Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:28-34
Stuck between the gory battles of Judges, and the origins of Israel’s monarchy in Samuel, sits the delightfully compelling tale of a widow named Ruth. Time does not permit the reading of the whole story so I ask that you indulge my abbreviated version.
A family of farmers from Bethlehem fell on hard times during a draught. After considering all other options, Elimilech and his wife Naomi uprooted their family and headed across the Jordan River to the country of Moab. This meant Elimilech and his family chose to live among folks who worshiped different gods and followed non-Jewish customs. The family settled down and the boys married the girls next door. Everything seemed fine until death paid an unkind visit. First the father and then the two sons died of an unexplained illness, leaving three widows and no plans for their future. According to Jewish tradition, once a woman marries into a family, should her husband die, the men of the clan were responsible for the widow. In this case, there was no male to shoulder this responsibility.
Naomi, realizing her daughters-in-law were better off in their own culture, announced her plans to return to Bethlehem. She was not deserting Ruth or Orpah. By relinquishing the daughters back to their original families, she was releasing them from the vow they had made to her sons. It should also be noted by going back to Bethlehem without her husband, Naomi presumed she would live the life of a beggar. Orpah wept bitterly but did as her mother-in-law wished. But Ruth refused. In the beautiful passage we read this morning Ruth made a covenant with Naomi. “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.” Ruth made a promise of radical fidelity with Naomi. In Hebrew this pledge is called “Hesed”. It is more than a promise. It is a binding agreement that each party will render kindness and justice to one another. It is a thousand times more potent than documents signed with lawyers present. It is literally till death do we part. Hesed offers no loop holes. It is based on righteous living. Naomi knew Ruth had no idea what she had promised.
When they arrived, in Bethlehem, Naomi met old neighbors who were happy to see she had returned. But Naomi announced her grievous situation by changing her name from Naomi which means “sweetness” to Mara which means “bitterness”. She asked that she be left in her sorrow but sought permission for her daughter-in-law to glean the fields of Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. The wish was granted. Ruth was allowed to gather the food, guaranteeing the two women could survive. Was this just an act of generosity toward two starving widows? No it was more than this. Even though Naomi had left Bethlehem, the people of her hometown still practiced “hesed” toward her. They were honor bound to remain loyal to her family. And what of Ruth? Acts of “Hesed” included strangers who were invited became part of this community of faith.
Here is where the story goes from “G” to “PG-13”. Ruth was a good looking woman. It was not long before she was noticed by Boaz. When she came home from the fields, Ruth told her mother-in-law that she kept seeing Boaz looking her direction. He had even offered her a drink of water. Suddenly Naomi went from despondent widower to meddling matchmaker. Her life might be over but that didn’t mean Ruth had to continue to wear black. Naomi knew exactly what to do. She said, “Girl, I want you to take a bath, put on your best perfume and that nice dress that you haven’t worn since my boy died. Then go up to barn. That is where Boaz will sleep tonight. He won’t go home until the harvest is in. When he lies down on the floor, recline beside him and uncover his feet.” So much for family values in the Bible.
Ruth did exactly as her mother-in-law had instructed. At midnight, an exhausted Boaz lay down to sleep. Ruth snuggled up beside him and removed the blankets. A startled Boaz jumped up and demanded an explanation. The woman responded, “I am Ruth, your next of kin. You have to make me an honest woman”. Don’t miss what was happening here. The most eligible bachelor in town finds a beautiful woman in his bed. There is no one who would dare question his next move. Boaz was incredibly attracted to Ruth, but Boaz was bound to the concept of “hesed”. With pain in his voice he said to Ruth, “I am not your next of kin. There is another who comes before me. If he will relinquish his claim to the property of Naomi then I shall ask you to be my wife.” There is no doubt that Boaz desired Ruth. But Boaz also desired there be no conflicts with the community. He was willing to give up Ruth in order to preserve the peace of Bethlehem. Again, “hesed”, radical fidelity, calls for the people of God to look beyond the needs of the one to preserve harmony within the whole of the community.
Boaz went to his kinsman. He informed his cousin that by law he had the rights to claim Naomi’s inheritance. But Boaz reminded his brother whoever claimed the property would be responsible for both women. The cousin clearly understood what Boaz was saying. He quickly relinquished any claim to the property. In other words he said to Boaz, “I am not sure my new wife is ready to share the house with two other women.” Elated with the news, Boaz claimed the land and the responsibilities that went with it.
Taking care of Ruth was easy. After all, it had been love at first sight. But what about Naomi? Here is the best part of the story. The wedding took place and the community celebrated. Nine month later Ruth gave birth to a beautiful boy. Ruth placed the new born in the arms of Naomi, and the mother-in-law became the child’s nurse. “My people shall be your people. Your God will be my God.” This final act of “hesed”, of radical fidelity, was recognized by the village. Throughout the town the word went out, “A son has been given to Naomi. His name shall be Obed.” Why Obed? It means “servant of God”. With the birth of the Obed, the faithful servant Naomi, had been restored.
Imagine residing in a community which boldly lived by the concept of “Hesed”, radical fidelity. Imagine what that might mean for this community. First, it would be a community where no one is left destitute. Ruth and Naomi came to Bethleham with nothing. They were offered the opportunity pick the leftovers in the field. Remember, leftovers are a feast to someone who is starving.
Second, it would be a community where loneliness and despair are not ignored. It is hard to find solutions when someone suffers from despair. We prefer to cast a blind eye to loneliness. But we know better. Our eyes can not lie. Their cries can not go unnoticed. A community of faith can’t help but recognize the brokenness of loneliness and despair. A community of faith seeks ways to be a healing agent.
Third, this would be a community that values the welfare of all of its children. This would be a community that celebrates its elderly. The Old Testament frequently states God will judge us on how we treat our orphans and widows.
Being this kind of community seems difficult but certainly not impossible. But here comes the hard lesson from Ruth. A community based on “hesed” would allow the marginalized to be appropriately pushy. Nothing drives me crazier than when a person comes to the church office looking for help with delinquent bills and then he or she tells me exactly what I need to do to help them. I hate it when someone who obviously is barely making ends meet buys a lottery ticket or a car or a house they can not afford. I could go on and on. Truth is I want people who are marginalized to act humbly. But that is not the story we read this morning. Ruth, the marginalized Moabite pushes herself on Naomi. Then Naomi, the marginalized widow, pushes herself on Boaz. In a real way they both saw an opportunity and exploited it. Yet, if they had not pushed to be recognized, if they had not fought to survive, Boaz would never have married Ruth and Obed would never have been born.
Why the big fuss over this baby? The son of Obed was Jesse. The son of Jesse was David. With David, God’s promise of a nation was fulfilled. Of course we can complete the geneology of Ruth and Boaz. A thousand years later, a young husband and his pregnant bride make their way back to Bethlehem to pay taxes. Why Bethlehem? Joseph was of the house of David. In Jesus, the Godly promise of “hesed” was complete. In Jesus, no one is left destitute. In Jesus, those that despair are given hope. In Jesus, the youngest and the oldest are lifted up. In Jesus, even the marginalized are given a voice.
The story of Ruth and of Jesus invites us to break down the walls of hostility by performing acts of radical fidelity to neighbors, to strangers, to orphans, to widows and even to the person who pushes us just a little past our level of tolerance. Why would God want us to go to all that trouble? Because the God of Hesed has promised, “Where you go, I will go, for I am your God and you are my people.”
To God be the glory.