A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 11, 2018
Ruth 3:1-12, 4:13-17 & Mark 12:38-44
The book of Ruth does not appear often in the three-year lectionary cycle that guides the readings we hear on Sunday mornings. It is a story of immense redemption in the midst of terrible pain, of divine love shared between human beings when everything good in life had been stripped away. I’m excited to think with you today about what kind of world the story of Ruth imagines.
The book of Ruth opens in the little town of Bethlehem where a famine has taken a strangle hold of the land. A man lived there named Elimelech and he and his wife, Naomi, had two sons: Mahlon and Chilion. Since there was nothing to eat in Bethlehem, Elimelech journeyed with his family to the country of Moab. Moab was a few days travel up and around to the eastern side of the Dead Sea—nothing too challenging for Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons. But almost as soon as the family had settled in Moab, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi to care for her two sons alone. Eventually, Mahlon and Chilion marry women of Moab, one whose name is Orpah and the other whose name is Ruth. But tragedy strikes the family again about ten years later when both Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving Naomi without a husband or sons.
At this point Naomi didn’t have many options. Moab was not her home, and in a culture where she had to have a husband or sons for protection and status, this poor, bereaved woman had no choice but to go back to Bethlehem. As she turns to begin the lonely journey back to Bethlehem, Naomi presses her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. There will be nothing for them in Bethlehem, she says. But Ruth clung to Naomi, and said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die.” So together, the two women make the journey from Moab to Bethlehem.
At this point in the story it is important for us to remember that Ruth is a foreigner, and not just any sort of foreigner for that matter. Ruth was a Moabite and Moab was religiously, culturally, and socially very different from the nation of Israel. Moab was a pagan nation. Moab was known as a lawless place. Moab was the place where the enemies of Israel were born, and Israel went to war with Moab many times in early years of Israel’s founding. It is important for us to remember this piece of the story because Ruth is traveling with Naomi to Bethlehem, into the land of Israel, where she will be on enemy territory and where everyone around her will see her as an enemy.
Bethlehem is all a buzz when Ruth and Naomi arrive from their long journey—word has gotten around about all the terrible things that have happened to Naomi. Once the two have settled in, Naomi instructs Ruth to go and glean in the field belonging to a man named Boaz. Ruth does as she is instructed, and after a full day of gleaning in the fields, Ruth returns to Naomi with bags and bags of grain. As they eat together, I imagine that a sense of security washed over Naomi and Ruth, something they had not felt in a long time. Ruth had been so successful in the fields that day for a few reasons. First, there was a law in ancient Israel where farmers had to leave a strip of unharvested grain around all of their fields—God commanded them to do this so that the poor and destitute could come harvest, eat, and not starve to death. The other reason Ruth was so successful was because of the kindness of Boaz.
Boaz was a hot-shot, a high-roller, a kingpin in Bethlehem. But Boaz used his power and influence for good. Boaz immediately recognized Ruth as an outsider as she gathered grain in his field that day. And seeing that she was an outsider, Boaz told Ruth to follow along behind the other young women harvesting in his fields. Boaz also instructed the young men harvesting in his fields that if they even so much as looked at Ruth in a funny way, they would face serious consequences. When it was time for lunch that day, Boaz had Ruth sit at the head of the table with him and he shared his food with her. When quitting time rolled around, Boaz gave Ruth the bag of grain she had harvested plus several more, knowing that Naomi would need to eat, too.
A short time later, Naomi comes to the realization that something needs to happen in order for Ruth to be secure. After all, Naomi was getting on in years and Ruth wouldn’t be able to live in Bethlehem without her and she probably wouldn’t survive the trip back Moab. So, Naomi hatches a little plan. She tells Ruth one night to go to the barn where Boaz will be working late at threshing the wheat harvest. Naomi instructs Ruth to wait until Boaz had finished dinner and fallen asleep, then to lay down at Boaz’s feet until he wakes up in the morning. Ruth does as she is told, and when morning rolls around Boaz awakes and just about jumps out of his skin at the site of Ruth at his feet. But this was posture of humility and Boaz recognizes that Ruth is much more than a foreigner who is taking care of her mother-in-law. That day he promises to do whatever he needs to do in order to secure Ruth’s future.
That security comes in the form a debt-free place to live and a marriage proposal. Boaz meets with Bethlehem’s leaders at the city gates and he essentially purchase Naomi’s home from Elimelech’s cousin who had the right to reposes it from Naomi when Elimelech died. He also secured a release for Ruth who would have had to marry that same cousin in order to satisfy ancient laws oh inheritence. Boaz goes on to marry Ruth and she gives birth to a son named Obed. Luckily for Obed, his grandmother Naomi lived for many, many more years. Naomi cared for her grandson until he was a teenager. In the closing lines of the book of Ruth we learn that Obed grows up to father a son named Jesse, who fathers a son named David. David is, of course, the dynastic head of the family of Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior’s family line traces itself all the way back to a foreign woman who would not abandon her mother-in-law.
