred in stores where clerks didn’t want to redeem the cans, even though the law required it. This is what gleaning was like. You might admire the determination that comes with earning that kind of living; but the humiliation required to do it is repugnant. It’s why Ruth hoped to find some grace. She needed God to do something.

As it “just happened,” verse 3 reads, Ruth stumbled upon a field belonging to a prominent relative of Naomi’s named Boaz. This coincidence Ruth enjoyed is deliberately ironic, since there are no coincidences with God. Likewise the fact that Boaz “just happened” to show up and take note of Ruth. Boaz asks his foreman, “What’s her story?” I imagine the foreman getting a disdainful smirk on his face. “She’s that Moabitess. Got no kids. Rolled into town with the bitter old widow Naomi.” He’s clearly unaware that Boaz and Naomi are kin. “She’s begging to glean and has been standing around all morning waiting for a favor.” Ruth perseveres in the face of the foreman’s denigration, racism, sexism and her own humiliation.

By deliberate contrast, Boaz, who was in every position to act differently, responds with remarkable tenderness, granting her full privileges to gather grain alongside his other employees, issuing strict anti-sexual harassment orders to his men. Boaz also gives Ruth access to the company water cooler and to the lunchroom, both of which would typically have been off limits to foreigners. And then when lunchtime comes, Boaz invites Ruth to join him at the management table; a move that conveys enormous public and cultural acceptance. And then not only does Ruth the lowly laborer, a woman and an immigrant, get to eat with the boss, but with what must have caused corporate shock, the boss proceeds to serve her! And there’s more: Once Ruth returns to work, Boaz makes sure his workers understand that Ruth can gather grain beyond the gleanings, that is, from the stalks which had already been bundled. They are not under any circumstances to embarrass her. In fact, the workers are to make certain and pull out some stalks from their bundles and drop them for her to pick up so that she wouldn’t feel any shame. By the end of the work day, Ruth gathered a whole donkey load of wheat and barley, the equivalent of at least half a month’s wage, all in just one afternoon. Talk about finding grace.

It reminds me of a similar discovery from grace, from just as unlikely a source. I found it at an auto repair shop, the last place in America you’d ever go expecting grace. Dawn and I were driving from Boston to the Promised Land for one of those Southern visits in an ancient Honda Accord on its last legs, when the tachometer went nuts and the engine started to violently sputter. Enough of a mechanic to know that I wasn’t going to make it to much further with my car in this shape, I coasted into a Southern small town Honda dealership (dealerships being a huge no-no when it comes to auto repair). The good ol’ boy at the service counter greeted me hospitably enough and asked what my trouble was. I told him about the sputtering and the whacked out tachometer. He said he reckoned it was a faulty ignition coil. “Critical” he called it, which could men only outrageously expensive.
But what could we do? We were from out of town. Auto repair hostages. He then looked at my registration. “Oh, I see you’re from Baahstun, Massatoosetts.” Here we go. Looking at his docket, the service manager said that they were pretty full up today but that they could maybe get to it next week. Maybe. Great. I guess I should probably just buy a new car? Check into a hotel for week? But then the service rep told us to hang on a second. “Let me see what I can do,” he said. He shuffled his papers and told us to give him a couple of hours and he’d see if somebody couldn’t take a peek at it. “Go have some lunch and come back around 2.” So we did and when we came back we were told that the problem was indeed the ignition coil and that they didn’t have one in stock but would have to order it and that probably would take a week to get, but then he paused and said, “Let me see what I can do.”

He checked with his parts guy who said that he could have the coil over-nighted and here by noon tomorrow, which was better than next week. But then the parts guy yelled that he could have it shipped express overnight for an additional $20 meaning that they could start work first thing in the morning. OK, but before I could even consent to the work, the service manager again said, “hang on,” and made a phone call and said there was another Honda dealership an hour away that had a coil and that his mechanic agreed to stay late while another employee would drive over to fetch it. They’d go ahead and do the work today. OK, this was really going cost me, but it was better than having to spend the night, we’ll go sit in the waiting room, but then the service manager said, “Hang on” after which he returned with a set of keys to a brand new Honda and told us to go do some sightseeing and come back after supper and here’s a coupon for a local restaurant.

