Ruth 2 – Clutching at Straws
Last week, I said that Ruth was kind of like a romantic comedy. It’s more like a mini-series, than a movie, so for those who missed out, or who need a reminder, last week in the book of Ruth:
There was a famine in Bethlehem, so Elimelech took his family to live in Moab. Then tragically he died, leaving Naomi to raise their two sons. When the boys became men they married Moabite women, and then they too tragically died. Hearing the Lord has remembered his people and the famine is over, Naomi decided to head home. She convinced Orpah to leave her, but Ruth ‘wed’ herself to Naomi. The two women returned to Bethlehem in time for the harvest, where they caused quite a stir in town. And now, their adventure continues…
But before it does, at the start of chapter 2 we’re introduced to a new character, Boaz. He’s a striking figure, a man of means. He’s got wealth, integrity and respect in the community. In verse 1, there’s no indication of exactly how he’ll figure into the story. But the writer leaves plenty of hints as to his significance. Twice it’s mentioned that he’s related to Naomi’s former husband Elimelech.
In verse 2, the scene cuts back to Ruth and Naomi. IN contrast to Boaz, they’ve got nothing. They have no money and no standing in society. They have no means of making a living and there’s no social security or Centrelink Office to go to. They’re surrounded by wheat and barley, but they’re left clutching at straws.
At first it might seem like Ruth is proposing that she go out and beg. ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour,’ she says to Naomi in verse 2. But actually, it’s clear that even though she was a Moabite convert, Ruth knew her Old Testament law, well enough to know that God had made provisions in it for the care of the widow, the outcast and the alien. So, we read in Leviticus 19:9-10:
9When 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. 10You 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. – Lev. 19:9-10
If you’ve ever harvested a crop of any kind, or mown a lawn, you’ll know it’s pretty much impossible to get a 100% on the first go. The edges are fiddly and there’s always a few spots that you miss in the middle. In Leviticus God commands his people to leave these bits for those in need. When you think of it, it’s a win-win situation. The labourers don’t have to fiddle with the tricky bits and those in need can walk by the side of the land and pick what’s left in order to survive.
But the motive for this command isn’t social or economic policy. It has its foundation in God’s character. Did you notice that in the last words there? ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Leviticus 19 is full of instructions to govern domestic, social, religious, economic and personal aspects of life. And each one ends with the refrain, ‘I am the Lord your God.’ The character of God is meant to manifest itself in the lives of his people. God doesn’t just give us rules that he demands we obey. He shows us what he’s like and then asks us to follow him, to live and love as he would. God rescues slaves, heals the sick, cares for the poor, the helpless and the needy and he expects us to do the same.
I’ve tried this week to think of what an equivalent law of gleaning would be for us today, especially given none of us, or few of us, are involved in agriculture. At first I thought it might be something like leaving a tip at a restaurant or café. But it’s not quite the same.
Then, I came up with a better idea, it’s one I invite you to join me in. Can you see what this is? I know they’re so tiny it’s hard to tell. It’s five cents. Actually, it’s two five-cent pieces. You can’t actually buy anything with it. A five-cent piece is about the most annoying bit of change you get, and it’s seems to be good for nothing but clogging up wallets. What about if we collected these? Not to pay for a bun at the bakery as I saw someone doing this week. What if we collected them and at the end of the year, or whenever the container’s full, gave that money to those in need. Like leaving a few ears of wheat behind it’s an easy thing to do.
I have to say though this doesn’t replace the call to be generous with all that we have. I’m not giving you permission to replace your regular offering with just five cents every now and then! The provision for gleaning was just one among many, including the sabbatical year, the year of Jubilee and the regular array of tithes and offerings that God called his people to make. My proposal is to make this a voluntary, easy to the point of unthinking, extra giving that you might like to join me in.
Ruth’s ready to clutch at straws and with Naomi’s blessing she heads out. She just so happens to come to the field owned by Boaz. We might say it’s blind luck, but writer of Ruth wants us to see it’s more an act of God’s providence than it is pure coincidence. And again, we get a glimpse at the character of Ruth. Even though the law stated that she would be allowed to glean from the leftovers, she doesn’t presume, but asks permission of the foreman. Then she sets to work and doesn’t stop.
