Ruth 3 & 4, Romans 8:22-27
It’s so easy in our lives today to hear the beginning of a story and to immediately assume that we know where it’s going, depending on who’s reporting it and what the source is. We are so skeptical of each other and of the agendas that each one of us holds, that we miss out on really hearing one another. We tend to dismiss stories that give us a more complicated view, in favor of a single story that affirms what we already know to be true.
How often this is also true when we read the Bible. When we come to church and listen for what we think is there, then we often miss out on a lot of what God has to say to us through the Scripture. Part of what is lovely about being United Methodist is that we believe that God speaks to us through tradition, but we also believe that God speaks to us when we use our reason and when we are open to our own experience of the Holy Spirit. We read the Bible with our hearts and our heads; seeking to understand it intellectually and also communally so that we can learn each time we read it, and God can speak to us differently. What that means, is that the complexity of the Bible is allowed in our reading; the complexity of our lives are allowed in the hearing; and that it takes a lot of prayer and discernment as a community to figure out how to live out the Gospel today.
Here we are, on our last week of Ruth, and the richness of this story can allude us so easily as 21st Century people if we read it quickly through a single story lens. Let me give you an easy example from our culture. Imagine with me, for a moment, what Disney would do to the story of Ruth. You can imagine it, can’t you? What would the story of Ruth look like as a Disney film? Even though Ruth is poor and vulnerable, Disney would make her slim and beautiful even in her ragged clothes. She would have to have a full head of hair, that would slip out of her head scarf on occasion, and being barefoot would seem glamorous. Naomi, of course, would turn into the wicked stepmother, forcing Ruth away from family so that when the opportunity came, Boaz could sweep in, a prince in shining armor, and together they would go off into the sunset in their wedding clothes!
And what would the underlying messages of that be? That women need saving by someone outside of themselves; that men have to be the heroes; that happy endings happen if you just wait for them; that the most important relationship you have in your life cannot be the relationship between these two women, it has to be your romantic relationship. Do you see how narrow these messages are? They may hint at a truth or two that we know, but when those are the only messages we listen to, we end up with a very unhealthy community.
So let’s look at Ruth again. Imagine with me, for a moment, what Ruth looks like through a lens in which Christian chastity is the most important attribute of a person of faith. This passage is quite earthy. It doesn’t fit with a chaste narrative. In case you missed it, when Ruth goes to join Boaz on the threshing room floor, her act of “uncovering his feet” has nothing to do with warm feet. It is a euphemism for offering herself to him. From a lens of chastity, this can’t be. So in order to make sense of how this could be the case, a book of the Bible promoting sexuality, Boaz would become the hero and Ruth becomes the villain. Ruth’s clothes would be sultry; she would take on the role of a manipulator, there to seduce Boaz into taking care of her and Naomi; she would be cast as the temptress— and then Boaz, upright and good, would set her straight by first marrying her before having relations with her.
And what are the underlying messages of this narrative? That women use sexuality to get what they want; that men have to be upright and strong against these temptations; and that women can be bought and sold. This narrative has been used for hundreds of years. It is why we prosecute prostitutes and rarely the ones who buy them. It’s why we have dress codes for girls to cover their bodies while boys get to swim topless. This narrative of the manipulative woman is still used to make excuses for abusers. And it has especially been treacherous when you layer it with racial ideas, to demonize women of color.
There is one more single story narrative that we may find ourselves applying to Ruth as we read, and that is the lens of victim. We could easily read this story and see Ruth and Naomi as victims. The laws are set against them. Their only choice is to offer their sexuality to the men who can legally save them, and in the end, Boaz buys Ruth, gaining everything including the land of her father-in-law, so that Ruth and Naomi can just survive. These could all be considered facts of this story. And yet that is not the whole story. Sometimes in being well-intentioned— in recognizing peoples’ oppression, we go many steps too far and put everyone in a general category of oppressed people— thus making it almost impossible to appreciate the power and strength and creativity and resilience that people have who are in oppressive systems.
The underlying messages of that narrative are that the people will always be oppressed and that all solutions to their oppression come from outside of them— that they have very little to offer because they are oppressed. We see this throughout history as those in power, even when able to name their power, continue to spread a narrative of oppressed people having nothing to offer and never stopping to listen well. This narrative not only divides us into groups of who is oppressed and who isn’t, it also tells the lie that only those who are oppressed suffer from what is happening. This is part of what is happening in our nation right now as we refuse to see that any time we divide people— by color, economics, education, citizenship— we are all hurt— not equally, of course, but it hurts all of us to be divided and to choose to uphold these divisions.
