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Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries

 

Ordinary Honours - Ruth audio

Ruth 1-4

We come today to the last in our series on women in Jesus’ genealogy, to the story of Ruth. I hope you’ll discover as we go through this story of Ruth that it encompasses much of what I think Matthew had in mind when he included these women in his genealogy.

But first we need to think about the situation that women like Ruth and Tamar and Rahab and Bathsheba found themselves in. Women were powerless. They had no rights. They couldn’t own land. So they were totally dependent on their husband or their father for survival.

But then, in a sense that shouldn’t surprise us if we remember what God said to the woman in Gen 3, after she and the man had eaten of the forbidden fruit? You can almost imagine the sadness in his voice as he says: “16I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen 3:16) Life was going to be tough for both of them, but in the woman’s case her physical weakness compared with men would be compounded by a social disempowering that left her in subjection to male domination.

But, as we’ll see in this story, God didn’t leave it there. As the nation of Israel was being formed God gave them laws intended to ensure that women’s welfare was provided for - laws that impact significantly on Ruth and Naomi.

Now I’m going to move very quickly through the story so I suggest you might like to read it again when you get home. The story is set in the days of the Judges, and it begins in the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem, by the way, means “House of Bread” but as our story begins there’s little bread because there’s a famine in the land. And so Elimelech and his wife Naomi move to the land of Moab with their two sons.

Sometime later Elimelech dies. The two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but then 10 years later both sons die leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone without anyone to provide for them. What was she to do? She’s a foreigner, an Israelite in a country that was hostile to Israel. But she hears that the famine in Bethlehem is over so she decides to return. The three women begin their journey but on the way Naomi has second thoughts. She says to Orpah and Ruth, there’s no point in going back with her. They’d be better off returning to their mother’s homes in the hope of finding a new husband.

She says to them “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” That word kindness is a key word in this story. It’s the word that’s used over and over again in the Bible for God’s grace and mercy; his loving-kindness to his people. But you can’t help thinking that there’s a bitter irony in what she says. She wishes God’s kindness on them but her experience so far is that God doesn’t seem to have been too kind to her. In fact she says the hand of the Lord has turned against her. When she returns to Jerusalem she tells her friends not to call her Naomi but to call her Mara, which means “Bitter”.

Well, after some discussion Orpah heeds her advice and returns to her family home but Ruth won’t be dissuaded. She’s not willing to abandon the relationship she has with Naomi and she won’t let her go back alone with no hope of support. So she says “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Ruth is making a lifelong covenant with Naomi that in turn becomes a covenant with the LORD. Despite being a worshipper of Moabite gods she commits herself to the LORD, even calling down his wrath on her if she should break her covenant with Naomi.

Now we mustn’t miss the significance of this. Ruth is from Moab. Before they entered the promised land Moses had given them laws, including this: “3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deut23:3) So Ruth has no place among the Israelites. What’s more her experience of the LORD wasn’t very encouraging. [In fact it’s the opposite of the experience of Rahab that we heard about last week. Rahab had heard only positive things about the God of Israel while Naomi’s experience was all negative.] Certainly Naomi thought so. But Ruth’s love for Naomi overcomes all that. Naomi’s already commented on the kindness Ruth and Orpah have shown her and Ruth adds to that by this decision to go with her. She’ll continue to show this loving kindness even if it means a life of poverty as a foreign widow in Israel.

So they return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Now remember I said God had made laws to help people like Naomi and Ruth? Well, one of those laws was to do with the harvest. God said that when workers went out to harvest their fields if they missed any heads of grain they weren’t to go back to pick them up. Instead they were to leave them so the poor and any foreigners living among them, people who didn’t have any land to farm, could follow behind and glean, that is gather, what was left behind.

Ruth knows about this law so she asks Naomi if it’d be OK for her to go and glean in one of the neighbouring fields. Of course Naomi says yes, go ahead.

