A FAMILY AFFAIR
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
Last week we heard the beginning of Ruth’s story. She married Naomi’s son only to become a widow. When Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, Ruth goes with her, vowing to be her family until death and beyond. They have both experienced significant loss. At the end of chapter one Naomi is bereft. So much so that she changes her name to Mara, which means ‘bitter’. She’s looking at all she lost and she’s blaming God for her pain – I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty. And Naomi may have every right to feel empty but as Pastor David pointed out last week, she is not alone. Ruth is next to her. Naomi is hurting, her circumstances are difficult, but things are about to change.
Ruth and Naomi arrive at the family homestead. Naomi has been gone ten years and her house is likely in disarray. You can imagine her and Ruth ducking their heads to enter through the door, cobwebs everywhere, the dishes covered in dust, traces of little critters that had made their homes there. Out the window they see the field that belongs to the family but that Naomi has no right to because she’s a woman. In that time women couldn’t own property, which means that Ruth and Naomi can’t farm, which means that they can’t eat. They are home and they’re together but now they must figure out how to survive.
The picture we get of Ruth is of a young woman who is noble, loving and loyal. She is one of many prominent women described in the Bible. Unlike the women before her, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, Ruth is not described as beautiful. We’re not actually told anything about how she looks. Instead we’re given an account of her loyalty to her mother-in-law, her willingness to work hard and her boldness with Boaz. She has a beautiful heart and soul. We’re reminded several times that Ruth is a Moabite. She’s the other. She doesn’t belong. Yet she’s walked the way of Abraham, leaving her family and her home to follow Yahweh. To follow Him to Bethlehem no less. Her journey to this place physically brings her into God’s covenant people, but He has much planned for her. God is bringing her into his covenant. A covenant that is inclusive of non-Israelite people, a covenant that welcomes strangers to partake of and participate in God’s great redemption.
Ruth has been in the family for a while and although she’s a Moabite, as we’re reminded 4 times in chapter 2, this is a woman who knows her Torah. In Leviticus 19 Yahweh gives the instruction: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. Ruth seems to be aware of this as she decides to go and collect grain from a nearby field. It just so happens that the field Ruth chooses to glean in belongs to a relative of the family. You might say that Ruth is lucky or that this is quite the coincidence, but I believe that this is the hand of God working in the lives of Ruth and Naomi, a divine response to their unspoken prayers. The author of Ruth writes in verse 3 “As it happened, she came to the field of Boaz”. There’s very little glamour and glitz around this important moment. “As it happened” barely gives you an indication that something big is about to go down. One commentator writes:
This shows us some of the wonderful ways that the invisible hand of God works. If Ruth would have stayed home and waited for a “spiritual” feeling, she probably would have waited a long time – and still probably would have gone to the wrong field. Instead, Ruth experienced the very natural moving of the supernatural hand of God.
Ruth didn’t know it, but God’s providence was at work in her life. Ruth is just trying to get food but God was guiding her to her redeemer. He was guiding her to the one who would ensure that she and her mother-in-law would be cared for.
We can spend a lot of time and energy on trying to look ahead and see where God will take us and this often leads to problems. We ask questions like what will my future look like, how will this work out? And we stress, and we worry. When we do this, we can miss the gift of God and the beauty of faith in our present reality. Being present and walking in the Spirit require faith, because it is often only once we look back that we can see the providential hand of God working in our lives.
So what does God do for these two grief-stricken women? Ruth is taking a big risk by going out. Moabites were not thought of fondly by the Israelites and they must have had their doubts about Naomi too. She had left her home during the famine while every else stayed. Had God punished her by taking her family away? And now her only chances for survival are dependent on this foreign woman. They had every reason to look down on Ruth and Naomi. Yet Ruth still decides to go out and seek help which shows us how desperate they were. And again, maybe Ruth had come to know the Torah. Israel had laws about how to treat the vulnerable. Exodus 22:21-22 says “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. Ruth fits into all three of these categories – the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Now we get to see whether or not the children of Israel will show her God’s hesed.
This is where Boaz enters our story. The first words out of Boaz’s mouth are “The Lord be with you”. Up until now we haven’t seen God much in the story of Ruth. Naomi’s convinced that God has afflicted her and abandoned her, but Boaz is bringing Yahweh back into this story. This common Jewish greeting is not only a way of saying hello, but it is a statement of confidence that God is present among them. These aren’t just words coming out of Boaz’s mouth. He follows them up with action.
As Ruth is gleaning in the fields, Boaz is watching her. He approaches her and offers her protection and food. And then Boaz tells her, I know you. I know what you’ve done and what you’re still doing. I know what you’ve given up and how you have selflessly loved your mother-in law. And furthermore, I know that you’ve trusted in God and I’m asking him to reward you for your faith. Boaz has heard about the hesed that Ruth has shown to Naomi, and this inspires him to show Ruth that same love and compassion.
