Text: Ruth 3:1-18
It was one of those falling dominos scenarios where one thing leads to another. It was finally time for our old tube TV to go, and I bought a new flat screen television around the time of the Super Bowl - when there were big sales going on. The new TV, however, did not fit in the old 1980’s-era entertainment center we had in the basement, so it had to go. This in turn meant that I had to move all of our old DVDs and CDs and record albums (yes, I still have a turntable) to a new storage place, along with old VHS tapes and cassette tapes.
We were moving all of this and culling out defunct media and associated accessories and so forth when Zoe took notice of the videotape from our wedding. Of course she was fascinated by this and wanted to watch it, but we weren’t sure that we had a working VCR to play it on. We tested another tape on the old VCR player we had, and the machine ate the tape.
Further investigation revealed that the problem was most likely the tape, not the player, but out of precaution we haven’t played the wedding video on that machine. At any rate, for Zoe this brought up a lot of questions.
Of course, children can be fascinated by the questions of how their parents met and how the relationship progressed. “How I met your mother” can be a compelling story. As far as my parents, they had both graduated from high school in nearby towns in southern Illinois. Dad lived in a town of maybe 500 people in its heyday while my mom lived in the thriving, cosmopolitan county seat town down the road with close to 3000 residents. They met through some mutual friends and, as they say, the rest is history.
I know that there are some of you here who met your spouse in this church – that was one of the questions we asked at our 150th Anniversary Celebration. There are some great stories.
There is this romantic idea about two strangers whose eyes meet from across a crowded room, and that’s it. It’s love at first sight. At the same time, it is common for two people to be friends for some time and as time goes on, the relationship grows and eventually they start dating.
In recent weeks we have been making our way through the book of Ruth. We have had a break from the story for a couple of weeks but now we are back. And we are now getting toward the “How I Met Your Mother” part of the story.
To get us up to speed, here is what has taken place so far. In a time of severe famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech, along with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, leave their home in the town of Bethlehem and go to the country of Moab as refugees, seeking a place where there is food. They settle in Moab but Elimelech soon dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Her sons each marry Moabite wives but after ten years, both of the sons die.
Naomi is absolutely crushed. She is but a shell of herself. Hearing that there was food again in Bethlehem, she prepares to head back home. Her daughters-in-law, each of whom have been married around 10 years and have no child, pledge to go back with Naomi. She tells them that there is no future with her and that they must return to their families. One daughter-in-law does so, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. She says, “Where you go, I will go and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” And so Ruth casts her lot with Naomi and makes the journey back to Bethlehem with her.
While there is now food in Bethlehem, it is still a very precarious existence for two widows. Ruth goes to work in the barley fields, gleaning grain. She goes behind those who are harvesting, picking up what is left behind. As it happened – or maybe, as God arranged it – Ruth winds up working in a field owned by Boaz, who happens to be a close relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s husband. Boaz treats Ruth kindly and tells her that he has heard of her loyalty and all she has dome for Naomi. The word had gotten around town. Boaz tells Ruth to stay in his field and stick with his young women. He tells all the workers to leave this Moabite woman alone, and that in fact that they should leave more grain than usual behind for her to glean.
Ruth comes home from work with a massive amount of grain, far more than a gleaner would typically gather. And she tells Naomi about Boaz, the man who owned the field and who had treated her with such kindness.
Upon hearing this, Naomi shows signs of life for the first time in a long time. When she had returned to Jerusalem, she told her old friends, “Don’t even bother calling me Naomi” (which means pleasant). “Just call me Mara” (which means bitter). Her life had been upended and she was almost beyond hope. But after hearing about Boaz and the way he had treated Ruth, there are sparks of life and Naomi begins to find hope. Ruth continued to glean in Boaz’s field through the barley and then the wheat harvest.
This brings us to our scripture for today. This is the third of four chapters, the third of four acts if you will, and it is the pivotal act in the story.
Harvest season was nearly over. There wasn’t much opportunity for two widows to earn a living. And Naomi was in danger of losing her land – which in the eyes of the community was not her land but Elimelech’s land and Elimelech’s sons’ land and in the bigger picture, land that belonged to Elimelechs’ clan and tribe and could only be owned by a male.
And so Naomi approaches Ruth and says, “I need to seek security for you.” Naomi was being honest here – she needed security for Ruth – not just because she cared about Ruth but because security for Ruth would equal security for Naomi. Women had few rights, few choices, few opportunities, but Naomi was determined to create an opportunity, to create a future for her and her daughter-in-law.
