God of All Peoples – Sermon in Honor of Shavuot 2020

Ruth 2:2-16

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.”

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

Sermon Text

The book of Ruth is a tragic comedy as much as a theological text. The situations which the characters find themselves in are often absurd, their language is overexaggerated, and their actions verge on impulsive. Yet, the narrative is clear that each person plays their role exactly as they must. God, though often invoked in the book, takes no direct action in the story. Instead, we the reader are invited to see God in the long stream of coincidences and chance meetings that allow for Ruth to enter into the people of Israel and for Naomi to receive a child through the proxy of her daughter-in-law.

Our text today captures one of these happenstance moments. Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, a way that people with no land were able to gather food. Gleaning was mandated by the Torah, no one could gather the grain that fell behind the thresher nor could the cut all the wheat of their field down. The extreme of the field and the grain that fell belonged to the poor who would come and follow the workers. Ruth resolved that she would go to a field and invoke this right.

What occurs in the moment she leaves is important – Ruth invokes the Mosaic right to glean without being told about it. She has internalized the Torah so well that she knows what she can and cannot do since she has entered into the region near Bethlehem. What is more, Naomi does not tell Ruth which field to glean in, despite the fact she is later revealed to know that Boaz, her relative by marriage, is nearby. Ruth, if she knew about Boaz would have been able to go directly to him and ensure her safety in gleaning. Yet, because she was sent off without this information, she was open to the danger of ambiguous fields.

Though gleaning was provided for in the Torah, there was no guarantee that the owner of a field would honor the practice. Not only this, but the field work was exclusively overseen by men, and as such it was dangerous to send a woman, especially a woman with no relatives and no rights under Mosaic law, into a field she did not know. Naomi, in not volunteering information about Boaz, put Ruth in a great deal of danger.

Yet, the divine happenstance of the story sees her end up in the place of safety. Boaz is in his fields overseeing the work of his harvesters. Through word of mouth he learns all that has happened with Ruth, and more than that he decides that her relation to him through marriage and her devotion to Naomi (especially in spite of Naomi’s apparent disinterest in her well-being,) is enough reason for him to go above and beyond the requirements of the Torah. Not only does she get all she gleans, but she receives a meal with him when it comes time to rest. Not only does she receive what falls naturally to the ground, but Boaz has his harvesters discard sheaves of grain for her to collect. He is generous to the point of excess, and she walks away with something like 46 pounds of barley, enough food for her and Naomi to eat for 3 weeks.[1]

The narrative here is a historic one. In recounting how Ruth came to know Boaz a genealogy is established for King David. At the same time, the framing of the story is written with an eye toward being read aloud. It is a story that would be told to an assembly of people, around feast tables or a roaring fire. The characters exaggerated politeness toward one another demands dramatic readings, the dialogue with its repetition and puns demand flamboyance. Yet, despite the dramatic presentation of the story, a powerful message is given about God and God’s gracious love for all persons. A story that sees a Moabite lifted up as the ideal Israelite.

You see, the Torah explicitly bans the inclusion of Moabites into Israelite society. While marriage between Israelites and other people groups is discouraged in several texts, many of which are contextual injunctions, it is not given a blanket prohibition. Yet, Moabites are given a special dispensation toward exclusion. They and the Ammonites alone are given such a strong indictment, and the reason given is a single offense in the antiquity of the two groups. (Deut. 23:3-4) This rule is given no caveat, it would seem that to be true to the Torah would be to reject a Moabite whenever they presented themselves, to never have ties with them.

Yet, Ruth is a hero. Ruth enters into Bethlehem and invokes God’s law more easily than any of those who live there. She cares for her mother-in-law when she had every right to leave her to her fate in the land. Ruth, when she was given the choice to go to her homeland and be regarded as a person with full rights and privileges, chose to choose the hard road of persecution and exclusion for the sake of her mother-in-law. Ruth gives up everything, to enter into a world that will hate and exclude her, for the sake of one who she loves. If that sounds familiar, then you do well to remember that Ruth’s great (x28) grandson is none other than our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.