When Ruth describes what happened to her mother-in-law, Naomi awakes out of her despair. The Lord has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead, she says. She remembers something important. Something that is easy to forget when circumstances are dire and it seems like all is lost. God is kind.
There are many ways that God is described in the Bible; holy, loving, mighty, beautiful… The list goes on. The Bible talks a lot about God’s kindness or lovingkindness. The Hebrew word used in the book of Ruth for kindness is one we’ve heard a lot lately, one of Pastor David’s favourite words – hesed. This word describes a loyal love that inspires action. It’s kindness that is unmerited. There’s nothing we can to deserve God’s kindness and yet he lavishes it upon us. God’s kindness moved him to come down to earth so he could save us. His kindness is what brought you here this morning.
And not only is God going to be kind to you, but through his Spirit, he’s going to enable you to show that kindness to others. I’ve been seeing that here a lot lately. I’ve seen God’s kindness reflected through the actions of his people.
I’ve seen people going to hospital bedsides to visit families and pray for healing.
I’ve seen people writing cards to those who are homebound so they know they are not forgotten.
I’ve had someone notice that Jan wasn’t here one Sunday and tell me they want to give her ride.
I’ve seen someone buying warm clothes for a little boy from our summer camp who is spending his first winter in Canada.
I’ve heard people who are new to the Blythwood community asking, how they can be involved in the ministries of the church?
And I’m sure there’s much more hesed going on around here that I don’t even know about.
This is what God’s kindness does; it ripples out and comes back. It’s self-perpetuating. And often we have no idea how a small act of kindness on our part can have a big impact on the recipient. We live in a world that needs kindness.
Reflecting that Kindness
We’re talking about family, and welcoming the stranger and the fatherless and being kind. It reminds of a story of a little girl who had never known any kindness. I met a woman when I was at a conference a few years ago who told me about her adopted daughter. When she first met her daughter she was two years old. This little girl had been severely neglected by her birth parents and as a result didn’t speak or show any emotion. She would sit for hours without moving or doing anything. She didn’t play, or sing or laugh.
God moved this woman and her husband to adopt this little girl. The social workers told them they weren’t sure ‘what’ she had but she was very delayed and they didn’t know how to help her because it wasn’t clear what the issue was. So they brought this little girl home and they loved her. It was hard and required a tremendous amount of patience and grace but gradually this little girl began to respond. She started making eye contact and responding to her name and then talking. The process was slow and painful for everyone but this couple kept loving on this little girl. When the adoptive mom told me this story her daughter was a teenager. She had overcome all her mental and social delays and she had learned to receive love and to love back. What a beautiful picture of the power of God’s loving kindness.
This is what God does for us. At first we’re all spiritually dead and living under the power of sin. And then God comes to us and he loves on us. He shows us kindness. He’s patient with us. His love awakens something within us that shows us we were meant to be loved. It shows us we were meant for family. How incredibly blessed we are that God would choose to show us his kindness and bring us into his family.
The story of Ruth is an illustration of God’s kindness. We see the heart of God in both Ruth and in Boaz. God has a heart for the vulnerable. His instruction to Israel and to us over and over again in the Bible is to care for the orphan and the widow. In Biblical times, these were the people who couldn’t care for themselves. They relied on the kindness of others for their survival. There are people today who rely on our kindness for survival. We can do more than help them survive, we can help them thrive.
This is the question before Ruth at the end of chapter 2. Boaz has helped her and Naomi survive by giving them food but will that be all he does for them? Verse 23 ends the chapter with “and she lived with her mother-in-law”. They have food but they’re still living in an old decrepit house with a plot of land that they can’t do anything with. She’s collecting barley as they are in a season of harvest but what happens when the harvest ends? Ruth is essentially a beggar. She’s has no security and no means, she’s living day-to-day. Boaz has helped her survive, will he do more? Will there be a more permanent hesed for Ruth? You’ll have to come back next week to find out.
Friends, we can learn a lot from the book of Ruth. Like Ruth, we are to get out there against resignation, sometimes without knowing or seeing what God is doing. Like Boaz we are to show God’s kindness to those who are vulnerable. We are to point out to people Shalom Aleichem – God is present. There are people we come across every day that need to hear God has not abandoned them. They need to hear that God longs to show them his kindness. They need to see us reflect that kindness. Desmond Tutu, writing in the vein of Martin Luther King Jr., puts it this way:
'God says to you, 'I have a dream. Please help me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts. When there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God's family, my family.''
My brothers and my sisters, may we continue to experience this great kindness that God has so graciously given. And may we come to know more and more what it means to be a part of God’s family.