“Reviled Redeemers”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC
21 July, 2019
Ruth 4:1-22
Fourth and final in the Book of Ruth sermon series

As the scene opens on Ruth Chapter Four, we find Boaz at the gate to the town of Bethlehem.  We know from archaeological research that most historic urban areas in Israel had a courtyard lined with benches right at the town gate.  That’s where many business transactions were conducted, and legal disputes would have been resolved.  It’s also where these kinds of family affairs involving extended family were sorted out.  The townspeople helped by acting as witnesses, or jury.  So, when Boaz invited his fellow next-of-kin to join him and ten elders, he was in effect convening a court of law.

The narrator doesn’t bother to give the relative a name.  In the New Revised Standard Version, it says that Boaz calls him “friend,” but the Hebrew word is actually more akin to “So-and-So.”[1]  In effect, the narrator tells us, Boaz said: “Come here, So-and-So, have a seat.”  And So-and-So complies.  Because Boaz also asked ten elders of the city to sit with them, it’s immediately clear that he means business.

Boaz reports to his kinsman and the gathered body: “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.”  Curiously, this is the first we’ve heard that there was any land involved. We knew from the end of Chapter 2 that Ruth was living with her mother-in-law (so they had a place to live), and in Chapter 3 Naomi says to Ruth, “I need to seek some security for you…” But Naomi hadn’t explicitly mentioned any land earlier in the story.  That’s probably because she knew that sorting out the property and holdings of a deceased man in a patriarchal culture was generally left to other men in the family. It’s one of the reasons why widows truly were vulnerable, and in need of a form of salvation; they were at the mercy of the men related to them or their deceased husband, and the ability and willingness of those men to look after their material well-being.

Therefore, sorting out Elimelech’s estate and holdings is what Boaz is getting around to doing, especially now that he understands what’s at stake for him personally.  “So, in the presence of these gathered witnesses,” says Boaz to his other kinsman, “I’m informing you of your right to purchase this piece of property here in Bethlehem.”  At first, So-and-So leapt at the opportunity to buy the land.  But as soon as Boaz explains that according to Jewish law, whoever gets the land must also take Ruth the Moabite and produce offspring by her to keep alive the deceased man’s lineage, So-and-So withdraws his offer, saying it will jeopardize his future plans.  “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance,” he says. “Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Note the words, “redeem” and “redemption”.  They are key thematic words in this entire book (and the entire Bible, if you think about it).  There are theological messages embedded here.  So-and-so turns down his right of redemption because he felt that to accept it would jeopardize another inheritance he stood to gain.  By rejecting his ability to claim the land, he’s also giving up his ability to participate in the redemption, deliverance, or preservation of another (in this case, Ruth and Naomi).  The story invites us to consider how or whether we, like So-and-so, occasionally forgo opportunities to assist in the preservation of another’s life or security, because we’re more invested in a different inheritance.

Furthermore, what we discover by reading to the end of the story is that it becomes Boaz’s legacy to be the great-grandfather of King David; he becomes part of the lineage of God’s salvation plan for the whole of humankind.  By renouncing the opportunity to play a role in someone else’s redemption, we may also unwittingly be short-circuiting our own best experience of fulfillment and salvation in this life.

Back to the story.  After Boaz declares his intention as the next, next-of-kin to acquire from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and his sons, including taking Ruth to be his wife, the people of the town sing a profound blessing over Naomi.  It’s a blessing with imagery and resonances that reverberate through our Christian faith narrative.  Ruth 4:11-12 says, “…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.’”

Now, those two verses (like so many other verses in this book) are so jam-packed with meaningful back-story that I want to unpack at least a few pieces for you.  First, remember what we learned in the first chapter of Ruth: that Ephrathah means “fruitful,” and Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”  When Elimelech and Naomi migrated to Moab, it was because of famine—there was a severe food shortage in the “House of Bread.”  And, when Elimelech and his sons died, the implication was that the “fruitful” land of Ephrathah had not lived up to its name in this family.  At least, not yet.

When they said, “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel,” those offering the blessing were referring to the relationship between their forefather, Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel.  Remember, Jacob, after wrestling all night with God, demanded a blessing and was renamed “Israel” which means, “he contended (or wrestled) with God and survived.”  Jacob’s first and true love was for Rachel, but his father-in-law tricked him into marrying Leah before he could marry Rachel.  Leah and Jacob had ten sons, one of whom was named Judah.  When Jacob finally was allowed to marry Rachel, she eventually bore two sons.  Together, the twelve sons of Jacob by Leah and Rachel came to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Leah’s son Judah had a son, Er, who married a woman named Tamar.  But before they had a child together, Er died.  Genesis 38 says it was because of Er’s wickedness that he died young, though we’re not told the nature of his wickedness.  There’s a somewhat complicated intervening story involving problematic sexual behaviors among the family members, and at the end of it, Tamar conceives twins by her father-in-law, Judah; they’re named Perez and Zerah.  Boaz was a descendant of Perez.  The people offering the blessing seem to be confessing their knowledge that the Moabites aren’t the only ones with checkered histories—but that God finds a way to bring forth good things even from tainted vessels.

