“Who Is Kin? Insiders and Outsiders in God’s Family”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
30 June, 2019
Ruth Chapter 2—second in a series on The Book of Ruth
Although it happens to be particularly rampant and bitter today—not just in the U.S., but across the globe—misinformation and misconceptions about immigrants has a very long and entrenched history among humankind. As entrenched as our flawed human proclivity to tribalism—attitudes that exclude and set ourselves, and whatever social group we identify most closely with, as over and against another social group. It’s what’s fueling nativism and hyper-nationalism in many countries, especially in the Northern Hemisphere.
But as is evident in Ruth Chapter 2, the same social and political impulses were there even three thousand years ago. The author’s repeated reference to “Ruth the Moabite” showed that he didn’t want his audience to forget that she belonged to the tribe or nation of Moab—and not to the tribe of Israel or Judah. The ancient audience knew that Moabites were considered by Israelites to be corrupt, self-serving, and undesirable. Unless, of course, there was a famine in their homeland and they—like Elimelech and Naomi—might personally benefit from what the land of Moab could provide for them. But the author wanted his audience to be perfectly clear at the end of the story that their redemption came notfrom within their own tribe, but from one widely understood to be a threat, an outsider, a menace to their society. But, the author would have us know, a true child of God and member of God’s kin-dom or family.
Ruth’s mystified reaction to Boaz, who had expressed compassion and kindness toward her despite her “outsider” status, reveals the prevailing attitude toward foreigners in Judah. In verse ten we read, “Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’”
Human beings have long, long been wary of those who differ from ourselves. We’re far more inclined to fear or suspect those who are different from us than we are to welcome them. It seems we prefer to have our own experience or version of reality affirmed and reinforced—even if it means imposing our way on others in the name of assimilation—rather than embracing the vibrancy and texture of God’s creative diversity. There’s plenty of evidence for that in the earliest books of the Old Testament.
But from the very beginning of our Judeo-Christian faith narrative, there are countless Biblical stories reinforcing the fundamental moral truth that God has created humankind to live as one family, and to demonstrate the same welcome toward the stranger or foreigner as we would hope to have shown to ourselves if and when we become the one who is foreign.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19, in a broader passage that boils down the essence of the Jewish Law, we read, “For the LORD your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We must welcome the stranger, because we never know who might prove to be an instrument of divine blessing or redemption. More often than not, our most powerful blessings are delivered through people or experiences that we don’t expect, and not from those that make us feel most “at home” or comfortable with who or how we presently are in the world.
It’s what the whole Book of Ruth is trying to teach us. And the second chapter in particular encourages us to think about this carefully.
Last week, in Chapter One, we heard that Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons migrated to the country of Moab during a famine in Bethlehem. The family re-settled there and was obviously accepted into the foreign land, because the sons married Moabite women. But when all three men died, the three women were literally at the mercy of the patriarchal culture they inhabited. They had no choice in order to survive but to return to their families of origin. Well, Orpah did, anyhow, as did Naomi.
But Ruth—recognizing the vulnerability of her older mother-in-law, as one probably too old to be taken in remarriage and therefore at risk of spending the rest of her days begging and homeless—refused to leave Naomi to fend for herself. It would have been easier for Ruth to go back to her family and tribe of origin. But, having taken in the foreigners and made them family, Ruth sacrificed the easier way in order to help provide for the woman she had bound herself to in a moving covenant; she chose to become the foreigner, in order to bless—and possibly be blessed by—the God whom Naomi’s family had introduced her to.
God’s people have always gotten up and moved when their physical, and sometimes emotional or spiritual, survival demanded it. God calls us to new places, and oftentimes the result is that we are rendered foreigners, in order to bless us and strengthen us for our onward journey. If we have eyes to see and hearts open to deeper understanding, we might recognize our personal migrations as God’s way of introducing us to the splendor and potential strength of diversity.
Sometimes, as foreigners, we become a blessing to those who have welcomed us. And sometimes, the strangers we welcome become the ones who reveal God’s love and blessing most powerfully to us. But we cannot ever hope to experience the blessing if we refuse to so much as acknowledge and welcome the “outsider,” and to accept that their cares are our own common concerns.
In our story, Ruth and Naomi moved back to Bethlehem, and Ruth suggested that she should go and do what was allowed for the poor and widows. Gleaning was a practice that was mandated by Jewish law. In Leviticus 19:9, we read: “When you harvest your grain, always leave some of it standing along the edges of your fields and don’t pick up what falls on the ground.” And in Deuteronomy 24:19-21, it instructs, “If you forget to bring in a stack of harvested grain, don’t go back in the field to get it. Leave it for the poor, including foreigners, orphans, and widows, and the Lord will make you successful in everything you do. 20 When you harvest your olives, don’t try to get them all for yourself, but leave some for the poor. 21 And when you pick your grapes, go over the vines only once, then let the poor have what is left.”
Clearly, it was expected Jewish practice that the poor—explicitly including foreigners, orphans, and widows—should be looked after. There were actual laws on the books that mandated how that should happen, and it was understood as a moral responsibility for their tribes and for their nation. That fundamental moral value seems to have become obscured or flat out ignored as the years have gone by. But embracing the outsider, and deliberately approaching the marginalized, the powerless and the poor and the unwell, with dignity and grace was something that Jesus was constantly doing—and it unsettled just about everyone.
So, Ruth goes out to glean. And, whether it is accidental or by divine design, she happens to wind up in Boaz’s field. Boaz, we discover, is a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband—and in coming weeks, we’ll learn more about his growing sense of moral obligation to Elimelech’s name, in the person of his dead son’s wife, Ruth.
In this chapter, as a start, Boaz is kind to Ruth and acknowledges her vulnerability in several different ways: 1) He tells her that she should only glean in his fields—that she’ll be safer there. 2) He tells his hired hands to tend to her needs, but to leave her alone. And 3) He invites her to eat with him and the hired hands—not something he’s done for all of the gleaners.
Boaz represents someone who does what is required of him, but not necessarily all he could do. At least, not at first. Boaz invites Ruth to the edge of the table, but effectively keeps her at arm’s length and never lets her forget that it’s histable she’s eating from; it is not equally her table. He is kind to her, even generous by social comparison as she is a foreigner. He makes sure she is looked after, but does not fully embrace her as an equal; he maintains an attitude and position of power over her. The chapter closes with Ruth gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests, and living with her mother-in-law. Next week, we’ll see what happens when the relative abundance they enjoyed throughout the harvest becomes threatened as the seasons change.
How might we, individually or as a church community, be like Boaz? How do we do what is required of us but not all that is possible for us as human kindred? How might we be acceptingthe stranger, or recognize the “outsider”, without fully or warmly welcoming them as an equally-cherished member of God’s family?
The good news is that, as human beings in this faith journey, God understands and accepts our broken attempts to sing a more sustained “hallelujah.” We are not doing this perfectly yet. What’s important is that we continue to engage in the struggle to become more like Ruth, and to conform ourselves more and more fully to the example and likeness of Christ Jesus, who not only acknowledged the stranger, but welcomed them home as the family members and blessings they were. So long as we are endeavoring to break down the walls between outsiders and insiders in God’s family, so long as we are striving to accomplish the full and flourishing kin-dom of all God’s people, we can rejoice that God is with us and we are companions with Jesus on his Way. Hallelujah! Amen.