This sermon is from November 9, 2003, on the book of Ruth. I had a meaningful phone conversation with John Linton the day before that helped me unpack this one.
Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Ruth. It’s a love story, really. Ruth lives in Moab with her husband and her husband’s family. Her husband is Jewish. When he dies, Ruth decides to return with his mother, Naomi, to Bethlehem in Israel. Naomi tries to convince Ruth to stay in Moab, but in a beautiful and moving speech, Ruth vows to stay with Naomi forever. “Where you go, I will go,” she says, “Your people will be my people and your God, my God.”
All that happens in chapter one. There are three more chapters filled with intrigue and suspense and beautiful images, including a provocative midnight encounter between Ruth and her husband-to-be, Boaz. The story culminates with Boaz pledging himself to Ruth and buying back the family farm, and Ruth bearing a son named Obed.
The story of Ruth is about chesed. chesed is the Hebrew word that is often translated as ‘steadfast love’ or ‘fidelity’ or even ‘mercy.’
chesed is crucial to the preservation of the ideals of family and the nation of Israel. It is through the faithfulness and kindness of Ruth, her chesed, that salvation comes to her, and her mother-in-law Naomi, and ultimately to the entire nation of Israel and the world. Because Ruth’s son Obed has a son named Jesse who has a son named David, the great king of Israel, who in turn is an ancestor of Jesus.
So there is a certain tidy familial economy in this story that some Christians like to focus on: without the faith of Ruth, there is no King David, without whom there is no Jesus. This same reading tends to view Ruth’s chesed as a kind of duty and to hold her up as a moral example of someone whom God blesses because she has done her duty.
I don’t like that reading, because it makes it seem like Ruth and her story exist only to have a baby, a certain very important baby in Judeo-Christian history. This is the same kind of reductionism that certain teachings about Jesus’s mother Mary can fall into. I don’t like those either.
It is possible to read the book of Ruth as if it is government-sponsored media, a prime-time family drama meant to inspire the Jews to great acts of sacrifice in the name of the family and the nation. As you might expect, I don’t like that reading either.
I hear something else going on in Ruth. The first thing I notice is that while Ruth is the central figure in the story, she is not Jewish. This casts her chesed, her acts of kindness, loyalty and fidelity into a very different light. The key thing about chesed is that it is free. chesed is like a strong desire for someone. You show chesed for someone else the way you show love and devotion for someone. The text is very clear that Ruth is not Jewish but that she becomes Jewish through her chesed. It is as if Ruth is adopted, not just into Naomi’s family, but into the family of Israel. She is a foreigner who acts with loyalty, and it is her loyalty, her faithfulness and not her ethnicity, that identifies her as part of the Jewish family.
The second thing that I notice about the text is that God is not a character. God is referred to several times, but unlike other books of the bible, God never makes an appearance, or sends a message, or communicates, really, in any explicit way with the other characters.
If we read the bible everywhere as if it was about Jesus, I have to ask: who acts like Jesus in this story, if God is not there to do it explicitly? You might think it was Boaz, who responds to Ruth by honoring her and redeeming her and the family. But I think it is Ruth who acts the most like Jesus. She initiates the commitment. She is the first one to say to Naomi, I will be with you always, lo, even unto the end of the age. And unlike the disciple Peter, she is good to her word and doesn’t desert Naomi when things get tough. It is Ruth’s act of love and fidelity, her chesed, that inspires Boaz and redeems everyone.
I like this reading, of the foreign woman as the Jesus figure. But that reading still seems a little too moralistic, as if we have simply replaced the moral imperative of ‘do your duty’ with a kinder, gentler moral imperative of ‘love one another.’
Today’s texts could be read as moral examples: be like this, and God will bless you. Be faithful to your human commitments — family, the church — and God will bless you. God rewards those who are faithful to God. There’s a problem in my mind with that reading: the implied opposite. If bad things happen, if the curse comes instead of the blessing, it is the fault of the faithless human beings. Your child died because you failed to pray; you lost your job because you didn’t give enough money to the church; you ended up in hell because you didn’t have enough faith. We learn from the book of Job that that kind of faith, the faith that says God rewards and punishes based on how good we are, is a false kind of faith. It is the kind of faith that props up governments, institutions, even churches, but it is a false kind of faith.
