Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Ruth 2:1-16 Ruth Meets Boaz
Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour.’ She said to her, ‘Go, my daughter.’ So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, “Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.” So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’
Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.’ Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’ Then she said, ‘May I continue to find favour in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.’
At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.’
How do you survive the unsurvivable? Ruth shows that the first step is to find your people. She found Naomi and declared that she would walk alongside her into a future that is made more hopeful simply by them facing it together. Naomi, who still calls herself empty and bitter when talking to former acquaintances when they arrive in Bethlehem at the end of last week’s reading, shows us that a good first step doesn’t fix everything though. Ruth and Naomi are still in mourning and are still particularly vulnerable. But, we can see that they are alive and now among people who are more likely to support them. Complex problems are rarely fixed by one magical change. But, when the situation looks bleak, it matters to take the first good step.
A good second step is putting the knowledge you have to good use. In her commentary on this text, Mary Joan Winn Leith notes that Ruth is following Jewish religious law when she offers to go glean in the fields to get food for them. Leith reminds us that their religious practice required that farmers leave part of the harvest for impoverished people, immigrants, and widows. Now, Ruth likely wouldn’t have known this custom without Naomi telling her. While we don’t read Naomi specifically tell Ruth this in any part of the story, we have learned that they had been a part of the same family for 10 years at this point. If Ruth knew this detail of Jewish religious practice, it is because Naomi or someone else in the family had shared it with her. This generous practice stuck in her memory. When it was clear that they would need to eat, Ruth put this knowledge to use.
The author Mona DeKoven Fishbane noted in her commentary on this text that Ruth’s primary values are “connection, loyalty, and caring.” These values are what led to bravely set out with Naomi, despite Naomi’s wise council to stay behind and what allowed her to pay close enough attention to her in-laws to both learn about their religious practice but also put them in use in order to meet her basic survival needs. Fishbane calls this her “faith in interpersonal connection.” It is this faith in interpersonal connection that allows her to make the best out of a fortuitous accident. The field she ended up gleaning in was that of a well-respected man in the community, Boaz. Boaz was also a relative of Naomi from her husband’s side of the family.
In their culture, the family of a widow’s deceased husband had certain responsibilities for her care, especially if she had no sons to support her. I’m not sure why Naomi didn’t immediately go to him for support. Maybe she was worn out from the trip. Maybe she was still deciding what to do. Maybe she was still holed up, nursing her grief. Whatever the reason, Naomi wasn’t the one who reached out to Boaz. Ruth was. Or, more accurately, Ruth accidentally met Boaz and Boaz, being a righteous man, was especially kind to her upon realizing their familial connection. Boaz must have had some faith in interpersonal connection, too. And, a commitment to his religious values of care for the immigrant and care for widows. When you are clear about your values, it should guide your behavior. Both Ruth and Boaz were clear about their values. And, this clarity allows them to connect over the harvest in ways that will prove to be life-saving.
In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that in some books of the Bible you know God is at work because there is a burning bush or a fiery prophet communicating the will of God. In those kinds of stories, where seas are parted or angels show up with good or very bad news, you can see and hear God at work through some kind of supernatural manifestation. That is not how God works in Ruth. Schifferdecker argues that God works through circumstances and “the faithfulness of ordinary human beings.” There is this Hebrew word hesed. In English, it gets translated as “loving-kindness.” God’s hesed, loving-kindness, is clearly alive in Ruth but is embodied through people’s actions towards each other. Within this grim situation, the divine loving-kindness Ruth showed Naomi becomes the foundation for Boaz to treat her with loving-kindness in return. Their shared values allow for a connection to bloom during an accidental meeting. This is perhaps a third way to survive the unsurvivable... being willing to make the best out of lucky accidents by fostering life-saving connections.
While there’s probably plenty more lessons from today’s reading, one more sticks out to me. It is about working within a place of refuge. Not all people who need refuge have a lot of choice about where they land. Some, though, are able to be more intentional about their destination. Ruth’s bravery and skills in cultivating interpersonal connection afforded her the space to be discerning about whom she trusted with her well-being. First, she trusted Naomi and Naomi’s confidence that her God could provide for their survival back home, in Bethlehem. Then, she trusted Boaz when he reached out, acknowledging her care for Naomi and her hard work in the fields. Ruth was able to cultivate a kind of discernment that allowed her to arrive in a place of refuge as a person in need and receive the trust-worthy care offered to her. Not every place that claims to be a refuge is truly safe. Thank God Ruth ended up in this field with this man who understood God’s command to care for the widow and immigrant and to support one’s own family.
Boaz describes his God as “Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” Mother hens... mother eagles... both powerful metaphors of God the protector and comforter that appear in other parts of scripture and Boaz uses here to describe his own understanding of his role in this situation. He is an agent of God’s loving-kindness, providing refuge to those who need it. Would that more powerful people understood their role to agents of grace rather than hoarders of power. The vulnerable would have to work far less hard if that were to happen. As you look towards the coming weeks, weeks that may appear bleak, I hope that you will remember Ruth in this story. May you cultivate life-giving relationships. May your actions be rooted in you most cherished values. And, may accidental meetings become occasions of grace. And, if you’re feeling more like Boaz that Ruth, may you remember that God calls you to hospitality and to creating refuge. You never know who is going to need it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-2-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-21-23 lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-2-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-21-23
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
Mona DeKoven Fishbane, "Ruth: Dilemmas of Loyalty and Connection," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, ed. Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (New York: Ballentine Books, 1994)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.