Proper 27B: Redeemed

Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)
Ruth & Naomi (He Qi, 1994)

OLD TESTAMENT: Ruth 3: 1-5, 4: 13-17

Read the passage from the Book of Ruth

This is part of what is essentially the conclusion of the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. Leading up to this, we should note that it is the famine in Bethlehem that drives Naomi and her husband and their family away looking for food. While there, Naomi loses both her husband and her two sons, leaving the three wives to fend for themselves in a world that was anything but kind to women. Naomi’s other daughter-in-law returns to her own family but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi. Eventually, they hear that they can return to Judah, which they do. But when they get there, there is a need to find food and make a living, so Ruth goes out into the fields to get the gleanings, eventually coming to a field that is owned by a wealthy relative of Naomi’s, Boaz.

“Gleaning” is a technical term in Israel. By some laws, found again in Deuteronomy, this time in 24:21 (the levirate marriage law that drove Naomi’s Bethlehem road fantasy was also found in that book), reaping a field in Israel always had to take account of the poor and disadvantaged in the land. Hired hands were to harvest the field of the owner, but any grain that they missed in the first pass through the field must be left in the field for the strangers, the orphans, the foreigners, and the widows. It was a meager and difficult way to survive, but at least it offered a tiny meal for those who had nothing.

The reading today picks up with Naomi telling Ruth of her plan to make the most of this opportunity. The plan involves the deception of Boaz. Ruth is to lie down next to Boaz when he has eaten and become drunk after the winnowing. To ‘uncover the feet’ generally has sexual connotations and the plan seems to be one in which Boaz is to be made to believe that he has taken sexual advantage of Ruth. At the same time the story does not indicate that anything in fact happened between the Ruth and Boaz. All that has to be achieved is to make Boaz think something has. Boaz, being an upright man and knowing Ruth’s reputation will ‘do the right thing’ by her, which means marry her even though such is not legally demanded of him. But one obstacle needs to be dealt with first. There is one, who remains unnamed in the story, who is closer in kinship to Naomi and Ruth than Boaz (perhaps a cousin or something), and who, according to law, needs to be given the first option of marriage.

In a way the whole story has focused around the issue of family heritage. The rest of Chapter 3 tells of the execution of Naomi’s scheme, of Boaz’s response and, in Ruth 4, of dealing with the unnamed relative, who in the end is not willing to take up his kinship responsibility for Ruth. In the second half of today’s reading Ruth marries Boaz and bears a son to him. The focus then shifts back to Naomi and her grandson. The women bless the Lord, who it is clear has been the silent mover behind the scene for both good and ill. They speak of one who will be ‘a restorer of life and a nourisher in one’s old age. It is unclear whether the women speak of the Lord or Boaz or the baby boy. Indeed, this ambiguity may well be deliberate. We see from the women naming the child and the small genealogical note in v. 17, that the child will be the grandfather of David, who in some traditions becomes the ancestor of a messiah to come. The sense of ‘a restorer of life’ is not only in terms of the immediate story, i.e. one who secures the future for Naomi and Ruth, but also of one who restores the future life of the nation.

Overall, the sense of mutual commitment between Naomi and Ruth is ultimately the source and mark of divine blessing. Only once in the entire story is the word “love” used and it is used to describe the relationship between these two strong and determined women. This is the kind of love that molds and drives the universe. If you look at the first chapter of Matthew, you will see the line of succession that is believed to end with Jesus, that includes “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”

In the final analysis, the biblical women Ruth and Naomi are simply metaphors, models of all the women of the world who push and prod and guide and give support to the rest of us through all the trying moments of life, however momentous, however mundane.

Each of us can look back on the women who were Naomis for us—older women because of whom our lives were changed.  Each of us remembers with concern—with pride—the young Ruths in our lives who poised to take one step and then, despite our best advice, took what became for both our sakes an even better one.

The Ruths and Naomis of the human estate make the world go round.  Not one of us can get through the phases of our separate flowerings without their promptings.  Without them growth is static, the worst happens, all of life’s inevitables look impossible.  The Ruths and Naomis of the world take the measure of what we think we cannot surmount alone and show us that it is vincible…

In the Book of Ruth the whole world is new again.  Relationships have been righted.  The outcastes have been taken in.  The lowly have been raised up.  A new generation of men—represented by a boy-child—comes to inherit a cosmos where women are its co-creators.  In Ruth, we get a glimpse into God’s world and find that it runs just the opposite of ours.

The implications of the Ruth story for women today pale whatever assumptions, cemented by generations of custom, may still cloud their lives in any institution, in every part of the world.  It is the spiritual Magna Carta of women.  Ruth lives on in Hebrew Scripture to remind us that origin and destiny are not the same thing.  Naomi lives on to call generation after generation of women to begin again, whatever our ages, to make life for ourselves, to refuse to wait for someone else to swoop down to makes us happy, to fear nothing, and risk anything that develops the dream in our own hearts, to learn to believe in ourselves as women, to find ourselves in one another and in that way to become of more value to the world around us than we have ever been before, to see ourselves as carriers of the Word of God still to be said, still to be heard…

The Book of Ruth is about redemption, indeed, but it is as much about the redemption of Boaz and the nation, about the family and the culture, about the next generation of men and the generation of women, about the righteousness of religion and the salvation of religiosity, about us and the disjointed world we take for granted, as it is about the redemption of Ruth and Naomi.  It is a book about women helping women to break the isolation of powerlessness that affects every other man, woman, and child alive.

