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I believe that at heart the story of Ruth is a story of redemption. What is this redemption thing all about? We used to sing a song in church when I was young called “Redeemed.” Redeemed how I love to proclaim it, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. What does this mean exactly? Sometime we use language that we’re used to in church that really has very little meaning for the world outside of these walls. You don’t hear the word redemption very much. If you’re a sports fan you hear it. Peyton Manning loses his shot at a second Super Bowl title in the AFC final, then wins the Super Bowl the following year. “Redemption!” they say. Victory from defeat. If you are ever in a casino you might see a big sign that says “Redemption”. Getting back what is yours. These are good. I think they point toward something that the Bible is telling us about redemption in the story of Ruth. God’s redeeming work take us from defeat to victory. God’s redeeming work gives us something back that we have lost – our identity as beloved children of God. Let us look at our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
When we began this series we said that the picture at the end of Ruth is one of wholeness. It’s one of peace. It’s a portrayal of a community in which everyone is being cared for, from the youngest to the oldest. The story does not start there, however. These are the stories of our lives, after all, and we know that life is often not like that. The story of Ruth starts with famine. It starts with want. It starts with death. It starts with a woman who loses not only her husband but both of her sons. A woman who feels so completely bereft that she feels that God has turned against her. She is so bereft that she is unable to recognize that there is someone who represents God’s hesed – God’s steadfast love, loyalty – right beside her in the person of Ruth her daughter-in-law. We’ve seen Ruth taking matters into her own hands, going out to the fields to ensure her own survival and that of her mother-in-law. We’ve seen Boaz taking a keen interest in the young woman, telling her that he’s heard about the hesed she has shown Naomi, and showing the same hesed to Ruth in allowing her to glean in his fields and making sure that his reapers leave plenty for her to take, inviting her to eat with them and making sure she has leftovers to take home.
Home is still a precarious place though. Likely it’s the house that Elimelech left behind when he and his family left for Moab all those years ago. Maybe it’s one of those “open the door and it falls off its hinges” type of situations. There’s land, sure, but as a woman Naomi has no right to it. She tells Ruth to go meet Boaz at night on the threshing floor. We’re not sure exactly what happens on that threshing floor, but we do know that Ruth asks a question. She has heard Boaz say things like “The Lord be with you” and “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” As Pastor Abby said last week, it’s often through people that God makes his redeeming work known. God invites us to show the same hesed that has been shown to us. Ruth invites Boaz to show the same kindness that he’s been talking about. “Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” The one with the right to redeem.
This is a reference to Levirate marriage. There was a Hebrew law, you see, from which the relative of a deceased man is obliged to marry the man’s widow – thus ensuring inclusion in the community and children. This is nothing prescriptive. We’re not saying that childless widows or any widow should have no right to property, or even that everyone should be married. This was a patriarchal society in which having sons ensured a family’s well-being. Ruth is in a precarious situation, along with Naomi. They’re surviving, sure, but what happens when the harvest is over? “Spread your cloak over your servant,” Ruth tells Boaz. Let me find refuge with you.
Boaz agrees. There is just one issue. There’s another relative who is even closer. Boaz goes to the city gate, the place to see and be seen. The place where legal matters were settled in ancient Israel. This next-of-kin comes passing by. We’re not told his name. Boaz sets everything up. “Come over, friend; sit down here.” Boaz gathers ten elders of Bethlehem around them.
He then brings something new into the story. Talk of a field. “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech.” Much has been written about the legalities contained in this scene, and much is unknown. The relative answers “Yes, I will redeem it.” Boaz then tells him that there is a bit of a catch. (It’s like when you’re buying a new car and all of a sudden they start adding on how much the undercoat/extended warranty/rust proofing is going to cost.) “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man…” That foreign woman. The woman from the place of which we are not such big fans. The woman who didn’t have any children with that dead guy and who knows what her childbearing possibilities are now. Boaz is a little smart here. He doesn’t describe her to his relation with the same words he’s used to describe Ruth in their own private conversations. All that she had done for her mother-in-law. Her loyalty. Her worthiness! He keeps all of that to himself. “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance,” is the answer from this nearer relation. “I’ve got my own thing going on,” in other words.
