November 11, 2012
Sermon Text: Ruth 3:1-9, 4:13-17
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away there was a woman named Naomi who had two sons. She and her husband, Elimelech had moved from Bethlehem, in Judah, to a foreign land, Moab, because there was a famine. After they moved to Moab, Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons were grown and they married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. After they had lived there about a decade, Naomi’s sons died, too, and she and her daughters-in-law found themselves in the midst of a nightmare situation. They were three women, living alone, far from family that would take care of them.
Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem in hopes of finding food because the famine was over. She encouraged her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, their home country, because she knew she had no way of providing for them. In the day and age which they lived, women were utterly dependent on men and Naomi, being an older woman, had no way to produce more sons for Orpah and Ruth to marry.
Orpah listened to her mother-in-law and decided to stay in Moab. But Ruth – Ruth had other plans. She told her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go. 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.”
I often encourage people I marry to write their own wedding vows, but, really, I can’t think of any vows better than these. Ruth, for whatever reason, was faithful to Naomi. Naomi, who had nothing to offer. Naomi, who was an outsider in the land of Moab. Naomi, who had lost everything. Naomi, who could not care for Ruth. Ruth chose her anyway and refused to leave her side.
Many people love the story of Ruth and Naomi. It’s a beautiful tale of fidelity and it’s one of the few Biblical stories about women. Now as a modern-day feminist, there are some things in this story that make me a little bonkers. I wish, of course, that these two women could strike out on their own, find jobs, provide for themselves, and sing a nice rousing rendition of “I am woman, hear me roar!”
Of course, this is not what happens. Instead, what we have is the story of two brilliant and self-sufficient women working the system of their day and place to their advantage. In their culture, widowed women were some of the most helpless beings on the planet. Without men to provide food and shelter, they were cast out into the margins of society.
Being a widow was terrifying, but there was one hope for these women. Because the God of the Israelites cared for widows, the people of Judah were required to care for them, too. Over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures we hear God’s call to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. And please note that after they returned to Bethlehem, Ruth was not only a widow but also a foreigner.
There were customs in place to provide a safety net for women like Ruth and Naomi. If a man died and left his wife behind, his next-of-kin was supposed to marry her and provide for her. Of course, Naomi’s sons were both dead, so there was no brother-in-law for Ruth to marry. But Naomi was a resilient and hopeful woman, so she set her sights on a man named Boaz who was a relative of her deceased husband. It was kind of a long shot – especially since Ruth was a foreigner – but Naomi knew it was their only chance, so she sent Ruth out day after day to pick up leftovers in Boaz’s field and to try to capture his attention.
Now when I was a little girl and was taught this story, someone erroneously told me that Boaz noticed Ruth because she was pretty. I guess everything has to be a Disney fairytale, huh? But, really? That’s not true. I mean, Ruth may have been pretty, I don’t know. But that’s not what Boaz cared about.
Instead, Boaz was drawn to Ruth because of her fidelity. He watches out for her when she comes to his fields day after day. He tells her she can act like one of his female servants and tells her she can drink all the water she wants. He even instructs his field hands to leave some extra food laying for her on the ground so she can find it easily. Ruth is surprised by his kindness and asks why he is kind to her when she is a foreigner. He says that he’s heard of her faithfulness to her Naomi. He is impressed that she has stayed with Naomi and that she was willing to come to a foreign land to care for her. He is impressed by Ruth’s character.
Ruth’s fidelity and steadfastness seems to inspire the same in Boaz. It’s amazing how we can be so influenced by the company we keep, isn’t it? When we surround ourselves with people who seek to be kind and true, we often find ourselves working harder to do the same.
So when Ruth comes to Boaz at night and slips under his blanket, I’m sure he is shocked.
Naomi has sent Ruth here in desperation. Naomi feels certain that if Ruth will simply offer herself – her body – to Boaz, he will surely want what is being offered. She can only hope that he will also be a decent man and offer her marriage after they spend the night together.
There is so very much at stake in this moment. To be a woman in a place surrounded by men – at night – this is the kind of thing that almost never ends well.
To put yourself out there and hope against hope that you’ve guessed right and that this man is a good one – that’s what Ruth had to do. In going to Boaz at night she put everything she had on the line. I think we can all imagine the horrible things that could have happened. At the very leas, he could have shamed her. He could have seen to it that she and Naomi were banished from Bethlehem and left with no other options.