The ending of Ruth’s story brings us back to the beginning: from the appearance of scarcity, God provides for Naomi, whose character represents the ordinary person of faith.  Ruth and Boaz marry, Ruth conceives, and the women of the town say—not to Ruth, but to Naomi—in verse 14, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!”[2]  There’s no doubt about the fact that Ruth’s offspring becomes a redeemer for Naomi: the townspeople say in verse 15, “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”[3] Then, they sing the praises of the one, Ruth, who, by the first instincts of the people was reviled, but in very human form, represents divine love and friendship.  “Then the women of the neighborhood . . . named him Obed [which, by the way, means ‘serving, worshiping’[4]]; Obed became the father of Jesse [which means ‘my husband’ and ‘God exists’[5]], and Jesse the father of David [which means ‘beloved’[6]].”[7]  Ruth was the great-grandmother of the beloved, royal King David.

The point of all this is that, although the people of Bethlehem were inclined to disdain and reject Moabites on principle because of the narrative they told of a sordid past (let’s call it stereotyping), the narrator expects us to recognize that neither Ruth the Moabite, nor Boaz the Israelite, came from “pure” family lines.  “Ruth’s ancestry can be traced to an incestuous union between Lot and one of his daughters, and Boaz is descended from an illicit union between Judah and his daughter-in-law!”[8] Both came from families with messy or unsavory histories.  And yet, God was determined to work even with the tawdry raw material that any and all these broken people served up, to somehow pave the road for one another’s redemption and the reconciliation of future generations—with one another, and with God.

The message here is that God will use whomever God chooses to accomplish divine work.  There is no such thing as God disqualifying someone for being associated with an unseemly past.  Which is good news for those of us who have embarrassing histories we’d like to keep quiet about, or even ugly present circumstances we’d rather not have revealed.  As far as God is concerned, regardless of what our life story contains, nothing is awful enough to render us unworthy of saving, nor useless in the effort of saving others.

It’s worth remembering that Ruth, once the reviled stranger, becomes the revered and heroic great-grandmother to King David. Ruth’s story makes it clear that her “other”-ness in human eyes was of no consequence to the fulfillment of God’s plans.  Chapter Four invites and challenges us to consider whether Ruth represents the “others” that the world around us is currently encouraging us to revile and view with contempt.  (This dynamic we see playing out today has been active for more than three thousand years!)  How many of us, how many of our friends, neighbors, and family members might find it difficult to believe that refugees, immigrants, or people requesting political asylum might someday become the instruments of our redemption?  And yet, there’s no question that God used such figures in the past; Ruth’s is but one of countless biblical stories—including the one at the heart of our Christian faith story—with the theme of a redeemer whom the world reviled.  How could God change our perspective and our activities in the world, if we began to see the ways in which the stranger, the “other”, the foreign person who crosses our path might actually be prepared to convey divine grace to us?

In a time when some of our political leaders and other popular personalities are avidly stoking suspicion, fear, and hatred of the “other”, especially demonizing and dehumanizing those who don’t serve their personal agenda—the story of Ruth is a powerful reminder that such activities and spurious storylines are not appropriately part of our behavior as people of faith.  We are first and foremost children of the One God and Creator of all humankind, who loves every other individual as surely and miraculously as we ourselves are loved, regardless of our background or history.  In life-giving, redemptive contrast to the rallying cry of a fear-driven, scarcity-minded worldview, followers of Jesus Christ are called and empowered to proclaim a different message.  One undergirded not by fear, suspicion, or resentment of the “other”, but by the more potent and enduring power of love.

The message of Ruth is clear and consistent, just as it is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture.  Although the world and its leaders has and will always reliably seek to instill fear and suspicion of those who don’t look like us, or talk like us, don’t worship like we do, or have the same ideas about the best ways to structure an economy or politics—God, with equal and even greater reliability, will work through the reviled “other” to achieve our redemption. May we learn to welcome every “other” as a neighbor, as fellow children of God, as those who are as likely to present God’s love and salvation to us, as we are empowered to present it to them. Amen.

[1]New Interpreter’s Bible, Ruth, p. 932.

[2]Ruth 4:14.

[3]Ruth 4:15 (italics mine).

[4]https://www.behindthename.com/name/obed

[5]http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Jesse.html

[6]https://www.behindthename.com/name/david

[7]Ruth 4:15-17.

[8]NIB, Ruth, p. 933.

