Welcoming the stranger: Duncan’s sermon on the Book of Ruth

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‘It’s a story for our time,’ said Duncan on Sunday. He was finishing the series of sermons about the book of Ruth in the Old Testament.

An ancient text – but one dealing with issues which are ultra-contemporary as we reflect on the reality of life for people who are migrants and refugees.

There is in our society a disturbing strand of negativism towards people who are refugees and migrants, and Duncan showed us how the book of Ruth challenges this. He showed us a image by Banksy, pointing up the absurdity of a bird claiming a particular part of the world for itself – the drawing implied that negativism towards ‘the stranger’ is similarly absurd.

Ancient refugees

Because the main characters in the Ruth story were just that – migrants and refugees.  During a catastrophic food-shortage in Judah, Naomi, her husband and sons move to Moab. In the following years, Naomi loses both her husband and her sons to death, and she returns to her former homeland once the famine is over. She’s accompanied by Ruth one of her daughters-in-law, who very bravely leaves behind her native land.

What has this story to tell us about the realities of migration, about God’s involvement, about the attitude we are called to adopt towards the strangers in our midst?

Utterly vulnerable

Duncan very wisely discussed this with Shona – he was aware that your gender affects how you read any story, and in particular this one.  Shona empathised deeply with Naomi and Ruth – she understood how utterly vulnerable they would have felt as they arrived in Judah.  In their culture, women were seen as being among a man’s possessions – their status and their identity was based on this. ‘Who does that young woman belong to?’ says Boaz, in Ruth 2:5

Naomi and Ruth would be seen as widows, foreigners, outsiders.  Ruth is referred to in the book as ‘Ruth the Moabite.’  Not having the protection of a man, they would be in danger of sexual harassment. That’s the significance of Ruth 2:8-9, where Boaz tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s fields, and assures her he has ‘told the men not to lay a hand on you.’

The kinsman-redeemer

Boaz was a ‘Goel’ – ‘kinsman-redeemer’, or ‘guardian-redeemer’ – someone who, under Jewish law had a responsibility to redeem, or rescue a relative who is facing serious difficulties.  Question: why did Naomi and Ruth not immediately seek out Boaz on their arrival in Judah?  Shona helped Duncan to see that in the prevailing culture, a woman would never take the initiative. It was the man’s role to take the initiative.

It so happened (‘as it turned out’ Ruth 2:3)  that the field in which Ruth chose to glean behind the harvesters (as was permitted) turned out to belong to Boaz. Or did the prompting of God direct her to the right field. In any case Boaz saw Ruth, enquired about her identity, and on discovering it took her under his protection.

Birth of hope

When Ruth reports all this to Naomi, the older women begins to see hope for their future.

What Ruth does at Naomi’s prompting in Chapter 3 is a daring, reckless action. The harvest has been successful; Boaz has been feasting and falls asleep on the threshing floor as Naomi had anticipated. In preparation, Ruth washes, dresses in her best clothes, and perfumes herself. And then she makes an unconventional, unorthodox risky proposal of marriage to Boaz.  And this in a culture when men, not women took the initiative.

But Boaz is thrilled!  She has ‘not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.’ (Ruth 3:10)

Naomi’s initiative is vindicated: Boaz would never have made the first move, for fear of rejection.

There is, however, a problem. There is another kinsman-redeemer, close to Naomi and Ruth than Boaz is. He, properly, should have an opportunity to ‘redeem’ Ruth. (Ruth 3:12-13)

In Chapter 4, we see Boaz formally negotiating with the other kinsman-redeemer. He made clear that purchasing Naomi’s husband’s former property was linked to marriage to Ruth. The other relative is happy enough to have the land, but not to marry Ruth, because of the implications that would have for his own estate.  Ruth 4:6.

And so the way is clear for Boaz to buy the land, and marry Ruth.  A child is born, a grandson for Naomi (‘Naomi has a son!’ Ruth 4:17), holding the promise of descendents.  Obed would be the great-grandfather of the great king David, and would feature in the genealogy of Jesus.

Naomi and Ruth travelled from Moab to Judah will little hope. Naomi blamed God for what had happened: ‘Call me Mara, because the Almightyhas made my life very bitter.’ (Ruth 1:20)  But by the end of the story, Ruth is bitter no more. She holds Oded in her arms, and in the child, can glimpse a future.

God does not abandon us

When our lives are full of struggle and difficulty, that does not mean that God has abandoned us as Naomi thought. God is with us.

We are blessed in welcoming the stranger

And highly significantly – Ruth, the agent of blessing, the one who in giving birth to Obed opens up the future is an outsider, one who comes from the outside.

Boaz, and the whole Jewish nation are blessed beyond their greatest imaginings as hospitality is offered to a refugee woman who comes gleaning.

Duncan  pointed out that the only time love is mentioned in the whole book is in where the women, talking to Naomi refer to Ruth as ‘your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons.’ (Ruth 4:15)

God enters this story of hope and a future in the guise of a stranger who shows love. The book of Ruth invites us to recognise that God’s greatest joys may be found in welcoming and offering hospitality to the stranger. The Hebrew Bible commands the Jewish people to love our neighbours just one time; it commans love of the stranger thirty-seven times.

This is a striking lesson for us in a society which seems to be increasingly hostile towards those deemed to be ‘outsiders.’  It seems at times that we are living in a society of strangers. ‘That is not a threat to faith,’ Duncan concluded, ‘but a call to a faith larger and more demanding than we had sometimes supposed.’

John writes:
An interesting point about Duncan’s sermon was the fact that, as two of the three key characters were women, he talked through the story of Ruth with Shona, to get her take, as a woman, on the story-line.

It’s a reminder to us that whatever text we are reading, we bring ourselves, with all our life experience, and our assumptions and prejudices to the text and interpret in the light of who we are. Thus, a man will see things which a woman might miss, and vice-versa – and this is crucially important since, historically, most writing, thinking and preaching about and from the Bible was done by men. And of course, the Bible was written probably exclusively by men.

Where are coming from conditions our reading: if I read the Bible as an African man, I will see things which would be missed by someone in the developed world. A blind person, a physically disabled person will see things in any text, including the Bible, which others will miss.

The Bible is a very rich document, which allows for this range of insights. We often sense God speaking to us through the Bible, but God speaks through working with us in our humanness. So we will welcome the insights which others have into the text, as Duncan welcomed and incorporated Shona’s comments. And we will seek to read with discernment, to be aware of the degree to which our assumptions are colouring our reading, and to be aware of the perspectives of others.

 

 

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