This sermon was preached on August 31, 2014 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Ruth 4:1-22. You can listen to it, and read it, below.
I’m sure that many of you, as you were listening to this story this morning, were amazed at how similar it was to many of your own weddings, beginning of marriages.
So many romantic and meaningful rituals…
- The haggling over a piece of land
- The redeemer taking off his sandal and giving it to Boaz
- A proclamation from Boaz that the sale is final and Ruth is his?
Kind of gives you warm fuzzies all over, right?
There is much about our story this morning that clearly reminds us that this is an ancient story – a story that comes right out of another world. The ritual of one man taking off a sandal and giving it to another, something done to symbolize a binding transaction, this ritual we are told in the text, was something that was done in Israel in the former times, it was already something old and ancient.
We should also acknowledge that to our modern ears, hearing a story where a woman is treated as a piece of property, something to be haggled over and purchased…well, this is certainly not something that we are accustomed to, and it probably makes us feel a little uncomfortable. In those days, if a woman’s husband died, it was customary for his brother to marry the widow; otherwise, there would be no heir to inherit the land.
But while much of this story sounds a bit foreign to us here in the North Shore in 2014…this is also a heart-wrenching story filled with the familiar stuff that we all experience in our own lives.
Relationships formed and ended.
Disasters like famines.
Death and tragedy.
Love and commitment.
We are no strangers to the themes found in the book of Ruth, and so it is a story that can speak truth into our lives today.
The story begins at the city gate, the place where ancient contracts were settled. Boaz just happens to run into the redeemer, the closest next-of-kin to Ruth, the one who could marry Ruth and fulfill the obligations of being what was called a “kinsman redeemer” for both Naomi and Ruth.
However, out of concern for possibly damaging his own inheritance by marrying Ruth, he gives his right of redemption to Boaz. This is the transaction that is sealed when the redeemer hands Boaz his sandal.
And Boaz proclaims that he has bought from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech, including Ruth the Moabite, whom he has taken for his wife.
By fulfilling this role for Ruth and Naomi, Boaz has now provided them both with a secure and protected future.
Now, this itself seems like it would be enough for a happy ending to the book. Ruth and Naomi are redeemed. Boaz gets some more land. Ruth has a new husband.
Clearly those who were present and witnesses to this transaction recognized the blessing that it is for all parties involved. The witnesses bless Boaz, Ruth and Naomi and pray that Ruth would help build up their house, like Rachel and Leah built up the house of Israel.
So, ending with verse 13 would be a good-enough story.
But it doesn’t end there.
We hear that Ruth becomes pregnant…truly a blessing for Ruth, because even though she was married to Mahlon for 10 years, she wasn’t able to have any children during those years. The text doesn’t tell us anything more about why they never had children, but it’s clear that this is a blessing for Ruth to be able to give birth to her son named Obed.
We’re not really told much more about Obed, other than that he was born. After Obed is born, “Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian.” That verse seems a little odd, given that Ruth is his birth-mother.
Now, the New Revised Standard Version translates that verse in this way:
“Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse.
And the New International Version says that Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him.
Some rabbis have interpreted this to be not only a real blessing for Naomi to be able to care for Obed, but in fact, a miracle…that in her old age, she was able to breastfeed him. The neighborhood women clearly interpret this birth as a true blessing for Naomi, and believe that Obed will restore her life and sustain her in her old age.
Regardless of who is actually viewed as Obed’s mother, it’s clear that this image of Naomi is very different from how she viewed herself at the end of chapter 1, when she said,
“Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has returned me empty.”
Naomi, who was empty – has now been blessed with Obed. She was bitter, but now has been blessed with milk to provide nourishment for Obed. After losing her husband and sons in the beginning of the story, it looked like she would lead a lonely life – and now she has been blessed with a family and new life.
Things also didn’t look good for Ruth after the death of Mahlon. She was a foreigner, an outsider. She had no children, and her mother-in-law was trying to send her away. And now we see Ruth, the outsider, being welcomed into the fold, giving birth to a son and experiencing hope and a future.
In a story filled with a lot of suffering…in the end, we are left with hope, a future and new life.
A few weeks ago, I gathered with some WPC folks and a few others who saw the posters around town for our second installment of Tavern Talks. We sat around a table, enjoying drinks and Meier’s Tavern’s signature tater tots, and talked about suffering. We talked about the various types of suffering that exist in the world, what role it could have in our lives, how we all find hope and make it through suffering.
It was certainly an appropriate conversation given all that is going on in the world right now.
We all know that the news generally covers the tragic and depressing events in our world…but it’s felt especially so the past couple weeks, as it feels like the world is spinning out of control.
While we remain cautiously hopeful that the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza continues to last, we realize that over the course of a 50-day war, over 2100 Palestinians were killed, 69 Israelis died, and homes, schools, mosques and hospitals were destroyed and damaged in Gaza.
