Risk and Restoration

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Sunday, November 11
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Risk and Restoration

Weekly Prayer
God our redeemer, in sustaining the lives of Naomi and Ruth, you gave new life to your people. We ask that from age to age, new generations may be born to restore life and nourish the weak, by returning to you those things that we once thought ours. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

All Readings For This Sunday
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Focus Questions

1. What sort of provisions have we made for the poor in our society? Have we done enough?

2. Who are the invisible poor who escape our attention?

3. What do you think motivated Boaz to help Ruth and Naomi? What motivates us today to help those who are struggling?

4. How do you respond to the words of Naomi’s friends at the end of this reading?

5. Where is God in this story? Where is God in stories that do not have happy endings?

Reflection by Kate Huey

If last week’s passage from the Book of Ruth was about making a commitment, this week’s passage is about living out a commitment of concern for another’s welfare. These two women, Naomi and Ruth, an unlikely pair as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, live on the edge of survival in a patriarchal culture that has at least made some provisions for them. There are certain practices like gleaning, where young women can follow the harvesters and take the leftovers in the field, the hard-to-reach pieces easily left behind. And there are laws like the one about levirate marriage, which provides a husband from the family of one who has died. Of course, another way to look at it is that the surviving relative has the right to claim both the property and the wife of the deceased one; this is actually a factor in the story of Ruth, if one reads the entire narrative. In chapter four, Boaz announces that he has “acquired” the property of Elimelech and his sons, as well as Ruth, the widow of one of those sons (4:9-10).

Even so, it takes Naomi’s concern and initiative to make better arrangements for Ruth’s future than the hand-to-mouth dependence on gleaning. This concern in itself is significant, since Naomi (whose name, ironically, means “pleasant”) has spent most of the story being understandably bitter and sad; we remember that when she returned to her circle of friends back home, she told them that she had a new name, Mara, or “bitter” (1:20). However, at this moment, just as she did on that dusty road when she told her daughters-in-law to go back home rather than tie their futures to hers, Naomi wants to make sure that “it will go well” with Ruth (3:1). She’s able to extend herself, to put another person’s welfare first, and she’s also able to think about the future, even though she feels she has none herself.

Much of the story, even though it’s short, has been cut out of today’s passage, but the summary assures us that Ruth and Boaz, the next-of-kin candidate for marriage and security, get together and have a child. First, however, a little dramatic tension is provided by the technicality that another, closer relative has the right of first refusal on both the property and the widow; fortunately, he gives up his rights to both, and Boaz can step in as the redeemer of the two widows. That in itself would be happy ending enough, but as often happens in Scripture, there is still something too wonderful for us to have imagined: the baby will be the grandfather of David, the greatest king in the history of Israel!

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, the women must make a way to survival; they have to work the system they have, use the tools and abilities they have, and make do the best they can: they have to be, as Martin Copenhaver describes them, “safe harbor” for each other. Perhaps there are two kinds of people in our society, those who live on the edge of survival, and those who don’t. Where we are situated between the two must certainly affect our outlook and our theology, and our reading of this story as well.

What desperation makes necessary

The methods and means of Ruth and Naomi may sound a bit strange, but are not unknown in our own age, if we think of the way marriage has represented security for women right up until the last generation or two. Even now, women are not treated equally in many workplaces, schools and churches, or in subtle ways, they are not given the same respect and opportunities. Is it really so unreasonable, however regrettable, that women, consciously or unconsciously, find it necessary to offer themselves, or let themselves be given by another, in order to secure their future?

Walter Brueggemann sees the threshing floor, where Ruth “goes to” Boaz (many commentators see a sexual component to the story at this point), as a place where God works mysteriously with and through human beings to make a radically new future imaginable, no matter how things look and work today. Brueggemann finds this future for Israel rooted in the simple things of this story: faithfulness, love, loyalty, trust, hard work, interdependence, sharing, mourning and rejoicing, community, the promise that each new child represents. Through these very real experiences of everyday people, God works wonders and moves along the grander story of which we are all a part, as we learn at the end of this one, when we meet Obed, the grandfather of David and the ancestor of Jesus. 

