Sunday, November 11, 2018
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)
The Way of Giving and Receiving
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.
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
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?
by Kate Matthews
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. For example, there are 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.
There are also 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 man; 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).
More than Naomi could ask or imagine
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 able to think about Ruth's future, even though she feels she has no future herself.
A little dramatic tension
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 Naomi to have imagined: the baby will be the grandfather of David, the greatest king in the history of Israel!
What takes hope away?
In his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann has written about hopelessness as the lack of a future. After the the deaths of her husband and sons, it seems that Naomi sees no hope of a future for herself. This may explain why she urges her sons' widows to return to their homes so they can fashion some other future for themselves (with the help of their families, no doubt).
However, it is Ruth who makes the stand, on the lonely and perilous road to Bethlehem, upon which the story turns. What a surprise: the pagan foreign widow is the image of a not-to-be-deterred love and commitment that remind us of God's own love for us. And the birth of this baby, grandfather to the greatest king in the history of Israel, represents hope for the future, not just for this old woman and her daughter-in-law, but for all Israel itself.
A way to survival
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. As Martin Copenhaver describes it so evocatively, they have to be "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. It must certainly affect our outlook and our theology, and our reading of this story even more.
Looking around today
How many women and children ("the widow and orphan") have lived on the edge of survival through the centuries? How many have "fallen off" that edge? How well-connected are we to the day-to-day experience of women and children today who struggle to survive? How does this story sound at the same time that we are hearing about the mothers and their children, refugees like Ruth and Naomi, who are making a desperate trip to our southern border?
Are they people with names and stories, like Ruth and Naomi, or are they "the faceless poor"? Aren't women and children today often required to live off the leftovers in the field or the crumbs that fall from our tables of plenty?
What desperation makes necessary
The methods and means of Ruth and Naomi may sound a bit strange, but they 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?
Where God is at work
Walter Brueggemann sees the threshing floor, where Ruth "goes to" Boaz (many scholars 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's dream of this future for Israel is 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 little Obed, the grandfather of David and the ancestor of Jesus.
What motivated Boaz?
There is one important but easy-to-miss moment in the story that commentators have not focused on, and that is the basis of 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 got his attention? Maybe 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, then, 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?
Managing in every age
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 communities of faith, and a better world as well. The covenant of care provides a place, and an experience, where we can get a taste, if only a taste, of God's own steadfast and life-giving love for us.
Building a community of care
In Ruth, we might even say that we understand 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.
In the wake of anti-Semitic violence at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we hear heartbreaking accounts of tender care from that community of faith. For example, the respected physician, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, ran toward the "loud noises" to see if anyone needed help. He lost his life, but his inspiring way of extending himself for the sake of others lives on in the stories being told about his warm, personal approach to medicine, including his compassionate and respectful care of HIV/AIDS patients when others were reluctant to work in that field.
Dr. Rabinowitz was a person who grieved for those who had no one to mourn them; he would stand on their behalf when the Kaddish was prayed, and on Sunday, the entire congregation of three hundred people stood to mourn him. We also hear of the Jewish doctor and nurse who took care of the shooter at the hospital. It is an almost unimaginable story of compassion and goodness that extended beyond the walls of a faith community to perhaps the last person in the world one would expect them to be willing to treat. Unexpected, surprising grace.
Ruth and the church today
Many writers 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, when we 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.
Families of choice
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. That makes Naomi, and Boaz, and those gathered around them, her "family of choice."
The church indeed has the invitation, the call, to offer hospitality to those who have not known hospitality in their own homes. 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.
A covenant of care and faithfulness
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, or 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."
Reading the Bible "from below"
In her book, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams 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's 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 a beautiful thought so close in timing as we are to the canonization of Oscar Romero.)
A conversation with God and one another
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.
Unexpected gifts from unlikely sources
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 always open to a fresh word, new insights, and unexpected gifts, including those from the most unexpected sources.
What does this story teach us about the experience and struggle, for example, of refugees, immigrants and those who have lost their homeland? Just as important: what unexpected gifts might they bring, like Ruth, whose amazing care and loyalty melted the hardest heart of her mother-in-law?
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."
Similar notes in the Gospel text
We 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 poor widow, "all that she had to live on" (Mark 12:44b). As so often happens in the Gospels, Jesus notices someone that everyone else seems to miss. (We recall Boaz "noticing" Ruth as she worked.)
Jesus remarks on the largeness of the widow's faithfulness, her generosity in contrast to the "painless" giving of the wealthy; all of this is in the context of his critique of institutional religion's tendency, alas, to puff up the mighty, the insiders, while taking from the smallest ones, the "least important" ones, the ones he always notices, people like Ruth and those who follow after her.
It is our great hope that in building our communities of faith, we will stay generous, open-hearted and mobile, 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.
How are we all doing?
Speaking of the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst: we read this story in the wake of yet another election season, with mid-term elections just past and the next presidential campaign already heating up. As we listen to political leaders and candidates debate economic issues, we recall the worn-out question from a campaign 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?" Now, that's a biblical question.
We also hear this story of the people of Israel, a story that is ever ancient, and yet tragically, ever new. When we try to absorb the shock and horror of the violence perpetrated on the Tree of Life Synagogue, we are reminded in the most tragic terms possible of the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the centuries. It is poignant, when remembering the story of one elderly widow, Naomi, to also consider the long and blessed lives of the elderly women who died in that synagogue, during the quiet, faithful exercise of their religion.
Perhaps, then, we might be inspired by the story of Naomi and Ruth to care so much about one another and our shared life that simply asking, "Are we all better off today?" would lead us to see all of our futures as inextricably entwined, like those of Naomi and Ruth, and of all Israel itself.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
Natalie Angier, 20th century
"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."
Jane Goodall, Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, 21st century
"We have so far to go to realize our human potential for compassion, altruism, and love."
Jane Addams, 20th century
"In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life."
Nora Ephron, 21st century
"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."
Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, 20th century
"'What is nobler,' she mused, turning over the photographs, 'than to be a woman to whom every one turns, in sorrow or difficulty?'"
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