But Boaz did none of these things. Instead, he talked to her. He listened to her plans. He told her, once again, that he greatly admired her faithfulness and capabilities.
Ruth basically proposed to Boaz, saying, “Please? Won’t you take me in? You’re the closest relative I have.” And Boaz, rule-follower that he was, responded by saying that he thought there might be another, even-closer, relative. He promised to check on things the next day and work them out.
When I was re-reading Ruth this week, I just happened to pick up my copy of the Common English Bible, a new translation that was published in 2010. I love to read different translations of familiar texts because I often find an entire story can turn on a word or a phrase. And that’s what happened this week.
In the NRSV, Ruth asks Boaz to protect her because he is her “next-of-kin.” But in the CEB, she says, “you are my redeemer.”
Boaz is her redeemer. And yes, of course, of course, this smacks of patriarchy and it makes my 21st century feminist ears bleed. But taken in its context, it opens up worlds and worlds to me about who God is and who we are called to be.
To be someone’s next of kin is to be their redeemer. To be family is to be faithful. In this way, Boaz isn’t the only redeemer in this story. Ruth is a redeemer, too. She could have easily left Naomi and found a way to take care of herself. Instead, she stayed with her kinswoman and vowed to take care of her, no matter what.
Boaz, inspired by Ruth’s faithfulness, does the same. He sees that he has the opportunity to help these women and he wants to. But first he has to check with the other guy. Because there is another kinsman who is technically more closely related than Boaz and according to their customs, he has the right to take Ruth if he wants her.
So Boaz, the redeemer, goes to this other nameless man and says, “I am thinking of buying the land that used to belong to Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband. But I need to check with you first – do you want it?” And this nameless man jumps on the opportunity. He is more than happy to discover he can own some new land.
But then Boaz says to him, “Oh, by the way, the land also comes with Elimelech’s daughter-in-law, Ruth.” And the nameless man backpedals, saying he doesn’t want the land after all.
Given the opportunity to be the redeemer, this other man doesn’t take it. Given the opportunity to care for a person who has been dealt a bad hand, he refuses. Given the chance to engage in a new relationship with a person who needs him, he backpedals. He has the chance to be a redeemer, and he takes a pass.
We don’t know his name. He is not the redeemer in this story.
The redeemer in this story is Boaz. He is the one who willingly takes notice of a woman that no one else noticed. He sees her for the person she is and he praises her for her faithfulness. He recognizes her need and does what he can to keep her safe.
I ran across this quotation earlier this week in a book I was reading for fun: Clarissa Pinkola Estes says "Mend the part of the world that is within your reach."
I believe this is what it means to be a redeemer. We are to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. We are to keep our eyes and hearts open and look for those who may need help. And then we are to do whatever is within our power to love and care for them.
God gives us the power of redemption. Because we have been redeemed by God – rescued from self-loathing, loved as we are, caressed and fiercely loved by the One who knows all of our weaknesses – because we have been redeemed by God, we are freed to redeem others.
There are people all over this world who are in need of redemption. Our world, our nation, our state, our community, our neighborhood are just overflowing with people in need of salvation.
But before you get on your white horse and go looking for a princess to save, let me give you a word of caution: all of these people, no matter how disparaged, have within them the ability to redeem themselves. All of these people have within them the ability to redeem themselves.
They do not need me to come swooping in on a white horse and tell them how much easier their lives would be if they would just be like me. That’s not what Boaz the Redeemer does. Boaz watches Ruth from afar and he learns from her. He sees in her this fierce fidelity. He recognizes that which his Holy in her and, in turn, uses the power and privilege he has to shine a light on the Holy that lives inside this woman.
No one else was looking for God in the person of Ruth. No one else was expecting to learn from her. Boaz saw her. Boaz trusted in what she had to offer. And then he became her partner and together the two of them found redemption.
To be a redeemer is to recognize the Holy in another person. It is to humble yourself and recognize that all of us, no matter how privileged or poor we are, have something to offer and all of us, no matter how privileged or poor, have something to learn.
Today and every day, we are all given the chance to be a redeemer. It is my prayer that we will open ourselves to the possibility of walking in the footsteps of Boaz and Ruth.