Two Widows, a Farmer, and the Purposes of God in the Book of Ruth
Two Widows, A Farmer, And The Purposes of God. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 7 November, 2021, All Saints Sunday.
(In order to complete this two-part sermon series, I’ve slid the first reading for Proper 32 (B), Ruth 3.1-5,4.13-17, into the readings for All Saints Sunday which we are using today.)
(Jean-Francois Millet, The Gleaners)
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! He shall be to you a restorer of life” (Ruth 4:14-15)
Last Sunday I began this two-part sermon series on the Book of Ruth, that wonderful little book of the Bible, and I spoke primarily about what it has to say about hunger and how God calls usacross the centuries to care for the hungry. Today I want to look at what Ruth has to say about the faithfulness of God and about how God’s good purposes for us are shown by the faithfulness of Ruth and Boaz. When the women celebrate Ruth’s child at the end and say to Naomi that God “shall be to you a restorer of life”, I think they say more than they might realize. As our other lessons for All Saints Sunday remind us, God is indeed the “restorer of life”, God the faithful one who lifts us out of sorrow and death, and that is the same message we hear in Ruth.
I said last Sunday that the Book of Ruth is a kind of miniature Book of Job, in that it follows the same trajectory from tragedy to restoration and renewal of fortune and happiness. It begins with disaster, thr famine that in the first five lines takes away Naomi’s husband and sons, leaving her and her daughters in law as destitute widows. We get no theological explanation for this catastrophe, it simply happens as a fact of life, but we do get Naomi’s interpretation, which is that “the hand of the Lord has turned away from me” (1.13).
One of the biggest difference between Job and Ruth is that whereas God acts in the former and speaks (a lot! – as in the voice from the whirlwind), God is silent in Ruth. There are no miracles, no “thus saith the Lord” moments, and the only answer to Naomi’s lament is the promise of her daughter in law, Ruth, that “Where you go, I will go .., and your God my God” (1.15). It is the faithfulness of a foreign woman, one who doesn’t yet no the God of Naomi and of Naomi’s people, that is our clue to where God is in this story. We see God in the faithfulness and kindness of people, like Ruth and Boaz, who see the need before them and whose actions represent God faithfulness and God’s good purposes.
The Lutheran preacher Caroline Lewisurges us not to rush immediately to the happy ending of Ruth but to actuallyspend some time listening to Naomi and to remember the times when we might haveshared her feelings of loss and emptiness. The story begins with famine and empty bellies, but it moves to Naomi’s inner hunger. She finds herself old, embittered, living the precarious life of a widow. She’s come back to her late husband’s town, Bethlehem, which name in Hebrew ironically means House of Bread, but she has no bread, no security, no future, and she concludes that God has abandoned her.
Naomi, or Mara (Bitterness as she now calls hersef) embodies a state of despair where we give up on life, give up on ourselves, even give up on God. Caroline Lewis invites us to think of how God can be there even in such moments of despair:
What if today—and if it’s not today, the day will come—is that place and time when the only thing you can say about love is how you are not worthy of it? So, today—and for the sake of your tomorrow—just for a few minutes, just for now, maybe you can hear God saying, every so softly and maybe just barely, “Do not push me away. Do not deem yourself unworthy. Do not think that I do not want to be with you. Wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; you are mine. Who you are, who you have been, and who you will and can be, I love, with my whole heart, forever and always.” Then maybe today, even if it’s only for a moment, maybe all of us Naomis out there might hear, know, and feel hesed (faithfulness)..
We can also think about how the character of Ruth might help us help those in despair. A key difference between the Books of Job and of Ruth is that the latter is marvellously helpful to those of us who want to come alongside others in distress. Whereas Job’s friends are pompous, unhelpful windbags, Ruth is simply there for Naomi. She hears the full lament of her mother-in-law, without trying to explain away calamity or justify God’s purposes to her. Through her loyal companionship, she finds a way to show God’s love to a person who feels cut off from God. For those of us who might be nervous around those experiencing grief and sorrow, lest we do or say something wrong, the lesson of Ruth is simply to be the good friend who walks with another through grief and sorrow. Ruth is the stalwart companion whose faithfulness points to God’s faithfulness.
