Today we hear the conclusion to the story of Ruth. Again, I would just like to review the story up to this point: Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons journey to Moab from Bethlehem because there is a famine. While they are in Moab, Elimelech dies, the two sons get married, and then the two sons die, leaving Naomi alone with her two foreign daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, goes with her. They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth goes to glean in the fields so that she and Naomi will have some food. As it happens, Ruth is gleaning in the fields belonging to Boaz, who is related to Naomi’s dead husband, Elimelech. Boaz shows kindness to Ruth and makes sure she has enough grain to bring home for her and Naomi. As it turns out, Boaz is not only a relative, but he is also what in Hebrew is known as a go’el, a man responsible for redeeming property that the family has lost due to poverty or war, and also for making sure that family members are protected. In Chapter 3, Naomi tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor to speak to Boaz, and Ruth proposes marriage to him. Boaz tells her that he will do so, but that there is another go’el who is more closely related to Naomi than he is, but that he will settle the matter in the morning. And today we have the account of how Boaz does settle this matter.
The first thing Boaz does is to sit down and talk with the go’el who is first in line to redeem the parcel of land that Naomi is selling, that we just find out about now in the story. And he does this in the presence of witnesses, so that everyone will know that he is doing the right thing and not just taking the land and Ruth as his wife without consulting the man who is first in line to do so. And we see that Boaz is a shrewd negotiator. Whoever the man was who was first in line, he is more interested in the land that belonged to Elimelech than he is in Ruth. And this first go’el is not named, which is also appropriate, since he ends up refusing to maintain the name of Elimelech and his sons in the town of Bethlehem. What we see in this negotiation scene is that Boaz, in contrast to the unnamed first go’el, is more interested in Ruth than he is in the piece of land, and we see him skillfully trapping the other man to give up his right of redemption, so that Boaz can marry Ruth. And what is more interesting to me is this: when Boaz publicly proclaims both that he has acquired the land and that he will be marrying Ruth, the people of Bethlehem witness this and bless Boaz. They pray that Ruth may bear children for Boaz, which is the highest form of praise they could give for a woman who was about to be married. And it doesn’t matter to them that Ruth is a Moabite. Bethlehem was a small town, and they have seen how Ruth has shown love to Naomi in caring for her. Ruth has become one of them.
And so Ruth bears a son who is named Obed. Naomi now has a grandson, and the women of the town proclaim that Ruth has acted better towards Naomi than seven sons—high praise indeed. Naomi has gone from emptiness in the beginning of the story to fullness; Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” has become full for her once more. And, as we see from the genealogy at the end of the story, Ruth, a Moabite, a foreigner, has become the great-grandmother of David, who will become the king of a united Israel. And, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Ruth the Moabite is not only an ancestor of David, but also of Jesus, the Savior of the world.
This summer, the texts we have journeyed through together thus far have been about love. We started out with the Ten Commandments, which give us detailed instructions on how we are to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We then went on to 1 John, which talked about how Jesus has come in the flesh, and how anyone who denies the fleshly, bodily, aspect of our faith is an antichrist, and finally talks about how we cannot love God and yet hate our brothers and sisters. We are commanded, 1 John tells us, to love our brothers and sisters whom we can see before we can love God, whom we cannot see. Ruth, then, gives us the story of what that love in action looks like. Ruth showed love to Naomi by giving up her own family and her own country to come back to Bethlehem with Naomi. She also showed love to Naomi by going out to glean in the fields at the harvest time and bringing grain back for Naomi to eat. Boaz showed love to Ruth by making sure the harvesters left enough grain for her to glean. Ruth showed love to Boaz by proposing marriage to him, rather than going after the younger men. And Boaz showed love to Ruth by following through on his promises, marrying her, and giving her and Naomi his protection. This story gives us an example of what love in action in the ordinary, everyday lives of ordinary, everyday people in ancient Israel looked like.