Our car was fixed and ready to go after supper. The service manager, the general manager and the mechanic were all there to greet us, big smiles on their faces. I’m thinking that I am now doomed. Nobody’s this nice for nothing. Farewell 401k retirement plan. I braced for my own financial calamity. I tremulously squeaked, “How much do I owe you?” And the service manager replied, “$5.18. We did some research and discovered we could cover most everything under your extended emissions warranty.” I didn’t know I had an extended emissions warranty. “Oh yeah,” he added, “and we checked and found that you can also get a free tune-up once you get back to Baahstun, courtesy of Honda. Sometimes they forget to tell you that.” And finally, get this, once we got back to Boston the phone rings and it’s this Honda dealership calling, checking to make sure we got home OK.

Now I’ve experienced plenty of Southern hospitality—sometimes I even practice it—but this was ridiculous. I’ve told this story to Southern friends and even they look at me with the same dumbfounded look that’s on some of your face and that must have been on Ruth’s face too. Her reflex was to hit the ground with gratitude, bowing to Boaz as one bows to a generous king or a gracious God. I know the feeling. Why was Boaz being so kind and magnanimous toward her, a poor and scorned Moabitess? “Why have I found favor in your sight,” she asks, “that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” “You treat me,” the Hebrew implies, “as if you know me!”
Which, of course, Boaz did. He’d been told of all Ruth had done for his cousin Naomi and about Ruth’s ridiculous decision to leave her homeland to live among total strangers who were her enemies. Boaz recognized Ruth’s actions to be as acts of kindness and courage, but he also saw them as acts of faith, the fruits of her conversion. “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel (no less), under whose wings you have come for refuge!” The grace that Boaz extends to Ruth is the grace of God Himself—a grace that extends toward all who will make the ridiculous decision to put their trust in Him. Despite Ruth’s unworthiness, her social marginalization, her destitution and the shame she feels and Boaz knows; Boaz chooses her. That’s how grace operates.

Ruth gets home to Naomi that night, her arms loaded with food; her pockets filled with leftovers from lunch—and Naomi’s eyes bug clean out of their sockets: “Where in the world did you get all that grain?!” When Ruth informs Naomi it was Boaz, Naomi fell over backwards with joy. “Cousin Boaz! God bless him! Do you realize he’s one of our nearest kin?” Though he was actually more than that. The expression Naomi used for nearest kin” was “our kinsman-redeemer, an ancient term of Jewish family law dictating responsibilities kinfolk had for one another in order to preserve and care for the tribe, including in some cases the social redemption of childless widows through marriage. You can just hear the wedding bells starting to go off in Naomi’s head. “Blessed be the Lord,” she said, “He has not withdrawn his kindness and forgotten me and my family after all. 

That’s how grace operates, whether with a small town car dealership or a distant cousin named Boaz, or a Savior who redeems by rising up from the dead. So honored is Ruth’s faith in Jewish tradition that the Talmud teaches how the Messiah will descend from Ruth’s eventual offspring. The Messiah Christians believe to be Jesus Christ, a descendent of Ruth, the one who’s rich harvest field is available for all to glean to their heart’s delight. If Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to keep faith when you’re bitter, chapter 2 invites you to expect grace when you’re desperate. Because that's how grace operates.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Whither Thou Goest

