This is the latest in a series of small group studies that I have written for the church we attend. The assignment comes from the book of Ruth.
Ruth: Week 4
Begin by reading Ruth 3:1–18
My Old Lady
I was really proud of being a teacher, so when I found myself at home in my pajamas on the first day of school in September, I felt like a nobody. I had lost my identity. I was profoundly lost—with no number 2 pencils. I had never had a September without number 2 pencils.
I had quit my teaching job too early and moved to a new town too soon. We thought our adoption would be completed that summer and I would become a full-time mom, but it didn’t happen. Now I was in a new town with no job. I dealt with this loss by playing video games, calling old friends, and listening to sermons online in our basement. Basically, I became a hobbit. If I couldn’t be a teacher or a mom, I might as well go live underground.
But then I met my next-door neighbor, Dorothy. Dorothy’s husband had died over the summer. After sixty years of marriage, Dorothy also felt profoundly lost.
My first visit with Dorothy lasted three hours and she cried the whole afternoon. From that moment until we moved two years later, we talked every day, sometimes several times a day. Not only did we talk, but she called our home often asking for small favors, chores, tasks. I changed lightbulbs. I cooked simple things. I reached things on high shelves. We went to breakfast at McDonald’s once a week. We went grocery shopping once a week. We priced items for her estate sale. We went to get her an eye prescription and new glasses. I listened. And listened. And listened. And listened.
Dorothy wore me out.
I was so generous to Dorothy. I would dutifully put on some jeans and go fix things in her house as if I were a benevolent fairy helping the poor widow next door. But it turns out, when I wasn’t helping Dorothy or listening about life with her husband, I was moping about not having an identity anymore. I was missing school life. I was smelling school supplies at Walmart. I was practicing my new life as a hobbit. I felt pathetic.
Later we moved again, we finally brought home our son, and my sense of loss returned. Parenthood didn’t save my from my identity crisis. Dorothy did. As soon as she was gone and I was a mom, I began searching for a new identity. and once again, I felt pathetic. I had thought I was saving Dorothy, but all along Dorothy was saving me.
Ruth the Moabite is a pitiful figure. She is from the wrong side of the tracks, she is a widow, and she has no wealth to her name. And she is bound to her former mother-in-law. This girl has baggage.
Boaz stands in utter contrast to Ruth the Moabite. He has assets, he has the right bloodline, and he has a good reputation. From here the story reads quite simply. Ruth presents both her loyalty and her great need before Boaz. He chooses to take up his responsibility as kinsman-redeemer with great respect and adoration for this poor woman. Boaz saves the day and the rest is history.
When we focus on the acute details of Ruth’s life, this appears to be true. Ruth and Naomi will not survive well without a kinsman-redeemer. When Ruth presents herself to Boaz and uncovers him, she is executing a cunning, strategic, desperate plan. This act of vulnerability is a cry for help in a frightening situation. Ruth does need a savior.
But take a step back. Examine the story as part of the beautiful narrative of redemption that the scriptures paint for us. An extraordinary series of events occurs, bringing a foreigner into Boaz’s bloodline. Ruth the Moabite, this outcast, this widow, becomes part of Israel’s story. Ruth comes to Israel and says, “Take me in,” and a King is born. How does this happen?
Her redemptive work begins with Naomi. She pledges to journey with Naomi away from her homeland. She commits herself to Yahweh and Yahweh’s people. We’ve explored the idea of hesed, calling it “the kind of love given at great cost to the one who gives it. Hesed is love that willingly puts itself at risk for another.” Ruth gives us a small glimpse of the kind of love we will see when Jesus arrives, hundreds of years later. She gives up the life she knows to become an alien in a foreign land. Much like Emmanuel “God with Us” of the New Testament, Ruth promises to be with Naomi until death separates them. Naomi now has a companion and a hope for the future.
When Ruth and Naomi hatch the plan to secure their place with a kinsman-redeemer, the story begins to get murky with nuance and subtlety. Scholars debate “Did they or didn’t they?” in shelves of commentaries and sermons about the Hebrew story of Ruth. Did “feet” really mean “feet”? Were “wings” really “wings”? Would moral and chaste Ruth have truly given sexual favors in exchange for a kinsman-redeemer? Was this old guy able to have sex at all? Some scholars and students of the book of Ruth feel compelled to defend Ruth’s honor. Many commentaries devote several pages to defending Ruth’s chastity. Not Boaz’s. Just Ruth’s. They say that this pure, sweet woman never would have lowered herself to fornication, that the night was a lovely picture of restraint and unconsummated passion. She is a heroine of the Scriptures. She could not have seduced Boaz that night.
But the language is sexually charged and explicitly ambiguous. We know that Naomi and Ruth were in a desperate situation. We know that Ruth was loyal and devoted to Naomi and would sacrifice her life for this friendship. We know that Ruth had no male relatives to defend her honor, which left her vulnerable, but also made her a free agent.
