Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 11, 2018
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 Commentary
As the old church year comes to an end, the lectionary is already ramping up for the new year. With its stunning conclusion, our reading in Ruth anticipates Advent in an unmistakable way. As we prepare to welcome the coming of the long promised King of Israel, our reading tells us the surprising story of his origins.
What a wonderfully satisfying story it is! It has a hint of sex and lots of courage, strong characters and twists of plot, recurring themes and wonderful images, and, of course, a surprise ending. It satisfies those with literary sensibilities and, more important, it satisfies the deep longing of every human soul for a resolution of the unhappiness in life. To quote the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” That is literarily and literally true in this story.
Our reading for today follows the chapter in which the pluck and persistence of Ruth saves her mother-in-law’s life. On her own initiative, Ruth has secured a food supply for Naomi and herself and, in the process, has made a very promising contact with a kinsman of her late father in law. In the first part of our reading, Naomi launches a plan that will hopefully fulfill that promise.
Naomi wants for her daughter in law what every ancient Jewish mother desired for her daughter—a “home” or, literally, rest– the tranquility, peace, satisfaction and security that would guarantee Ruth’s future. This was especially important for Ruth and especially difficult because of her immigrant status. Her whole birth family was living beyond the Jordan in Moab, where her adopted marital family was buried. All she had was Naomi, and Naomi wasn’t going to live forever. Then where would Ruth be?
Naomi knew that Ruth’s only hope lay in an ancient Jewish law, the law of levirate marriage which required a near kinsman to marry the widow so that the line of the deceased husband wouldn’t die out and his property wouldn’t be lost to another family. Fortunately (or as the author subtly hints, providentially), there is such a kinsman on the scene, the delightfully noble Boaz. “Is not Boaz, with whose servant girls you have been, a kinsman of ours?”
Ruth has met this fine fellow and he has been kind to her, but the relationship has gone nowhere. Not willing to let things take their natural (or as some readers say, their supernatural) course, Naomi hatches a bold plan that involves no small risk to Ruth. “Go, ask him to marry you,” counsels Ruth. At least that seemed to be the intent of Naomi’s plan. It was certainly the result.
But the first time reader doesn’t know that. In fact, many readers see something more salacious than that in this story. The bathing and perfuming and dressing up, the sneaking onto the threshing floor and the “uncovering of Boaz’s feet” and the lying down there—all of that sounds like a seduction. In fact, some of the words used in this part of the story can have a sexual meaning. So, did Ruth sleep her way to the top? Was David (and by extension, David’s greater Son) born of an illicit midnight tryst? That seems to be where our lection is leading, as it ends with the suggestive advice of Naomi, “He will tell you what to do.” Such a reading of our text adds an earthy, deeply human element to the story of redemption, which shouldn’t surprise us given the human condition from which God intends to redeem us.
But the rest of the story in chapter 3 and the resolution of all the issues in chapter 4 take us in a very different direction than our racy readers anticipate. Rather than bedding her on the spot, Boaz arranges to wed her in a way that fulfills the absolute letter of the levirate law. Ruth proposes to Boaz in a way not unknown in the ancient Near East. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman redeemer.”
That mention of a “kinsman redeemer” ties into a complex law designed by God to protect widows and their children in a patriarchal society. Since women had no legal status in that day and were totally dependent on the protection of a man, God commanded the nearest relative of the deceased husband to marry the wife to care for her, preserve the family property, and produce an heir. In other words, the kinsman redeemer provided redemption of property (in the event that the widow had to sell it to avoid destitution), redemption of persons (in the event that the widow or her children were about to be sold into slavery to pay off debts), redemption of blood (to avenge a wrong done to the widow and her family), and redemption of family (when there were no heirs to take over the property and protect the widow). All of which is to say that the duties of a kinsman redeemer were no small matter.
