Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.’ Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
The Genealogy of David
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
That Boaz is a good man, even if he’s a little slow on the uptake sometimes. I mean, sure, he could have taken Naomi and Ruth in immediately when they got to town. He didn’t. He must have been distracted that day... it was the beginning of the harvest. Do you know any farmers? They are always thinking about the harvest at harvest time. But he stepped up, once he realized who this young foreign woman was gleaning in his field among the others who counted on the faithfulness of strangers. Once he found out that this woman was the woman who had bound herself to Naomi, he knew that he had a responsibility to help her... to help them. Not only had God called on him to help the immigrant and the impoverished and widows. His community also expected him to care for his relatives. Naomi was his relative, though distant, and Ruth had become Naomi’s family. He just needed to be reminded a little.
Who among us hasn’t been at least a little like Boaz? Knowing that we have a call to justice and hospitality but also caught up in the regular responsibilities of our lives? I mean, the harvest still has to come in, even if there are also strangers and long-lost family members to tend to. Thank God for the Ruths of the world who show up, work hard, and make the most of the few opportunities they have. In her essay on Ruth called Women at the Center, Judith Kates writes about how Boaz needed to be “mobilized” from passively following his religious obligations, as in, leaving grain to glean, into actively working for the good of Ruth and Naomi. Yes, he needs to be mobilized, but once he gets going, he does pretty well.
You may have heard me mention the Hebrew word chesed before. It means, according to Kates, “generosity beyond obligation.” Kates notes that God is often described as behaving in ways that demonstrate chesed, that is, a generosity beyond obligation, towards humanity.
Remember, God and Israel had a covenant. A covenant implies that both parties have an obligation. Israel is obliged to God in certain ways and God is obliged to Israel in certain ways. Boaz’ behavior is driven by this obligation to God. It is because he is living out his faith that he chooses to respond to Ruth and Naomi out of chesed, loving-kindness beyond obligation. God both exhibits chesed and is witnessed at work in the world through chesed. Kates argues, and I agree, that once Boaz sees Ruth, whom he claims has been demonstrating chesed through her love and loyalty to Naomi, he is motivated to chesed. It first happens at the field where she is gleaning, and it happens again on the threshing floor when he is startled awake and sees her near him. Today’s reading is the result of Boaz’ inspiration. Ruth risked so much to try to get him to tend to his familial obligations. How could he not respond to her bravery with loving-kindness?
So much of this reading is a less clear than it could be because both the legal practices and cultural practices around marriage are drastically different in the era described in this story. I am grateful to the scholars who help modern readers parse it out. Kates helps to set the scene in her essay by noting that the loving-kindness that Boaz needs to enact to care for Ruth and Naomi is not simply interpersonal support. At this point, to care for them best, he needs to shift into actions in the public and legal sphere. And, Mary Joan Winn Leith notes in her commentary on the text, legal matters were settled in a space at the city gate where elders gathered. These elders were respected community members, usually men. Boaz must direct his appeal and plan towards them.
In the reading for today, we learn that apparently Ruth and Naomi’s husbands still had a little property back in Bethlehem. But, according to Leith, women could not sell land that their husband’s had owned. But, a man in their family could assume the responsibility... and the wealth... if he were a woman’s next-of-kin after her husband died. In the verses just before our reading for the day, another male relative had shown up, hoping to claim the land and the wealth for himself. He expressed no concern for Ruth and Naomi. Boaz outmaneuvers him, saying that he plans to marry Ruth to produce an heir with an equal claim to the land as the unnamed, shady possible next-of-kin. According to Leith, the unnamed man, unwilling to accept the financial complications that would come with claiming the land without marrying Ruth, drops out of the running for kinsman redeemer, leaving Boaz. Boaz, who is a good man, even if he needs a little reminding sometimes.
If there is one last lesson to be learned from the book of Ruth, it is this: be willing to be reminded of your obligations when you fall short. And, when you are reminded, act on them with wit, creativity, and gusto. Make a good plan that outsmarts the ones who are just in it for them money. Make sure that your plan does the most good possible, which, in this case, means securing the long-term well-being of two women who really need someone to be on their side for the long haul. Our reading begins with Boaz’ public declaration of his intent to marry Ruth and have a child who will, according to their interpretation of their cultural practices, will be an heir to Mahlon, Ruth’s deceased first husband. If Mahlon has an heir, Naomi’s future is secure as well.
Ruth and Boaz have a son, named Obed. This child is understood to be Naomi’s child as well. And the women of Bethlehem shout with joy, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you without next-of-kin!” They call this infant “a restorer of life and a nourisher” for Naomi’s old age. These women speak of Ruth as the one who loves Naomi and “who is more to [her] than seven sons.” In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker calls Ruth “Naomi’s greatest blessing.” And, I’m inclined to agree.
Schifferdecker also summarizes the entire book this way: “Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the chesed of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.” And, that child they conceived, Obed, the one who brought hope to their little, unconventional family, his name will show up again. He is an ancestor to King David. Christian writings would go on and say that he was an ancestor to Jesus, too. Isn’t this how generosity works sometimes? One good act intended to save two people ripples out into love and liberation for countless more. May our faithful God grant us the wisdom to enact some of this hopeful generosity in our own time. And, may we be confident that our loving-kindness can ripple out into the world, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Judith A. Kates, "Women at the Center," Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim A Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/preaching-series-on-ruth-week-4-of-4/commentary-on-ruth-41-22
Mary Joan Winn Leith, "Ruth," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition with Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (Oxford 2001)
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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.