What motivated Boaz?

There was one important but perhaps easy-to-miss moment in the story that commentators have not focused on: what inspired Boaz’s compassion toward Ruth. In reading only a few verses chosen by the lectionary editors, we miss the part of the story where Boaz first sees Ruth and tells his workers to look after her and provide as much grain as she needs. What had gotten his attention? Perhaps Ruth is extraordinarily beautiful, as the happy ending suggests. But that telling of the story misses an important moment, when Ruth asks Boaz why he is being so kind to her, “a foreigner.” Boaz replies that he has heard all about Ruth’s kindness and steadfast care for her mother-in-law (2:10-12). It is not insignificant that Boaz was inspired by Ruth’s goodness to do something good himself. Her fidelity inspired his fidelity, way before they met on the threshing floor. When has the generosity and compassion of another person inspired you to greater generosity and compassion?  

Perhaps, in many ways, it is still a man’s world, but women have managed nevertheless in every age to bear children, raise families, take care of business, farm the land, and sometimes, even to give expression to their artistic longings. In fact, throughout the ages, most women (except the very wealthiest, and the wives of the wealthiest men) have had to do physical labor all day in order to survive. Naomi and Ruth’s survival skills are less important than the depth of their concern for each other, for that kind of concern, called hesed in this story, is something upon which to build churches, communities, and a better world. The covenant of care is a place, and an experience, where we can get a taste, just a taste, of God’s own steadfast and life-giving love for us. In Ruth, we might even say that we understand just a little better what it means to be created in the image of God, an image we encounter in the most unexpected of people, in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Ruth and the church today

Many commentators connect this story of Ruth with our own experience of community in the church. Ruth, after all, left her birth family behind and went on to a new place and a new family, and a new community as well: we see them gathered around her at the end, describing her as Naomi’s “daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons” (4:15b). And that draws our attention to our life within the community of faith, a people of ancient roots and stories, practices and laws. I was taught in seminary that the church is a “voluntary association,” a rather dry term, I suppose, but doesn’t it say that we choose voluntarily to respond to God’s call to come together – often if not always with complete strangers – on God’s terms, to live out God’s dreams the best we can, here, in our time and our place? However, the “voluntary” part of this may be something we have to exercise on many more days than just the day we became a member of the congregation. We choose one another each day, just as Ruth and Naomi did, stubbornly remaining faithful no matter what. At least, that is the ideal that Martin Copenhaver lifts up: that we will remain faithful, in both family and church, to those we are “stuck with,” in the same way that the “God who is stuck with us all” remains stubbornly faithful to us.

We have to wonder how all of this sounds, however, to those in our congregations who have been rejected by their families, and to those out in the world who have been ejected from their churches. For example, within the gay and lesbian community there is something called a “family of choice,” when a person who has lost their birth family (a family that evidently did not feel “stuck with” them) gathers around them a group of loving friends with whom to share their lives, fashioning a new family in which to live in faithful and supportive and loyal love and affection. We remember that even Ruth had a choice to stay with her family; others may not have that possibility open to them, and the only road is the road ahead, to a new and different but beloved community. The church indeed has the invitation, the call, to offer hospitality to those who have not known hospitality in their own homes, to be the beloved community especially for those who have been pushed to the margins of society. I once had the privilege of watching Martin Copenhaver baptize a baby and then carry the child around the church, saying, “In this family of faith, water is thicker than blood.” I remember those moving words to this day as a reminder of our baptismal ties to one another, and the covenant with one another in which we live.

That covenant of care and fidelity is at the heart of who we are as people of faith. G. Malcolm Sinclair notes that organized religion is not explicitly prominent in this story, and God is “mentioned only in passing,” but God, he says, can be experienced as “the glue in life rather than some extraneous royal being before whom all ordinary conversation stops.” We might say that God is between the lines of this story, just as God is always present in our own lives, “the glue” of our lives that holds us together, whether we recognize it or not, and whether religious institutions cooperate or not. For example, in last week’s reflection, we noted that Ruth represented the Moabite people who were often seen as the enemy, and there were laws as well against marrying foreign women (Ezra 9-10). The priestly tradition in the Bible is very concerned with purity issues; ironically, the greatest king, David, “was not a purebred Israelite,” Lawrence Farris writes, “but had a Moabite great-grandmother of astonishing faith and love.”

