Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 32 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Ruth the outsider
The story of Ruth in the little book that bears her name is one of the great short stories of all time. You know how it goes:- Naomi and her husband and their two sons left Bethlehem in a time of famine to live in the foreign country of Moab. Her husband died there but Naomi remained with her sons who married local women, Ruth and Orpah, but then her sons both died and she decided to return home. When she said a tearful farewell to her foreign daughters-in-law urging them to return to their families, Ruth insisted on going with her. The main part of the story, is set in the fields around Bethlehem before King David and over a thousand years before Jesus too was born there. Its theme is the acceptance of Ruth, an outsider, as she made herself part of Naomi's community and through her marriage to Boas secured the inheritance of Naomi's family. The way she and Naomi managed that is a tale of delightful intrigue. The story has all the marks of artistry in the telling of folktales.
A distant historical figure, she comes through with all the simplicity of honest friendship in a rural community at harvest time. There is just enough detail to bring out the character of the people and the significance of their actions: we see Boas passing Ruth some food at the lunchtime break in the field, piling it up until she has more than she can eat (2:14); gleaning for scraps of grain to keep Naomi and herself alive, Ruth had happened (just "happened") to come to the part of the field belonging the Boas (2:3); Boas noticed her (2:5) and told her to stay with his people, even arranging for extra grain to fall for her to collect (2:15-16); when she takes it back to Naomi she learns of the relationship of Boas to her family, and how he could redeem their property (2:20) , and after she has followed his reapers a few more days, they hatch a plot to arouse his interest even more, Naomi saying 'I need to seek some security for you' (3:1), so that Ruth goes to where Boas is sleeping after drinking too much at the threshing floor, she lies down at his feet and secures her future in his response (3:6-13). We see Boas negotiating Naomi's next of kin rights with the elders at the city gate, taking off his sandal according to ancient custom (4:8); and in the conclusion Naomi is holding the new born child of Ruth and Boas as the women bless the Lord for his goodness to her (4:13-17).
As it unfolds you can sense the bitterness of Naomi's grief, then the newfound hope in her daughter-in-law, and feel the heightened sense of intrigue, which the telling and retelling of the story must have had, as it was handed on through the generations. Honed to perfection by the time it was written down centuries later, it became a classic that was read every year at the harvest festival called the Feast of Weeks. It was that celebration which later became known to us as the Feast of Pentecost, a Jewish festival which is remembered by Christians as the birthday of the Church. That is a nice coincidence to remember Ruth the outsider at such a time, enough of a co-incidence to make one wonder, for the Pentecost that Christians remember was the occasion when the barriers came down and people of many other nations with different languages were able to understand what the Galileans were sayings (Acts 2:5-12). The universality of God's love is revealed again.
Besides friendship, the other great theme of the book of Ruth is universality. Ruth the outsider comes to share in the heritage of Israel. That is in fact the dominant theme, the main point of the story. The point stressed most frequently in the text is that Ruth was a foreigner (1:4,22; 2:2,6,10-13,21; 4:5,10). It was always part of the tradition of Israel that the blessings of the Lord, with knowledge of the one true God and membership in his covenant community, were to be made available to other nations through Israel. Sadly, it was often forgotten.
We believe that universal inclusiveness was secured through the work of Christ, at least to those who are related to him through faith, so that we and all other sorts of different people can be included in a new relationship with God. We have no evidence that Jesus ever referred to his foreign ancestor Ruth who settled in ancient times in the town of his birth, but we do know that he praised the faith of foreigners who came to him (Matthew 10:8; 15:28), and he taught people to love their neighbours in spite of differences in such a way that Peter was able later to discover that God does not play favourites between the people of different races (Acts 10:34-35); and Paul was able to write of how among those who belong to Christ there is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles or between slave and free or between male and female (Galatians 3:28). That God would fully accept and bless foreigners was something which the people of Israel should have known; in fact it was known to them, but it tended to be forgotten, just as it still tends to be forgotten even in many nations today in spite of a general belief in the value of tolerance.
It was probably in the context of such forgetting that the story of Ruth the outsider would have first been told and later retold with popular understanding. There were times in the history of Israel when an exclusive emphasis was made by their leaders in the process of nation building. One such time was when the city of Jerusalem was being rebuilt after its destruction by the Babylonians. Nehemiah, who led the returned exiles to renew the defeated nation's symbols of nationhood, attempted to put an end to all marriages between Jews and non-Jews (Nehemiah 10-13; Esra 9:1-3). He tried to enforce an ancient law, and scholars think it may well have been at that time, that the story of Ruth from Moab became part of their literature as a kind of resistence.
Her acceptance by the family of Naomi at Bethlehem, the city of David, and her marriage to Boas would have been impossible under the old law. Not only was there a general expectation that they should not marry foreigners, but the people of Moab were specifically named as unacceptable.
A strict application of the law would have prevented Ruth the Moabitess from marrying Boas. It would even subsequently have excluded her great-grandson David from full acceptance as an Israelite. The popularity of the story of Ruth suggests that the struggle against such laws was part of a continuing debate which was still going on centuries later in the time of Christ. You might say that the acceptance of foreigners, especially into families through marriage, is an eternal struggle. It is a common enough issue in Australia today even if the multicultural nature of our society is widely accepted and often celebrated. The big question still confronts many families. In her adopted home Ruth is blessed as an outsider who faithfully adheres to her community. That is not quite the same thing as saying that differences between people of different nations do not matter in everyday life, and it certainly does not mean that all cultures are of equal value for all purposes.
We are inclined to take a romantic view of individual happiness and say that of course people should marry as they choose without regard for nationality, or even when it comes to the test, that family loyalties should give way to the attraction of one individual to another. In any case families know well enough that in our free society there is nothing they can do about it when two people are in love and determined to marry. That is not how it was with Ruth and Boas. That whole way of thinking, that is so popular in Western Society, would have seemed to them very strange indeed, and quite irresponsible. If love mattered in the story of Ruth, it was the love of Ruth for Naomi which made the difference. It was all about belonging to a community, and therefore not acting without regard for family loyalty. The reward of Ruth the foreigner came through her regard for family and community responsibilities, the very opposite of romantic individualism.
Ruth is not a model for women today in all she did. She was acting in accordance with family laws and customs which are different from ours. The point of Ruth's managing to persuade Boas to marry her was that it was a way of securing the family property which might have been lost otherwise, but our laws are different so that it is not necessary for a man to have descendants in order for his property to be passed on within a family, and we believe women should have their own rights in property and not be dependent upon men for them. Nothing is said about whether it was good or bad for Ruth to use her femininity to achieve her goal, but we way assume it to have been regarded as good. Nor are we expected to take any characters in the Bible as models for how we should behave, except that as a general principle of Christian faith we test everything by reference to Christ.
It may be helpful to seek what guidance there is in the New Testament about who we should take as examples. Jesus told us to take himself as an example when he washed his disciples feet (John 13:15); and there are certain respects in which the apostles provide good example.
With good examples, it is important to see that it is made clear what was good about what they did. Except for Christ himself, they were not put forward as models of perfection in everything.
So what about Ruth. Do we learn anything?
Thanks be to God who has given us his Word in the witness of scripture to acts of faith in the past and who continues to call women and men of all nations into faithful discipleship in the name of Christ. Amen.
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