Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
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Loving-Kindness

Book of Ruth – Reading 1:1-17 and 4:9-17

 Just what is the point of Ruth?  Why is this little story in the Bible?  

 I think often it is read as a love story, a tale of romance.  After all, it’s about two people getting married.  What else would it be then, except a tale of romance?  

 But to read it that way is to read our modern context back into the story.  Today, if I say I’m going to tell a story about two people getting married, you’ll assume it’s a love story.  But that’s our perspective on marriage.  To read Ruth as a love story is what is called eisegesis, from the Greek meaning “to read into.”  And many people do that when they read the Bible, they read their own culture and context back into the stories of Scripture.  What we should do is called exegesis, meaning “to read out of.”  We should read the Bible’s culture and context out of it to learn the universal truths in Scripture, and then we apply those universal truths into our culture and context.  

 Now that’s not to say that there is no romantic element, no emotion to the story.  But it’s not the primary point.  Something else is at the center of Ruth:  HESED.  HESED is a tough Hebrew word to define because it has no exact equivalent in English.  It means something like our English words “love, kindness, mercy, even loyalty.”  Some Bible scholars argue that it can only be translated by combining English words, and so they translate it as “loving-kindness,” with a hyphen.  HESED comes out of relationship, specifically covenant relationship, so we see it matters of marriage and faith.  It is frequently used to describe God’s love for his people.  HESED is often completely undeserved.  God’s HESED for his people is not based on their merit but on God’s mercy, his “loving-kindness.”  HESED is the central theme of this story.

 It begins with a historical note:  This happened during the time of the Judges.  These were generally bad times in Israel.  There was not a lot of faith in those days, but there was always a faithful remnant, like Naomi.

 There was a famine in the land, so a man of Bethelem named Elimelech moves his family to Moab.  Moab was the land to the east of the Dead Sea.  It was a little bit higher in elevation than Judah, so it often had better rainfall in dry years.  But the people there were not very friendly to the Israelites.  They had opposed Israel when they were journeying to the Promised Land, and that opposition created tension between the nations. 

 They stayed there for some time, at least 10 years.  Elimelech’s sons Mahlon and Killion married Moabite women, including Mahlon’s wife Ruth.  But Elimelech and his sons all died in Moab, leaving Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah as widows.

 Widows were very vulnerable in that society.  They had no social or economic status because they had no husband to provide.  They were dependent on extended family or the charity of others.  So when Naomi heard that the crops were good in Bethlehem again, she decided to leave.  

 Ruth and Orpah wanted to go with her.  That tells us that Naomi must have had a profound influence on them, for them to want to leave their own nation and families.  But Naomi told them to stay.  She had nothing to offer them.  There was far more security and opportunity to be found with their own families.  

 Orpah agreed, and Ruth refused.  She pledged her loyalty to Naomi.  “I will go where you go, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”  This is relational evangelism.  Ruth takes God as her God because God is Naomi’s God.

 They return to Bethlehem, and Naomi is greeted.  But she says, “Don’t call me Naomi.”  Naomi meant sweet or pleasant, but Naomi felt that her name should be Mara, bitter.  She went away full but came back empty.  It makes us wonder what Naomi thought of Ruth if she has Ruth but still thinks her life is empty.  Maybe she is not yet convinced that Ruth has really become attached to her.

 Well, it is time for the barley harvest, which would start in late April.  And Ruth goes out to glean in the fields.  “Gleaning” was a form of “social security.”  Landowners were forbidden to harvest the edges and corners of their fields.  They were also not to go over them a second time or to pick up any grain that was dropped.  All these were to be left for the poor and widows and orphans.  This way they were provided for, but they kept some measure of dignity.  They didn’t receive a “handout,” but they were given the opportunity to work.

 And it “just so happens” that Ruth goes to the field of Boaz.  When Boaz finds out who she is and how she is helping her mother-in-law, he blesses her for her kindness to Naomi.  “May the Lord, under whose wings you have taken refuge, bless you.”  Because of Boaz’s kindness to Ruth, she comes home with a large amount of grain, far more than one would expect from gleaning.