Recently, I read Terry Tempest Williams’ book, When Women Were Birds, in which she reflects on the story of Ruth and Naomi, a story, she says, that “honors the loyal bonds between women. To care for one another reaps the harvest of love. Ruth’s empathy and toil gives birth to authentic power.” In this way, Williams writes, a compassionate “outsider” becomes the ancestress of both King David and Jesus himself. Williams then invites us to “glean from the stories of other women,” a practice that requires a different perspective when reading the Bible. It has been said that those who are marginalized must read the Bible “from below,” and they find plenty of grace, plenty of hope, when they do: a God who loves “the poor,” and even, liberation theologians say, exercises “a preferential option” for them. In that case, it seems fair to say that God was “on the side” of those two poor, struggling widows.

What, then, might the Stillspeaking God be saying to us here? Marcia Mount Shoop sees more in this story than simply a happy ending, for we are invited through this story to listen in on a conversation within the Bible as it wrestles with God’s own deep and sometimes perplexing hospitality toward the stranger, and our call to offer the same, whether or not we’re comfortable with that, and no matter what the rules may say. We don’t ordinarily think of the Bible as a conversation, and yet that explains four Gospels instead of one, and the tension between the law against marrying foreigners and this story of a pagan foreign woman as both heroine and ancestor of David. Shoop claims that Ruth’s story of unexpected welcome and faithfulness “shines a light” on God’s own generosity and grace in “new situations and problems, which once again suggests that God is still speaking in new times and new conditions, and expects us to be open to a fresh word, new insights, and unexpected gifts.

Little stories and the “dirt-real lives of the many”

Malcolm Sinclair expands on this tension between the burdens and the blessings of what many call “organized religion.” The setting for this little story is very different from the grand story of the kingdom and the temple, after the wandering people of Israel settled down. In the wilderness, Sinclair notes that things were simpler and more focused on the day-to-day realities and needs of the people of faith. Once they reached the Promised Land, settling in led to the institutionalization of that faith, with “rule imposed from above,” he writes, “the thickening of tradition, the abuses of power and privilege, and the silencing of all but official voices.” Sinclair calls Ruth “a firebreak between the lush, green aspirations of the whole tribe and the consuming flames of the powerful few.” We might note at this point that the Gospel text for this Sunday expresses Jesus’ judgment on a religious system that took the last “mite” from a widow, “all that she had to live on” (Mark 12:44b). It is our great hope that in building our communities of faith, we will stay mobile, that we might travel light, like the people of Israel in the wilderness, creatively responsive to the needs at hand, and sensitive, as our communities take more shape, to the risks of structures and leadership that bear down on the people, especially those most vulnerable and in need.

Speaking of the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst: by the time this text is read in ou
churches, the election season will be blessedly over. We have been inundated for many months with campaign messages urging us to vote for one measure or another, most of which affect our economic well-being. We recall the worn-out question from an election season years ago, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Such a self-centered question might be better replaced with, “Are the widow and the orphan and the stranger in our midst better off today?” Or perhaps we might care so much about one another and our shared life that simply asking, “Are we all better off today?” would lead us to see our futures as inextricably entwined, like those of Naomi and Ruth, and of all Israel itself.

A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-11-2012.html

For further reflection

Leonardo da Vinci, 16th century     
The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution.

Natalie Angier, 20th cenutry
Hard as it may be to believe in these days of infectious greed and sabers unsheathed, scientists have discovered that the small, brave act of cooperating with another person, of choosing trust over cynicism, generosity over selfishness, makes the brain light up with quiet joy.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 20th century
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

Michael W. Smith, 21st century
I think if the church did what they were supposed to do we wouldn’t have anyone sleeping on the streets.

Booker T. Washington, 20th century
Lay hold of something that will help you, and then use it to help somebody else.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.