Preacher: Charissa Jones, MDiv
Today we dive into the Old Testament. In our current age we often wrestle with questions about the scientific and historical accuracy of the Old Testament, and wonder therefore, whether it is more than just an interesting anthropological document belonging to a people from a long distant time. Yet the Old Testament itself wrestles with core questions that still grip us today. At the heart of the Hebrew narratives, declares Robert Alter, we find two recurring tensions.
First: a tension between the divine promises made to Abraham, Moses and the prophets – and the seeming impossibility of fulfillment, amidst the disorderly character of events that unfold. The second is related: it is a tension between God’s will and human freedom. Old Testament narratives repeatedly draw us into the question, “How do we trust in the promises of God when the divine plan appears to be in the hands of people with an unruly nature – in the midst of circumstances that feel most unpromising?”
The story of Ruth takes place during the period of Israel’s history described in the book of Judges. Throughout Judges we find the refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” But the story of Ruth stands out as a bright spot in the midst of a time of chaos and injustice. It suggests that perhaps humanity and God can co-create a better future.
Today’s reading features a woman named Ruth deciding to go out and see if she can find favor in someone’s field, someone who will allow her to pick up the barley left behind by the paid fieldworkers. Who is she? Who is Naomi? Who is Boaz? Where are they and what’s going on in this story?
Naomi, whose name means Happy, got married and had two sons. Her husband’s name, Elimelech, meant “My God is King.” They lived in Bethlehem, which means “the House of Bread.” But famine hit the House of Bread and Happy and My God is King named their sons Sickness and Suffering. The Promised Land was marked by famine, sickness and suffering. So Happy and My God is King moved to Moab. The sons grew up, married, and then all the men in the family died. This left Happy with two daughters-in-law and no way for the women to provide for themselves. She decided to go back to Bethlehem, because she heard that the Lord had given food back to the people of the House of Bread. On the way, she urged her daughters-in-law to give up and go back home to their parents. She had no security or future to offer them. But Ruth, in dramatic and beautiful words pledged to go with Naomi wherever she went and to face struggle together.
Ruth was a widow and an alien. She was also childless. On three counts she was an outsider. Not just an alien, she was a Moabite alien and Israelites had a particular disgust for Moabites. One day Ruth decides to take some initiative and starts gleaning in a field nearby during the barley harvest. Perhaps she knew about the instructions God had given the people of Israel that we read this morning: “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”
If you wish to be blessed by God, the law instructs, you must hold back from your own gain and reserve something for the alien, the orphan, and the widow in your midst. You must remember that your own ancestors once lived as slaves and therefore be faithful to those around you who are most vulnerable. Whether she knew about this or not, Ruth goes forth as the great Israelite forefathers went forth, not knowing how the promises of God could possibly become real.
The text tells us that “as it happened” she came to a particular field belonging to Boaz. Was it chance? Was it providence? There is no evidence that Ruth knows about any relatives of Naomi. Human decision and divine providence start to move into alignment. The story tells us that Boaz is a man of substance, implying both wealth and character. He arrives in the field, sees Ruth and asks about her. We ended the reading this morning just as the plot gets interesting. If we kept reading we would learn that Boaz makes sure Ruth leaves the field each day with more than she and Naomi can eat. A few weeks later, during the wheat harvest, Ruth surprises Boaz and proposes to him. He agrees, they marry, and they have a child. The two widows, who faced unpromising circumstances, secure a future.
Ruth, the alien, took action and became the provider for a Jewish woman who had lost all hope. Then she called a man of substance into action and that resulted in the continuation of the line of Elimelech, the line that led to David and eventually, to Jesus. In a chaotic time, her actions coupled with providence, set in motion the beginnings of a new kingdom. She is an unlikely heroine, who models “loving-kindness,” the word used to describe God’s own self-sacrificing, covenantal love for humanity.
That brings us to Jesus, for in Jesus we come to understand the full reach of sacrificial, covenantal love. In today’s gospel we see Jesus giving what is often called “the great commission.” He tells his disciples that the kingdom is to include all people and then he promises to be with them to the end of the age.
Some of the major themes in Ruth continue in the story of Jesus. We see in Jesus a love that will not abandon, a love that includes the alien, orphan, and widow; Jew and Gentile; male and female; rich and poor; those working in the fields and those gleaning at the margins. We see the achievement of the promises of God as Jesus chooses actions that are in beautiful alignment with God’s best hopes for humanity.
Both Ruth and Jesus take action in ways that result in the generation of a new kingdom, in the midst of most unpromising circumstances. The Old Testament story of Ruth suggests that the answer to the question, “how do we trust in the promises of God” is to act, or as Kate told us last week, to be bold. That is how the kingdom comes about.
But wait, there’s more.
Over time the book of Ruth began to be read aloud every year at the Festival of Weeks, one of the major holy days prescribed by the Torah. The festival takes place at the end of the wheat harvest and so Ruth is a fitting story for that time of year. The Festival of Weeks concludes with a communal feast and the Torah instructs that when the people celebrate the feast they must include the aliens, the orphans, and the widows in their midst. So Ruth is also an appropriate story as a reminder of God’s call to care for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.
Observance of festivals was disrupted when Babylon invaded Jerusalem, capturing many Israelites and leaving the rest to flee and find homes in distant lands. Yet, when Babylon finally released the captives and allowed them to go back and rebuild the temple, the annual festivals were revived. Faithful Jews who had been scattered would return to Jerusalem every year to celebrate the Festival of Weeks. This was true in the time of Jesus, and it is a festival that Jesus would have observed. He may have noticed that it was hard for some to fully enjoy the festival because they no longer spoke Hebrew. Hellenistic Jews, for example, would come to Jerusalem, but spoke Greek and may have had to find interpreters. They had become aliens themselves. They no longer called the festival by its Hebrew name, Sha-voo-oat. They called it by the Greek name: Pentecost.
Until I started studying for a class that I taught on Ruth last fall, I never knew that Pentecost was the Festival of Weeks. I did not know that Pentecost was a day for remembering the importance of the alien, the orphan, and the widow amongst us. I find it incredibly interesting that it was during this festival that the Holy Spirit arrived, declaring once and for all that there are no favorites with God. Everyone present could suddenly hear the gospel preached in their own language as the disciples found themselves speaking in languages they did not know. And then what happened? The Holy Spirit moved from empowering the disciples to making a home in the heart of every human being.
The Holy Spirit reveals that everyone has access to God. All aliens, orphans, and widows have a place within the kingdom of heaven. All can participate in the harvest; none are left to glean on the sides. God proves to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit that “Wherever you go, I will go.”
And so, the Spirit resides within each of us, inviting us to step into unpromising circumstances, to align ourselves with the promises of God, and to use our freedom to co-create the radically inclusive kingdom of heaven. Perhaps that is what President Obama did last week in the changing of his mind.