So Ruth goes out the next day and just happens to pick a field that belongs to a man named Boaz, who, the narrator has told us, is related to Elimelech. And if that isn’t coincidence enough, Boaz is just then returning from Jerusalem. He notices her and asks his reapers who she is. They tell him she’s the Moabite who’s just returned with Naomi, and how she’s been working non-stop since she joined them that morning.

Well, how’s Boaz going to respond? He could turn her away because she’s a Moabite, but no, he welcomes her, tells her to stay in his field. He allows her to drink from the workers’ water supply and he orders the young men not to bother her. She falls to the ground in recognition of her low social status compared to him and asks why he’s showing her such favour. He says he’s heard all about how she’s looked after Naomi, how she’s shown her commitment, her covenant loyalty if you like, to Naomi. Clearly there are no secrets in a small village. And his words echo the description of Abraham as he says “you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.” (Ruth 2:11) then he adds: “12May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!" Little does he know that the Lord will indeed reward her but that Boaz will be the means by which God will do it. Notice too, that phrase: under whose wings you’ve come for refuge. In a couple of nights time Ruth will be seeking refuge under Boaz’ blanket!

Well Boaz continues to show kindness to Ruth by telling his young men not only to let her glean but to “accidentally” drop extra stalks of wheat for her to pick up. And so we see Ruth’s kindness to Naomi being repaid in kind by Boaz.

Ruth finishes gleaning, threshes the grain and takes the results home to Naomi – all 22 litres of it – an enormous amount for a day’s gleaning. Naomi can’t believe it. How did this happen? But when Ruth tells her that the field she worked in belonged to Boaz it all falls into place. She says: “20Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" There’s that word kindness again. Naomi is beginning to realise that God’s kindness hasn’t been lost to her. It was just biding its time. But there’s more at play here than just God’s kindness to Naomi. He’s also showing kindness to Ruth. Remember, God’s law excluded Moabites from the assembly of Israel, and that included Ruth. Yet God in his grace has blessed Ruth through Boaz; and he’ll do it even more in just a moment.

Naomi points out that Boaz is their close relative so Ruth should stick with the women from his household and only glean in his fields until the end of the barley and the wheat harvest. But it isn’t just that he’s their closest relative: the word that’s translated nearest kin in the NRSV could have been translated kinsman-redeemer. Here’s another of the laws that God put in place to provide some protection for women in this patriarchal environment. We saw it in the story of Tamar. God had instructed his people that if a husband died, his brother was to take the man’s widow as his wife in order to give her a son who could then continue the dead man’s ownership of the land of his forbears. And if there was no brother the nearest relative was expected to do the same thing.

So now Naomi sets a new plan in motion. She tells Ruth to clean herself up, put on her best clothes and go down to the threshing floor where the men will be celebrating the end of harvest. She’s to wait until he lies down to sleep then she’s to uncover his feet and lie down with him.

Now I don’t know about you but to me this all sounds very dangerous. Here she is a single Moabite woman lying down with a man who’s been drinking all night. What is she getting herself into? [Is this a plot by Naomi to get her pregnant so Boaz will have to marry her – like the story of Tamar?] And the way the story’s told there are all sorts of sexual innuendos, in the Hebrew text at least, all through this part of the story, lie down – 8 times, know – 3 times, go into - 4 times and reveal - twice. It’s as though the narrator wants us to feel the provocative nature of Ruth’s actions as well as the righteousness and goodness of Boaz as he recovers from the shock of finding a woman lying at his feet. Remember this is a culture with strong rules about propriety of relationships between the sexes.

Well, Boaz recovers quickly from his shock and asks Ruth who she is. Her answer sets the scene for the rest of the drama.

She describes herself first as his maidservant. Interestingly it’s the same expression that’s used by Mary when the Angel Gabriel tells her she’s going to have a child by the Holy Spirit. In Ruth’s case it’s an indication that she’s available for marriage. But she isn’t waiting around for Boaz to work this out. Rather she takes the initiative. She asks for marriage and protection. “Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” Ruth is invoking the law of kinsman-redeemer.