After the shooting of Michael Brown, this nation received a strong reminder that we have such a long way to go before we are truly a place where people of all races and ethnicities are treated the same. Important conversations about racism and white privilege have been occurring in the news, schools, universities and churches throughout the country. We continue to grieve with Michael Brown’s family, and recognize that the African-American experience of living in the United States is vastly different than most of our experiences.
I’m sure that many people were stunned to hear the news of the 9 year girl who accidentally killed an Arizona shooting range instructor with an Uzi. We were stunned…for all the right reasons. A 9 year old with an Uzi? This idea of “gun tourism?” And then…we realized that it’s just one more in a series of way too many horrific stories of accidental gun-related deaths that happen here in the United States.
- Islamist militants committing acts of horrible violence in Iraq and Syria…
- Journalists being killed
- Russia invading Ukraine
- Over 3,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone contracting the Ebola virus
It seems like we’ve had a few months of an accumulation of more and more stories of suffering in our world. And so how DO we handle it? How do we turn on the evening news or read the paper or see articles that our friends and family post on Facebook…and then just go on with the rest of our days?
At some point, those of us who have put our hope and trust and faith in God, have to stop and ask,
- “God…what is GOING ON?”
- “Where are you in the midst of all of this?”
- “How are people of faith called to respond to all of this?”
These aren’t questions that I necessarily have answers to. As we discussed at our Tavern Talk on suffering…these are the types of questions that have always existed, and will continue to exist.
And if we’re honest with ourselves…some of these questions begin to surface when it feels like God is, perhaps…a bit absent amidst everything. How many of you, in the past couple weeks, have asked God some form of the question, “God…WHY? Where are you?”
You have to think that Ruth had asked that question at some point. Her husband dies. Her father-in-law dies. She then returns to a foreign land…she didn’t have many prospects for a good future. She has committed to her mother-in-law, but…Naomi isn’t exactly the most positive person to be around these days – considering that she wants to be called Mara.
And God…? Well, God is not really a primary character in this story. God is mentioned a few times…in passing…by different characters throughout the story, and there is Ruth’s famous line stating that “Your God will be my God…” but that’s about it.
We really don’t get the sense that God is orchestrating a lot of the events that have taken place throughout the story…we don’t see God directly speaking to anyone, or through anyone in the story…and aside from, perhaps, Naomi’s ability to nurse Obed, we really don’t see any significant miracles or Divine Interventions…it kind of feels like God takes a bit of a back seat role in this story.
And because of that…as ancient of a story as it is…it seems to me that this almost makes the book of Ruth MORE accessible than many other books in the Bible.
In reading the Bible, in hearing some of the familiar and amazing stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, in reading through Jesus’ miracles…sometimes we can catch ourselves thinking, “Well…that’s nice for THEM but God doesn’t speak to me like that. Mysterious angelic beings don’t show up and wrestle with me throughout the night until I’ve been given a new name. Angels don’t come and bring glad tidings of great joy to me. I’ve never seen someone raised from the dead…”
Sometimes the miraculous and the magnificent ways that God interacts with God’s people throughout scripture…makes it feel a little foreign to us.
But there is something about the book of Ruth. We get Ruth and Naomi. We can understand what it’s like to lose someone we love. We can understand the desire for companionship and seeking that out. We can understand being bitter toward God, and not seeing a future before us. And we can understand relationships. Romance. Birth. Celebration. And new life.
Naomi, Ruth, Boaz and the others in this story…are people of faith, simply living their lives the best they can, making decisions along the way that they feel are the most faithful decisions they can make, and probably, hoping and trusting that somehow, God is present, and that their lives will help usher new life into the world.
I don’t know about you – but I can relate to that.
And that…that gives me hope that somehow, throughout all the suffering in our own lives and in the world…when it all feels like just too much, and we wonder what any of us could possibly do…
…that sometimes the most faithful response we can each make is to simply live our lives the best that we can, to make decisions along the way that we feel are the most faithful decisions we can make, and to hope and trust that somehow, God is present, and that our lives will help usher new life into the world.
I mentioned earlier that there was a surprise twist at the end of this story, and many of you probably already caught what it was.
The last four verses of Ruth give us a genealogy, the generations of Perez. After working our way through the generations, we get to:
Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.
Yes, that David. King David.
And if you remember the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll remember that David is a part of that genealogy, as is Boaz and Obed and Ruth. Ruth is one of 4 women listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
Ruth the Moabite. The outsider. The one who didn’t belong. Without a husband, without children…because of her faithful persistence, because Naomi gave wise matchmaking advice, and because Boaz stepped forward as the kinsman-redeemer…the outsider finds herself included in one of the most famous genealogies in scripture.
Ruth’s story is a journey from death to life. Of being barren to being a blessing. Of potential isolation and loneliness to inclusion and family.
We are all on journeys too. Each of us has come from different places, with different stories, experiences, sufferings, joys and challenges.
As we go throughout our lives – may we live our lives, not assuming that God is going to orchestrate and plan everything out for us…but that we are called to be faithful and trust that God is present through it all, and that God will give us the strength to be faithfully persistent in seeking to find ways to bring new life into our world.
For we never know whose genealogy we’ll find ourselves in.