January 21, 2018: Rev. Anna Fulmer
Ruth is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It is a short-story detailing the flight of Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. We find our Scripture lesson today in the middle of the narrative. Prior to this, there is a famine in Israel. Naomi and her family are forced to move to Moab and her sons marry Moabite women. This had to have been a life or death situation for Naomi and her family to leave their land, their home, Israel. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake. They must have found some security in Moab, since Mahon and Chilion (their names mean death and disease) marry. Unfortunately Naomi’s husband and Death and Disease die leaving Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah widows. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are poor—they do not have husbands to advocate for them, which is a death sentence in this time and place. They are vulnerable. Not only do they lack material wealth—food and shelter, they have relational poverty—they have no one to advocate for them. Naomi suggests that her daughters-in-laws go back to their parents, since she is going back to Judah, to Bethlehem. Names matter in Ruth—did you know Bethlehem literally means, house of bread? In a foreign land, Naomi does not have much chance for survival; at least in her homeland, she might have neighbors, friends, and distant relatives who can care for her. Orpah (whose name means back-of-neck) leaves, but Ruth, whose name means friend or companion “clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). She vows to stay with Naomi. The two go to Bethlehem. Here, Ruth is trying her hardest to survive. Let’s listen now.
NRSV Translation of Ruth 2:1-13
Who is our neighbor? The neighbor in this passage, is Ruth. But Ruth is a Moabite. Ruth is not just called Ruth—every time the narrator mentions Ruth, Ruth is called, “Ruth the Moabite.” Israel and Moab were enemies. In Genesis 19:30-38, the Moabites and Ammonites come from the offspring of Lot having relations with his daughter. These countries according to ancient Israel, come from incest and promiscuity. The Moabites and Ammonites are also not allowed to go into the Temple because they did not provide food during Exile (Deut. 23:3-6). Deuteronomy 23:6 states that “You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.” (v. 6), and here is an entire book about a Moabite caring for an Israelite (and how an Israelite, Boaz, cares for a Moabite). Needless to say, the fact that Ruth was a Moabite was a scandal for ancient Israelite listeners.
It is not even clear if Ruth legally (or Biblically) would have had any right to glean (916). Gleaning is a practice set up in the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus for the poor, widows, and resident aliens. But Ruth isn’t just any foreigner; she is a Moabite. She is an enemy.
Who is our neighbor? In ancient Israel, everyone farmed. In order to survive, you had to own land. If you didn’t own land, you started to be on the margins of the economic system. So people, when they were harvesting their crops are commanded to leave some for the poor and foreigners to glean. Gleaning was tough work, dangerous work. Usually, you knew the person whose land you were gleaning on and they knew you. They were your neighbors. But here, Ruth does not know Boaz, the man’s land she is on. Luckily, he shows her kindness. Even here, you can see that Ruth is in danger. Boaz advises her to keep to his fields and to cling to his young women. He tells the men not to bother her. Boaz realizes Ruth has put herself in an incredibly dangerous situation. Why does she do it? I think she does, because she knows that Naomi could not survive on her own. She sacrifices her well-being for the sake of another, an Israelite, her mother-in-law. Boaz notices too—Ruth is a woman of valor, of courage, kindness, and goodness and a Moabite. Boaz looks beyond Ruth’s nationality and sees the truth.
Who is our neighbor? Ruth not only has economic poverty, but relational poverty: she is an outsider as a woman, a widow, a poor person, and a Moabite. “A foreigner from a disliked ethnic group would be even more likely to be victimized.” Ruth’s material poverty, immigrant status, and relational status put her life at stake. Why did she go with Naomi when she knew what she could face? She goes because she knows that her mother-in-law’s life is at stake. She knows that Naomi doesn’t have a real chance without her. Loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption are at the heart of this story.
Who is our neighbor? Do we even know our neighbors? Do we know those who are living on the margins? It is so easy when we see someone living on the margins to just give them a few dollars and feel like we have done our job. It is much much harder to be in relationship with someone and journey with them through the difficult times. Boaz could have stayed in his home and let his reapers do their work, proud that he allowed gleaners on his land, but he goes out into his fields. He gets to know Ruth. He knows her story. He knows the sacrifice that she has made to care for Naomi. He does not just follow the Hebrew law—he goes above and beyond the law to care for Ruth and Naomi. He does that because he gets to know Ruth, and she is able to know him.
We live in a society that quarantines us by age, race, ability, the list goes on. We sometimes even set-up our lives to be separated from those who are different than us. Church is often one of the only times and places where generations collide—not just because we are family. Ruth challenges us to get out of our comfort zones to meet our neighbors. It is a risky move to go into “enemy territory”—but it is through knowing our neighbors in all of our diversity that redemption and change happens.
Eventually, Ruth and Naomi create a risky plan for Ruth to approach Boaz at the threshing floor. She asks, “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin” (3:9). Boaz does. Ruth and Boaz marry. Ruth and Boaz have a child. We learn that David is a descendant of Ruth and Boaz. It might seem like this is simply a “rags to riches” story, but we know the fuller story. The risk, hardship, the hunger, the fear, the grief, the gleaning, that is transformed. It should challenge us. Because we are not a Moabite in a foreign land. We are Israelites, the dominant group, and how we treat our neighbors, the foreigner matters—maybe we are Naomi in this story. If we are Naomi, then we are dependent on that Moabite for survival and redemption. Not only that, but that Moabite, Ruth is the great, great, great, many many great grandmother of Jesus—our redemption, the world’s redemption hinges on Ruth.
You might be wondering, so where is God is this? God is rarely mentioned. Instead we must infer where God is—God is in the chance meeting of Ruth and Boaz. God is in the immigrant’s heart who refuses to leave a grieving mother and wife behind. God is in the harrowing journey to Israel, the courage of Ruth to go and glean, the kindness and openness of Boaz. God is in the risky plan that Ruth and Naomi create; God is in the redemption, in the child that is born—in grief that becomes joy. Often we have to infer where God is in our own lives. Maybe this story can help open that space up for you. God is in each and every one of our neighbors. Let us go out and look for that light, that love today. Amen.
 Sakenfeld, 43.