Ruth 2:11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.
We have explored Ruth’s great risks in remaining faithful to Naomi. But Boaz too is taking risks. I mentioned these risks in passing in yesterday’s devotional. Boaz is taking an economic risk in sacrificing some of his own profits for the benefit of someone else. Perhaps it is not a great risk or an immediate one, but it is still a sacrifice and a risk. This story, posted by Robert Reich illustrates my point.
United Airlines reports it’s outsourcing 630 gate agent jobs at 12 airports to companies paying near-poverty level wages. Employees who have been with the company for years, earning middle-class wages of $50,000 a year, will be replaced by people paid between $9.50 and $12 per hour. United says it must do this to cut costs and raise its profits relative to other airlines. But United CEO Jeff Smisek gave himself $8.1 million this year. If he cut his salary just $2 million (in line with the CEO of the more successful Southwest Airlines, who gets $4 million), United would save about as much as it will by cutting the pay of those 630 employees.
Moving on, Boaz’s risk is not dimly economic, it is also social and religious. Boaz lives in a culture in which Moabites are not welcome. This is not just a cultural norm, although that is pressure enough, but as we have said, a religious norm as well. Deuteronomy 23 specifically calls for Israelites to remain separate from Moabites. So Boaz does not just risk a slight loss in profit, but public shame for welcoming an unwelcome foreign woman to his table and taking her under his care.
Present in the story of Moab is the struggle to decide the right thing to do when that right is not necessarily clear. One could site Deuteronomy 23 and refuse care and compassion to Ruth with religious cover. One could also sight Exodus 22:22 and the others I listed on monday, to suggest that compassion and care for Ruth was religiously necessary. Boaz faces a decision in our story from sunday and it is not an easy one. Boaz’s response, which is to act with hospitality and compassion suggests to Christians today how it is that we should make these sometimes difficult decisions about love and compassion in action. Boaz risks being unfaithful in order to be faithful. Or, as the prophet Micah has told us, God requires mercy, kindness and justice.
Monday Ruth 2:8-9
So Boaz said to Ruth... Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you.
Last week, as we began to look at the story of Ruth and Naomi, I suggested that Ruth was accepting great risk in leaving her land, people and family, to remain faithful to Naomi. Today’s verse reveals in a bit more detail, the risk. Ruth goes to work following the harvesters in the barley fields. According to Deuteronomy 24 farmers were to instruct their harvesters to leave the edges of fields unharvested and the forgotten sheaf of grain behind in order to provide for the economically vulnerable. This was the social safety net according to God’s law. This is why Ruth follows behind, picking up what is left over and left behind in the fields.
The words of Boaz reveal that in practice, widows were not always safe in the fields. ‘I have told the men not to lay a hand on you,’ he says. What other way is there to interpret this than that it was not uncommon for male harvesters to take advantage of the vulnerability of women who came to the fields to glean by perpetrating sexual aggression. Let’s not forget that Ruth is a Moabite woman, and so, according to the religious tradition recorded in Deuteronomy 23, not worthy of dignity or compassion. Moabites were the ‘other,’ outside of God’s family and so outside of the circle of care. Add to this, she is a widow without family and so she does not ‘belong’ to a man. It is apparent that both her status as foreign and as widow, would mean for some, for many, that Ruth was not a person worthy of respect, but instead without value to society except as an object of desire.
Oxfam UK recently posted some interesting facts on their Facebook page. Worldwide, 32 million girls will not go to school, 39,000 will become child brides in one day, 1-3 women will be beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime, 875 million women never learn to read or write, and they earn only 10% of the worlds income.
Even a simple search of the word widow in the bible reveals that the community God was creating in Israel was a community in which the vulnerable were not devalued and dehumanized, but honored and cared for. Look at Exodus 22.22, Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Deuteronomy 14:28-29, Deut 24:7, Deut 27:19, Isaiah 1.17, just to list a few. Against a culture that demonized the foreign and took advantage of the vulnerable, the story of Ruth reveals, a key aspect of the human community that God is creating is treating the foreign with dignity and the vulnerable with compassion,
Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
There is a quote by Jurgen Moltmann that I have been enamored of recently. Perhaps I have shared it with you in these pages already, but I am sharing it again; ‘…That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.’
I share this because the book of Ruth is just such a goad. Diane Jacobson has suggested that the book of Ruth was written as Israel’s elites returned home to Jerusalem after the long exile in Babylon, which is recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah. The great promises of prosperity and security offered by second Isaiah did not come true, and the people had complicated challenges to face, such as, what to do with the foreigners that had settled, and in some cases, been forcibly resettled in the land of Israel? The presence of these foreign people was the catalyst for important questions about God’s promises of security and status for Israel. Would it extend to these foreign people? Who would be considered part of God’s family and who would not and how would society be organized? Ezra is the voice of those whose answer to the above questions, is to create distance, a separation between Israelites and foreigners. Jacobson suggests that Ruth is a story written in response to Ezra's voice. The foreign are not to be distanced, but embraced. Hospitality for the vulnerable is always the highest priority of those who would follow God. Ruth is a foreign woman, a Moabite, who becomes the hero of the story because of her courage, tenacity and compassion for her mother-in-law Ruth.
Most recently very similar questions have been raised in our nation by the high numbers of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that are crossing our borders. In it’s time, Ruth was a goad which urged its readers to reconsider the experience of others, specifically to rethink the value of the foreign. It begins to do so by opening with the universal experience of loss. Naomi, the Israelite and her daughter-in-law, the foreigner Ruth, are united in the tragedy of their loss. From it’s outset, the book of Ruth begins to undermine the walls that divide us with tunnels of human experience that connect us, such as the sadness we feel when we loose the ones we love.
While it is a daunting task, the story of Ruth reminds us that one of the spiritual practices of the Christ-follower is the consideration of the least of these. Jesus was often found living the daily experiences of the suffering and struggling. How can we or do we open our hearts to those who suffer?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.