It is this kind of moralistic reading, the reading where we hear “do the right thing and the right thing is this,” that turned me off to Christianity many years ago. It feels too simplistic to me, and somehow sinful, to read the bible as if it were a collection of stories that were supposed to instruct and inspire me to do the right thing. While I don’t doubt that it is possible to read the bible that way, and that it is in fact *easier* to read the bible that way, I don’t think it is ultimately faithful to the spirit of the bible to read it that way. The bible is at its best, and I would argue, becomes the word of God, when it tells on itself, when the bible deconstructs itself. So I’m looking for the crack, the chink in the armor of the text that points out a backwards way of reading it. Because at least for me, the hardest part of being a believer is not doing the right thing, or even avoiding doing the wrong thing. No, the hardest part of being a believer is learning to receive in the spirit of humility and trust. Learning to receive, whether it be forgiveness, or a blessing, or simply a really good sandwich that someone else has prepared for me.
It is much easier to receive in the sense of being owed, of meriting whatever it is I am being given. “I deserve this promotion because I have worked hard. I merit this blessing because I have given so much to the church. I am owed this because I have given that.” That kind of receiving comes out of fear: fear that maybe I don’t really deserve what I am being given. Fear that it will be taken away. Fear that I will be exposed as not being worthy of the gift. And learning to live *not* out of fear, but instead out of trust, seems to me to be the hardest thing.
Ruth feels to me like someone who lives out of trust. What if Ruth had acted out of fear? She likely would have stayed with her people in Moab and never gone with Naomi. She would not have risked the embarrassment of going to Boaz in the night. Her trust isn’t just blind optimism either. She is newly widowed, probably in a lot of grief, and she makes this incredibly brave vow never to leave Naomi. Why such attachment? I don’t know. The story doesn’t say. Maybe it’s as simple as Ruth loved Naomi.
What the text does say is that everyone who heard the story of Ruth was impressed by it. That tells me that I am not alone in thinking Ruth was doing something unusual. Ruth seems to live in a place I’d like to get to: she acts with hope and trust, not fear and not optimism. She displays an incredible amount of trust in going with Naomi in the first place. She’s in a foreign country with foreign customs. She must rely totally upon the kindness of strangers. Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. The Jewish law proscribed that during the harvest, poor people could follow the harvesters and glean the grain that was left behind in the fields. Ruth takes the initiative and goes out gleaning to support herself and Naomi. While she is gleaning in the fields of Boaz, the owner himself shows up and after hearing from his workers the story of Ruth and Naomi, he offers her protection and invites her to glean in his fields for the duration of the harvest.
A kind of romantic tension emerges with Boaz and Ruth. In my mind, Ruth shows the most trust when at Naomi’s direction she goes at night and in this strange encounter with Boaz, basically says, marry me. Read it. It’s pretty racy, as my mother would say.
The images of the harvest and gleaning in the fields get at the the kind of trust I am trying to describe. It’s the kind of trust that a farmer or gardener must have. You put the seeds in the ground; you water them; you weed the soil. You do the work, knowing that all you are really doing is just making it easier for the growth to happen. You don’t make the seeds grow into something good and beautiful. You can’t make the sky rain or shine, you can’t control the blight of insects or disease. But you can do the work, knowing that ultimately the outcome of your work is totally out of your control.
And then there is the harvest. You receive back so much more than you have put in. You do all the work in the hope that it will pay off, but you are not guaranteed anything. You, the farmer, you can’t make a deal with God where you put in your 80 hour weeks and God rewards you with a good crop. No. There’s more trust in the relationship than that.
I think Ruth, and Naomi and Boaz are great examples. Not moral examples, in the sense of embodying the best principles of their culture and time, but great human examples, in the sense of acting out of trust and love and fidelity.
Hard work to bring in the harvest. The hardest kind of work, really, at least in the spiritual sense. Like coming to the table where the meal has already been prepared for you. You can’t do any work to make it happen; you can only learn to receive it in a spirit of humility and trust.