Carolyn Pressler writes, “Unlike Boaz’s ancestress Tamar, who risked capital punishment for the sake of perpetuating her husband’s lineage, Ruth was not in danger of legal punishment. Biblical law defines sexual offenses as violations of the rights of a woman’s father, husband, or in certain cases, father-in-law or brother-in-law over her sexuality.” Ruth has no father, husband, father-in-law or brother-in-law. But in spite of the ambiguous language and cultural context, we still don’t know what happened between Ruth and Boaz that night.
But it doesn’t really matter. Sex is a distraction from what is happening here. Her story does not depend upon her chastity. Her story does not depend upon her gentile-ness. Her story does not depend upon her beauty, her wealth, her femininity or her class. Her story depends upon her willingness to be vulnerable and loyal in the face of great fear and instability. She knows that Boaz might deal with her harshly. He might take advantage of her. He might rescind her gleaning privileges. Her life is at stake. But she humbles herself, peals back his “covering,” lies at his “feet” and takes refuge under his “wings.” We don’t know exactly what she does that night.
But we do know that she is very brave.
Saved by the Saved
In this act of self-exposure, Ruth offers herself up to Boaz’s mercy. But he is not the only savior in this story. Ruth has brought hope to Naomi’s household. Naomi praises new hope in the form of Ruth’s first-born son:
“Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a family guardian. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”
Now the hero shifts one more time. He is not Boaz. He is not Ruth. He is a tiny baby. And in this new spring of life we find resurrection. We find hope. We find salvation. For the hearer of this story, they don’t picture a helpless, crying, probably annoying baby, but they see the grandfather to King David.
The story of Ruth is bathed in the larger narrative of all of scripture. Helpless savior, hope of the world. When we read chapter 3, full of all of its sexual tension and steamy romance, we must remember that Ruth may be a humble, desperate maidservant, but she will also embody a powerful message that underscores the story of God: Love knows no outsiders. This idea weaves itself seamlessly into the lineage of King David and therefore, Jesus, pronouncing to Jews and Gentiles that we are all God’s children, all part of the grander story. It would be hundreds of years before Peter would see the sheet of animals lowered before him in a vision in Acts 10, hundreds of years before Jewish Christians would worship alongside Gentile Christians. Hundreds of years before Pentecost, when the languages of the nations became one under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Yet if we dig deep into the lineage of Jesus, King David, and the story of Israel, we see a woman who proved the ever-expanding love of God. Ruth was the good news before the good news arrived.
My two children are adopted—both from faraway countries. Although their birthmothers were living, they were unable to provide for their children’s needs, so they relinquished these children to orphanages. We adopted one in 2007, one in 2011.
Often when people encounter our family they say things like,
“Oh, she is so lucky to have you.”
“He is so blessed to have you two as parents.”
“What you do is a real ministry to those kids. Imagine what their lives would have been like without you.”
I know why people think this way. My children come from desperate situations, surrounded by disease and destitution. The 143 million or so orphans on earth right now suffer most often from a lack of nurture, a lack of education, a lack of basic food, water, and shelter, and a lack of identity. Abandoned because of AIDS, poverty, war, famine, drug abuse, and/or cultural pressures, these children need homes. We adopted our children because we felt that the great need gave us no other choice.
This is no one-way transaction. In fact, we are often surprised by the realization that these powerless, victimized, institutionalized kids have the power to save us. They are Jesus in bare feet with parasites and big, beautiful eyes. We are the lost ones. As I spend my days wiping noses, changing diapers, and being as therapeutic as I can, I often forget that they have come to bring the good news of resurrection and hope to our home. Without them we would be adrift in a sea of self-centeredness and navel-gazing.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that he will come to us incognito:
“‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
The very people we seem to be saving are actually saving us.
Ruth the Moabite may seem like an unlikely ancestor for the Messiah. But the common thread of hesed links the stories of Ruth and Jesus more powerfully than any bloodline ever could. Ruth the Moabite left her homeland so that she could walk with Naomi and help her find a new life in Israel. Emmanuel, God with Us, made himself weak in order to walk among us and show us the way. Paul described Jesus in a beautiful poem in Philippians 2:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Ruth was not perfect. She was not Jewish. She was not married. She was not wealthy. She was a woman. But she was made from the same dust as we all are. She will live and die breathing the same air that we all breathe. In spite of her lowly place in this ancient tale, she bravely places herself in a defenseless situation out of love and devotion. And she risks her safety and reputation for the salvation of her family.
When we find ourselves valuing people by their assets, their background, their rank, their gender, their sexuality, or their citizenship, we find ourselves in contrast to the narrative of Scripture. Boaz could have looked at this poor Moabite and rejected her, based on all of these qualifications and his own Jewish upbringing. But he recognized the eternal spark in her, the hesed, that reflected the very image of Yahweh, the God who loves an underdog. God’s story regularly takes a weaker vessel, a “least of these” candidate, and saves the world. Who is saving you today?