Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

Sharing a sermon from a couple years ago: feel free to listen here, or the text is below! The passage is Ruth 2, where Ruth meets Boaz.

As I reflect on the story of Ruth, I wonder if the world of our heroines, Ruth and Naomi, might in some ways not be as different from ours as it may seem. They may not have social media posts and internet trolls and competing news networks on TV that present very different versions of events, but Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges. They were no strangers to political chaos and troubling news.

In a very quick skim through the book of Judges, which tells us what that time was like, I saw war. Forced labor. Ethnic tension. Repentance and remorse, which always seem to turn out to be short lived. The people of God just doing what everyone else around them is doing. Widespread corruption, and stubbornness about it. People not listening to God. Violence. Poverty. Treachery. Broken trust. More war. Siege. Oppression and distress. Vicious vengeance. Betrayal. Murder. Devaluing and abuse of women. Making and worship of idols. Greed and selfishness. Everyone did as they saw fit.

There were good things too, of course. But there was a lot of evil. A lot of things to be distressed about and overwhelmed by, to be sad and angry about. Do you recognize some of these things? Widespread corruption, lack of accountability, tension between different racial and ethnic groups, devaluing and abuse of women, greed, selfishness? 

Like us, Naomi and Ruth lived in difficult and troubling times. And yet there is something about their story that feels like a bright spot in the midst of the time of the judges. It’s the story of ordinary people  who live their ordinary lives with faithfulness, goodness, agency, integrity, courage, and hope. In our crazy time, and in our own ordinary day to day lives, we need their story. We need the model of these strong women, to spark our imaginations of how we might live our own lives in our own time with the same kind of courage and faith.

This morning we’ll be stepping into the second chapter of this short four-chapter book, and we’ll look at it in three scenes. We pick up Naomi and Ruth’s story after Ruth, despite her mother-in-law Naomi’s insistence otherwise, has journeyed with Naomi back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. When we left off last week at the end of chapter one, Naomi was feeling bitter, like she has nothing. Now the two women have made it back to Bethlehem, still with nothing and no one except each other.

What would it have been like to be Ruth at this time, at the beginning of this chapter, in this first scene? The narrator tells us that there actually is this wealthy man, Boaz, who is a relative and might be able to give her a hand as she struggles to find a place for herself and make ends meet in this new and foreign place. We know that, but Ruth doesn’t know that.

Back in Chapter 1, when the women of the city said, omg, it’s Naomi! She’s back! (that’s a Liz translation), they didn’t even mention Ruth. Maybe they’re not sure what to do with her, how to categorize her. She’s a stranger, a new person, a foreigner, in a place where she doesn’t know anyone and no one knows her. This is an intense time of transition. She’s left everything and everyone familiar to her (except Naomi). She left a culture she knew, and a community in which she had a place.

When Ken and I moved to Pasadena about a year ago, we experienced some of what Ruth might have felt as she left Moab and entered into the Bethlehem community. We left a life we had spent the last several years (eleven in my case and six in Ken’s) building in the Bay area. Work, friends, church, community, commitments. Knowing the best places to get cheap produce. Having a car mechanic I liked and trusted. All of these random things you take for granted when you spend a while in a place. We left all of that familiarity behind, like Ruth did when she left her family and community in Moab and went with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Can you relate to Ruth in her time of transition? Many of us here have recently started a new school year, or perhaps a new school entirely, or a new job, or are new in Pasadena, or in California, or even in the United States, or have undergone a big life change like getting married. These are big transitions. They can be jarring.

In times of transition sometimes we wonder things that maybe we didn’t have to wonder before. Things like, will I make friends, and who will they be? Will I find a church community, and what will that be like? Will I do well in my classes or my work? Will people notice me, respect me, think well of me? Times of transition can be vulnerable times.

