Ruth 3-4 (pay close attention to 3:1-5, and 4:13-17, the RCL selection for Sunday, November 8th).
It’s a story David probably heard many times sitting around the fire at night after the sheep had been penned in, the dishes washed, the backs of his ears rubbed raw with cleaning. A story about his Great-Grandma Ruth, a story he knew almost as good as he knew his own.
Frederick Buechner retells the story like this… (give it a read before reading on. Buechner’s ability to make relatable old stories like Ruth’s is incomparable).
Our reading of scripture can, at times, feel pretty patriarchal. Our stories are usually dominated by the big guys: Moses, David, Peter, and Paul. We pore over the prophecies of Isaiah and Nehemiah, Jonah and Jeremiah.
If we are honest with ourselves and our tradition, women come up, generally speaking, in their relationships with the men we read about: Miriam dances after Moses has led them across the Red Sea. Rachel becomes Jacob’s wife. Even Mary carries and gives birth to our savior.
Most Sundays, “We recall with ease the narratives of Scripture that include a triumphant climax- a battle won, a giant slain, chariots swallowed up by the sea. But for all its glory and grandeur, the Bible contains a darkness you will only notice if you pay attention, for it is hidden in the details, whispered in the stories of women” (Evans 62).
Stories like Ruth’s give us a narrative where a woman’s voice is placed front and center, showing us “the resourcefulness of women despite a patriarchal system that intentionally works against them” (Wines).
Up to this point, Ruth has been hard at work, gleaning leftovers from the field barley field. Naomi and her family fled the land years before because of famine, but now that she and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem, the famine is over, and the harvest is once again going at full steam. According to the law in Leviticus, there were certain rules that were required to be followed at the harvest. Leviticus 19:9-10: “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 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.” In other words, as the workers were at their work gathering the grain and the barley, inevitably some would fall to the ground.
Every fall growing up, my parents would get my brother, sister, and I working in the yard collecting fallen leaves before the first snow (funny how in my memory, I always ended up working alone while my brother and sister were off doing something else…). We would collect the leaves into giant bags one armful at a time, yet inevitably a few handfuls of leaves would disembody from the larger mass, and we would have to go back, time and again, to gather up the stragglers.
I imagine this was the type of problem the harvesters encountered, and still encounter today. However, they were commanded not to pick up the leftovers. At the end of the day, the poor, widows, and aliens among them were allowed into the fields to gather up the remains for their own use.
God shows here a “tender heart for the outcast- or the one who feels unworthy” (Minter 49). Writer Kelly Minter notes that, “God has always been concerned about the lowly, the poor, the outsider. If we didn’t understand this about God’s heart, we might think it odd for Ruth to have been given the liberty of gleaning from a field in Bethlehem Judah” (Minter 49).
Our lectionary passage this morning describes what happens later in the story. Naomi gives Ruth instructions on how to, in pretty plain terms, “heat things up” between herself and Boaz. Naomi is concerned about Ruth’s future security and desires that she should be cared for. She instructs Ruth to wash and perfume herself, put on her best clothes, and go down to the threshing floor.
Minter points out that, “The threshing floor is an interesting place for Naomi to have sent Ruth, especially under the cover of dark. This was not like sending her to church for single’s pizza night. In ancient Israel, especially during winnowing season, the threshing floor was often linked with sexual activity. Since men would sleep next to their piles of grain, prostitutes knew this to be a place where they could offer their services, making it a compromising and suggestive environment” (95). Additionally, Naomi told her not to go over to Boaz “until he has finished eating and drinking.” In other words, wait until he’s had a nightcap or two and his inhibitions are a bit lowered. Who knew scripture could be so tantalizing!
Naomi has given Ruth instructions that are leading her into an incredibly risky, vulnerable situation. Yet it is this risk, this trust she places in her mother-in-law that leads Ruth to a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. By putting everything on the line, she shows “the resourcefulness of women” in the face of an oppressive patriarchy (Wines).
