Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gleaning Hope In A Just Society (Hope in Ruth chapter 2)

I have to admit that I'm not that interested in US politics, despite the fact that it does get shoved down our throats in the seemingly endless processes of a presidential election year. However I found myself actually quite captivated by the 2008 US elections. I even watched the demo0cratic convention that year. As it was a profound moment in American and world history, with the nomination of the first black presidential candidate, his nomination being endorsed by the first woman to seriously have a shot at running for president. I’ve took the opportunity to listen to the keynote speeches from that convention, not just because I’m interested in the historical moment but also out of professional curiosity. There were some amazing examples of oratory. Speeches that cast vision, that inspired, that were designed to broadcast hope , that have the potential to initiate change. Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barrack Obama himself.  They talked of the big issues the big problems, that they face on a national level and we face on a global level.

 One thing stuck in my mind as they articulated their dream for a more just society and the thing that stuck in my mind was two vinaigrette's in Hilary Clinton’s speech.

She talked of meeting the solo mother of two who had cancer and couldn’t get health insurance or medicare and this inspired her to keep on fighting for universal medical care, she talked of meeting a young marine wrestling with injuries and sickness from his national service, which did not get the medical treatment he deserved he told Hillary to fight for his buddies. Possibly just good political rhetoric, good speech writing,exploitative even the cynic in me says, but it reminded me of the book of Ruth. In the swirl of all this big vast happenings the sweeping tide of history,  that the plight and sufferings of individuals, matter. In the telling of the big story, God’s dealings with his people Israel, God working out his plans and purposes for all humanity, that the plight and suffering of one widow and her daughter in law matters.

You see one of the things that the book of Ruth does is that telescopes all the goodness and grace and sovereignty of God that we may think is all about the big things down to the fact that God cares for the individual. God cares for the suffering and the sorrow filed. He cares about the empty the bitter. It gives hope empty hands and empty hearts can be filled. No future can become a profound future, what happens to us here and now may seem meaningless and non consequential and yes harsh  in the torrent of world affairs but in God we don’t know the good that will come, beyond the dark night of our soul, even in generations to come.

The book of Ruth also says that what we do the decisions we make the actions we take in our everyday lives also matter. YHWH, Israel’s God is the key character in this book, but his grace, his purposes and plans his kindness and faithfulness are portrayed in this book, not miraculously or overtly but in the decisions and actions and words of human beings. Naomi the other main character in the story, is left an impoverished and destitute widow, her husband and then her two sons die while she is living in Moab because of a famine in Bethlehem. It hurts so much that she wants to go out to deed poll and change her name from pleasant, Naomi to Mara, bitter. As we saw last week hope steps into that situation, firstly because in 1:6 it says that the LORD again provided food for his people and secondly because of the loyalty and kindness shown to Naomi by her daughter in law Ruth who in those most profound and wonderful words, spoken not from the stage with the aid of speech writers and teleprompters, but through tear filled eyes and grief stricken heart, where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God will be my God. Hope steps into the story through the loving kindness shown by another human being. God’s hope steps into the story in the kindness and faithfulness of others, of people like you and me.

As we turn to look at the second instalment, (see Ruth Chapter 1) the second scene in the playing out of Naomi’s story we see that hope comes through the justice and mercy of another character that we are introduced to at the start of the chapter: Boaz. Boaz we are told is a leader in the clan that Naomi’s husband was a member of, not only that but he was a good friend to Naomi. But more than that Boaz is the embodiment of the just society that God had called Israel to be in light of the relationship they have with him, he was their God and they are his people.

Hope steps into this story because Boaz chooses to not only keep the laws in Israel that are designed to protect and care for the widow’s orphans and strangers in the land, but because he goes further to give generosity, hospitality  and acceptance.

In the opening scene, Naomi and Ruth have come back to Bethlehem; Ruth continues to show her kindness to Naomi by realising that she is going to have to provide for Naomi and herself. They need food to survive and Ruth is going to have to go out and collect it. She tells Naomi she is going to go out to glean in the harvest fields. In Israel’s’ law harvesters were not to pick their fields clean by going over it a second time. Rather they were to leave what had been missed behind to care for the poor and the foreigners in their midst. These people were legally allowed to glean. To pick up what had been dropped or missed.  As you read through the chapter and see the concern that Boaz has for Ruth’s safety you get the idea that this law was not kept with much enthusiasm. People seem to have risked the opposition of harvesters. Boaz does not want Ruth to be roughed up by the harvesters. When you read through the writings of the prophets, you see that God continually has to remind his people about caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

You know the true test of a nation or a society is not by it GDP or the height of its achievements or the grandeur of its infrastructure, not even on where it came in the Olympic medal table. It’s not even to be proved in the beauty of its art and music rather the greatness of a society is shown in the way it cares for its most vulnerable and poor. In scripture this was seen in terms of orphans, widows and strangers. How it treats its vulnerable children and women and immigrants. Even the kingdom of God says Jesus is not going to be judged by the splendour of our buildings or the enduring beauty of our cultural expressions and religious traditions but in the care of the least. In Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats, what differentiates between those on Christ’s left and his right is not what they believed or their religious observance but how they treated the least: The poor the sick, the prisoner, the dispossessed. Boaz gives us an example of the sort of kindness looked for in God’s Kingdom.