Boaz responds by again recognising Ruth’s kindness and loyalty to Naomi. He says she could have gone after some young man but she hasn’t. She’s come to him, an older man, in order to preserve Mahlon’s and Naomi’s heritage. She’s also looking after Naomi, because if Boaz becomes the kinsman redeemer he has to buy Mahlon’s land with the proceeds going to Naomi.

So it all looks good, until Boaz points out that there’s another relative with a stronger claim than him. Will the plan fall in a heap? Naomi and Ruth are left waiting for the men to sort out the business arrangements with the town elders.

Boaz offers the land to this other relative who seems happy to accept until he hears that Ruth the Moabite is part of the deal. For him that’s a bridge too far, so he withdraws his claim and Boaz is given the right to acquire the land  - along with Ruth. The elders offer a blessing on “the woman” – notice that Ruth isn’t named – that she be fruitful like Rachel and Leah who built the house of Israel and, interestingly, that through her children his house might be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah. Whether they understood that Tamar was another beneficiary of the law of the kinsman redeemer isn’t clear but we know that that is the case.

At that point the story is almost over. All that remains to come are the closing credits and the postscript. But what a postscript! Ruth conceives and bears a son. The women rejoice with Naomi who takes him in her arms and cares for him. Ruth is accepted into their community as one who is more to Naomi than seven sons – high praise indeed! And they name the child Obed – which means “Servant” – presumably “Servant of the Lord”. Finally we’re told he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

Well what does all that tell us about Matthew’s reason for including Ruth in his genealogy of Jesus? What is it about Ruth that makes Matthew highlight her?

To my mind it’s the steadfast love and kindness shown first by Ruth towards Naomi, then by Boaz towards Ruth, but above all by God towards both Naomi and Ruth. Ruth in particular is the recipient of God’s loving-kindness. She’s a person on the margins, an outsider. As a Moabite she’s excluded from Israel, yet acts righteously towards Naomi and her dead husband. God accepts her, blesses her, puts her in the line of David, in the line of Jesus the Messiah. 

In fact we can see this in all four of these Old Testament women’s stories can’t we?  Rahab is even more on the outside. As one of those destined for utter destruction in Jericho, she shouldn’t survive. But she recognises the power of God, she acts with faithfulness towards the spies and is spared because of covenant loyalty; because of the loving-kindness of a gracious God. Tamar is abandoned, rejected, by her father-in-law, accused of being immoral, but God in his gracious loving-kindness rewards her own covenant loyalty to her husband by giving her twins, one of whom continues the line of Judah.

These women are all active in their own salvation, in their movement towards God and God rewards them accordingly.

Bathsheba is wronged by David, made an adulterer by him and loses her first child because of his sin. Yet God in his loving-kindness gives her a second child who becomes the greatest king in Israel’s history.

Finally Jesus is born to Mary to demonstrate God’s loving-kindness not just to his people Israel but to the whole world. How? By dying on the cross so every one of us can be brought from a position of exclusion, of being outsiders from the kingdom, to a position of acceptance by God, of inclusion within God’s kingdom.

Matthew’s genealogy, and possibly his whole gospel, could be seen as a subversive text, undermining both the exclusive attitude of Judaism and the patriarchal attitude of the day. The gospel tells us that salvation comes to us not because of some characteristic that we might have or something that we might do, but out of the grace and mercy of a loving God. It calls into question all our notions of status and power in what’s still largely a patriarchal world. As we heard last week, with the coming of the gospel there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Finally let me leave you with the question that arises from the fact that all of these women are marginalised in some way. If God chose to include these women in the line of the Messiah what does  that say to how we should be relating to those we meet in our daily lives who are equally marginalised – by poverty, by language, by health, by bad choices they’ve made, by religion, by sexual orientation, by powerlessness of one sort or another. Does the steadfast love of the Lord show in the way we treat those sorts of people?

we treat those sorts of people?

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