The power of the story of Ruth lies not only in the kindness of the various characters or in how everything worked out in the end, though all of that is significant. The power of the story of Ruth lies in the picture it paints for us of the world God desires for us to live in. The story of Ruth is a story of God’s shalom, of the world exactly as it should be, exactly as God designed it and blessed it to be. Shalomin Hebrew is used in two different ways in the Old Testament. First, it is used as a noun to describe something that is. In this sense shalommeans peace, wholeness, completeness. The other use of the word shalomin the Old Testament is as a verb to describe an action that is taking place. In this sense, shalommeans ‘to be complete, ‘to be whole,’ ‘to be in a state of peace.’ In the book of Ruth, shalomis totally a verb—it is an action taking place.
The action of God’s shalom comes to life in the book of Ruth in how she would not let go of her mother-in-law, even when it looked like there was nothing left for them. God’s shalom comes to life when Boaz sees a foreign woman working in his field and demands that his workers treat her fairly. We see God’s shalom coming to life when Ruth recognizes Naomi as her elder and respects hers, listens carefully to her, and faithfully followers her leadership. We see God’s shalom coming to life when Boaz uses his clout, his power, his status to release Naomi from her debts and provide for Ruth’s future. We see God’s shalom, finally, coming to life as God’s story continues in and through Ruth, all the way down the line to Joseph and Mary and Jesus.
This is how God wants the world to be. It is a world filled with mutuality and interdependence. It is a world filled with real, sacrificial, life-changing love. It is a world filled with people who really and actually care for one another. It is a world—and its right there in the story—where borders on land and in the heart are not much of a concern, particularly when someone is in desperate need. It is a world that recognizes the value of every life even when every life is so very different. It is a world where people are just decent to each other, where creation is cared for, where folks work hard to live together in peace even though there are so many things that could tear them apart.
The book of Ruth beckons us to bask in the glow of a world totally as God wants it to be; the story invites us to consider how glorious and divine it is when God’s shalom is the rule and not the exception. The story of Ruth also invites us to remember that there are Ruths and Naomis all around. They are widows and people who are totally destitute. They are people without hope and people who have been beaten down by life or other people over and over again. They are foreigners, ethnic, religious, economic foreigners who live in a land that is hostile to who and what they are. The story of Ruth invites us to remember that these people really exist and have real and serious needs. Then, like Boaz, the story invites us to remember that we each have a field, a field overflowing with love, grace, mercy, and maybe even a little grain. Our obligation as God’s people is to share, to leave a little strip unharvested around the outside, to bless as much as we have been blessed. In this way, God’s shalom become the rule and not the exception, and the world as we know it is utterly changed forever.
God’s shalom was on Jesus’ mind the day he sat with his disciples outside the temple in Jerusalem. It was a perfect moment for Jesus to teach his disciples more about God, about God’s kingdom, about God’s desire for the world. All around where temple leaders swishing back and forth in their fancy robes as the people greeted them with great honor and respect. Some of the leaders swished through the marketplace sampling from this booth and that one, probably never even reaching for their wallets. Others were enjoying the best seats at restaurants, ushered right to the front when they arrived at the amphitheater for the evening’s entertainment. And there, in the middle of this chaos, was a poor widow who dropped two copper coins into the temple treasury.
Jesus says to the disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” We have classically thought of this as praise for the widow and a call to generous giving, but that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. Jesus is pointing to the fact that this poor widow lives in a culture where even those who have nothing are expected to give. Jesus points to the widow and says to the disciples, “If you want to follow me, if you say that you love God, you better make sure that she has everything she needs to survive. You better take down these institutions that devour people like her. You better start working for a more just, peaceful, and complete world as. Or, you might be the one that gets devoured next.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do two things in light of the word that we have heard today from God. Let’s first take time to bask in the glory of God’s shalom. I believe with all of my heart that it is out there, that it is happening, that it is changing lives and the world. It might be hard to find sometimes, but there are places and people and things that embody God’s peace, God’s completeness, God’s wholeness and justice. In these things we see the light of Jesus Christ that no darkness can overcome. Let’s then take that light and carry it into all the places we know where darkness has taken over. Let’s take it to the Ruths and Naomis that are all around; let’s take it into the institutions and structures that might be keeping them down and out and then let’s take those institutions and structures down. Let’s take it to the foreigners in our midst. Let’s use it to light our tables and our homes, and let’s put it on display in everything we do and in everything we say.
Then, with God’s help, its all going to change: our hearts, our minds, our homes, our places of business, our churches, the entire world. It will all change into the whole, complete, and peaceful kingdom God desires for it to be. We can be a part of that marvelous transformation. According to God’s good and perfect will, may it be so. Amen.