For Ruth, moving from Moab to Judah had another layer of difficulty on top of all that, too. It wasn’t exactly like moving from NorCal to Socal…although there are some weird dynamics there too, where NorCal people throw a lot of shade at SoCal and talk trash about SoCal people, while SoCal people don’t really think about NorCal at all, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

But for Ruth, being a Moabite is a little different than for me, moving from the Bay area. There was a lot more historical animosity than that. In the view of the Israelites, the people of Moab didn’t look so good. They had their origin in a story of incest. They had been historically violent toward the Israelites, cursing them rather than welcoming them, and engaging in many battles with them over the years. They were seen as especially arrogant and defiant of God.

And Moabite women in particular were seen as sexually promiscuous and aggressive, sexual predators that posed a very dangerous threat to Israelite men, whom they might seduce and lead into idolatry. I’m sure the anti-Moab sentiment was stronger at some times than others, but on the whole, being a Moabite in Bethlehem is not an easy thing for Ruth. Everyone knows that she’s from Moab, the land of Israel’s enemies. The employee who answers Boaz’ question about who Ruth is, what family she belongs to, her identity, answers not with her name but with her ethnicity. She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s from Moab?? 

Our sermon series is called strong women, but right now Ruth is so vulnerable! She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s only connected with Naomi, in a time when being connected with a man, like a husband or son, meant economic and physical security for women.

She’s a foreigner, an immigrant. She’s from a different ethnicity than the dominant one in Bethlehem. She’s associated with Judah’s enemies. She’s new and doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t know one field from another or who to trust. Can you feel her vulnerability in this time?

If I were Ruth, I might think, all right, Naomi, I came here for you. This is where you wanted to be, and I have no idea what to do here, and no one wants me here. Maybe I should have stayed with my family and my people back in Moab. You even told me, twice, to go back! Why did I come?

I might think, Naomi is depressed. All she does is talk about how cruel God has been to her and how she has no one. What about me? Well, Naomi got us into this situation, so I’ll wait until she gets us out. Maybe I’ll just watch a bunch of Netflix until she figures out what to do. At least that way I’ll be safe and not have to worry about all these things.

That’s not Ruth. Ruth takes initiative, exercising her God-given agency to say to Naomi, hey! I heard your people have this practice of gleaning. I hear people who are down on their luck and don’t have land and money can follow behind the workers harvesting the barley and pick up what gets left on the ground. I’m going to go do that. And I’m going to try to do that not just anywhere, but I’m going to try to find someone in whose sight I may find favor. Someone who will notice me here in this strange place and not just see me as a hated Moabite, but see me as me. Someone who will treat me with kindness and respect. I’m going to get to work. I don’t know if anyone else will treat me with dignity and honor, but I know that I’m worth these things, and I’m going to go look for it.

We feel Ruth’s vulnerability, and we also see her courage, her strength, in the midst of it.

I think God loves that about Ruth. That she takes initiative, takes action, exercises her agency as a human being to see what needs to be done and do it. To go. To try. To figure out how to obtain the things she needs and the things Naomi needs, basic things like food, and more complicated things like kind people, community. To figure out what she needs from other people in this process and to ask for it.

I think God loves that Ruth is not passive. The text doesn’t say this directly, but I see this in the sense we get, that God is ever-present and is blessing the efforts of these women. “As it happened,” she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. I think that’s a bit of a “wink wink” on the part of the narrator. The field could have belonged to anyone, but it just happened to belong to Boaz. And “just then” Boaz came back from the town to visit his field and his workers.

Ruth had no idea what the lay of the land was like and whose fields she was in, but she “just happened” to come to Boaz’ field, and Boaz “just happened” to come visit the field once she started working, and so she ends up in this situation that’s far better than what it easily could have been. I don’t think anything in this story “just happens.” God is behind it all. God is with her. God blesses her and provides the favor she seeks as she takes initiative and steps out in courage in the midst of her vulnerability.

In this next scene, I want us to shift gears a bit and think from Boaz’ perspective. First Ruth took initiative to get to work and try to find favor, to take advantage of Israel’s God-given gleaning laws and to gather grain as well. Now Boaz takes initiative in noticing and starting a conversation with Ruth.

