Sunday, May 07, 2006

Reflections on Ruth

These thoughts are based on Ruth 1.16-18 & 1 Peter 2.4-12

Bible verses are all linked because I don't want to break copyright, so please do follow links to read...via 'The Bible Gateway'

Ruth – finding our true home

I want to talk a little bit about what’s going on in our world today as we start our series of these great figures in our history of faith – today looking at Ruth, next time Esther, then Daniel and finally Paul. You might wonder what Postmodernity has to do with Ruth, but on some very close reading of the text and a fair amount of reading on the whole postmodern thing I hope that we can use this stuff to offer a bit of new thinking about the way we engage with the world today.

There is no such ‘thing’ as postmodernity – its just a phrase that various thinkers and writers have used to gather together their thoughts on the state of the world today.

It perhaps helps to know that when people talk about Modernity they don’t mean the modern world, they mean the way that we have thought since the Enlightenment. Certain things have marked the past few hundred years that influence the way we think and act and do. There has been a great belief in the progress of human beings – often known as the myth of progress – that left to its own devices humanity is getting better and better – this is tied up with belief in the power of science, the rightness of democracy, education for all, improvements in healthcare etc etc. With this came great faith in the institutions that offered this, schools & universities, hospitals and medical care, governments and armed forces, police and emergency services, even the Church and more…

You’ll probably have noticed that our society doesn’t have the faith it had in all of these institutions. We only have to read the papers to see stories about failures in healthcare, government, crumbling universities, hostility to the Church etc. Our society doesn’t’ have faith in these institutions any more. This is what those who are postmodern thinkers have been talking about for a few years now. Our society doesn’t believe in institutions any more and many people are suspicious of anyone who claims to have the truth – this is summed up in the wonderful phrase ‘suspicion of meta-narratives’ which I had to use at least once!

The other side of this is that many people today feel rootless, without any foundations to build on, we (as a society) have lost the feeling of community, and don’t know what to believe. They don’t know where they belong. Nor do they seem to want anyone to tell them where to belong. This is postmodernity! And is more than I planned to say when I started on this….

By now you’re probably saying ‘and what about Ruth’?

Well, as we look at these great Biblical figures we’re not simply reading through the books and telling the story – but we are trying to look at the person themselves. What is it about someone like Ruth, Esther, Daniel or Paul which can inspire and guide us today? How can these heroes of faith help us in our walk of faith today.

The story of Ruth takes place somewhere around the time of the Judges, possibly quite soon after the Israelites have taken over the promised land. We believe this because Boaz called the son of Salmon, husband of Rahab who saved the spies at Jericho by hiding them. More of that later, though. We don’t know who wrote the book of Ruth, though there is some speculation that it might have been the prophet Samuel and there is some thought that the Biblical genealogies which mention Salmon, Boaz, Obed, Jesse and David miss out certain less well known figures in the line, or the generations between Salmon and Obed cover about 360 years between the three of them!

It is thought that the story of Ruth takes place somewhere about 1100 years before Jesus. The book of Ruth is described by one writer as ‘a pearl in the swine pen of the Judges’. It certainly offers a very different account of life in Israel during that period to the exploits of Samson – with whom she may well be contemporary.

The story of Ruth is well known – but I will recap it as quickly as I can. It starts, like most stories, with a man I quote – chapter one verse 2 ‘The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.’

Elimelech dies, and his sons marry Moabite women, Orpah & Ruth, and then they die too. So we have Naomi, with no husband and no sons to care for her, effectively now outside the usual social structures, feeling abandoned by God and by the world – and she decides to return to Bethlehem – but encourages her daughters-in-law to stay and find new husbands in their homeland. After lots of weeping Orpah stays but Ruth says these wonderful words
Ruth 1.16-18

In Bethlehem Ruth is a loyal daughter in law and seeks to care for Naomi. She goes out gleaning – picking up the leftovers from the harvest – in order to store food for the two of them. In the course of this she meets Boaz, the owner of the land, and kinsman to Elimelech, and discovers that, with a bit of stretching of Deuteronomic law, he can take responsibility for her and take her as his wife thereby assuring both Ruth and Naomi of the future security they need.

The way this happens is slightly convoluted and shows great courage and faithfulness on Ruth’s part. As a stranger, a Moabitess, in Israel she gleans without realising it is her kinsman’s land – and through the goodness of Boaz is provided for generously as he instructs the reapers to leave extra grain for her as they harvest. He also feeds her along with his servants, an act of generosity upon a stranger, and Ruth takes the risk of going to Boaz at night and lying with him as she seeks him to be what is known as the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ he honours her bravery and loyalty and has to negotiate the marriage with another who is a nearer kinsman than him – who doesn’t want the responsibility of taking on the inheritance of Elimelech and slips into anonymity. In the end Ruth and Boaz are married and have two sons, one of which, Obed is King David’s grandfather – and eventually therefore in the line which leads to Jesus.

Within this rather romantic story, certainly offering a counterbalance to much of the power-play and violence of other histories of a similar period, we have layer upon layer of meaning – and plenty that should help us as we consider our place in God’s work in a world which is lost and seeking meaning.