Ruth 1
by Daniel Harrell

June is also a popular wedding month, I have a couple coming up soon. In that spirit, I thought it might be nice to take a look at the book of Ruth and one of the more famous romance stories in Scripture. Perhaps we’ll find something to make our own marriages and relationships better.
Then again, maybe not. Among the things I’ve been criticized for as a preacher over the years is the paucity of “life applications” in my sermons. Many listeners would appreciate it if at the end of a sermon I’d tack on two or three practical suggestions for living. My problem is that I don’t always know something practical to suggest. Even from those unambiguous passages—such as where Jesus says “love your enemies”—the obvious application is hardly practical. I read once about another preacher struggling to apply the story from Joshua of Rahab the Harlot to everyday life. Having completed the body of his sermon, this minister was moving on to the life application part when his inspiration dried up. A hooker in Jericho conceals two Israelite spies in exchange for a promise that they’ll not harm her or her relatives when the Israelite army attacks and destroys her city. Things like that just don’t happen much in the suburbs.
The New Testament book of Hebrews commends Rahab for her faith, but—“have faith in God”—does that even count as a practical application? Stumped, this minister went trolling online for help. Providentially he located a number of applications devoted to the story of Rahab. The first one read: “Christian adults should willingly cooperate with each other.” That’s good, though we probably should keep in mind that Rahab was a prostitute. Next came, “People need that sense of fulfillment that comes with helping someone in trouble.” True, although Rahab and the spies do act more out of self-preservation than altruism. And finally, “Many adults respond positively to reasonable requests.” But again, the prostitute thing. I’m guessing the preacher’s sermon that Sunday ended like most of mine do. You know, “Have faith in God. Amen.”
Unfortunately I don’t think my standard close will fly this morning. Ruth opens with an Israelite family fleeing famine. However no sooner do they make it to green pastures, than the patriarch of the family inexplicably dies. In an attempt to salvage the family tree, his sons marry local women but then fail to sire any children. And then they die. A destitute widow is now saddled with two bereft daughters-in-law in a culture where for women, marriage and children were the difference between living in safety and socio-economic marginalization. To simply say “have faith in God” comes off as both condescending and callous.
Ruth occurs during the time of the Judges; a time the Bible describes as when, “Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit.” It was a dark period of social, political and religious upheaval. The chosen people choose badly, opting for disobedience and disloyalty against God. Threats from outside armies loom. Famine comes. A man named Elimelech along with his wife Naomi and their two sons left Bethlehem (which means “house of bread”) and sojourned to Moab. Makes sense. If there’s no bread in your house, go to where the bread is. Even if the bread is in Moab.
For Israel, Moab was a place they derided as “the other side of the tracks.” Descended from the offspring of Lot’s drunken incest with his daughter back in Genesis (one of those charming Bible stories you don’t hear a lot), the Moabites were a persistent thorn in Israel’s side: They’d impeded Israel’s passage from Egypt into their promised land. Moabite women had seduced Israelite men into idolatry. The Moabite King had hired a sorcerer to throw a hex on the entire Israelite nation. Theirs was not a good relationship. But Moab did have food. And Moab had women too, women who could become wives for Elimelech’s two sons. Under normal circumstances, no self-respecting Israelite would marry a Moabite; but these were not normal circumstances. By verse 3, Elimelech was dead and Naomi in trouble. She needed grandsons for her family to endure. Like it or not, sons were her only source of social security.
So Naomi’s boys took a couple of Moabite women. Literally. The Hebrew word in verse 4 means “to lift” or “carry away” as in “to abduct” (though technically in this culture to abduct a woman did still count as a marriage). Desperate times required desperate measures. Though none of it made any difference. Ten years passed and no grandsons; no children at all. Then Naomi’s two sons died. And we’re just through verse 5.
Naomi is in a bad spot: She’s lost her husband, her sons, her country and with these her future. She’s saddled with the unwelcome responsibility of two ill-reputed Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Have faith in God? It's God's fault that she's this mess. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she says in verse 20, (a name that means “pleasant”), call me Bitter instead because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. “Why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
A woman once told me of troubles she was enduring at her job. For spiteful reasons, two coworkers had targeted her for harassment. As a Christian, she determined to trust God and love these enemies, believing that eventually her faith and persistence amidst persecution would be rewarded. But the nastiness only increased. She tried to reason with her tormentors but they denied everything. They laughed at her. She didn’t go to the head of her department for fear of making things worse. But things got worse anyway. Soon her work was being sabotaged. At the end of her rope, all she could do was “trust God” again, this time reporting the harassment. But the boss sided with the bullies. Citing her sabotaged work as evidence, the supervisor demoted her for deficient performance. How was she to have faith in God anymore?
Then there was the man with marriage problems. He’d been married five years and had a young child, but his wife confessed she’d simply fallen out of love and didn’t know what to do about it. As Christians, they felt divorce wasn’t an option; they wanted to trust the Lord to fix their relationship. They went to counseling and over the course of many months, the husband relayed how he his faith had paid off. Yes, marriage was still difficult, but at least he had hope, and confidence that things would improve. God could work a miracle in is wife’s heart and rekindle her love for him. But then his wife admitted to an affair and decided to file for divorce anyway. Have faith in God? I never saw him in church again.