But this story also gives us an example of love that goes beyond the letter of the law. The law said that, once her husband died, and since she had no children, Ruth owed nothing to her mother-in-law, Naomi. And yet, Ruth could not leave Naomi to travel the dangerous road to Bethlehem alone. And once they arrived in Bethlehem, Ruth could not let Naomi starve, and so she went to glean in the fields for grain. The law said that all Boaz had to do was to leave the corners of his field unharvested, so that the poor could come and pick up the grain and be fed. And yet Boaz goes beyond the letter of the law, showing love by sharing a meal with Ruth, by protecting her from those who might harm her, and by instructing the reapers to pull handfuls of grain out of the bundles for her. On that fateful night on the threshing floor, all Ruth had to do was wait for Boaz to tell her what came next, but instead, she proposed marriage to him, surprising him by her love and faithfulness towards him. And when the law said that there was another go’el that should have redeemed the property and taken care of the women, Boaz skillfully manipulated circumstances so that it was he who took Ruth as his wife, following through on his promise to Ruth and taking her and Naomi under his protection. The Hebrew language has a name for this kind of love, and that is hesed, which is translated in various places in the Bible as “loving-kindness; covenant love; loyalty; devotion”. It’s one of those words that doesn’t have a good English equivalent.
And hesed is the kind of love that God shows us. God loves us so much that we simply cannot understand the depths of that love. Like Ruth did for Naomi, God does not leave us when we are grieving, but God walks with us in our grief, provides for us, and sees us through until we have hope once more. When our lives are empty, God fills them with God’s love for us through Jesus. Like the people in the story of Ruth, God goes beyond the letter of the law in order to show us that hesed, that love that will not let us go, no matter what.
When God has showed such lovingkindness for us, how can we help but show that lovingkindness for one another, and for each person we encounter in our daily lives? It really doesn’t take much, and I’ve seen it already in things that have happened in these congregations. I’ve seen it when one person checks up on another member of the congregation who is living alone, even when there is no blood relation between the two. I’ve seen God’s lovingkindness acted out for me when I have injured myself—two summers in a row!—and people have brought meals over for me, run to the grocery store for me, and walked the dog for me. I’ve seen God’s lovingkindness in the generosity of people to strangers who come to the church door in need, and the welcome given to those people in this space. We are good at caring for one another, and we are good at welcoming people to come and experience God’s love for them in these places.
The challenge for us, I think, and I’m including myself in this as well, is to love those who are different from us, and, as Jesus commanded us, to love our enemies. Ruth’s story illustrates how Ruth loves Naomi in spite of the fact that one is Moabite and the other Israelite, as well as how Boaz loves Ruth despite the same difference in nationality. If you remember from the beginning of the story, these are not people groups who got along with one another really well. And yet, through personal relationships, they got to know one another better and they overcame any animosity they had as they loved one another. I think that this is the key for us today. We look at the news and we see how huge the problems are. We see the hatred and the fear as we try to keep others at a distance. But if we each took the step of meeting one person from a group that is usually thought of as an enemy and got to know that person, and to form a friendship with that person, we could change the world in small ways. And each one of us taking that step would add up to a lot of us. Perhaps that is one way God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven: when ordinary people showing God’s love to one another in small, ordinary ways, adds up to a large thing, and then we look around and suddenly see how large that kingdom is.
I saw something on Facebook last week that said this: “When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present really thinks they can radically change the future by doing something small.” Through Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, God changed the future through their small, but radical acts of lovingkindness towards one another. Naomi’s future changed from one of emptiness to fullness simply by the birth of Ruth and Boaz’s son. And the future of the Jewish people changed, for Ruth’s great-grandson, David, would become king of Israel. And the future of the world would change, for much further down the family tree, Jesus would be born and would become the Savior of the world. All because of acts of lovingkindness shown to one another. So let’s look for ways to show God’s lovingkindness to one another, even if those ways seem small. Not only because we have faith in God, but because we have faith that through us, God can change the future, and bring God’s kingdom to earth. Amen.