In response to my extended preamble about post-modernity we see in Ruth someone who is an exile, someone who is an alien – a stranger and an outsider in another society. She is the ultimate postmodern person – rootless, away from home. Yet she is not without meaning, and is actually rooted deeper in ties of love and loyalty that give her strength, purpose and hope in what might seem a hopeless situation.

It would be hard to overemphasise the desperateness of Ruth and Naomi’s position. Having lost a husband and her sons Naomi is considered afflicted – she herself believes that God has treated her badly and wants says on her return to Bethlehem in Chapter 1 verses 20 & 21

Without men to give her meaning (at least in the social structures of the day) then Naomi and Ruth are without any obvious hope – Ruth has left everything that might have given her security, or the hope of another Moabite husband – someone from her own culture – that might have offered a more immediate hope. And what has she committed herself to? She commits herself to Naomi and to God! Verse 16 of Chapter 1.

She gives herself faithfully into God’s hands. Her roots go deeper than her culture, than her country, than her surroundings. She finds her identity, who she really is, in her relationship with Naomi and with the God who she vows to serve.

And her faithfulness is rewarded. She is blessed by God – as she gives herself completely into God’s hands.

This doesn’t mean that she passively waits for God to sort things out, though! She goes to the harvest fields and gleans, working hard to care for Naomi and herself. She is also, as one Roman Catholic priest once said of the virgin Mary ‘a canny cookie’ – she and Naomi, upon discovering that Boaz is well disposed towards Ruth actually takes the step of submitting herself to Boaz – lying at his feet, as it says in Ruth Chapter 3 verse 7 (there is a whole discussion amongst Biblical scholars as to what that means, but that is for another time, perhaps).

This is all part of a plan that Naomi and Ruth work out together. They don’t just sit back and let things happen, they take the step of working out what might be best and following that plan of action.

Ruth is not passive, her faith, and indeed her trust in God, does not allow her to say ‘what will be will be’ but she acts in faith, and God honours that action.

We see also that as she discovers things are not as simple as they might have been, when she finds another kinsman who has the right of being ‘kinsman redeemer’ she and Boaz work out between them the best course of action. He commits himself to seeking the best for them and sends Ruth on her way with a token of good faith, 80 pounds of barley for her and Naomi. Ruth then lets go, and allows the situation to unfold, waiting faithfully again for the result.

As it happens, or rather, as God makes it happen – which is implicit in the story and made explicit towards the end in verses 14 and 15 of Chapter four when some nameless women of the city speak to Naomi

We have from Ruth principals which we should carry into our own lives of faith;
Faithfulness she steps out in faith, even when the situation seems hopeless.
Loyalty she remains loyal to Naomi even when everyone else seems to desert her. In the same way we are called to be loyal to our family of faith, the Church.
Ruth is Active in Faith she does not absolve herself of responsibility when she arrives in Israel.
Bold – Ruth is brave and courageous – there was a chance she would be rejected by Boaz, and even worse, would have been exposed ridicule if it were revealed that she went to him at night.
Patient – Ruth allows the will of God to be worked out as she allows Boaz to negotiate with the other kinsman over who should take responsibility for the family of Elimelech
And over and above all of this is a sense of love that comes from Ruth, it is the source of all she does and all she is in this story. Love is her root and her grounding and her faith in a God of love is the source of all she does.

All this and more should inspire us, and challenge us as we seek to engage with a world that is in upheaval and people seek meaning and a sense of identity in a fragmented and distrustful society. We are not called just to sit back and let the world get on with things. As we see a world sinking into a malaise with no markers of truth and no absolute values beyond the fact that everything is relative we still have a calling to tell our story of redemption.

And it is the very fact that we don’t just batter people into submission with doctrine that can help us to engage with a world that is suspicious and hostile to anything that claims to be the truth. It is the lives we live, filled with loyalty, faith, love, courage, patience and faith that will draw people to knowing Christ who we believe is the way, the truth and the life. We build our faith not on argument and words but on Christ the cornerstone. We too feel like strangers and aliens as we seek to live out the values of God’s love and God’s kingdom in our lives – our message to a world that feels in exile and rootless is that we too know what that feels like as we wait for a time when we are truly at home and see our God face to face.

Just as the story of Ruth can inspire and guide us, so sharing our own stories of faith, and the stories of faith in our Scriptures, can show those sceptical of anything that claims to be truth that we are not trying to indoctrinate, but we invite them to share in our story – the story that, like this wonderful story we have considered this evening, is one of redemption, of hope, and of a sense of rootedness found not in things or places, but in a loving, faithful God who welcomes us all to be a part of his loving family. The God who includes even strangers and Aliens – from the prostitute Rahab to the outsider, Ruth, in his plan – not only that but who gives the outsider an important part in his work, as both of these were ancestors of the one who draws us all into God’s life, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Ali said...

Thoughtful and perceptive reflections on Ruth - this has given me a deeper appreciation of her character and how her story speaks to me. Looking foward to reading more.

Thank you for the link, and your comments. As soon as I have figured out how to get some working links on mine, I shall return the compliment! I'm a luddite at heart.

Alastair said...

thanks ali

i am a luddite too, but have spent the last three days really getting to grips with a variety of theological issues and with blogger - still not sure i know what i am doing with html but i don't seem to have broken anything yet - keep trying!