Monday, August 13, 2018

8-12-18 “New Life”

   Have you ever prayed for God to resolve a particular situation in your life in the very specific way, and when things didn’t seem to be moving in that direction, when it appeared that perhaps God hadn’t heard your prayer, was still thinking about, or whatever the case may be, you then tried to control the situation, or perhaps “help” God, get to that desired end?  I’m sure most of us have. I know I have - my first marriage came about that way. Let me just leave that hanging there for a moment… 
   However, prayers and taking action also got me my current marriage, which is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So, the idea of “let go and let God,” while a good way to think about the effects of worry in our lives, is not how prayer is modeled for us in scripture for the most part. There is prayer, and then there is action. Rarely do we find prayer answered when someone prays over a situation and then sits back and does nothing. Prayer prepares us, but then we are called to do what needs to be done. We pray, for example, for those who are hungry, then we go feed them.

   We see that same dynamic at work in the book of Ruth. Nowhere in this story do we see or hear any of the characters pray. Nowhere in this story do we hear God speak, or hear an angel speak for God. No, God’s presence is assumed in this story - God’s hesed, God’s enduring, faithful, and steadfast love is modeled, is made known, in the actions of the characters.

   So understanding that, let’s recap how we’ve gotten to this final chapter:

   In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as, one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. You’ll recall she told her daughters-in-law to no longer call her Naomi, but to call her Mara, which means “bitterness.” Naomi is bitter after losing her husband as well as both of her sons. After exhorting Ruth and Orpah, now widowed, to return to their Moabite villages and families, Ruth is determined to move forward, not to go backward, and to stay with Naomi. 
   In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself by gleaning grain in a nearby field which belongs to a man named Boaz. Boaz, as it turns out, is a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband. Coincidence? I think not. Boaz allows Ruth to glean more than her fair share from the fields and all are abundantly blessed in the process. 
   In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. Understanding what they needed in order to survive in this patriarchal world, and understanding what the levirate law required, Naomi and Ruth “help” bring about what we have to believer were their unrecorded prayers to God. And as April shared last week, Ruth, in effect, proposed marriage to Boaz on the threshing floor - challenging custom and culture to provide not only for herself, but for her mother-in-law whom she loved greatly. And in that moment, Boaz reveals that there is yet another possible go-el, kinsman-redeemer, who has even more right to redeem Naomi’s husband’s lands, and says that he will talk to that man that very day. Which brings us to our story today.

   The scene at the city gate (where legal proceedings 
are conducted) is a rather humorous one. The nearer relative, the potential goel with whom Boaz speaks, is never named. He is enthusiastic about acquiring more land but suddenly remembers a previous appointment and makes himself scarce when Boaz says that marrying Ruth is part of the bargain. That would mean the land he purchased would never really be his, it would pass to her children as Elimilech and Mahlon’s heirs, not to his. So he says in effect, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and publicly gives up his rights to the land and to Ruth. So, having done his due diligence and fulfilled the requirements of the law, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his land acquisition and subsequent marriage to Ruth.

Ruth, we’re then told, conceives and bears a son. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. Where there was barrenness (in her marriage to Mahlon), now there is new birth. 
   The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him” (4:15). The perfect, complete number seven here suggesting that Ruth’s love (i.e. God’s love manifest through Ruth) is greater than the love of all the sons of the world, and that most of all, Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.