You’ll note that the story is told again in conversations in the interactions between people. Ruth had gone and almost tongue in check the narrative tells us she happened upon Boaz’s field. By chance Boaz also arrives at the field. The Lord is at work behind the scenes here in the everyday choices. He notices Ruth and asks his foreman whose young woman she is? The implication is that anyone out in the fields would be working for someone and Boaz knew his workers and she wasn’t one.  The foreman tells Boaz who she is and that she has asked to glean amongst the stalks. Usually a gleaner would wait till the workers had finished in a field and then they would be allowed to glean, but for Ruth the situation is so desperate that she is willing to face rejection to hope that someone would allow her to start her gleaning before they have finished. The foreman tells Boaz that she has patiently waited for a reply.

Boaz shows kindness to Ruth and faithfulness to the covenant in three ways.


Firstly he is generous; he invites her to come and to glean on his field not after the workers had finished. Not amidst the trampled remains, but just behind the women. Men would cut the barley and the women would then gather it into bundles once the field was harvested they’d take the bundles down to the threshing floor, then the gleaners would be welcome to the fields. Boaz had heard of Ruth’s kindness to Naomi and now repays her for that. He gives her permission to come up and to glean as close as she can to the women. Boaz gives Ruth the position of being a privileged gleaner. He even tells his workers not to be so efficient to leave more for Ruth. Kindness is shown not just in doing what the law required but in generosity.


Secondly, he shows her hospitality. He welcomes her to come and eat with him and the workers he makes sure she has ample to eat. He invites her to stay with his women in the field and to drink from the water that the men would draw for them. He’s given her the privileges of using the smoko room and the bathroom. It’s not only being generous to an outsider a stranger, a poor person but welcoming them into his inner circle. She is not kept at arms length but welcomed to sit as an equal. There is a way in which we can think of caring for the vulnerable and the poor being giving a hand out . Caring but still keeping them at a distance still seeing them as outside our circle. Objects of our pity and even our generosity but still set apart and different. Boaz does not do that rather he invites and welcomes Ruth to share what is his. He breaks down the barrier, without that Ruth would still be on the outside still a foreigner and vulnerable.  Part of that hospitality is that he extends his protection to her. He is aware that others may not be as kind and considerate as he is and is concerned for Ruth’s ongoing safety.

Finally, Ruth the foreigner is welcomed in and treated like one of the family.  Boaz accepts her into the clan. AS she sits for the midday meal it tells us that he serves her. Naomi will later tells Ruth in the concluding conversation in this scene that Boaz has been faithful and kind to the living and to the dead recognising the family ties. This sets the scene for the rest of the story and the bringing of fullness again to Naomi’s emptiness. While she had been willing to abandon her people for Naomi’s know she is welcomed into Naomi’s people. The greatest kindness one can show to the outsider and the poor and mistreated and vulnerable is to acknowledge them as one of us. That they are family, they belong, we stand with them and offer them the same hopes that we have for our own family. Jaun Carlos Ortiz picking up Jesus words says if me and my family sit down to three squares a day and our neighbours family has just one meal well then we each settle for two meals. If I have a coat and go out to buy a new coat and my neighbour shivers in the cold with no coat well I buy a coat and we both have one. We are all welcomed into God’s family by grace and that grace should be passed onto others. The poor the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable or dispossessed if they stand as part of our family.

Hope comes into Naomi’s story like a ray of sunshine. Her sorrow is turned into joy by the gleanings of a just society. Through Kindness displayed in generosity, hospitality and acceptance there is hope. Her basic needs for food and sustenance are meet. Ruth on her fist day is able to gather about a month’s supply of barley, she has a whole harvest season of work ahead and the whole year’s food will be provided. Ruth is welcomed into Naomi’s people, she has a place where she belongs. 

Once again the story is told through the conversations of individuals. The just and caring society we seek, the kingdom of God breaking into our world is in our hands and our mouths in our deeds and decisions. The LORD is the unseen character whose kindness is shown in our kindness whose justice is shown in our justice. Even here I cannot get away from the image of the body of Christ we have been talking about when we looked at the gifts of the Holy Spirit you are the body of Christ. Christ’s hands Christ’s feet. In the past the church has been seen as a powerful institution in this society, at its best it has used that power to care for the least and to seek the lost. Now we find ourselves on the margins of our twenty first century culture and our place is still amongst the least and the lost. Not seeking power but seeking justice for the powerless. Bill Clinton in his address to the democratic convention talking of America in the world and said we must change so that people will not see the example of our power but the power of our example. Just like the book of Ruth shows us God’s care for the individual it shows us God’s care though the individual God’s just society, starts here. 

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