In these interactions he goes way above and beyond what Ruth asked for. She asked to glean and gather, and Boaz says, yes, you are welcome to glean and gather here (v. 8). But also! Follow closely behind my employees who are harvesting so that you get first pick of everything they leave behind (v. 9). But also! I am not blind to the ways you are vulnerable as a woman, and I am making sure my male employees will not harass you, verbally or physically. But also! Here’s water if you want it (v. 9).

She is taken aback and says, I was looking for favor, but this is much more than I expected to find. Also, do you know I’m from Moab? Why have I found favor in your sight? (v. 10)

Boaz says, I have seen everything you’ve done for Naomi. I know you’re from Moab, but I don’t see you as an enemy. I see how you have suffered the loss of your husband and persevered with strength and courage. I don’t see you as the stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dangerous, idolatrous Moabite woman; I see you as doing what my esteemed ancestor Abraham did, when he left his father and mother and native land and came to a people he did not know before (v. 11). You talk about yourself like you’re a foreigner without value, but you know your value, and I know your value. The way you’ve acted shows that you trust God as a refuge, and I hope you experience that (v. 12) 

Ruth finds comfort in Boaz’ remarkable kindness to her (v. 13).

Then there’s more! At lunchtime he says, but also! Come eat with me, from the good food, bread and wine, the same food I’m eating. Sit with me and my employees, we want you to belong with us and be one of us. Have as much food as you like. You won’t be hungry here (v. 14). Also! Harvesters, pull out some extra handfuls of grain for her to make her work more productive and less difficult and backbreaking, and don’t reproach or rebuke her. Don’t just not assault her, but treat her with respect and dignity, speak kindly to her. Accept her as one of our kin (v. 15-16).

This is remarkable kindness indeed. Think for a minute about everything going on here for Boaz. He heard through the grapevine that his relative Naomi had come back from Moab, accompanied only by a young Moabite woman. And now this young woman just shows up, there in his field. Think about all the things he might have said, or might have thought, or might have done. After all, it was the time of the judges, and everyone did as they saw fit. What might have been a more “normal” reaction from a person of Boaz’ wealth and standing, to a person like Ruth? Let’s think about this in terms of four different aspects of Ruth’s identity that made her particularly vulnerable: socioeconomic status, immigration status, ethnicity, and gender.

Take her socioeconomic status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this poor person think she is? People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Sure, she seems to be working pretty hard now, but she should have worked harder to make sure she didn’t fall into poverty in the first place. She’s taking advantage of the welfare system. I’ll let her do it, because that’s the law, but I don’t like it. I didn’t get rich by taking advantage of other people’s property, why should she? I’ll let her glean, but she’s not of my class, and she needs to know her place. Maybe she’ll move along soon to someone else’s field so I stop losing grain and money on her.

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as someone undeserving of his kindness and respect, because he had wealth, and she didn’t have anything. Instead, he showed her kindness. Treated her as an equal. 

Or take her immigration status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this immigrant think she is? She’s not from here. She looks different, talks differently, smells different, wears different clothes, has a different accent. And here she is, in my field, trying to take advantage of the laws of my country that were set up for my people. She isn’t part of the hard-working Israelite farming families that have lived on this land for generations and deserve to reap the fruits of it. This barley, these resources, are for my family and my employees. 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth with disdain, resenting, fearing, or treating her as an other because she was an immigrant. Instead, he chose to welcome her in, inviting her to eat with him and his employees. He built bridges rather than walls and chose to recognize their common humanity.

Or take Ruth’s ethnicity. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this Moabite think she is? I remember the stories my family always told about the Moabites. Violence, seduction, idolatry, incest, curses, battles. The Moabites have caused my ancestors pain, and my people remember that. And here this Moabite woman is, just casually gleaning away as if her people never did anything to wrong mine. The Moabites have been inhumane to us; do I really have to be humane to them – to her? 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as less than human, assuming the worst about her because of her ethnicity and the rumors he had heard and assumptions his community made. Instead he took the time to see who she really was.

Lastly, take Ruth’s gender.  It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this woman think she is? She can glean in my field, but I don’t owe her anything other than that. How my male employees treat her is none of my business. What happens in the field, stays in the field. Boys will be boys. There’s really not much I can do. Plus, is it really that bad, anyway? She’ll probably be fine. And if not, she can go elsewhere. 