So now that we’ve named some of the single stories that we subconsciously may be tempted to layer on top of Ruth, let’s set those aside and take a long look at what the author tells us is happening in the Hebrew.
The author tells us that the barley harvest that was hinted at in the first chapter of Ruth is now in full swing. Historians tell us that this probably only happened for the Israelites a little more than half of the time. So frequently the harvest didn’t do very well or there was outright famine. So this is the cause for celebration. One of God’s laws written elsewhere in the Bible is that when the harvest is rich and full, then you and your workers are to take a whole week to celebrate— it is written in God’s law that the people are to eat their fill, that they are to drink beer, that they are to party for an entire week after all of the work of bringing in the harvest is done. So that’s what is going on in this passage.
And it is in this time of celebration, of having enough to eat, that Naomi sees an opportunity to secure her daughter-in-law’s future, and thus her own future too. Here we see two women who understand the system they are living in. They understand that their power in this system is limited by law. But that does not stop them from using the informal power they have— the resiliency that they have been storing up; the wisdom of seeing what’s going on around them; the knowledge of knowing human nature— and using that power to create their own future.
Ruth goes to the threshing floor during this time of celebration, having cleaned up from being in the fields, and Ruth lays down next to Boaz who presumably is passed out from having a bit too much to drink. When Boaz wakes up, Ruth is ready. And unlike the Disney story where he saves the day; unlike the manipulation story where she would tempt him past what he could handle; unlike the victim story where she would have to wait for him to take pity on her; Ruth proposes to Boaz. You may have missed it because in the Hebrew she says to him, “Spread your cloak over me, for you are my next of kin.” But every Israelite of that time, hearing this story, would know that in the marriage ceremony, the man spreads his cloak over the woman as a sign of his commitment to her. Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her. And in that moment, we see in Boaz’s response, that he is grateful for this woman. He tells her that she could’ve had any pick of younger men, but that he rejoices in her loyalty in picking him instead.
The world turns as Ruth chooses the man she wants to marry; the world turns as we discover that Boaz sees his redemption in this act; the world turns as we discover that in God’s story we don’t have to fit into a mold of what it means to be a woman; of what it means to be a man; of what it means to be a family— but that love and respect and resiliency lead the way to a new world when we are faithful to God by loving one another.
Ironically, as it turns out, Boaz is not next in line legally to marry Ruth. There is another. But I love that the author of Ruth doesn’t even give him a name. He’s just not worth it! This man is glad to inherit Naomi’s husband’s land, but he doesn’t consider Ruth an asset at all— remember, she is a Moabite— the worst nationality possible according to an Israelite, and if he marries her, he tells Boaz, he will lose his inheritance. Boaz is the one who recognizes Ruth’s worth; Boaz is able to recognize the blessing that is right in front of him. Boaz and the first hearers of this story probably couldn’t even begin to criticize the patriarchal system— they had their own blinders of what it meant to care for one another. But on the other hand, they were not limited in imagining that these two people, Boaz and Ruth, by the grace of God, end up saving each other. Boaz needs Ruth and celebrates her faithfulness in choosing him for her husband— in proposing to him! And Ruth needs Boaz to secure her future and bring life where she has experienced too much death. They are complex people with all of the emotions you and I have— grief; loneliness; desire; fear; faith.
But the story doesn’t end there. Just in case you missed out on who the author thinks is the real hero of this story, the writer of Ruth ends the book with a picture of Naomi holding the newborn baby— her grandson— Ruth and Boaz’s son. Naomi is holding her grandson and claiming this grandson as her own even though there is no blood relation at all, and her friends are singing around her, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day. Blessed be the Lord who has given you this grandson. Blessed be the Lord for giving you your daughter-in-law, Ruth, who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons.”
May each of us find our own way of being a blessing, of turning this world by being who God is calling us to be— sometimes fulfilling cultural norms and sometimes bucking them. And may we be a church that is able to recognize the cultural blinders we have, and to open our eyes to how God is blessing this world through the people who are in it— foreigners, strangers, the ones we call “illegal”, mother-in-laws, farmers, neighbors— God uses us all to bless the world when we choose to love.