We can easily look at this passage as a scandalous moment in scripture, but a couple of things point us away from this understanding. First, Boaz is described as a good and upright man. While “the NRSV tells us he is a ‘rich’ man, the Hebrew may or may not imply that. It says he is an ‘ish chayil,’ perhaps a “man of quality and strength. Ruth herself will later be termed an ‘ishah chayilah,’ a woman of the same qualities; that connection appears to be more important than a question of money” (Holbert). There is a sense that Ruth and Boaz were fated to come together, to find each other in the midst of tragedy, and from their union, comes joy and praise of Yahweh.
Second, we should pay attention to the part of Naomi’s instructions where she tells Ruth to “put on your best clothes.” In her study of Ruth, Minter points us to “Scholar Daniel I. Block [who] has some fascinating insight: ‘It appears that Naomi is hereby advising Ruth to end her period of mourning over her widowhood and get on with normal life… It may well be that until this time Ruth had always worn the garments of widowhood, even when she was working in the field. Perhaps this was the reason for Boaz’s inertia. As an upright man, he would not violate a woman’s right to grieve the loss of her husband nor impose himself upon her until she was ready. We know too little about how long widows would customarily wear their mourning clothes, but it may be that Naomi is now telling Ruth the time has come to doff her ‘garments of widowhood’’” (98).
We all have moments that are difficult and painful which we are reluctant or unable to move forward from. Losing a spouse; a lingering illness; a painful and embarrassing encounter. We all have had times where we have worn mourning clothes.
In Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, the tragic hero of Prince Hamlet is often portrayed as wearing all black or dark colors in mourning for his father, the murdered King Hamlet. Early in the play, his mother, Queen Gertrude, begs him to “cast thy nighted colour off” (I.ii.69). In fact, it is partly Hamlet’s inability to move past his father’s death, his inability to see joy in anything that leads to his own death.
Ruth challenges us to listen for “God [asking] us to take off our clothes of mourning, clinging, grasping, wishing hoping, striving, even praying for something… and move forward” (Minter 98). This is not to say that our grieving processes are different and unique to each of us. Some of us “have walked Ruth’s exact journey of a dire loss… [and] My simple hope is when god has held us, healed us, and lifted our heads, that we’d be ready to move forward with Him; and though our hearts may always ache, we won’t stay in our mourning clothes forever” (Minter 99).
We should look at Ruth’s story and be inspired by God’s grace and love at having drastically and dramatically lifted a woman from being a foreigner, a maidservant, a maiden, to a wife (Minter 133).
There is much to be learned by looking into the dark and over-shadowed places in scripture. Many of these places we have forgotten; “[we] have forgotten that the concubine of Bethlehem, the raped princess of David’s house, the daughter of Jephthah, and the countless unnamed women who lived and died between the lines of Scripture exploited, neglected, ravaged, and crushed at the hand of patriarchy are as much a part of our shared narrative as Deborah, Esther, Rebekah, and Ruth. We may not have a ceremony through which to grieve them, but it is our responsibility… to guard the dark stories for our own daughters, and when they are old enough, to hold their faces between our hands and make them promise to remember” (Evans 66).
In Great-Grandma Ruth’s story, David was reminded of the importance of honoring the widow and the alien, something he did better at some points of his royal reign than at others. In her story, we are reminded of God’s love and preference for the downtrodden, and the ways in which He richly blesses those who follow Him faithfully. Amen.
*NOTE: If you want to read another take on Ruth’s story, head on over to: http://elenateresaann.com/lost-found/ Amazing writer, beautiful soul! (full disclosure: she’s my wife! She wrote this before we knew each other, though!)
Buechner, Frederick. “Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ruth.” Weekly Sermon Illustration: Ruth. Frederickbuechner.com, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-ruth>.
Evans, Rachel Held. A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “master” Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. Print.
Holbert, John C. “Fully a Woman’s Tale.” Patheos.com. N.p., 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Fully-a- Womans-Tale-John-C-Holbert-11-02-2015>.
Minter, Kelly. Ruth: Loss, Love & Legacy. Nashville: LifeWay, 2009. Print.
Wines, Alphonetta. “Commentary on Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 by Alphonetta Wines.” Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 Commentary. Working Preacher, 08 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary_id=2617>.