The Book of Ruth, at four chapters long, is one of the shorter biblical texts, but it is one of my favorites. These four chapters depict God’s deep care for us in a way that is often discussed, but rarely demonstrated in scripture. So often, scripture depicts God’s attention in destructive & communal terms. In the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah, we read page after page, chapter after chapter of speeches about how the people have failed to follow God’s commands, have mistreated the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, sometimes translated as “the alien who resides among you,” perhaps today better described as the immigrant and the refugee. These speeches are, so often, followed by depictions of destruction as God’s judgement on a society that has become focused on wealth and consumption, a society that has put its trust in weapons of war and in military alliances.
Ruth is not such a negative depiction, does not focus on the importance of the community providing care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, or the immigrant, but instead demonstrates that care in the treatment of Naomi, a widow, and Ruth, a widow, and an immigrant.
At the beginning of the story, in the lectionary’s passage for last week, Naomi has seemingly lost everything. She, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, had fled starvation in Bethlehem to seek a better life in Moab, a traditional enemy of Israel. They found some measure of comfort there, and Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Unfortunately, this did not last long, and within ten years of settling in Moab, all three men, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion have died.
Naomi is despondent and tried to send her daughters-in-law away in the hope that they might find security, apparently in the form of a new husband, if they return to their parents. Naomi plans to set out for Bethlehem on her own, but honestly, I’m not sure if she really thought she would arrive or considered what she would do when she got there. Orpah left, but Ruth acted as God’s grace, clinging to Naomi, and following her and providing Naomi with comfort and a reason to keep going.
When the women first arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth also provides food for them both, as Ruth goes out gleaning in the fields, picking up the scraps left behind after the harvest. This practice of gleaning was something like an early form of welfare—the Deuteronomic Code, the system of religious laws laid out in Deuteronomy instructed landowners to leave behind some grain by, for example, not harvesting the corners of the field and not picking up anything they might drop as a means of providing for the poor of any community as well as for travelers who might be passing through.
I suspect, as with anything designed primarily to help other people, compliance with these religious rules about leaving some of the harvest behind, varied. In the second chapter, when Boaz and Ruth first meet, Boaz tells Ruth he has ordered his men to leave her alone and let her take what she can find, but also warns her not to go to other fields, which certainly suggests she would not be received with kindness anywhere else. Boaz has, with this act in the second chapter of Ruth, shown care for both widow and immigrant.
As we return to Naomi, in chapter three, and in today’s lection, we see Naomi begin to take on an aspect of God’s care for Ruth. Ruth has provided both comfort and food to Naomi, and now, Naomi, who in the first chapter said she hoped God would provide security for Orpah and Ruth, decides now that she will be the instrument of God and will provide that security for Ruth.
Naomi hatches a plan. They know, from Boaz’ earlier kindness to Ruth that he is a good man, so Naomi sends Ruth to seduce Boaz. Yes. This is a story of seduction. Many of you are farmers, you should all know that when you hear Naomi tell Ruth “wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes” that Ruth is not coming to help with the work. The story is unclear about just how far this routine goes, but it does tell us in chapter four, the second part of today’s reading, that the gambit paid off. Boaz married Ruth, and in doing so, took on the responsibility of providing for both Ruth and Naomi, not as widows and strangers, but as members of his own family, a family that will, we learn, lead eventually to David and on to Jesus.
Neither Naomi nor Ruth can be described as “letting go and letting God,” but I do not want you to walk away from this story thinking something like “God helps those who help themselves.” Both Naomi and Ruth are active participants in their own salvation, yes, but they are not helping themselves. They are helping each other. Ruth does not stay with Naomi in the expectation that Naomi will find her a husband. Ruth stays with Naomi because Naomi needs someone to stay with her. Ruth stays with Naomi because Naomi is despondent and likely depressed. Ruth stays with Naomi because God’s grace does not abandon us, even, especially, when we fail to see it as grace.
In the same way, Naomi does not come up with her plan to marry Ruth to Boaz to help Naomi, but to help Ruth. These women are God’s instruments of care for each other. May we go and do likewise, seeking ways we can be manifestations and instruments of God’s grace and love for others.