 She tells Naomi of Boaz’s kindness, and Naomi is delighted because Boaz is a GO’EL, a “family redeemer.”  The role of a GO’EL was to help the clan, the extended family, to “recover its losses.”  If a family member was murdered, a kinsman was to bring the murderer to justice.  He was also to marry a childless widow or care for a poor family member.  And if a family member became deeply indebted and was forced to sell their land or themselves into slavery, a GO’EL was to redeem them or their land to keep it in the family.

 So Ruth continues to glean in Boaz’s fields till the end of the wheat harvest, which would be September or October.  And eventually, Naomi comes up with a plan.  She tells Ruth to bathe and dress nicely, then to go to the threshing floor.  The threshing floor was the place where the grain was beaten and separated from the chaff.  It would be a community floor, used by everyone.  Threshing was done in the evening, when the wind was at its strongest, and then everyone would spend the night with their grain to protect it.  And of course, since harvest was a joyful time, they would eat and drink and celebrate, too.

 Ruth is told to uncover Boaz’s feet and lie down.  And many people have wondered:  Just what is going on at the threshing floor?  You see, the language of lie down was sometimes used in connection to sex.  And sometimes “feet” were a euphemism for other parts of the body.  And so some people see this is a sexual encounter.  But again, that’s an example of eisegesis, us reading our context back into the Bible.  The Bible is never shy about sexuality, so if that’s what was going on, it would say so.  And Boaz would hardly call Ruth an “honorable woman” in that society, if this is what’s going on.  

 She uncovers his feet and lies down by them.  When Boaz wakes up, she asks him to spread his garment, his cloak, over her, that is to protect her.  Cloak here is the same word as “wings” in chapter two, when Boaz speaks of God protecting Ruth.  She is asking to come under his protection, that is, for him to marry her.  

 Boaz is pleased at her HESED, her “loyalty.”  Ruth is young and attractive.  She could certainly find another man interested in her.  Boaz is, apparently, no longer a young man and didn’t think that she would be interested in him.  But what each of them finds attractive in the other is their HESED, their loving-kindness and loyalty.  

 But there’s a problem:  There is another man in the family who is more closely related to Elimelech and Mahlon, and so he has the first right to marry Ruth.  But Boaz says, “If he won’t, I will.”  

 Boaz sends Ruth away before it becomes light, so no one will get the wrong idea.  And he goes to the town gate, the “courtroom” of an ancient Near East city, and gathers ten elders of the town as witnesses.  He tells this other relative, “Naomi wants to sell,” and as a GO’EL, this other man has the first opportunity to buy the land to keep it in the clan.  You see, God was the true owner of the land, so families were not to sell their land to just anyone, but to keep it in the clan, the extended family.

 At first, this other relative is happy to buy it.  It’s a chance to extend his own holdings.  But Ruth is also part of the deal, and then he’s no longer interested.  Because, if he marries Ruth and she has a son, the son will not be his, legally, but rather Mahlon’s son.  So buying the land means taking responsibility for two widows, and if Ruth has a son, then he loses the land to the son.  He would be spending his children’s inheritance to make a legacy for Elimelech’s family name.  It would be a charity case, and he’s not interested in showing that kind of HESED.

 So Boaz redeems the land and marries Ruth.  And Ruth has a son.  And Naomi’s emptiness becomes fullness.  That’s what HESED does.  It turns the emptiness in our lives into fullness.  When we experience HESED from God or from others, the emptiness in our lives becomes fullness.  And when we show HESED, the emptiness in our lives becomes fullness.  And God blesses those who show HESED as he does.

 And oh, by the way, that son of Ruth was named Obed, and he became the grandfather of King David, and so an ancestor of Jesus.  Where would the story have gone without people willing to demonstrate HESED?  

 Where are the empty places in the lives of others around you?  How can you fill them with loving-kindness?  Where are the empty places in your own life?  Do you believe that God can fill them with loving-kindness?  

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