A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on November 11, 2012.
The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
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 (NRSV).
Last week we got started on the story of Ruth. Today I want to tell the rest of the story, but I want to back up a little bit and begin with Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Look at things from her perspective, if you will.
She was living with her husband Elimelech in Bethlehem when the famine came, and if you’ve never lived through a famine you may not know how devastating it can be to watch your crops turn to dust in the field, to have nothing to put in your storehouse, or to hear your children calling out from their bedrooms at night, “Mommy, I’m hungry!” Elimelech did the only thing he could think of: he took his family across the Jordan to the land of Moab, where he had heard there was food. There was food, apparently, but the next thing we hear in the story is that Elimelech has died. And now put yourself in Naomi’s shoes—a single parent struggling for survival in a foreign land. It couldn’t have been easy for her. She did the best she could. Somehow she managed to raise her boys and get them married off to a couple of the local girls. But ten years later both of those boys died, leaving Naomi with nothing except those two Moabite daughters-in-law. At least one commentator has pointed out that Naomi is female equivalent of Job: she was a woman of sorrow, acquainted with grief.
But when she starts back to Bethlehem her daughters-in-law start back with her. She tells them to go home, reminds them she has nothing to offer them, and one of them does go home but the other one, Ruth, clings to Naomi and says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” As I suggested last week, Ruth may have been God’s way of reminding Naomi that she was not alone, and Naomi may have been more grateful than she was able to say. “When she saw that [Ruth] was determined to go with her,” the Bible says, “she said no more.” And so these two made the long journey back to Bethlehem, came limping into town with little more than the clothes on their backs. People must have stared at them as they came into town, and someone finally said, “Is this Naomi?” But she said, “Don’t call me Naomi (which means, “pleasant”). Call me Mara (which means, “bitter”), for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me “pleasant” when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20-21).
If Naomi still had a house in town, it must have been a disaster. After sitting empty for twenty years it would have been full of dust and cobwebs and who knows what else. I can picture those two women going to work, trying to make that house into a home, but even when they had done their best it wouldn’t have been much to look at, and the cupboard would have been bare. But it was springtime, the beginning of the barley harvest, and early the next morning Ruth said to her mother-in-law, “Let me go out and glean in the fields. Maybe I can bring home something to eat.” And Naomi said, “Go, my daughter.” Now Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, had a wealthy cousin named Boaz, and it just so happened that Ruth ended up gleaning in his field. When Boaz came out to see how the harvest was going he saw Ruth and said, “Who is that?” (or, possibly, “Who is that!?” because Ruth was, apparently, a looker). And they said, “That’s the Moabite woman who came back with Naomi. She asked us if she could glean in the field and we said yes. She’s been at it since early this morning and hasn’t taken a break.”
Now, Boaz had heard about Ruth. In fact, she and Naomi had been the talk of the town. And so he went out to the field and said, “Listen, my daughter, don’t worry about gleaning in any other field. Stay in this one, and stay close behind my reapers. There should be plenty for you here. And if you get tired, take a break, and if you get thirsty, get some water.” And Ruth said, “Why are you being so kind to me, a foreigner?” But Boaz said, “I’ve heard how you’ve been taking care of your mother-in-law, and how you left your father and mother to come with her to a strange land. May the God of Israel bless you for it, and may you find protection and providence under his wings!” And Ruth said, “You’re too kind. Really.”
But Boaz was just getting started. In the middle of the day he invited her to come have lunch with the reapers. He gave her some bread, and some sour wine to dip it in, and more parched grain than she could eat. And when she wasn’t listening he told his reapers to leave a little extra for her in the field, so that at the end of the day she took home almost a bushel of barley. Naomi said, “Child, where did you glean today!” And when Ruth told her it was in Boaz’s field she said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! That man is one of our closest kin! You should stay in his field for the rest of the harvest!” And that’s what Ruth did. She gleaned in his field during the barley harvest and on through the wheat harvest. For two months she brought home nearly a bushel of grain a day until Naomi’s house must have been fairly running over with the stuff, like the story about Elisha and the poor widow who filled every pot and pan in her house with oil. And that’s when Naomi says, “Ruth, Sweetie…you’ve done so much for me. Let me do something for you. Let me help you get a man.”
She said, “Tonight Boaz will be winnowing barley at the threshing floor. I want you to take a bath, and put on some perfume, and get into your prettiest dress, and then I want you to go down there and wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking, in fact, wait until he lies down for the night, until he’s sound asleep, and then go lie at his feet. He’ll tell you what to do.” And that’s what Ruth did. She took a long, hot bath, put on her prettiest dress, dabbed a little perfume behind each ear, and then went down to the threshing floor to wait. Boaz had worked up an appetite threshing barley. He ate and drank and ate and drank and when he got up from the table he was feeling no pain. He stumbled over to that heap of barley, lay down, covered himself with a blanket, and fell into a deep sleep. In fact, he was so sound asleep that he didn’t even notice when Ruth slipped under the covers. But in the middle of the night he rolled over, felt something at his feet, pulled back the blanket, and—lo and behold—there was a woman!
