A Sermon for Proper 27
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
A classmate of mine, Shania, had once been a carter serving the high society in Savanah Ga. She attested to the truth of the portrayal of Savanah’s society in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She shared the story of one socialite who wasn’t satisfied with her family’s social position; that was primarily the results of its short history. So she decided to do some genealogy work, looking back to the Civil War and Revolutionary War for ancestors of note. She wasn’t successful, at least not as she had hoped. There were no heroes; however, there was a great-great-grandfather who had been hung as a horse thief.
They were no longer a nomadic society, but the elders of a tribe or clan village were the arbitrators of law and justice.
Elimelech and Naomi live in Bethlehem with their sons Mahlon and Chilion. Famine was in the land, and Elimelech moves them to Moab. Nothing is said about famine there. We do know it is risky because Moab is a traditional enemy of the Hebrews, and its inhabitants are looked down upon as morally inferior (Harrelson). Regardless, Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. It appears that Elimelech has made a wise decision, until he and both sons die. Naomi and her daughters in laws are at great risk with no providers or protectors.
Naomi decides she will return to Bethlehem which paradoxically means “House of Bread/Food” (Harrelson). Orpah decides to go home; Ruth swears loyalty
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16, NRSV)
Naomi’s decision is precarious. It has been ten years, and the family lands would not have been left fallow. Redeeming them will be a challenge, even if she can identify one of Elimelech’s relatives. As an alien, Ruth is at even greater risk (Hoezee).
When they arrive in Bethlehem Naomi is recognized. Still, they have no shelter, and no source of income or food. The story says nothing about where they live. It says Ruth goes out to glean the fields, which is the traditional way the poor and destitute feed themselves. I recall a prohibition against joining fields, because it reduces food sources for the poor, even if joining them could make the fields more profitable. But back to the story. It so happens, the field Ruth chose belongs to Boaz, an in-law of Naomi through Elimelech. He treats Ruth well (Luther Seminary, n.d.). Here we catch up to today’s story.
After Ruth tells Naomi about her encounter with Boaz, Naomi has an idea and gives her detailed instructions. She tells Ruth to clean up, dress up, gussy up and after the party that follows the harvest, and it will be a big party – lots of feasting, then go lay down by Boaz’s feet and do what he says. It’s is a risqué and risky ruse (Wines) (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner). However, everything goes as planned. Boaz recognizes that Ruth could have solved her needs be seeking out one of the eligible younger men; however, that would have done nothing for Naomi. Her seeking out Boaz is Naomi’s only hope of redemption (Harrelson). He is impressed and promises to do as she has asked.
There is a potential problem because there is a relative who has a potentially superior claim to redeem the land. So, Boaz gives Ruth a cloak full of grain, as food security and perhaps a sign of good faith, and promises to get things all settled. Boaz goes to the gate to find the relative and learn his desire. It is complicated because in the 10-year absence the land would not have been left fallow meaning someone is working and profiting from it (Harrelson).
Boaz inquires about the relative’s intent to redeem Elimelech’s land, making it known that if he won’t redeem it Boaz will. The relative decides not to exercise his privilege and Boaz claim is made and witnessed by 10 elders. The others at the gate bestow a blessing that includes references to Tamar and Perez, her son, whose birth is another intriguing story about assuring family lineage. Tamar and Perez are Boaz’s 5th generation relatives.
Ruth and Boaz have a son, Obed. Curiously the story has the Bethlehem’s women refer to Obed as Naomi’s son. However, recognizing him as Naomi’s is the only way the lands of Naomi’s family can be redeemed, and her future secured (Harrelson). Our reading ends noting that Obed is David’s grandfather; making Ruth, an alien, David’s, the prototype King of Israel, great-grandmother.
At one level, this is a story of redemption. Redemption is the process by which people, property, and prestige lost through poverty, violence, or some other cause are restored to a family. The “redeemer” is the designated family member who is expected to recover what has been or is in danger of being lost from a family’s control (Harrelson). Much of the Leviticus and Deuteronomy law about intimate relationships is all about maintaining clear lines of property ownership, which, in an agrarian society, assures survival.
The tale, for all its simplicity, is remarkably complex, with lots of intimations and innuendos. All of which require the hearer to know the background story of the Hebrews, and the rest of the story, to understand any given scene, to really understand what’s going on (Wines). As always, much learning can be lost when verses are skipped, as we did today; but again I wander.
The story of Ruth is also about the mysterious ways of God. At a national level, where purity of bloodlines is paramount, and looking ahead we are perhaps surprised when we realize that David descends from lineage outside Israel. David’s ancestors are unsavory aliens. Put that into today’s presidential debate! Same is truth for Jesus; Ruth, Boaz, Obed, and David are part of Jesus’ lineage in the opening of Matthew’s Gospel account (Harrelson) (Hoezee). Jesus’ ancestors are also unsavory aliens.
As we see the movement of the story from emptiness to fullness, from bitterness to joy, from brokenness to Shalom we witness the silent hand of God at work (Wines) (Hoezee). In the midst of worldly indifference, God cares (Wines). Naomi’s redemption is not the results of her exemplary behavior. It is a story of the quiet graciousness, of Ruth and Boaz, individually and together revealing God’s grace. As we see aspects of Naomi in our life’s story, we recognize how we also receive unmerited love. We see how our redemption is due to someone else’s faithfulness, not our own (Harrelson).
The story is another revelation of how the words and actions God’s people, and that includes all peoples, from every family, tribe, and nation, reveal God’s work, and God’s love. The story shows that Naomi and Ruth are servants to each other, as our Baptism calls us to be (Jacobson, Lewis, & Skinner). The story is full of people crossing boundaries, the decision to go to Moab; Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi, Boaz’s gracious treatment of Ruth, and Ruth and Boaz’s allowing Obed to be recognized as Naomi’s son all cross significant cultural boundaries. The story shows us what can heal and blossom when people from different social positions decide that relationships are more important than cultural definitions (Wines).
Shania’s client got all caught up in the shame of her family’s sordid history. I wonder what could happen if she explored her family’s journey to its current, albeit modest, social position.
Each of our family’s history, our church’s history (local and writ large), our community’s, state’s and country’s histories all have episodes of sordid darkness that has its effects on our lives today. We can pretend that history does not exist. We can wallow in the muck and darkness. We can allow our lives, at all levels, to be defined by ignoble gloom, evoking fear, intolerance, and shame, etc. Or, we can seek those moments of grace, where, from the least expected quarters of life, the silent hand of God changes lives, filling the empty, raising joy from bitterness, and restoring Shalom from brokenness. We might even dare to seek those times when we are called to be the silent hands of God. After-all, it is divine desire that all peoples become children of God and heirs of eternal life, in the fullest image of God.
Gaventa, B. R., & Petersen, D. (n.d.). New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville.
Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press.
Hoezee, S. (2015, 11 8). Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17. Retrieved from Working Preacher.
Jacobson, R., Lewis, K., & Skinner, M. (2015, 11 8). Sermon Brain Wave. Retrieved from workingpreacher.org.
Luther Seminary. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 8, 2015, from Enter the Bible: http://www.enterthebible.org/
Wines, A. (2015, 11 8). Commentary on Ruth 3:15;. Retrieved from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/