Ruth exemplifies not only Jewishness but Christianess in her love and devotion. She is an example of how little we can know based on a person’s appearance or place of origin. She also puts into question our understanding of what it means to follow God’s law. If we are truly observant to every word of scripture, then we must tackle the story of Ruth which fundamentally sees a Moabite entering into communion with the people of Israel and the Torah which fundamentally sees Moabites as antithetical to the people of Israel to the point of non-conditional exclusion. The two texts are not just in tension, they actively oppose one another.

Ruth and her story expand our image of God in ways that we are not comfortable with. The sorrowful thing about her story is that we have made it a clean story with no edges. We look at it with the same lenses we did hearing it in bible school. A series of things that happen, that show the goodness of God, and that concludes with a happy ending for all. Yet, the text is an open critique of itself. The ideal Israelite, described in terms that mirror Proverbs 31, is a Moabite.[2] Her foreignness is so obvious that she is described by the head of Boaz’s field as, “Ruth the Moabite… from Moab.” It is her defining feature to the community she comes into.

Yet, Boaz enters the story and speaks for God. He does not reject Ruth, he does not call her a Moabite, but calls her “My daughter,” which is equivalent in Hebrew to something like, “darling,” or, “my dearest.”[3] Boaz does not tolerate the presence of Ruth, nor does he alienate her. He goes further than usual expectations of hospitality would make him go, to feed her and then send her on her way, but actively gives her an abundance of good things. Boaz, a man of means, but for our interpretive purposes a sign of God’s faithfulness, does not turn to a law that excludes, but acknowledges the kinship he shares with Ruth and goes above and beyond in showing her compassion and acceptance.

Our natural inclination to deal with the discord of Boaz’s kindness and the mandated harshness of the Torah is to make a hierarchy of divine law. “Purity laws are secondary to moral laws,” or something to that effect. That would resolve our discomfort. Or else we could say that, because Ruth assimilated into Israel, and resolved to worship Israel’s God rather than her gods of Moab she was permitted entry. However, that answer still opposes the non-conditional status of the Torah’s prohibition.

Rather than creating a hierarchy of the Law and rather than making this a special case, we do well to dig deeper. When there are circumstances of ambiguity, any sort of uncertainty in what we ought to do in a situation, it helps us to remember what the core messages of scripture are. There are different ways that people understand this core message. Victor Furnish describes the center of our faith in the Kerygmatic Core, those things proclaimed throughout all scripture. Namely he identifies, the goodness of creation, the association of all creatures with a just and loving God, that all things are gifts from God, that we live our life through the Grace of God, and that when we express grace in the day to day we flourish.[4] Another writer, Richard B. Hays understands our lenses as being summed up in three images: Community, Cross, and New Creation.[5]

No matter the framework we build off of, we must found it on the Scripture we read and the God who breaths that Scripture to life. Can we, in good faith, exclude any person from the community of faith, knowing that even Moabites found their way into God’s kingdom? Can we presume to know the limits of God’s grace, when we know that thieves on the cross can sit at the right hand of God? We worship a God who is no regarder of persons, who is God of all Nations, and who shows preference only for the least of these – the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. Can we welcome the stranger? Can we love those who have nothing to offer us? Can we see Ruth, better still can we see her son of many generations, the Christ, in those in need, regardless of where and how they came to be among us? That is the question that our scripture hangs on our doors, and the one we must answer with an affirmative: yes, yes, yes. – Amen.

[1] Carol Meyers. “Women and Household Maintenance” in Rediscovering Eve. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press. 2013) 131

[2] Samuel T.S. Goh. “Ruth as a Superior Woman of תיל in JSOT 38.4 (2014) 488-500

[3] Judy Fentress Williams. “Terms of Endearment.” In Ruth. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press. 2012.) 71

[4] Victor Paul Furnish. The Moral Teachings of Paul. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press. 1985)

[5] Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, New York: HarperCollins. 1996)

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