That complexity is exactly what Boaz plays on in the scene at the city gate in chapter 4. As Boaz had told Ruth, there was a kinsman closer than he was. To get that nearer relative out of the way, Boaz handles the man in a very clever fashion. Though the man was eager to add to his real estate holdings by purchasing the land of Naomi’s dead husband, he didn’t want to jeopardize his own estate by marrying Ruth. So he gladly and freely gave up his rights as kinsman redeemer. With the blessings of the city elders, Boaz is given permission to marry Ruth.
That might have been the end of the story, if legalities were the issue. But the real issue is not legal; it is genealogical. That’s where the whole story is headed. That’s why the lectionary reading omits most of chapters 3 and 4; it wants to get us to the marriage and the sexual union and the birth of a male heir. “So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. Then he went in to her.” And a child was conceived.
But the writer of the story wanted us to know that the Lord, Yahweh, has been behind and in all the scenes of this story. He/she does this by explicitly mentioning Yahweh in these last verses. “And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.” She who was unable to conceive for ten years with her first husband, Mahlon, gives birth to a son immediately with her second husband. But it wasn’t just Boaz’s virility; it was Yahweh’s power, as it was with Sarah and Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth, and, of course, the Virgin Mary. Clearly, this is a special child.
The women in the city know that. “Praise be to Yahweh who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.” They mean more than they know, for this boy will be not only Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, but also the redeemer of Israel and the world. What the women wish for this child will come true in ways they couldn’t imagine. “May he become famous throughout Israel!” And the blessing he will give to his mother will extend to Israel and the whole world by way of his grandson and the ultimate Son of David. “He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.”
Naomi doesn’t understand the depth of all those words yet. All she knows is that her emptiness has been filled again. The woman who had nothing at the beginning of the story now has a grandson in her arms. The woman who said, “the Lord’s hand has gone out against me,” is now experiencing the Lord’s gracious hand. What an encouragement to all the empty handed women and men among God’s people. In your hopelessness, there is a kinsman redeemer who will restore your life in ways you can’t imagine.
That general message of hope becomes distinctively messianic in the last words of our text, when, out of the blue, our writer announces that the child born to Ruth and Naomi is the grandfather of David. Oh, so that’s what this story is about in the long run. That’s why it is in the Hebrew Bible. It tells the story of Israel’s greatest king, a king who came from God’s gracious hand at a time when Israel was at its lowest, like Naomi. What a message for Israel in the time of the divided Kingdom, in the depression of the Babylonian exile, in the doldrums of the intertestamental period, in the agony of the Roman occupation. You can trust that Yahweh is working behind the scenes to provide a kinsman redeemer who will restore your life to fullness again.
Then, in the fullness of time, a virgin conceived and bore a son, and his name was called Immanuel. As expected, he was born in the little town of Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2) Once again, the “house of food” was filled with the Bread of Life. The God who secured the line of David in a most unexpected way in this story of Ruth has now secured the throne of David in an even more unexpected way. The inclusion of a Moabitess in the line of the Messiah anticipated the birth of a Jewish baby who would become the Savior of the World. He would save the world in a most unexpected way, by humbling himself and becoming a servant and dying on a cross. No wonder the son of Ruth was called Obed, which means servant. As the Servant Songs of Isaiah say, the Servant will carry our sins to the cursed cross in order to give us life abundant forevermore (see especially Isaiah 53).
The message of hope to all the Naomi’s of the world, to the nation of Israel, and to the world is heard in the words of the women’s chorus surrounding a stunned but happy Naomi: “Praise be to Yahweh, who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.” His name is Obed. His name is David. His name is Jesus.
The recent spate of sexual assault allegations against important men (Weinstein, Spacey, Rose, Kavanaugh, et al) and the resultant tsunami of outrage among women leading to the birth of the #metoo movement stand in sharp contrast to the nobility, decency and purity we see in this story. There is no bashfulness about sex in the story of Ruth and Boaz, but it is all so proper and legal and, well, covenantal. Sex figures prominently in the story of redemption, culminating in the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but it’s not about lust or abuse. It’s about men and women acknowledging their sexuality, but channeling it into the God-ordained institution of marriage.
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