St Michael’s, 17th January and St Matthew’s, Elburton 24th January 2016
Reading – Ruth 4
I thought this morning it might be fun to start off with a little quiz. So what I have here are some famous last lines from films and literature, and all I want you to do is to tell me the book from which they are taken. So are you ready? Let’s see how you get on…
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One! (Christmas Carol)
After all, tomorrow is another day. (Gone with the Wind)
He loved Big Brother. (1984)
In that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little Boy and his Bear will always be playing. (House at Pooh Corner)
You can learn so much from the last lines of books. They represent the final opportunity for the author to get across his or her message, and they want to leave us with something that will stick in our memories long after we finish reading. That’s why authors spend so much time and energy trying to get their last lines right, to ensure they have the maximum impact.
Today as we come to the book of Ruth I want to begin by looking at another memorable last line, this time from the Bible. In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. Does anyone know which book that comes from?
The right answer is that it comes from the book of Judges, the book which in our English Bibles comes just before Ruth, and this verse, Judges 21:25 is, I believe, vital not only to understand the book of Judges but also the the book of Ruth. You see, all the action in Ruth also takes place in the time of the judges. It provides another view of life during this turbulent and difficult time in the history of Israel, and helps us understand what life was like back then for ordinary folk struggling to make ends meet.
So who were the judges? When we use the word “judge” we think of an old man in an ermine robe serving at a court of law. But the judges of the Old Testament were nothing like that at all. They were men and women sent by God to deliver His people from the hands of His enemies. Every time Israel was invaded, they would cry out the Lord and He would anoint someone with His Spirit to bring about some unexpected victory. So in many ways the book of Judges is a book of heroes, many of whom we probably know very well, such as Samson and Gideon.
However as the book of Judges also shows, heroes don’t necessarily make for the best rulers. As long as there is a Samson or a Gibeon defeating their enemies, generally the people love and obey the Lord. But as soon as the hero dies, the people then turn away from the Lord and worship other gods. That is, until the land is invaded again and they cry out to the Lord for help. The problem is, there is no one central figure who can provide settled government and command the necessary authority to bring lasting peace and security. And so alongside the tales of heroes, we also see in Judges a downward spiral of violence and lawlessness. What is the reason for this? Judges 21:25 again: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.
So the book of Ruth opens with the longing for a king. But as the book starts, it hardly seems possible that this desire is going to be met. There is a man called Elimelech with his wife Naomi and their two sons, and they are facing famine. They are forced to leave the land God has given them and they end up living as refugees in Moab. Even worse the two sons marry two Moabite women, something hardly approved of by the law of Moses. And if that wasn’t bad enough Elimelech and sons then die, leaving Naomi utterly destitute. She seems to have lost everything, her home, her family, her status and there is nothing she can do except return to her village of Bethlehem, a broken and penniless woman.
Except there is one thing, or rather one person, she has gained – her loyal and devoted daughter-in-law Ruth who pledges unswervingly loyalty to Naomi and to the Lord. Now Ruth is one of the most remarkable and unlikely heroes of faith in the Old Testament. She is nothing like a Samson or a Gideon – big brave Israelite men who are good at beating up the opposition. She is a woman and a Moabite, a complete outsider, and yet as we shall see, she too was used mightily by the Lord to achieve His purposes.
But for all Ruth’s faith, Naomi still faces the real question of how to get by. She has no immediate family. There are no benefits she can claim, and she has hardly returned to a rich village. So what to do? There is only one solution – to send Ruth out into the fields to pick up whatever the harvesters in the fields have left behind. Fortunately, or as we should say more accurately, in the Lord’s providence, she finds herself in the field of one of Naomi’s relatives called Boaz.
And in his own way Boaz too is a man of great integrity and faith. He knows all about Ruth’s kindness to Naomi. So we read in chapter 2 how he makes sure that the men gathering the harvest leave her alone and do not interfere with her. He gives instructions that Ruth is to be generously provided for. Here is a man who shows in simple, practical actions how to do the right thing. He is a model Israelite in his care and concern for the poor, and in making sure the vulnerable are protected.
It’s not too surprising, then, that Naomi sees Boaz as the ideal husband for Ruth. That’s why in chapter 3 she tells her daughter-in-law to go to Boaz in the middle of the night and lie down at his feet. Now if a man of a marriageable age wakes up and discovers a beautiful young woman next to him, you might imagine what happens next. Except in Boaz’s case, it doesn’t. Boaz never takes advantage of Ruth. He is concerned all along to do right by her, and to follow the law of Moses properly. Not because he wants everyone to know how good and righteous he is, but because he wants to honour the Lord, both when working out in the field, and in the privacy of his own quarters.
So finally we come to the events of chapter 4. Now the details of the marital arrangements all seem very peculiar to us nowadays: the concept of a kinsman-redeemer, acquiring a dead man’s widow, taking off your sandal to legalise a transaction. They are a reminder that we are dealing here with a story set long, along ago in a far-off land. But then again, the customs surrounding marriage are always changing and some of the things we do today in the 21st century must seem very strange even to our immediate ancestors. No-one a hundred years ago would dream you would get married in a hotel, for example, or that there would be whole television series devoted to the most bizarre weddings you could possibly imagine. How a man and a woman choose to wed varies enormously from age to age, let alone from culture to culture.