Naomi had taken notice of Boaz and his care for Ruth. And he was a close kinsman to boot. Though Boaz and Ruth appear to respect and perhaps even feel attraction to each other, and though he is evidently available for marriage, two months of daily contact during the harvest have not fanned the spark between them. Naomi decided that she needed to help things along.
And so following Naomi’s instructions, Ruth got all gussied up, put on her best dress and some nice perfume, and went down to the threshing floor, where Boaz was working hard, winnowing barley. After everybody had eaten and drank their fill and finally turned in for the night, Ruth slipped into bed with Boaz. The text says that she “uncovered his feet” and lay down.
Now, in Hebrew “feet” can be a euphemism for another part of the body. Or, sometimes a foot is just a foot. We can’t know for sure. But there are clearly some – some overtones to this story. It does not get a G rating, and possibly not a PG.
Naomi has it all planned out, but it does not go the way Naomi has planned. Boaz goes off script. He is too soundly asleep to notice Ruth approach or know that she has pulled back the blanket and joined him on the floor. And then when he wakes up around midnight, he is too startled to respond as Naomi had hoped he would. Well, if you woke up in the middle of the night with a strange woman lying next to you, you might be startled as well.
Boaz wakes up, realizes there is a woman next to him, and asks, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your cloak over your servant for you are next-of-kin.”
Now, Naomi had told Ruth to pull back the blanket and lie down, and Boaz would tell Ruth what to do. But what actually happened was that Ruth told Boaz what to do. To spread one’s cloak over another was an expression that signified marrying that person. Essentially, what is happening here is that Ruth is proposing to Boaz.
It wasn’t overly romantic: Ruth is saying, “Take me in order to redeem my dead husband’s inheritance.” But Boaz does not consider the request as crass or unseemly. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by God. This act of loyalty is even greater than the first (which was her loyalty in returning to Bethlehem with Naomi). You have not gone after young men, whether rich or poor.” (Boaz has previously called Ruth “my daughter” and is apparently older than Ruth.)
Had Ruth not been so loyal to Naomi, she may have sought out a younger man. And despite hints at an attraction earlier in the story, we now understand why Boaz has refrained from courting Ruth. He did not want to oblige this loyal and dutiful foreigner to a marriage she may not have wanted for herself.
Boaz goes from startled to all-in pretty quickly. And then he reveals a little tidbit we had not been aware of before. He says, “I will do all that you ask. I am a near kinsman, but there is one closer than me – if he will not act as next-of-kin, then I will.” Boaz said he would take care of it first thing in the morning. Ruth stayed with Boaz through the night and slipped off early in the morning.
We will address the next of kin business more fully next week, but basically, the closest kinsman of a man who had died had the right to purchase that man’s property. Related here is the concept of levirate marriage, in which if a man dies, his brother would then marry the widow. This would not exactly be Levirate marriage but something in that ballpark.
So, Boaz will meet with the closer kinsman in the morning, and we will all wait until next Sunday to learn the outcome of that meeting.
It always amazes me how the Bible just lays things right out there. Imagine Boaz, years later, answering the question, “How did you and mom meet?” Well, that part was pretty simple – Ruth showed up to glean in Boaz’ field. “When did you know she was the right one? How did you start dating?” “Well, we started dating when I woke up in the middle of the night while sleeping on the threshing room floor after a long days’ work, and your mother was laying there next to me. And she asked me to marry her.”
In most instances, this is not the recommended way to get the attention of that person you are interested in. And yet this is part of our Holy Scripture. This is the story of two women in a desperate situation, two vulnerable women who refuse to sit idly by, who refuse to wait passively for events to happen but who have a voice, who act to make things happen, and God blesses it.
What is the take home for us today? This is certainly not a model for us to follow when it comes to dating and marriage, and we live in a different world. But everything in this story hinges on loyalty and honor and kindness – along with a little righteous initiative.
It was a risky plan. Naomi and Ruth were banking on Boaz being a person of honor – being a good and decent man, and to this point he had been that. If it did not work, Ruth risked humiliation and possibly much, much worse. But the loving kindness that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, demonstrated throughout this story by Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, and mirroring the loving kindness of God, won the day.
Our world is different. But there is every bit as much a need for people who demonstrate God’s loyalty and honor and loving kindness – and for people who, when the moment calls for it, are willing to take righteous initiative. Amen.