It would have been easy for Boaz to downplay the risks Ruth faced as a woman, telling her it’s not that big a deal, dismissing or minimizing her experience, or recognizing the realities of sexual harassment and assault but placing his concern for his own reputation ahead of his concern for her wellbeing. Instead he chose to take responsibility, not only for treating her with respect personally, but for holding the people under his authority accountable to do the same. Boaz didn’t need a #MeToo movement to recognize the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault and to do the right thing when Ruth showed up in his field.

Boaz goes out of his way, above and beyond what might have been normal or expected, to use his relative wealth, security, and power to affirm Ruth’s dignity and value. He did this in the midst of a world that, like ours, did not always value people who are poor, or immigrants, or minority races and ethnicities, or women.

In this last scene, Ruth goes into town to meet Naomi, her arms overflowing with an entire ephah of barley. That’s thirty or so pounds. Naomi sees how much she has gleaned – enough to feed the two of them for a couple of weeks! Maybe even, as time goes on, enough to sell the extra and obtain money to provide for their other needs beyond food. 

Naomi could have said, this can’t be. I know the Lord afflicted me and brought me back empty. Ruth, what did you do, steal all this? Or maybe, well, that’s more than I expected, but nothing really matters if I am not able to have sons and continue my family line, and I am too old to have sons, and Ruth is a Moabite and I don’t think anyone here will want to marry her. I’ll take some grain and stay alive, but there is still no hope for me. 

Naomi doesn’t react in these ways. Naomi is overjoyed. She can hardly contain her excitement. Where did you glean? Where did you work? You went out this morning looking to find favor with someone who owns a field, and I was praying about it and worrying about all the bad things that could happen to you as you tried, but our prayers have been answered. God has provided for us, and God has worked through someone, some landowner, to do that. Who is he? May God bless him. May God bless him. God is kind, after all. And Boaz! That’s amazing. He isn’t just anyone, Ruth – he’s one of our nearest kin. If he chooses, he can legally help restore to us our land and our family name. Ruth, stay with him. This is good. You have found a work situation where your risk of sexual assault is minimal, and it could have been very high. Stay there. 

This is a new side of Naomi, a hopeful side. It takes courage, to hope.

Do you see these three ordinary people, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, in these three scenes we’ve looked at, living their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage? Do you see Ruth, in her time of transition and great vulnerability, taking courage and initiative? Do you see Boaz, who refused to write Ruth off as a poor person, an immigrant, an enemy, or a woman, but welcomed her into his community, seeing her for who she was, and treating her with honor and dignity? Do you see Naomi, who last chapter wanted to give up on everything, finding new vitality, hope, and sense of God’s presence and provision?

And do you see God, behind the scenes, in everything? God is mentioned directly only through people’s words: when Boaz and his employees bless one another, when Boaz blesses Ruth, and when Naomi blesses Boaz. But God is there, orchestrating Ruth’s gleaning location and the timing of her meeting Boaz; working through Ruth’s extraordinary initiative and courage; working through Boaz’ extraordinary kindness. Do we see God working in these kinds of ways in our lives, or if not, can we take the leap of faith of choosing to believe that God is at work even when we don’t see it? 

In the midst of a time when everyone, and especially the judges, the leaders, of Israel, were doing whatever they saw fit – in a time of evil governments and violence and greed and lawlessness and people not treating each other well – we see Ruth, a poor, immigrant woman, brand new and in transition and on the margins of Bethlehem’s society, exercise her agency as a human being created in the image of the living God; and we see Boaz, a wealthy and powerful man, choose to honor and lift up that agency that Ruth exercises. We see ordinary people taking action and doing difficult things, and God blessing them as they do so.

By the grace of God, may we be people who live our ordinary lives with courage, faithfulness, and agency in the midst of our own difficult and troubling time. And in so doing, may we find the favor of God and be part of God’s work in bringing new hope and life into our world.

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