They take off their sandals and make the deal. Boaz will redeem it. Boaz addresses the crowd – “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all the belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chillion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are my witnesses.”
We don’t know a lot about the legalities going on here, but we know this. Boaz did something that Naomi and Ruth could not do for themselves. Boaz did not concern himself with his own thing. He said, in effect, that ensuring not only the survival of these women but their security, their future, was his thing. We talked about God’s hesed being reflected by Ruth. Here we have God’s hesed reflected by Boaz.
We said a couple of weeks ago that God is a Moabite widow. Clearly God is a child of Bethlehem. God is a native of Bethlehem. This sounds familiar somehow, and it should, because this is pointing us forward to Christ. Boaz redeems. Boaz brings back. Boaz ensures a future. Christ redeems. Christ brings us back. Christ does something which we could not do for ourselves. Christ restores our identity. Christ brings new life and restores our identity as beloved children of God.
Christ brings us into the family. I’ve called this family style. Are you familiar with what we call family style eating? You put all the food in large plates/bowls in the centre of the table. Everyone shares. Everyone makes sure that everyone has enough (ideally). People ask if anyone wants the last porkchop or whatever. We help one another out. Please pass the gravy, that kind of thing. There’s no wedding banquet mentioned here but I’m sure Ruth and Boaz had one and I’m sure there they had a lot of food going on. Is it any wonder that the Kingdom of God is compared to a banquet at which all are welcome? A banquet at which “family style” takes on a whole new meaning?
At this banquet we have a whole new identity. There are three ways to become a part of a family. One is to be born into it. The second is to be married into it. As one writer puts it, “This act of making an outsider family is what is accomplished through the act of marriage.” A new family is created. Is it any wonder that we talk about the church as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom? A new family has been created. There is a third way for someone to become part of a family. Adoption. In ancient Israel, peace, well-being, flourishing was tied to land, it was tied to male children to carry on your name. When Christ came he brought about something new. A new situation in which our well-being, our flourishing, would be tied to life in him. A new identity in him as beloved children of God, adopted into God’s family. Paul put it like this writing to the Romans – “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” This is what we are. A follower of Christ is someone who’s come to acknowledge this – or better yet one who is coming to acknowledge this. We don’t save souls here. I read on a thread recently a comment from someone complaining that followers of Christ are so worried about saving his soul. I’m not worried about saving your soul. I’m up here inviting us all to be reconciled to God through his Son in whom there is light and life because it is in Christ that peace and fulfillment and wholeness and new life is found.
New life is found in our story. Ruth has a baby boy. Who would have thought? Old(er) Boaz and this Moabite widow. We have this lovely blessing in v 14: “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 worth more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. She gathered the child against her chest. Redemption is going on all over the place. You know who else gathers us against his chest? “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is what we’re involved with friends. This is with whom we are involved.
This redemption is for everyone. It’s lifelong. From birth to death. For little Obed. For little Ethan. For little Christiana. We celebrated their births not long ago. To a young married couple from Brazil. To Helen Bell in palliative care. To Mrs. Soley. This redemption, this bringing back, this having life restored is for everyone, and it goes beyond death. Everyone is in this together. Naomi will help raise this child because it’s not just up to the parents. We don’t say “The old people need to get out of the way.” We don’t say “The young people have nothing good to say.” The end of our story shows that we all have a part in this redemption project in which we’re invited to take part. Naomi nursed him. We may say how is this possible? The root word “connotes support, caregiving, nourishing, or childrearing”. It’s the word used to describe what Mordecai does for Esther when she is orphaned and he looks after his niece.
This is a picture of the redeemed community friends. Obed means “servant” or “worshipper. He’ll become the father of Jesse, who will become the father of David – “beloved.” Matthew ends this geneology in the first few verses of his Gospel with Jesus Christ. The servant. The beloved one. The son of God. The one in whom we find life restored. The one in whom we find our true selves.
The one whose birth we will prepare for over the next 5 weeks. Friends, may this Advent be a time when this faith community sees and shows itself ever more as a community of the redeemed. Redeemed how I love to proclaim it, the song goes. May our proclamation of these wonderful truths sound loudly with every word - with every deed. May we ever more be coming to know in our hearts our identity as beloved children of God. May this knowledge be evident in the way that dividing lines are erased. May these things be true for us all.