Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 7, 2021
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17 Commentary
The Lectionary has us skip the drama of Ruth 2 and then dips in briefly to Ruth 3 for the connection with Boaz and then zooms ahead to the very end of Ruth 4 for the “happy ending” of the tale and how it all points forward to King David. As preachers, we are either forced to fill in a lot of narrative details for the congregation or bank on the hope that the congregation is already very familiar with this story (and depending on where you are, you may or may not be wise to bank on that kind of biblical literacy!).
What we most certainly get in the final verses of Ruth is a return to fullness for the previously empty Naomi, who at the end of Ruth 1 made clear that not only was her and Ruth’s life completely empty, Naomi herself was “bitter” at God for all the ways he had afflicted her of late and so re-named herself “Mara” or “Bitter.” But as the story ends “Naomi” has gone from empty and bitter “Mara” to being full and wonderful “Pleasant” again (the meaning of “Naomi”).
In fact, oddly enough, the story ends up being more about Naomi than Ruth! That’s odd. After all Ruth is the one who snagged Boaz, married him, and then bore him a son, but as the book concludes, Ruth fades into the background a bit, even to the point that the women of Bethlehem declare “Naomi has a son.”
One wonders what Ruth made of that claim! It reminds me of times when someone will come up to one of my kids and – in the presence of also my wife, mind you – say something like, “You must be Scott’s daughter!” As my wife may gently remind such persons, she was more than vaguely involved in the birth process that brought about our daughter.
So what’s going on with all that attention to Naomi when the child Obed is Ruth’s son, not her mother-in-law’s? It may be that in part this is an attempt to round out the book. Since Naomi was introduced to us already in Ruth 1:2, we now round out the book with a return to Naomi. It may also be that since Naomi is the Israelite here and Ruth the outsider Moabite, the return to fullness for also Israel is better brought into focus if an Israelite is in focus as this story concludes.
But, of course, that’s just the wonder of Ruth: we know that the only possible reason this little story was preserved for us is because the very last word of the book gets to be “David.” Take away that descendant and no one would preserve the story about Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law. No matter how lyric or lovely the story, Ruth’s becoming David’s great-grandmother is the reason it’s in the Bible.
But again, that’s the wonder of the book: we don’t get David without someone coming from outside of Israel. The women of Bethlehem may have called little Obed “Naomi’s son,” but Naomi cannot even claim any DNA link with the little guy because even Boaz is a relation from Elimilech’s side, not Naomi’s side, of the family. Yet because of her connection with Ruth and Ruth’s having been once married to one of Naomi’s sons, everyone was kind of willing to let those little details slide a bit so that Naomi – and via Naomi all Israel – could claim Obed and the grandson he’d end up having in the person of David.
David, however, turns out to be more than his ancestry could have produced. That is, David would become Israel’s greatest king and the founder of the Messianic line, but Israel itself could not produce him. Israel, as symbolized by Naomi in this story, was empty, bitter, without prospects. Only when a Moabite came onto the scene is it possible for David to eventually be born. The one who would go on to solidify the kingdom of Israel and prepare the way for the coming of the Christ needed something – or someone – beyond Israel to be born.
Here then is a reminder of the peculiar and always surprising grace of God, a truth that was not lost on Matthew when he created his genealogy of the Christ in Matthew 1:1-17. Matthew went out of his way to include four women in his family tree of Jesus. The inclusion of women in a genealogy at that time was odd enough, but at the very least one would expect that any women included would be the top four matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. But Matthew does not mention them. Instead he refers to – and directly names in three out of the four cases – four other women, each of whom was an outsider to Israel and several of whom had some dubious (sexual) stuff associated with her: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
Matthew included these four women as a set-up for the last surprise – the “holy irregularity” of Matthew 1, as one of my teachers used to call it – when Joseph is listed as “the husband of Mary” but not as the father of Mary’s son, Jesus. A sixteen-verse string of “begats” (or “the father of”) phrases gets snapped at the very end as Joseph is not given any credit for the existence of Jesus.
It’s kind of reminiscent of how Naomi cannot really take any credit for Obed – his existence depended on someone coming from the outside to open up a new future for not only Israel but also all those nations whom God promised to bless through Abram all the way back in Genesis 12.
Jesus was more than his ancestry could have produced. He was a gift of grace. The flow of salvation history depends on that grace of God, on God bringing about surprising new circumstances through surprising people who often appear from out of nowhere, from outside our usual circles and our usual sets of expectations.
The entire story of the Book of Ruth may look from one perspective to be no more than a string of fortunate events. Against the dictates of common sense, Ruth decides to stick with Naomi, leaving behind a much better probable future among her own people in Moab to go with Naomi to a place where – as Ruth 2 makes clear – she was vulnerable on multiple fronts on account of her outsider status. (Boaz had to take extra care that Ruth not be molested or raped, you may recall.) It made no sense for Ruth to go to Bethlehem, and once there, it was a long shot that she’d ever meet up with someone like Boaz (and an even longer shot that Boaz would do the right thing and find a way to become Ruth’s husband).
If you were a betting person . . . you know full well where you would have laid your money relative to Ruth’s prospects. That she survived at all is a miracle. That she became the key person in producing King David (and some centuries later the King of kings) is something beyond a miracle.
Preaching on the surprising conclusion to the Book of Ruth only a few scant weeks before Advent begins again gives us the opportunity to savor once again the glories of God’s grace, the startling twists of God’s providence, and all the ways by which the salvation we celebrate in the church ends up being history’s greatest surprise ending. God really is able to bring us from emptiness to fullness, from bitterness to joy, and as often as not God’s way of accomplishing all that goes way beyond whatever we might have been able to produce or to expect on our own.
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures and his character sketch of Ruth (Harper & Row, 1979, p. 148):
“Naomi was nobody’s fool and saw which way the wind was blowing long before Ruth did. She was dead-set on Ruth’s making a good catch for herself, and since it was obvious she had already hooked old Boaz whether she realized it or not, all she had to do was find the right way to reel him in. Naomi gave her instructions. As soon as Boaz had a good supper under his belt and had polished off a nightcap or two, he’d go to the barn to hit the sack. Around midnight, she said, Ruth should slip into the barn and hit the sack, too. If Boaz’s feet just happened to be uncovered somehow, and if she just happened to be close enough to keep them warm, that probably wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either. But she wasn’t to go too far. Back in Jericho, Boaz’s mother, Rahab, had a rather seamy reputation for going too far professionally, and anything that reminded him of that might scare him off permanently.”
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