I bet you’re glad you came this morning. At this rate we should probably call it a day and go home. That’s what Naomi did. It’s what most of us do whenever the troubles of life overwhelm us and God appears nowhere to be found. We get bitter and bail, only to then have guilt for giving up on faith and on God pile on. Our fellow believers, disappointed in us, take a wide berth around us, not really wanting to be around all the negativity. Ours can be a twisted religion sometimes. Naomi’s had enough. She’s outta here. Still, whether out of duty or desperation, Orpah and Ruth beg to tag along. But Naomi’s no dummy. There’s no hope for widowed and childless Moabite women back in Israel. She tells them to go back to their mamas. She frees them from any obligation. She sends them away to find new husbands from among their own people. 
Orpah and Ruth nobly resist. But that just makes Naomi mad. “Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” Even if I found a husband for myself tonight (which ain’t gonna happen) and got pregnant and gave birth to two more boys (which ain’t gonna happen) you would still have to wait twenty years for them to grow up (which ain’t gonna happen!). Don’t you understand? God is out to get me! First he starves me, then he takes my husband, then my kids, my livelihood, my social standing, my security and my future. My life is over.” Talk about bitter. Who needs that? Orpah gets the message and leaves. Naomi then tries again to smack some sense into Ruth. “See, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Get out of here. Go back with her!”
But Ruth refuses. Instead she clings onto Naomi even tighter than before, cleaving, the Bible says, using the language of marriage commitments. Not only does Ruth cleave, she seals it with a vow of marital proportions. “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for whither you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.” These inspiring words have found their way into many contemporary weddings, which unfortunately demonstrates a lack of attention to context. Besides the daughter-in-law mother-in-law thing, which you can overlook, what you can’t overlook is that Naomi never reciprocates. Ruth makes a vow of allegiance and Naomi rolls her eyes. What a silly, stupid girl.
Why the undying devotion when she could have been safe and secure staying among her own people? Jewish rabbis interpret Ruth’s pledge as a conversion. She leaves her gods and her country, her family, friends and culture, to follow Yahweh, the Lord of a resentful old woman. If Ruth’s loyalty is the mark of religious conversion, it’s the fruit of some pretty unconventional evangelism. I’ve heard Christians talk about making Christianity more winsome and attractive; but never about what you might call the Naomi approach: “Hi, God loves you and has a horrible plan for your life. I’m bitter and depressed and wish I was dead. God can ruin your life too. Just have faith in Him.”
Whenever the troubles of life overwhelm and God appears nowhere to be found, we do tend to get bitter and bail. But here, the good news is that you can do it without any guilt. How’s that for life application? Naomi gets bitter but doesn’t feel bad about it for a minute. The difference, once you read the story closely, is that Naomi does not lose faith. True, she’s bitter. She bails. But where does she go? She goes home. To Bethlehem. Back to Israel. Back into the land and hands of God, the very God whom she accuses of having His hand against her. 
Amidst all of her unbearable bereavement, pending segregation and poverty, Naomi still believes. She believes enough to pray for Ruth and Orpah’s well-being, to the point of invoking that glorious Hebrew word hesed, denoting God’s unfailing love. Naomi believes that God is good. She believes He’s in control. That’s why she blames him for all of her troubles. She knows he’s up to something. Messiness and trouble and even death are the material out which God does his best work. So instead of losing faith and running away, Naomi runs back to the only one from whom she knows she can get answers.
Hers is an example we see throughout Scripture. “How long, O LORD?” King David prayed in the Psalms, “How long will you forget me? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God!” This language of lament from King David echoes even on the lips of Jesus, the crucified Son of David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Followed by, “Father I commit my spirit into your hands.” “Give light to my eyes,” King David prayed, “lest I die and my enemy gloat, lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. No, I have trusted in your  unfailing love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”
The salvation of which King David determines to sing is that same salvation which is ours in Christ our Lord. And it would be Naomi’s salvation, both in her own life and the life to come. As those who know the story of Ruth, it was a Moabite widow drawn to Naomi’s ruthlessly honest faith who against all odds emerged the great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Amidst a messy world, a distressed life and an embittered soul, Naomi’s faith never wavers. She keeps faith in a God who has caused her nothing but trouble. What kind of twisted religion do we have? Clearly one in which wisdom can look like foolishness, goodness can emerge out of suffering and life can rise from the dead. We trust in a Lord whose ways aren’t our ways, whose presence can feel like absence, whose mind we cannot know, whose decisions we cannot calculate and whose actions we cannot manipulate. Faith is called faith for a reason. And the life application is obvious.
Messiness and trouble and even death are the material out which God does his best work. The communion table is proof. The bread is the body of Christ broken. The cup the blood of Christ shed. Instead of running away, run home. Run here. Acknowledging your need and accepting the answer that is found through Christ our Lord.