 

“Reviled Redeemers”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC
21 July, 2019
Ruth 4:1-22
Fourth and final in the Book of Ruth sermon series

As the scene opens on Ruth Chapter Four, we find Boaz at the gate to the town of Bethlehem.  We know from archaeological research that most historic urban areas in Israel had a courtyard lined with benches right at the town gate.  That’s where many business transactions were conducted, and legal disputes would have been resolved.  It’s also where these kinds of family affairs involving extended family were sorted out.  The townspeople helped by acting as witnesses, or jury.  So, when Boaz invited his fellow next-of-kin to join him and ten elders, he was in effect convening a court of law.

The narrator doesn’t bother to give the relative a name.  In the New Revised Standard Version, it says that Boaz calls him “friend,” but the Hebrew word is actually more akin to “So-and-So.”[1]  In effect, the narrator tells us, Boaz said: “Come here, So-and-So, have a seat.”  And So-and-So complies.  Because Boaz also asked ten elders of the city to sit with them, it’s immediately clear that he means business.

Boaz reports to his kinsman and the gathered body: “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.”  Curiously, this is the first we’ve heard that there was any land involved. We knew from the end of Chapter 2 that Ruth was living with her mother-in-law (so they had a place to live), and in Chapter 3 Naomi says to Ruth, “I need to seek some security for you…” But Naomi hadn’t explicitly mentioned any land earlier in the story.  That’s probably because she knew that sorting out the property and holdings of a deceased man in a patriarchal culture was generally left to other men in the family. It’s one of the reasons why widows truly were vulnerable, and in need of a form of salvation; they were at the mercy of the men related to them or their deceased husband, and the ability and willingness of those men to look after their material well-being.

Therefore, sorting out Elimelech’s estate and holdings is what Boaz is getting around to doing, especially now that he understands what’s at stake for him personally.  “So, in the presence of these gathered witnesses,” says Boaz to his other kinsman, “I’m informing you of your right to purchase this piece of property here in Bethlehem.”  At first, So-and-So leapt at the opportunity to buy the land.  But as soon as Boaz explains that according to Jewish law, whoever gets the land must also take Ruth the Moabite and produce offspring by her to keep alive the deceased man’s lineage, So-and-So withdraws his offer, saying it will jeopardize his future plans.  “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance,” he says. “Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Note the words, “redeem” and “redemption”.  They are key thematic words in this entire book (and the entire Bible, if you think about it).  There are theological messages embedded here.  So-and-so turns down his right of redemption because he felt that to accept it would jeopardize another inheritance he stood to gain.  By rejecting his ability to claim the land, he’s also giving up his ability to participate in the redemption, deliverance, or preservation of another (in this case, Ruth and Naomi).  The story invites us to consider how or whether we, like So-and-so, occasionally forgo opportunities to assist in the preservation of another’s life or security, because we’re more invested in a different inheritance.

Furthermore, what we discover by reading to the end of the story is that it becomes Boaz’s legacy to be the great-grandfather of King David; he becomes part of the lineage of God’s salvation plan for the whole of humankind.  By renouncing the opportunity to play a role in someone else’s redemption, we may also unwittingly be short-circuiting our own best experience of fulfillment and salvation in this life.

Back to the story.  After Boaz declares his intention as the next, next-of-kin to acquire from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and his sons, including taking Ruth to be his wife, the people of the town sing a profound blessing over Naomi.  It’s a blessing with imagery and resonances that reverberate through our Christian faith narrative.  Ruth 4:11-12 says, “…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.’”

Now, those two verses (like so many other verses in this book) are so jam-packed with meaningful back-story that I want to unpack at least a few pieces for you.  First, remember what we learned in the first chapter of Ruth: that Ephrathah means “fruitful,” and Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”  When Elimelech and Naomi migrated to Moab, it was because of famine—there was a severe food shortage in the “House of Bread.”  And, when Elimelech and his sons died, the implication was that the “fruitful” land of Ephrathah had not lived up to its name in this family.  At least, not yet.

When they said, “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel,” those offering the blessing were referring to the relationship between their forefather, Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel.  Remember, Jacob, after wrestling all night with God, demanded a blessing and was renamed “Israel” which means, “he contended (or wrestled) with God and survived.”  Jacob’s first and true love was for Rachel, but his father-in-law tricked him into marrying Leah before he could marry Rachel.  Leah and Jacob had ten sons, one of whom was named Judah.  When Jacob finally was allowed to marry Rachel, she eventually bore two sons.  Together, the twelve sons of Jacob by Leah and Rachel came to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Leah’s son Judah had a son, Er, who married a woman named Tamar.  But before they had a child together, Er died.  Genesis 38 says it was because of Er’s wickedness that he died young, though we’re not told the nature of his wickedness.  There’s a somewhat complicated intervening story involving problematic sexual behaviors among the family members, and at the end of it, Tamar conceives twins by her father-in-law, Judah; they’re named Perez and Zerah.  Boaz was a descendant of Perez.  The people offering the blessing seem to be confessing their knowledge that the Moabites aren’t the only ones with checkered histories—but that God finds a way to bring forth good things even from tainted vessels.