   “Then Naomi took the child and laid him in [Naomi’s] bosom, and she became his nurse” (4:16). The rabbis, in the rabbinic tradition associated with this story, noting that the Hebrew word translated here often means “wet nurse,” said that a miracle happened, that Naomi’s old and withered breasts were suddenly able to produce milk, and that she nursed the child herself.
   Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness, joy where there had been only bitterness -- all of it is made possible through the hesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.
   The genius of the book of Ruth,” suggests theologian Alphonetta Wines, “is that it is much more than a simple story since there’s so much complexity in the layers, hints, and innuendo that lies within its pages. First, since its characters are exemplary, the book can be thought of as a morality narrative that demonstrates the blessing of godly living.
   “Second, knowing that in the world of the bible women’s voices are largely unheard, this story is extraordinary since the voices of Naomi and Ruth are not only heard, their voices move the story forward. They live in a world where women without husbands or other male relatives to care for them are vulnerable. Their story is an example of the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them.
   “Third, it is impossible to overlook the sexual overtones in the book. Just as with the Song of Songs (another biblical book in which a woman speaks and God does not), the church has long been embarrassed by the sexual innuendo concerning Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. While the details are left to one’s imagination,” as April shared last week - sometimes “feet are just feet,” - “it is clear that Ruth intends to entice Boaz with her charms, especially since she goes at night hoping to avoid being seen.
   “Fourth, although ‘God is silent … [and] acts indirectly through the people,’ God’s care is attested. As a poor woman from another country, Ruth’s situation is dire. But even though her situation is dire, she is not forgotten. While God is silent, the message is indisputable, ‘God is on the side of the marginalized.’ 
Not that God is unconcerned about people who live on the center, but God’s care for Naomi and Ruth are indications that God cares even when the world is indifferent. The implication is that “God … [is] God of the whole world.”
   “Fifth, the book of Ruth is a story about “the birth of the monarchy” in Israel and a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that would eventually be a blessing to all humanity.” Remember, I shared in week two the history going back to Abraham and Sarah, and how God had promised that their descendants would be one tribe that would be blessed to be a blessing. However, at one point Abraham and his nephew Lot went in two different directions because their wealth had grown so vast the land could no longer support their combined herds." 

The descendants of Lot became the Moab tribe, of whom Ruth was a descendant. As Rob Bell points out, “when Ruth returns to Israel, this story about this obscure family becomes a story about Lot’s tribe and Abrahams’ tribe being reunited. Ruth coming home and marrying Boaz is about Lot coming home. It’s about healing the family. It’s about bringing together what was separated years earlier. (In the Hebrew language here, the same word is used for Lot separating and Ruth not separating. The storyteller clearly wants us to know that this is about a much larger story.) That’s why the story ends with a bit of genealogy: the tribe is united and healed just in time for their great King David to be born. So from Genesis 13, [where Abraham and Lot go their own ways,] all the way to the book of Ruth, things aren’t right. But in the book of Ruth, they’re made right.”
   And as Wines concludes, “The subtle message is not so subtle, for ‘even Israel’s greatest king is descended from a poor, vulnerable woman from a despised foreign nation.’ Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus’ lineage enlarges the message even further. If God is the God of all humanity, why would not all humanity have a role in the lineage of the Incarnate Jesus?
   "The last bit of genius in the book of Ruth “is a reminder that it is important to honor the humanity of every person. There is no need for anyone to think too highly or too lowly of others or themselves. In a world where connections to one’s own family group could determine matters of life or death, Ruth and Naomi’s willingness to cross boundaries to create friendship is remarkable. These two women are about as different as two people can be. There are differences in ‘age, nationality, and religion.’ Theirs is a story about what happens when two people from different social locations, [different backgrounds, ethnicities, even religions,] decide that relationship is more important than cultural definitions of what relationships should be or any experiences that might have kept them apart.” Being in relationship is more important than being right.
   “Through her friendship with Naomi, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Through her friendship with Ruth, Naomi again experiences a joy untold. In a world, ancient or contemporary, where people are unwilling to extend themselves on behalf of others and be changed for the better by the encounter, this story stands as an indictment of closed hearts, minds, and spirits of any age.”
    The story of Ruth is a story of new life: new life for Naomi, and for Ruth and Boaz; new life in the child they have together, Obed; and new life for God’s vision for Israel as one tribe - a mixed tribe, a reunited tribe of peoples once driven apart who are brought back together.  What began with tragedy ends with blessing. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy. The child of Ruth and Boaz, Obed, will be the grandfather of David, Israel’s most beloved king. 
   So here is where the story of Ruth leaves us: with the promise of God’s faithful love, God’s hesed, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and through David’s greater Son, into even our own lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up, and overflowing. That is the new life promised through God’s faithful love.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

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