Sunday, April 25, 2010

God Works in Mysterious Ways

(A sermon based on the story of Ruth for Sunday, April 25, 2010)

The story of Ruth is in some ways a very particular story about a very particular woman who played a very particular role in God’s purpose of salvation. But the story of Ruth is also in some ways a story that has lessons that will enable every follower of the Lord who will take them to heart to follow him more truly and to serve him more ably. If we enter the story with open minds and hearts, it will surprise us, I think.

The story is set in the historical period “when the judges ruled.” Thus, in the English canon, it follows the book of Judges. The period of the Judges, which was the period between the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites and the establishment of the monarchy, was a troubled period. Although we tend to look back on some of the individual judges as heroes, the truth is that they were in the main leaders of less than sterling character. Also, the people of Israel fell habitually into idolatry and other kinds of sins; the book of Judges reports many heinous offenses against God and against people.

In the canonical order of the Hebrew Bible, Ruth follows the book of Proverbs, “so that the story provides an illustration of the noble woman commended in Prov 31:10-31” [Andrew E. Hill, “Ruth,” The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco: 2005), p. 383]. There is indeed much in the example of Ruth to commend.

The story opens with a hint and a problem. The hint comes in the revelation that Naomi and Elimelech were from Bethlehem. More on that later. The problem is a famine in Israel that caused the couple to take their two sons Mahlon and Chilion and go to Moab. The famine itself was a problem, of course, but so was the fact that it caused the family to leave the Promised Land for a foreign land. Such a move always proved problematic for Hebrew people; the most glaring example is, of course, the famine that caused Jacob’s family to move to Egypt.

Elimelech died in Moab. Their two sons married Moabite women whose names were Orpah and Ruth. Then the two sons died. Now we have three widows at the center of our story. When Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Israel, she resolved to go back home. Her two daughters-in-law set out with her. Naomi discouraged them from accompanying her. After many tears, Orpah decided to stay in Moab. Ruth, however, would not be dissuaded from staying with her mother-in-law. In very famous words she said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God…” (1:16 KJV).

One thing that we learn from the story of Ruth is that the faithful life involves giving up and letting go (ch. 1). The narrative does not delve deeply into the reality of the kind of grief that is common to all members of the human family. A family had to leave its homeland. Three women lost their husbands. Naomi does honestly lament the calamity that has fallen upon her, but we’re not told much about the process the women went through in dealing with their grief. Still, the story does remind us that such events do come and that we have to move on through them and, insofar as is possible, past them.

But the narrative does delve deeply into the kind of giving up and letting go that finally makes the difference in discipleship. Jesus said that his followers have to be willing to give up their families, their home connections, their dependence on material things, even their very lives, if they are truly going to be his disciples.

Ruth left her homeland for another. We have to let go of this earthly homeland and to embrace our heavenly home.

Ruth left her family and her people. We have to let go of those attachments that can hold us back to embrace fully our membership in the family of God.

Ruth left her gods for the God of Naomi and of Israel. We have to let our false and limited gods go and give ourselves over fully to the one true God who has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus also promised us that it is in losing our lives that we will gain them. Paul said that he counted all his past accomplishments and connections as rubbish in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. What we gain in letting go is a life lived in relationship to God. Nothing is too high a price to pay. Naomi models letting go for us.

And so Naomi and Ruth journeyed to Bethlehem. They had to eat, so Ruth went out to glean in the fields. Gleaning was the social safety net of the ancient world. The text says, “As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (2:3). Now, we all know that the full way to say that would be, “As it happened according to the grace and providence of God.”

Boaz noticed her and inquired about her. His servants told him that she was the Moabite woman who had come back with Naomi from Moab. She had asked to glean, they said, and she had been working hard all day. Boaz took it upon himself to take care of Ruth. She wanted to know why he was being so kind to such a foreigner as she.
Now, this is a love story, so we are allowed to think romantic thoughts and I think that they would be accurate. A courting ritual is going on here. But that is not the main point. The main point is that the Lord was rewarding Ruth for the kindness she showed Naomi in leaving Moab and coming to Israel. Boaz was the instrument that God was using to bestow kindness on Ruth.

Let us never underestimate the tremendous power of basic human kindness. Here is a second lesson we learn from the story of Ruth: Kindness that pushes the boundaries leads to blessings (ch. 2). In fact, kindness of any sort usually leads to blessings because kindness tends to lead to kindness. That is not always the case, of course, because some people are just hard-headed and hard-hearted and thus will just never see beyond their own noses, but it is usually the case.

You may remember a public service announcement that ran for a while that opened with a man handing a toy back to the child in the stroller who had dropped it on a busy city sidewalk. The rest of the ad shows how an act of kindness done by someone and observed by someone else led to the observer performing an act of kindness that was observed by someone else who was inspired to do the same—and so on and so on until we come back to the man picking up the child’s toy.

Kindness works that way. Ruth was kind to Naomi. That inspired Boaz to be kind to Ruth. As Jack Sasson said, “Common people achieve uncommon ends when they act unselfishly toward each other” [Jack M. Sasson, “Ruth,” The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter & Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1987), p. 321].

That is especially true, I believe, when our kindness pushes the boundaries, and some boundaries were being pushed in this story. Ruth was a Moabite. The Moabites were, to say the least, not looked on with favor by the Israelites. Tradition had it that their family line began in the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. The Moabites had tempted the Israelites to the idolatry at Baal-peor that had led to terrible judgment. As a result, Mosaic law prohibited the participation of the Moabites in the worship of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3-6)[See Hill, p. 382]. Yet Boaz reached out in kindness to this Moabite woman who had shown love and fidelity to her mother-in-law and who had thus shown herself a person of character and quality.

We tend to think of people in categories, don’t we? It was one thing to say, “The Moabites are bad people and we are to have nothing to do with them.” But such is not so easy to say when you are dealing with an individual person. I don’t know to what extent Boaz struggled with this, but I can imagine him saying, “Well, I’ve always been taught that the Moabites are bad, but this Moabite sure seems good.” I think that much of our prejudice would pass away if we would learn to deal with folks one person at a time. Stereotypes and generalizations are the lazy way out. Dr. King had it right when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Don’t hear me saying that we are to be kind only to those who seem to deserve it or to those who seem good enough. We are to be kind to anyone and to everyone that we can. But I am saying that our kindness needs to push the cultural and societal and personal boundaries that we have accepted and that we need to understand that great relationships can be established for the sake of the kingdom if we are open to people as people and as God’s beloved. We also need to understand that we all have questionable backgrounds to some degree; we certainly are all sinners and come from a long line of sinners. Perhaps Boaz had some sympathy for Ruth’s position. After all, he was the son of Salmon (4:21) and Rahab (Matthew 1:5), and that Rahab may well have been the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho.

It took some maneuvering, but Ruth and Boaz got married. It is at this point that we find the meaning of the earlier hint about Bethlehem. Ruth and Boaz had a son. Listen to what we are told about the progeny of that son, whose name was Obed: “he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” So the Moabite Ruth was the great-grandmother of the great King David. The great king was part Moabite; he was a descendant of those despised and rejected people!

Of course, Jesus Christ was a descendant of that same line. What a family tree the monarch and the Messiah had! It just goes to show that God works through unexpected people in unexpected ways to accomplish his purpose of salvation. He works through people all around us in ways we either cannot see or refuse to see. He works through people that we would not think he would work through. He accepts people that we want to reject. It is all very surprising.

You never know. God may even work through you and me!

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