Ruth 1:1-11, 14-21
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?... 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But 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. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
This is a strange story for scout Sunday, but it is a story about welcome and we’re glad to welcome you here. Thanks to the Girl Scouts for your beautiful music. And thanks to our Cub Scouts for collecting our food offering in a few minutes. This church is better because of what you do here and in the community every week.
In some ways Ruth and Naomi’s story is hard to understand. The customs and places seem very far from our lives. At its root, though, this story is as relevant as the news, especially as our country discusses and debates immigration policy and social programs that support those in need. Naomi and her family immigrate to Moab when a famine threatened their survival. Later Ruth follows her mother in law back to Naomi’s land, where she is an immigrant herself. She left her home and relatives behind to support her mother in law, and they make a life together.
Women who aren’t married, whether single or widowed like Ruth and Naomi, are still more likely to live in poverty than men or married couples. In those days it was even harder for women to survive on their own. That’s one of the reasons the Bible talks about widows so often; they were one of the most vulnerable groups in ancient times and because of that, they were (and are) especially close to God’s heart.
We can imagine Naomi and Ruth getting to know each other at a deeper level during the walk back to Bethlehem and as they settle into Naomi’s old house. Soon after they get to Bethlehem Ruth announces that she is going to do something to keep them alive. She is going to take advantage of the harvest season by gleaning.
Gleaning was going through someone’s field and picking up what they had dropped or left behind. It was one of ancient Israel’s social safety nets for people in need. God’s law taught that landowners should only go over their fields or grapevines or olive trees once when they harvested. They shouldn’t work until they got every last morsel; instead the grapes and grain that they left behind were meant for the poor. In addition, landowners were not supposed to harvest the corners of their fields at all to leave something extra for the poor and for immigrants.
Ruth knows this is a way she can support Naomi, so she sets off to the nearest field to glean. It’s hard work, and she’s a little afraid the other workers might make fun of her for her poverty or her accent. She’s a little afraid because sometimes bad things happen to a vulnerable woman on her own.
As it happens, the field she starts gleaning in belongs a man named Boaz and he owns a lot of land. Ruth notices right away that he is kind to his workers. When he asks who she is, the supervisor tells Boaz that Ruth is Naomi’s daughter in law from Moab and that she’s been hard at work in the fields all day gleaning.
Boaz welcomes Ruth warmly and invites her to share the table with the workers at lunch time. He tries to make her feel at home, even though she still feels a little awkward, a little like she’s imposing. As the workers finish eating and head back to the field Boaz pulls his supervisor aside. He tells him to keep an eye on Ruth to make sure no one picks on her, to make sure the men keep their hands to themselves. He also tells him to make her gleaning a little easier by dropping some extra bundles of grain on purpose. At the end of the day as the sun starts to sink in the sky Ruth gets ready to go home to Naomi. She hasn’t done badly, but she’s not sure how long the grain will last.
Boaz walks over to her and fills her cloak with as much grain as she can carry. Ruth doesn’t know what to say. She’s even a little nervous about what he might be thinking. Boaz says to her, “My daughter, I’ve heard how good you have been to your mother in law Naomi. I’ve heard how you left your home behind to stay with her. I pray God will be good to you for your faithfulness. Come back tomorrow and glean in my field again. In fact, I know life can be dangerous for a young woman. Glean in my fields for the whole harvest. The women who work here will treat you well; they won’t bother you and they’ll keep you safe.” Ruth doesn’t know what to say, but she thanks and blesses Boaz and then makes her way home with plenty of grain for the week.
When she gets back to Naomi she tells her the whole story. Naomi thanks God and explains that Boaz is actually related to them through Naomi’s husband. They go to sleep that night feeling better about their chances.
The next morning and the days after that Ruth goes out to glean leaving Naomi at home thinking about her life and her daughter in law. Like a mother, she worries about Ruth in the heat, but she feels better knowing she is in Boaz’s fields. She’s sad not only for all she has lost, but for Ruth and Orpah who have been cut off from their husbands in the prime of life.
As Naomi waits for Ruth to come home day after day, a plan starts to form. She thinks about Boaz, her husband’s cousin. By Israel’s tribal system he has the right to redeem. That means he is related closely enough to buy the land her husband owned so the land can stay in the family. That would give them some money to live on instead of sitting on land they can’t afford to plant or harvest.
As kinsman redeemer Boaz also has the legal obligation to marry Ruth. More than that, Ruth and Boaz’s first son would count as Ruth’s first husband’s son. That seems really weird, but in those days in Israel it was very important to keep a family connected with their land.
The more Naomi hears about Boaz and his kindness to Ruth, the better Naomi feels about her plan. Not only will it give Ruth lasting security and preserve Naomi’s husband’s family line, Boaz is also a good man who will support Ruth in other ways too. After all the heartache and uncertainty, maybe there’s a way for Ruth to be safe and even happy. She thinks and worries and wonders. The outline of the plan comes together. Then Ruth comes through the door carrying another load of grain to last them another week.
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. 2Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3Now 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. 4When 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.” 5She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
6So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!
9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” 10He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.
11And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. 12But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. 13Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”
14So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
True to his word, Boaz talks with the other relative the next day. The other man says he cannot marry Ruth because raising a child for Ruth’s first husband, as he would have to do as redeemer, might mess up his inheritance. So he renounces his right to redeem and Boaz buys Naomi’s land and marries Ruth. Their first son is King David’s grandfather. Before we go any further, do you have any questions?
When you strip away all the customs and laws, this is a story about two women on the edge of disaster, taking care of each other. They have both been through incredible loss, but they are there for each other. When it comes to biology, Naomi and Ruth are not related, but when it comes to love; they are truly mother and daughter.
Family is important, but family is more than genes and blood and where we grow up. Family is made by life events, by choice, by what seems like chance. Family is made by God. People come into our life everyday. Some drift right back out, some stay for a while, and some become family.
Naomi and Ruth don’t know what the future holds. They have been through incredible heartache and the way ahead is dangerous. So they look out for each other and they keep going. In a time and culture where men ruled, these two women had each other, and that was enough.
We have chances every day to follow their example of courage, care and loyalty. Comfort a coworker who seems down. Come to our Café and eat with someone who is lonely. Visit someone who doesn’t get out anymore. Struggle through misunderstanding to rebuild a relationship. Laugh with a senior; mentor a child. Make friends with someone unpopular. Stand up for justice. Keep moving forward when you don’t understand the future. Chose love over fear; chose courage over despair; chose loyalty over ease.
God works through our choices and through our relationships. God works through surprises and through mistakes. God sometimes works in obvious ways and often in ways we can’t understand. In the fellowship of a camping trip or a pinewood derby, in the care of babysitting of the challenge of competition, God is working. Each step you take towards love, towards truth, brings you a step closer to being the person God wants you to be. Each step towards community brings us one step closer to home.
Thanks be to God.