Today I am going to talk about the story of Ruth, which we heard last Sunday as well as today. Last week was the beginning of Ruth, and today we hear the end, but you might want to read the whole thing. The entire book is five pages long, and it’s an interesting story. It’s a great story about God in the midst of all kinds of problems, and it is the one book in the Bible where God is mentioned only in passing.
Naomi and her husband and two sons decide to leave Bethlehem, their hometown, because there is a famine in the land. But, bizarrely, they move to Moab, which was an ancient enemy of Israel.
Moab was about thirty miles from Bethlehem. You could actually see it across the Dead Sea and the River Jordan. The family settled in enemy territory, and the husband died. The Book of Ruth begins “In the days when the judges ruled.” The judges were Ezra and Nehemiah, who were trying to reform the Jewish identity after their exile in Babylon. They made lots of rules to protect their Jewish faith after living for sixty years among pagans. One of the big rules was, ‘don’t marry a non-Jew, and if you had already married a non-Jew, you needed to get a divorce.’
But the boys grew up, and each married Moabite women, who were Gentiles, non-Jews, and enemies. Then tragedy struck again. Both sons died. Naomi heard that food was plentiful in Bethlehem again, so she told her daughter in laws to go back to their parents’ houses in Moab. One of them, Orpah, went back. Ruth though, said she’d stay with Naomi, and that’s where we heard that beautiful poem last week that was so popular for weddings.
“Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you live, there I will live. Your people will be my people, and your god will be my god too.” Ruth stayed out of love for Naomi. This story is about love and faithfulness, and in a way, stewardship. The woman who is a Gentile, am enemy, and a refugee stays out of faithfulness and love to care for the older woman. Naomi was all she had, and she committed herself to take good care of her.
When they finally got to Bethlehem, we can see how the rest of the town treated Ruth. The story goes on, “When they got there the whole town was excited. The women asked, “Is this Naomi?” Nothing about Ruth, the enemy Moabite.
Ruth and Naomi were poor, but one of the Jewish laws was that when you harvested a field, you had to leave the edges and the dropped or leftover grain for the poor. It was called gleaning. So, Ruth went to glean in the field. She followed behind the women who were harvesting, and it happened that Boaz, the owner of the field stopped by.
He asked someone who she was, and heard the story about how she had faithfully accompanied her mother in law back to Bethlehem. Boaz called Ruth over, told her to be careful and stay close to the women. He also told the men who were working to leave her alone. Then, on top of the barley that she had collected at the end of the day, he added more, something like five bushels full. When Naomi heard about it, she told Ruth that Boaz was actually a close relation of her husband.
Naomi devised a plan to ensure their security and their future. That was the reading today, which left out some parts so that it wasn’t too long. Naomi told Ruth to dress up and go to the threshing floor at night, after Boaz was asleep. She was supposed to uncover his feet, and lay down with him. (At the time that this was written, ‘feet’ was a euphemism for more private body parts). In the rest of the story, it says that Naomi asked Boaz to cover her with his cloak which was a symbol for marriage. She asked him to marry her.
He did, and they conceived a child, and the rest is history. The end of the book states, “They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Matthew’s Gospel starts with a very long genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus. It begins with Abraham and ends with ‘Joseph, the husband of Mary of whom Jesus is born.’ Ruth is one of the three women listed there, and she was the great-grandmother of King David, who was the grandfather 28 generations from Jesus.
So, what’s so great about the Book of Ruth, and what does that have to do with Stewardship Sunday? Great question. The Book of Ruth is all about God without mentioning God. Ruth and Naomi are surrounded by terrible circumstances, and terrible life events, and they respond with generosity and great care for each other. They also respond with wilyness, a little conniving to help things move along in their favor. They plan seduce Boaz, so that he will marry Naomi.
But another good part of the story is that he doesn’t give in! He doesn’t respond to her charms right away. He remembers that another man is a closer relative to her father in law than he is, so the next day he arranges to meet that man and ask if he wants to marry her and buy their land. But first, he tells Ruth to leave while it is still dark, (‘before one person could recognize another’) so that no one sees her sneaking out of the threshing place.
Ruth and Naomi are doing what they need to do to take care of each other and ‘ensure their security,’ and Boaz responds honestly and honorably. He offers the next of kin the opportunity to marry her and buy the land first, and he also looks out for Ruth’s reputation. Then he sends a bunch of barley home with Ruth for Naomi.
Ruth and Boaz presumably believe in God, as good Jews, but Ruth may or may not have believed. She was a Gentile, and when told Naomi, ‘Your God will be my God,’ we don’t know if she even knew who God was.
So, why is this book part of the Bible? All these characters act like God is the glue in life that holds it all together rather than someone who is at a distance from us, and only there for us to worship. The story shows God acting in the simplest, earthiest experiences of generosity, risk, plotting, and trying to make life better. It’s the story of all of us.
It shows that God is at work all the time, in all of life’s circumstances, and that God weaves feelings, decisions, and both good and bad actions to ultimately bring goodness. This is true even when we live through loss, trouble, conflict, and pain.
God never intervenes directly in the book of Ruth. Although God is behind it and within it, God is revealed through the actions of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
Is this a story about stewardship? In a way. Boaz has wealth, and generously shares it with Naomi and Ruth when they were poor. Naomi and Ruth have nothing, but look out for each other with everything they’ve got. Ruth gives Naomi her presence, when Naomi would have been alone in the world, and Naomi’s decisions to move, her family connections, and her conniving helped ensure Ruth’s future, as well as her own. All three of them brought what they could give to the table. And God, who is barely named, works through each of their decisions and lives, the same way that God works through ours. Amen.