It is a book to be written into every woman’s—and man’s—spiritual life.  And the book is incomplete until every woman writes the rest of it herself. (Excerpt from The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, by Joan Chittister, p. ix, 88-89, 90)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this story say to you about God and about our relationships with each other?
  3. Is there anything that is bothersome in this story for you?
  4. Where do you find yourself in this story?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 9: 24-28

Read the passage from Hebrews

In this passage, the author depicts that Christ has done whatever and all things necessary so that we may know that we are forgiven and look confidently toward salvation. Keep in mind that, just as we are, the first century Christians were trying to make sense out of what had happened to Jesus. People began to hail Christ’s death not as a defeat but as a victory that released life for others. In other words, “He died for us.” This was not meant, as some modern interpretations would suggest, to be an understanding that God somehow schemed up this violence in order to satisfy rules about payback for our sins but rather the notion of Jesus intentionally taking the suffering unto himself.

The writing in Hebrews is, to say the least, complicated. It was complicated even when it was written. It represented a total shift in how people viewed the access to the Divine. Since the writer’s intended audience consisted of “the Hebrews,” or Israelites of a time after Christ, the arguments would have been quite profoundly powerful, because the listeners were well versed in the old ways that the writer compares unfavorably with Christ’s way. (This is why Hebrews is often interpreted as being a bit “anti-Semitic”. I don’t think that’s what the writer intended. It’s just the way some seemingly well-meaning Christians take it. Perhaps instead, the writer was exhorting his or her readers to take what they know, to take what was important for them in their religious and spiritual life, and go farther with it, go toward the Encounter with the Divine to which it points.)

So being part of the redeemed body of Christ today means we can experience eternal reality in its fullest, richest, clearest, most profound way even now, without anything else really happening. We have been set free from worrying about whether or not we relate to God and whether or not God has a place for us in the ongoing Creation. We are set free to live in the presence of Christ. We are, though, engaged in constant and intentional spiritual waiting for what God will do next. Part of being Christian is being called to a wonderful sense of hopeful expectation. Hebrews challenges our somewhat narrow focus of what Christ and being with Christ holds and calls us to something new, perhaps calls even us to go a bit farther toward a true encounter with the Divine.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does that sense of “hopeful expectation” mean for you?
  3. Do you think we really grasp the idea that what Christ has done is once and for all? How does that play into various Christian understandings today?
  4. What does this say about our images of God?

GOSPEL: Mark 12: 38-44

Read the passage from The Gospel According to Mark

Once again, the writer of The Gospel According to Mark is making a statement against the corruption for which judgment will come for the old system.  It is in effect a warning against the way that we often allow the sacred and the holy to become corrupted and instead turn toward our way of doing things rather than God’s.  Interestingly, in this passage, the hero is not Jesus but the woman.  The scribes exploit and grab from their seat of wealth, but this woman gives everything from her poverty.  Comparatively, those well-versed in the ways of the faith are spiritually poor and this poor, probably uneducated woman is rich beyond all measure.

This woman would have been seen as pathetic, probably a beggar, the poorest of the poor.  The Greek is ptoche, which would mean “extremely poor”.  It hits us in the face in several ways.  First, those clergy and elevated laity, being greeted with respect, getting the best seats in the house, so to speak, are presented not only as bad leaders but as out and out hypocrites.  After all, what do these things of honor mean for our discipleship?  And then the woman…while those respected leaders carefully count out their tithes, proud of their giving patterns, she gives everything she has.  She walks home to nothing.  The blessing comes in the realization not that we cannot have nice things or reap respect but in an awareness that everything that we have, everything that we are, is of God.  It is not a test of how much money we have in the bank, but what that money means for us.  The question is on what do we depend?

Where previously we connected dependence with oppression and depression, Jesus shows us that our dependence on God leads to joy and thanksgiving. If God is running the universe and ruling my life, I no longer have to save myself, prove myself or justify myself. I’m the work of God’s hands. I rest and work in those hands and I shall die in those hands. To be free of those hands would be death to me, because in them is life abundant.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is your personal reaction to this passage?
  3. How does this speak to our society and our way of thinking about money, about leadership, and about one’s place in society?
  4. How do we look upon poverty in this day? What does that say about us as a society and as Christians?
  5. What would it mean to give not out of our abundance but out of our need?
  6. What does this say about gratitude?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Gratitude is the intention to count-your-blessing every day, every minute, while avoiding, whenever possible, the belief that you need or deserve different circumstances. (Timothy Miller)

The problem is that contemporary Westerners have a very fragile sense of their identity, much less an identity that can rest in union with God.  Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God. (Richard Rohr)

Change your ways, give yourself a fresh coat of paint, convert yourself.  Do all this and you’ll find the cross before it finds you. (Thomas a’ Kempis)

 

 

Closing

 

You are the giver of all good things. All good things are sent from heaven above, rain and sun, day and night, justice and righteousness, bread to the eater and seed to the sower, peace to the old, energy to the young, joy to the babes.

 

We are takers, who take from you, day by day, daily bread, taking all we need as you supply, taking in gratitude and wonder and joy. And then taking more, taking more than we need, taking more than you give us, taking from our sisters and brothers, taking from the poor and the weak, taking because we are frightened, and so greedy, taking because we are anxious, and so fearful, taking because we are driven, and so uncaring.

 

Give us peace beyond our fear, and so end our greed. Give us well-being beyond our anxiety, and so end our fear. Give us abundance beyond our drivenness, and so end our uncaring. Turn our taking into giving…since we are in your giving image: Make us giving like you, giving gladly and not taking, giving in abundance, not taking, giving in joy, not taking, giving as he gave himself up for us all, giving, never taking. Amen.

 

(“We are Takers”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Searcy, p. 33)

 

 

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