But this does not mean there is nothing we can learn from this chapter – far from it. Because in Boaz’s actions we can see the underlying reasons why marriage is important and why as far as it lies within us we ought to uphold and promote what the prayer book calls an honourable estate, instituted of God.
First of all, Boaz is keen to establish a public recognition of their relationship. It is, you see, hugely significant that as verse 1 tells us, Boaz went up to the town gate and sat there. In a village such as Bethlehem the gateway of the town wall was the public space where people would meet and greet, and it was the place where legal business was carried out. So when Boaz sits down in the town gate, he quite literally means business. And just so that no-one can challenge any decisions that he’s involved in, we see in the next verse how he takes ten elders to be reliable witnesses of the events. By the end of proceedings there could be no doubt who Ruth was going to belong to – either this unnamed kinsman redeemer or Boaz.
Because that in essence is what marriage is about – the creation of a new relationship affirmed and acknowledged in the presence of the Lord and those around you. It is on this basis that marriage has formed the bedrock of societies for thousands of years. By contrast, in our society today, relationships between a man and a woman are seen as a private matter between two adults and the historic institution of marriage is collapsing. Statistics released in 2015 show that in this country 90% of people aged 60 years of over had been married at some point in their life. For young people today, only 50% will go on to marry.
Does any of this matter? Yes, it does. Without marriage, it is far less clear who belongs to whom. It affects the security of those in such relationships. It affects the children of these relationships. I say this not to condemn anyone who is struggling with the whole issue of marriage at the moment, but to point out that without the ideal of marriage the cost to society is huge in all sorts of ways. How to apply that ideal without increasing the hurt and pain so many feel, well, that’s another matter. But the Lord has given us the institution of marriage for a reason, and we need to work out as a church how we can sensitively and promote this honourable estate in a way that honours Him and shows genuine love and compassion to all.
Secondly, Boaz is keen to show he is willing to assume responsibilities for his new family.
Now when Israel invaded Canaan and settled there, the land was allotted to tribes and clans and families. The land you owned was seen as your inheritance from the Lord. So if someone died without children, the nearest relative was expected to buy the land and keep it in the family. That explains why in this passage we have a figure called a kinsman redeemer. We are not told his name, but he was the closest possible relative to Naomi and it was his duty to buy back, to redeem, the land which she owned.
So in verse 4 Boaz tells this unnamed individual of his duty to buy Naomi’s land. Now whoever this person was, he is more than happy to fulfil his responsibility and take on the property. The one snag is, he hasn’t read the small print in the contract. As Boaz points out in verse 5: On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.
After all, as we saw earlier, when Naomi returned to her home village with Ruth, she was destitute. She had no means of supporting herself, and it would only be right that whoever bought her land would also take these women on as well. And if Ruth was ever going to have children, then legally these children would have a claim on this land as their family inheritance. It was for these reasons that along with the land went a marriage and a mother-in-law! We don’t know whether it was the marriage or the mother-in-law that most put off the kinsman redeemer, but either way he decides at this point to pull out, leaving the way open for Boaz to marry Ruth.
Now again the exact details of this arrangement may seem very strange to us, but this story does serve to remind us marriage is far than an arrangement between two people. It is about the making of a whole host of new relationships, and a willingness to take on and care for a whole new family. I recognise the in-laws are often a great source for humour, and I guess we all know jokes about the mother-in-law. But maybe they are given to us to show much we really care for and love our other half. Boaz was willing to take on Naomi, alongside Ruth, even if it meant a financial loss for himself, and there is much I believe we can learn from his example of unselfish and broad generosity.
So Boaz does right by Ruth and by the Lord, and his new relationship is publicly witnessed and blessed by the whole village. And what is the result?
Let’s look at verse 13: So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Of course Boaz could have slept with Ruth when she first lay at his feet in chapter 3. But what would have been wrong then is now thanks to Boaz’s honourable conduct wonderfully and gloriously right. And in this particular instance the Lord sees fit to bless their marriage with the gift of a son, who as we read in verse 15, is called Obed.
But that is not quite the end of the story. Because as we read in verse 17: He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. And just in case we haven’t grasped how important this fact is, the author repeats the very same information in the last lines of his book. Obed was the grandfather of David, the very greatest of all the kings of Israel, the one who would impose the authority and order so longed for in the book of Judges.
So how, then, was the desire for a king met? Quite simply, through the faith of a Moabite woman and the honesty of a God-fearing Israelite man. It’s a reminder that when we seek the ways of the Lord, He can do far more through us than we can ever imagine. We may feel like Ruth we have little to offer. We may like Boaz wonder if our hard work will ever be rewarded. The Lord knows us and He can use us in the most surprising and wonderful of ways.
And one final point. Why was Boaz and Ruth’s son called Obed? We are not told here, but the name Obed means servant. To me, it acts as a reminder that one day God would raise up from the line of David one who would be both a servant and a kinsman, one who unlike Boaz’s unnamed relative, would not hesitate to pay the price for us, but rather welcome us into His family. Ultimately, you see, the story of Boaz and Ruth is a story of God’s grace, and of how the Lord gives us far more than we ever deserve. So do you know this grace for yourselves? And what is your story of the Lord at work in your life?