Boaz, Naomi’s kinsmen, is the other character in this book that embodies God’s faithful purposes. We first meet him when he leaves Bethlehem to go visit his farm, because it’s the time of the barley harvest (1.22). The first thing we hear Boaz speak is his greeting to the reapers, “The Lord be with you” (2.4), which may seem like something you would expect to hear in church, but not as a greeting to the hired help. However, this prayer and the reapers’ response, “The Lord bless you”, in its liturgical quality, is perhaps a hint that we are not just at a farm, but we are also somewhere in the Kingdom of God. I mentioned this last Sunday, when I spoke of how Boaz promises to Ruth that his farm will be for her a sanctuary, a place of “the God of Israel under whose wings you have come for refuge” (2.12). Let’s spend a moment considering why Boaz should think and say this.
It’s worth noting that Ruth goes to Boaz’s farm to scrounge for scraps. She wasn’t hired as a farmhand. Instead she “gleaned in the field behind the reapers” (2.3) meaning that she gathered what fell to the ground and was left behind by the men who gathered the harvest. Boaz, who appears as a faithful Jew here, was surely aware of what the law of Israel said about gleaning:
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 23:22).
As explained in Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures), the law was God’s instrument to make Israel a unique nation, a place where people lived different and better lives than the peoples around them, so that the neigbouring nations would in time come to be blessed by the God of Israel. Boaz’s kindness to Ruth is thus rooted in God’s law. Today we think of books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus as dry books of religious laws that have largely been replaced by Jesus’ gospel of love. However, passages like last Sunday’s gospel, where Jesus tells the scribe that love of God and love of neighbour (Mk 12.29-32) are the greatest of the laws, are not new in the life of Israel. Boaz would have well understood Jesus, I think.
So Ruth is allowed to glean and is treated generously by Boaz (2.14-16), but gleaning is just subsistence, and Naomi wants more security for her. We thus come to Naomi’s instruction to Ruth to use her charms to entice Boaz into marrying her. This may well seem manipulative to us. An older bachelor, put at ease after the wine and food of the harvest celebrations, will surely fall for an attractive young woman at close quarters (pray do not ask me to spell it out for you more than that!). But let’s step back and think about all the possible earthy human circumstances in which marriage can take root. And let’s think about the blessings that marriage offers – acts of love and joy, home and children and grandchildren and years of companionship and friendship. How can God not be at work in these things, as God is at work in bringing a lonely old man and a destitute young foreign woman and her mother together?
It’s passed over in our lesson, but in the book, in the bridge between chapters three and four, Ruth most leave Boaz’s side in the morning, trusting that he will keep his promise to marry her, and trusting that that God, who had shown her faithfulness, would be faithful still, and in these hopes she is fully answered. While the happy ending here is far less extravagant than in Job, it is still an ending that is full of grace and goodness. The famine is banished; the threshing floor where Boaz and Ruth come together returns Bethlehem to its meaning of “House of Bread”. Boaz’s loneliness is banished in marriage and family. Even Naomi’s old age (“I am too old to have a husband” (1.12) seems banished in the strong implication that she is given milk to nurse her grandson (4.16).
Most important and revealing of God’s promise is the startling and lovely revelation that Obed, the son of Boaz and Jesse, will be the father of Jesse. Jesse will remain in Bethlehem, and as an old man, he will be chosen by God to bring his sons before the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16). Sameul will select the youngest of those sons, David, as the future king of Israel, and all this genealogy will be remembered by Matthew at the beginning of his gospel, which tells of the king and Messiah born in Bethlehem. Thus this simple story tells of how the purposes of God are achieved in the lives and actions of ordinary people like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and you, and me.
“He shall be to you a restorer of life.” These words of the women of Bethlehem to Naomi are true on many levels. God in Christ is the restorer of life who finds those to walk with us in our darkest times. God in Christ is the restorer of life who achieves in our ordinary lives things that we can’t yet imagine. God in Christ is the restorer of life who brings churches our of the deep freeze of Covid. God in Christ is the restorer of life who can still find purpose and hope and a future in churches that may be old and tired and uncertain – never forget that as you wait for your next priest. God in Christ is the restorer of life who is the babe born in Bethlehem that we shall joyously await in a few weeks. God in Christ is the restorer of life who walks with us to the grave and who meets us on the other side, as he meets and unbinds Lazarus.