The ending of Ruth’s story brings us back to the beginning: from the appearance of scarcity, God provides for Naomi, whose character represents the ordinary person of faith.  Ruth and Boaz marry, Ruth conceives, and the women of the town say—not to Ruth, but to Naomi—in verse 14, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel!”[2]  There’s no doubt about the fact that Ruth’s offspring becomes a redeemer for Naomi: the townspeople say in verse 15, “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”[3] Then, they sing the praises of the one, Ruth, who, by the first instincts of the people was reviled, but in very human form, represents divine love and friendship.  “Then the women of the neighborhood . . . named him Obed [which, by the way, means ‘serving, worshiping’[4]]; Obed became the father of Jesse [which means ‘my husband’ and ‘God exists’[5]], and Jesse the father of David [which means ‘beloved’[6]].”[7]  Ruth was the great-grandmother of the beloved, royal King David.

The point of all this is that, although the people of Bethlehem were inclined to disdain and reject Moabites on principle because of the narrative they told of a sordid past (let’s call it stereotyping), the narrator expects us to recognize that neither Ruth the Moabite, nor Boaz the Israelite, came from “pure” family lines.  “Ruth’s ancestry can be traced to an incestuous union between Lot and one of his daughters, and Boaz is descended from an illicit union between Judah and his daughter-in-law!”[8] Both came from families with messy or unsavory histories.  And yet, God was determined to work even with the tawdry raw material that any and all these broken people served up, to somehow pave the road for one another’s redemption and the reconciliation of future generations—with one another, and with God.

The message here is that God will use whomever God chooses to accomplish divine work.  There is no such thing as God disqualifying someone for being associated with an unseemly past.  Which is good news for those of us who have embarrassing histories we’d like to keep quiet about, or even ugly present circumstances we’d rather not have revealed.  As far as God is concerned, regardless of what our life story contains, nothing is awful enough to render us unworthy of saving, nor useless in the effort of saving others.

It’s worth remembering that Ruth, once the reviled stranger, becomes the revered and heroic great-grandmother to King David. Ruth’s story makes it clear that her “other”-ness in human eyes was of no consequence to the fulfillment of God’s plans.  Chapter Four invites and challenges us to consider whether Ruth represents the “others” that the world around us is currently encouraging us to revile and view with contempt.  (This dynamic we see playing out today has been active for more than three thousand years!)  How many of us, how many of our friends, neighbors, and family members might find it difficult to believe that refugees, immigrants, or people requesting political asylum might someday become the instruments of our redemption?  And yet, there’s no question that God used such figures in the past; Ruth’s is but one of countless biblical stories—including the one at the heart of our Christian faith story—with the theme of a redeemer whom the world reviled.  How could God change our perspective and our activities in the world, if we began to see the ways in which the stranger, the “other”, the foreign person who crosses our path might actually be prepared to convey divine grace to us?

In a time when some of our political leaders and other popular personalities are avidly stoking suspicion, fear, and hatred of the “other”, especially demonizing and dehumanizing those who don’t serve their personal agenda—the story of Ruth is a powerful reminder that such activities and spurious storylines are not appropriately part of our behavior as people of faith.  We are first and foremost children of the One God and Creator of all humankind, who loves every other individual as surely and miraculously as we ourselves are loved, regardless of our background or history.  In life-giving, redemptive contrast to the rallying cry of a fear-driven, scarcity-minded worldview, followers of Jesus Christ are called and empowered to proclaim a different message.  One undergirded not by fear, suspicion, or resentment of the “other”, but by the more potent and enduring power of love.

The message of Ruth is clear and consistent, just as it is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture.  Although the world and its leaders have and will always reliably seek to instill fear and suspicion of those who don’t look like us, or talk like us, don’t worship like we do, or have the same ideas about the best ways to structure an economy or politics—God, with equal and even greater reliability, will work through the reviled “other” to achieve our redemption. May we learn to welcome every “other” as a neighbor, as fellow children of God, as those who are as likely to present God’s love and salvation to us, as we are empowered to present it to them. Amen.

[1]New Interpreter’s Bible, Ruth, p. 932.

[2]Ruth 4:14.

[3]Ruth 4:15 (italics mine).

[4]https://www.behindthename.com/name/obed

[5]http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Jesse.html

[6]https://www.behindthename.com/name/david

[7]Ruth 4:15-17.

[8]NIB, Ruth, p. 933.

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC