Lessons in Ignoring and Challenging Ruth-less Scripture
A sermon based on Ruth 3:1-4; 4:13-17
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 8, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We’ve just passed the one year mark from our next huge general election. The intense hub-bub that goes along with the presidential elections, the seemingly endless debates and commercials and canvassing have, of course, already begun.
Maybe it’s just because of my vocation, but in these election year cycles I am constantly astonished at the disconnect between the Bible and the religious and political elite who brandish Christianity in elections as their template for living. I am astonished because I rarely hear religious or political elite in campaigns actually champion Christ’s teachings or even the core thrust of the Bible-as-a-whole’s teachings.
It’s great irony to me that these elite tend to claim portions of the Bible as the a be all-end-all guide for others yet hardly seem to apply the Bible to what they promote or propound, let alone produce. Oh, they get all revved up about small pockets of verses that might back up an issue of theirs here or there, but they appear to set aside or ignore what I’d estimate to be well over 90% of the Bible’s primary teachings.
Actually if you think about it, in our political landscape the Bible is almost always loudest referred to in efforts to oppress others, like those of other faiths, people of color, women, LGBTQ, the poor and aliens. Talk about ironic! Most of the Bible is about stopping oppression–it’s not only the very thrust of Jesus’ ministry, but is pretty clearly at the heart of most Bible stories– from freeing the enslaved Hebrews to taking care of widows, orphans, the sick, the poor, the imprisoned and the aliens.
There are for sure a few short oppressive passages in the Bible, but notably they are usually legalistic and minor and not very often lauded as good when woven into Bible stories. In fact I cannot think of a single story Jesus told that advocates any form of oppression against anyone. He does not claim the Bible or God or He want US to oppress those of other faiths, people of color, women, LGBTQ, the poor or aliens. Jesus advocates against oppression – as do the prophets and most the rest of the Bible. Jesus declared at the start that he came to let the oppressed go free! The bottom line is that oppression of others gets a pretty bad rap in the Bible making it odd that in the political field the Bible seems to be primarily used to further oppression.
I’ve mentioned all of this because today’s Lectionary text is from Ruth one of many great stories in the Bible. The Book of Ruth can be seen as an argument against oppression caused by political and religious elite trying to enforce small bits of oppressive Scripture millennia ago. See, political and religious elite have a long and sordid history of missing the point that Jesus, God and the vast majority of the Bible call us away from oppression, not to it.
The story of Ruth shows us what happens when oppressive notions are let go, and replaced with kindness and compassion. Our reading entails the end of the story of Ruth. What is happening when the story picks up is compassion and kindness and love have grown and rewards abound for those who act as God calls us –as the major themes of the Bible guide us– to be. That’s how it all wraps up, but I like the whole story of Ruth and so I read a part as the Children’s story and I want to walk us through a bit of it and help us understand some of the context.
The story takes place in a patriarchy and while the whole of the Bible is about ending oppression, there are some laws within that are oppressive–they make up a relatively small portion– but they are there. Examples relevant to Ruth include women being treated unequally and marriage to foreigners being frowned on. (E.g., Deut. 7:1-4; Ezra 10:2-3).
And some foreigners, like the Moabites, are treated in a few verses as being so loathsome they and their descendants are even banned by Scripture from the Promised land:
No . . . Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD”
That’s Deuteronomy 23(3) “Assembly of the Lord” refers to Israel. (See, NIB Deut 23:3).
Ruth is a woman, a foreigner and a pure blood Moabite. She was married to a Jew. He died. And instead of leaving her Jewish widowed mother-in-law Naomi alone, Ruth vows to stay with her. The vow is beautiful.
Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16-17a)
Ruth is a name that in Hebrew means “friend.” This is the vow of a friend. And remember Ruth the Moabite by definition is not a friend, but a foe according to one or two errant Biblical edicts.
In our political landscape Ruth might be said to be akin to an Syrian Muslim, someone a number of elite tell us we must loath and consider an enemy–even citing Biblical precedence. Yet it is this very type of purported enemy in the story that makes this beautiful vow to Naomi, a widow from the homeland. This story from the start defies the Bible’s seamier side making a loathsome person honorable . . . someone to emulate.
Ruth is not only named “friend,” but acts as friend . . . and is in a real sense portrayed as a savior and a hero. And we see what happens when oppressive Biblical prohibitions against Moabites are not followed, a goodly person some Scripture would oppress is shown to act Godly and people in the homeland benefit.
The author of Ruth is really cool. He goes out of the way to couch the story of this Moabite female widow in the framework of the male-hero-who-marries outline found in other Bible stories. Like many Bible heroes Ruth “leaves home, seeks her fortune, encounters hardships and water is drawn for her.” (Levine 87) And most notably she – that lowly loathsome literal outcast Moabite– acts as God calls us all to act, as a friend, a Ruth. As a result she is a blessing, a blessing to all the world. You see she who was prohibited by obscure minor laws in the Bible ends up the great grandmother of King David and in the direct bloodline of Jesus himself. Pretty awesome stuff for a cultural reject that a few errant Bible verses claim she – and her offspring for ten generations– should be abhorred and unwelcome. There’s a lesson in that alone that those who try to oppress with Bible texts today would well to consider.
As the story of Ruth unfolds –and I highly recommend reading the whole story– we find Ruth at every turn acting kind, caring, compassionate, dedicated, tenacious, brave and resourceful, and at times she is even a bit mischievous, like the male heroes she is partially modeled on and is later an ancestor to.
And actually as we heard, this woman Ruth ends up being considered much more valuable than an ordinary man for the Promised Land. Ruth is proclaimed better for Naomi “than seven sons.” That is an amazingly remarkable assertion, young men of the culture hold no candle to any human being –Gentile or Jew, Male or Female, Rich or Poor, Scripturally abhorrent or not– who’s willing to act as Ruth did. Even a poor Moabite widow can be God’s exemplary actor in the world– notwithstanding those who would oppress her with Scripture that would make us “Ruth-less” (pun intended). The message being anyone can act on behalf of God– regardless of labels and slots the religious and political elite and even Scriptures try to oppress us or anyone else with.
And I want to point out that Ruth is not just a lowly to the culture woman and a loathed in the Bible Moabite, but that she is also someone that elite in many countries have in history been hostile toward. She is a resident alien who is taking welfare.
The Bible –whether we like it or not– actually mandates welfare. At Leviticus 23 (22). The mandate states “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; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God.” Ruth we are told in Chapter 2 wants to glean in Boaz’s fields –that is she hopes to harvest grain from the fallen barley that he leaves as commanded by the Bible for the poor’s welfare.
Picture for a moment someone our political and religious elite might characterize a non-American, non-Christian, Mid-Eastern healthy young woman on welfare in our land. That picture gives us a modern sense of who Ruth was painted out to be in the context of the story. We can get a feel for just how low to the cultural elite the author has made Ruth out to be. But she is God’s agent and the hero in the story.
We see this a lot in Bible stories right? Lowly loathed outcasts are the ones God chooses and through whom God works. The arrogant elite on their high horses looking down their noses at others are not the vehicles for Godly work in the world even if they use Scriptural labels to oppress.
See, cultural labels are a lie. Those whom our elites and culture might have us oppress are equal to us– like us they too have the ability to follow God and be God’s presence in the world. God can work in and through anyone – labels and a few oppressive Scripture texts notwithstanding.
And it’s not saying the oppressed are better. Because Boaz is also a hero in the story too . . . right? But he is heroic because he also kind, caring, compassionate, dedicated, tenacious, brave and resourceful, and even at times a bit mischievous. Boaz gives not only the welfare that is mandated, but the care and compassion that is needed. He treats a Moabite female alien on welfare with respect and care. This has the immediate ripple effect of helping Naomi. It also leads to Boaz and Ruth getting married and having offspring–which as I already mentioned sets up the remarkable lineage to King David.
See the Bible itself doesn’t follow the edict I read from Deuteronomy, if it did David would have been banned from the Assembly of the Lord since he falls within the ten generations banned by that text! And Ruth the Moabite is an ancestor of Jesus. So Boaz and Ruth’s actions of goodness – of Godness – can be said to have led to what we Christians call salvation of the world!
Who knows where little blessings of kindness, of showing extravagant hospitality might lead? Obviously they can lead on and on and on in effect. That’s good news!
One commentator on Ruth points out that “it is clear God’s story only advances through such expressions of hospitality.” 1. Another commentator notes that “Interdependence and trust are explicitly present in this story.” 2. That’s critical. We are all of us in this web of life together, connected by strands of life that really do vibrate and affect all. We. Are. Interdependent.
Ideally, like Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, we act in ways that remove the stigmas that culture puts on people. As we heard in the reading, Obed the son of Ruth and Boaz is washed clean of the stigmas that once stuck to his family, to his mother. 3 Stigma free, Obed becomes the grandfather of David the greatest of all Kings. The Biblical laws against intermarriage and Moabite entrance into Israel and oppressing Moabites to the tenth generation are rendered meaningless. We are clearly shown that ignoring oppressive mandates allows God’s work to get done and that anyone willing to take up the challenge can love in the world.
This is truly a beautiful, powerful, story with much meaning today. We still have some elite trying to hold down women, stop hospitality and oppress with Scripture. When the Bible is used to oppress we can challenge it and that use. We can ignore oppressive verses as invalid In Micah 6 (8) we are told all that God requires of us anything that conflicts with it is suspect. That text unequivocally states “what does the LORD require of [us] but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with . . . God?” This is what Ruth and Boaz do. This is what WE are supposed to do.
And if Scripture verses get in the way of our doing it we can challenge them just as the author of Ruth does and records Boaz–and ultimately God doing. Christ calls us to the same thing as Micah 6, but simplifies it further, telling us to love everybody. Micah and Jesus’ and the Bible story of Ruth can be heard to teach that we need to live in a world the Apostle Paul famously describes a world where,
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)
May we all live toward that very world. May we be kind, caring, compassionate, dedicated, tenacious, brave and resourceful, and even at times a bit mischievous and willing to ignore and challenge scripture that might make us Ruth-less. Amen
1. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4, p 268
2. Ibid at 270.
3. See, e.g., Levin, Amy Jill, Women’s Bible Commentary, 90.
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