Then over the hill appears Boaz. He’s come to check on the progress of the harvest, and as we’ll see next week to join in the labour. As he arrives, how does he greet his labourers? His first words aren’t, ‘How’s the harvest going?’, or ‘Get back to work!’ His first words are, ‘The Lord be with you.’ He’d make a good Anglican! Though his servants wouldn’t. Instead of replying ‘And also with you,’ what do they say? ‘The Lord bless you.’ I guess we can allow that! This little exchange shows us an insight into the character of Boaz. He sees even daily labour as something that we do in the context of faith in God. He sees a blessing used in worship is appropriate even in the workplace. For him there’s no separation between the secular and the sacred.
After greeting his men, this woman catches his eye. If this were a Hollywood movie, they’re eyes would meet across the field. A ray of sunshine would shine down on Ruth and she’d look like she’d just stepped off the runway, and not like she’d been working hard all day. As it is, there’s no sense yet of any romantic interest. Boaz is just curious, but once he’s found out who this strange woman is, he doesn’t sit back.
Boaz instructs Ruth to keep gleaning from his fields and to stick close to his workers. From his orders to his men not to bother her in verse 9 and what Naomi says in verse 22 it’s clear that there’s been some risk involved in what Ruth has done. While the law decreed that care should be taken of the outsider and the widow, there’s no guarantee people would behave accordingly. Ruth could easily have been taken advantage of by someone less upright than Boaz.
Rather than take advantage of her, Boaz says she should take advantage of him, or at least his workers. He says when she’s thirsty she should drink the water his young men draw up. Later on, in verse 14, he invites her to lunch and he makes sure she not only has enough to eat for herself, but that there’s leftovers to take home to Naomi.
After that Boaz goes even further than what the law required. He instructs his servants to not only allow her to glean the leftovers, but tells them to deliberately pull out sheaves of barley and wheat and leave them for her. At the end of the day, the extent of his generosity is clear. Ruth beats out what she’s gathered and it was about an ephah of barley. That’s probably a bit under 15kgs! It’s more than generous. Ruth set out clutching at straws, but she’d ended the day with a whole lot more.
If last week we saw Ruth was a model for us, of how ordinary people doing ordinary things can be used by God for his extraordinary purposes, the same is true for Boaz in chapter 2. He’s a model for us of faithful obedience to God is about more than following the letter of the law. At our Wednesday service this week we were discussing the failings of the Pharisees when they condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had raised strict interpretation and application of the law to an art form. In their mind, strict obedience to the law was paramount. But Boaz stands against that as model of obedience that springs from love. His character is modelled on God’s character. Our character should be modelled on God’s character too. We should love God with our whole heart, and then we should love our neighbour as he loves them.
The cynic might say hang on a minute, Boaz only did all this to woe Ruth. But look again at what he says in verse 11. He’s heard of Ruth’s faithfulness and commitment to Naomi, how she has left her own family and land and religion, and came to a people that she did not know before. He prays that God will reward her, that she will have a full reward from the God whose wings she has come under for refuge! Little does he realise at this point that he is the means by which God will reward Ruth and Naomi, but more of that next week! For now, Boaz rewards Ruth through his care and generosity.
When Ruth gets home and shows off her haul, Naomi’s more than surprised. She exclaims in verse 19, ‘Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ But then when she hears that that man was Boaz, her response is even stronger. Now she sees God’s hand at work. The Lord in his kindness has not forsaken the living of the dead! The word kindness is a translation of the same word we saw last week, hesed. It means more than ‘niceness’ or ‘politeness’. It’s loving-kindness. It’s faithful, covenantal love. It’s used throughout the Bible to describe God’s merciful, gracious care of his people. It’s the same word used in the last verse of Psalm 23, ‘Surely goodness and kindness (hesed) will follow me all the days of my life.’
Naomi sees the grace of God at work in the generosity of this wealthy farmer. How might others see the grace of God in our generous acts as we reflect God’s hesed to the world? What’s more, Naomi sees God’s loving-kindness, in this ‘coincidence.’ For, Boaz isn’t just a nice man, he’s one of their relatives. He isn’t just of the family of Elimelech, he is one of their nearest kin.
In this romantic comedy mini-series, chapter 2 shows the first hints of God’s provision for Naomi and Ruth. They’ve come home empty handed. But now they have the first signs of hope. They’re clutching at straws, literally and figuratively. But as they do, they pray to the God who loves his people and who loves showing kindness and mercy towards them. But you’ll have to tune in next week to see just how he does it!
O Lord our God,
Let the shelter of your wings give us hope. Protect us and uphold us. Help us to trust in you and your gracious provision. When you are our strength, we are strong. Strengthen us to love you and to show your love to those around us. This we pray in Jesus name, Amen.