He said, “Who are you?” And she said, “It’s me: Ruth!” And then she asked Boaz to do something he could hardly believe: she asked him to marry her. She did it in an old-fashioned way. She asked him to “spread his cloak” over her, which was a way of asking him to protect and provide for her, especially since he was next-of-kin. It’s the same kind of thing he had said to her in the beginning when he said he hoped the Lord would “spread his wings” over her, protect and provide for her. But he could hardly believe his good fortune. Here was this young, beautiful, sweet-smelling Moabite woman, sitting at his feet in the moonlight, looking up at him with those big brown eyes, asking him to marry her. He said, “Bless you, child! You didn’t go running after some young, good-looking man—rich or poor. You came to me. And I’m not going to let the opportunity pass. I’ll do everything you ask, only…there is one thing.” “What’s that?” Ruth asked. And then Boaz explained that even though he was close kin there was someone closer than he was, who had the legal right to Elimelech’s property, up to and including his daughter-in-law. “I’ll talk to him about it in the morning,” Boaz said, “but for tonight stay right where you are.”
And she did. She stayed there until just before daylight the next morning, and when she got up to go Boaz gave her six measures of barley to take home with her. Poor Naomi! She’d been pacing the floor all night, and when Ruth opened the door she said, “How did it go?” Ruth told her the whole story, and showed her the six measures of barley, and Naomi said, “Don’t worry. Boaz will settle this matter today. That’s just how he is.” And, sure enough, Boaz went up to the city gate where all official business was conducted. And no sooner had he sat down than along came the fellow who had first dibs on Ruth. “Hey,” he said. “Come over and sit down for a minute.” And he did. And then Boaz called over some witnesses and said to the fellow, “Naomi, who came back from the land of Moab, is selling some property that belonged to her husband. She offered it to me but you really are next-of-kin, and if you want it you can have it.” “I’ll take it,” the fellow said. “Well, not so fast,” Boaz countered. “If you take the land you also have to take Ruth, Elimelech’s daughter-in-law, so that the inheritance stays in the family.” “Well,” said the man, “I don’t want to do that. You take it.” And then he did this thing they used to do in those days: he took off his sandal and held it out to Boaz as a sign that he was giving him what was rightfully his.
And Boaz said to those who had gathered around: “You saw that, didn’t you? He just gave me his property rights. And so I lay claim to the piece of land that belonged to Elimelech, and I also lay claim to Ruth, his daughter-in-law.” And they all said, “We’ve seen it with our own eyes, and heard every word that was said. And now may the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who built up the house of Israel; and may you become the father of many children, and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem; and through this woman Ruth may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” And, sure enough, no sooner had Ruth and Boaz gotten married than she conceived in her womb, and the Lord gave them a beautiful little boy named Obed. Naomi would hold that boy in her arms, and look down on that precious face, and marvel at what the Lord had done for her, how the bitterness of her life had become sweet again, and how—for the first time in a long time—the future looked bright with promise.
Did you know that little boy grew up to become the father of Jesse? And did you know that Jesse grew up to become the father of David, the greatest king who ever lived in Israel? That means that Ruth was David’s great-grandmother, but that’s not all she was. There is a word in this story, a technical term that is used to describe Boaz. It’s the Hebrew word ga’al (gah-ALE). It means “kinsman-redeemer.” And according to my study Bible it is “a close relative who takes responsibility for protecting the rights of a family in the absence of the head of the household. This usually involves the buying back of property, the redeeming of slaves, or the avenging of murder.”[i] So, the ga’al is the one who takes care of the widows and orphans, the one who helps them get their land back, helps them get their honor back, helps them get their life back.
In the Book of Ruth Boaz is the ga’al, at least he has that title, but it’s Ruth, isn’t it, who helps everybody get back what they’ve lost? Look at what she does for Naomi. At one point in this story Naomi has nothing—she’s lost her husband, she’s lost her sons—she even kisses her daughters-in-law goodbye and starts back toward Bethlehem alone but Ruth won’t let her. She clings to her and says to her, “Where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” It’s Ruth who fills Naomi’s empty house with wheat and barley, and it’s Ruth who fills Naomi’s empty arms with a beautiful baby boy. The women of the neighborhood say to her, “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.”
And look at old Boaz. He was rich in many things, but poor in the things that matter most. And then along came this lovely young Moabite woman who asked him to marry her. He could hardly believe his ears! You can almost see how eager he is to take her up on her offer, as if he thought his wedding day would never come. Can you picture him standing with Ruth under the canopy while the priest pronounces them husband and wife? Can you see him blushing with pleasure as they head off on their honeymoon? Can you see him in the family portrait, holding his son in his arms? He didn’t know how empty his life had been until Ruth filled it full, and in all of this there she was, working quietly, steadily, to redeem the lives of those around her.
She was the great-grandmother of David. Years and years later another boy was born in Bethlehem who was called the Son of David, and just like his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Ruth,[ii] he went to work quietly, steadily, redeeming everything and everyone around him, taking empty lives and filling them full, just as he always has…
…just as he always will.
[i] The HarperCollins Study Bible.
[ii]That’s 34 “greats,” based on the genealogy in Matthew, chapter 1, and the research of a guy named David Marshall in Columbia, SC.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.