This sermon is based on the Old Testament book of Ruth, the second chapter.
In our Old Testament story Boaz, the wealthy landowner gives charity to Ruth, a poor destitute immigrant. As we heard last week, Ruth was from Moab, a country and people despised by Israel. She is in Israel because she had married a man from Bethlehem who had died. She was following her mother in law, Naomi, back to Bethlehem, because the poor older woman had no one to take care of her. Ironically, Ruth is in Israel as an act of charity for Naomi and thus in need of charity from Boaz.
Scripture has written into it laws that tell us we must help people in need. The Old Testament forbids farmers from completely stripping their fields bare. Scripture commands that they leave standing grain at the edge of every field and leave behind the grains in the field that were missed in the normal harvest. The poor were allowed to gather this grain themselves. Ruth is gleaning, picking up the left over grain from the fields of the wealthy and prominent Boaz.
Charity is not just an Old Testament expectation. Jesus repeatedly lifts up the continued expectation that those who have plenty will serve and share with those who have little. The commandment that Jesus gives all of us is to show love for God and neighbor with all our heart. When asked to clarify exactly who is their neighbor, Jesus explains that all of humanity should be seen as our neighbor. If we are to love everyone, then how is it loving to leave anyone wanting, hungry, naked or alone? Charity is an act of love for our neighbor when they are in need.
Charity doesn’t happen until we notice someone in need. In verse 10, Ruth asks why Boaz has noticed her, a foreigner. Until we notice the need around us, we are not likely to do anything about it. As long as we keep our eyes shut to brokenness and despair, we pretend to ourselves that God expects nothing more from us.
I know for myself, I work hard at not noticing people in need. I go out to the Short North with friends and I try not to notice the filthy clothes and bad teeth on the pan handler in front of the coffee shop. When I run into Wal-Mart, I try not to notice the beat up car parked next to mine crammed with more adults than I would have thought possible. When I impatiently wait at the Emergency Room at Mt. Carmel East I try not to notice the many people that are there not because of an emergency but because without insurance they have no other access to a doctor.
To notice them would mean I would have to engage them personally, or their problems more broadly. Engaging their problems may mean I have to change my assumptions about the world. Engaging them personally obligates me to help them. If I just look away, it is as if their desperation doesn’t exist at all. So I play a game with God, draw an artificial wall around them, pretend I don’t see what is there in plain sight. Boaz not only notices Ruth he engages her and helps her. God’s hope for us all is that we notice our neighbor in need, listen to them and then help.
This is where charity gets tricky. What is expected of us once we notice the need of our neighbor? Allowing the poor into his fields to capture the left over grain was both the scriptural expectation of Boaz and community expectation. In the time of Boaz if wealthy men wanted to be thought well of, they opened their fields to the poor after harvest.
However, the charity Boaz provided for Ruth is described as abundant and generous. Boaz went above and beyond the scripture and community expectations. I am sure some farmers did the bare minimum expected of them. Some instructed their harvesters to only leave behind the damaged or stunted plants. Others left only a thin row of stalks on the side. Others harassed the poor making them feel unwelcome to insure their farm did not grow in popularity with the undesirables of the village.
Once I notice someone in need, listen to them then what is expected of me? Clothing closets, furniture ministries and food pantries resemble the practice of allowing the poor to glean the fields behind us. After all, in both cases we are letting those in need sift through stuff we could go back and use or sell ourselves. What we leave in our fields is a testament to our charitable heart. I could empty my cupboards of dated peanut butter and odd cans of smoked salmon in Cajun oil or I could call my local food pantry find their most pressing needs and donate these.
Are we the farmer who leaves the stunted, diseased stalk for the poor to glean or like Boaz the rich hearty rows? Once, when I went out on a Saturday pick up for our furniture ministry at Joseph’s Coat, a woman took me to her basement and said we want to give you all the furniture here. As we started to move it, the husband came in and stopped us from taking the Lazy Boy. He didn’t want to keep it, but rather he was sure he could sell it. The rest of the stuff, he said was just junk. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor it is hard to imagine he envisioned giving them the junk we don’t want as a sign of our love. God’s hope is that the fields we provide for the poor to glean are full of clothes, furniture and food they will delight in receiving.
Let’s not kid ourselves; any act of charity carries risks. It asks us to share our limited resources when who knows, two or three months or years from now we might need just that thing we gave away. It expects us to engage people we don’t know, can’t trust and that could be dangerous. It causes us to possibly be foolish with our resources since that dollar we give the panhandler at Starbucks could be used towards a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. It opens us up to abuse, as the word gets out that Messiah will give a Kroger gift card to anyone that asks for them.
Yet, isn’t risk part of the faithful life in Christ? God’s risk of love shared in Jesus was met by the cross. God’s gift was disparaged, met with humiliation and violence. In the end, though God’s gift of love saved the creation. Our gifts of love might similarly be abused and rejected. There is always risk in loving. The bigger risk is not offering it at all. When we refuse to be part of the healing of creation by offering charity to our neighbor, we leave God’s greatest love, humanity in His image, hungry, naked or without shelter. Our sinfulness is reckoned not by how our charity is received, but whether we offered it at all.
There is joy found when our hearts become charitable. Boaz’ charity towards Ruth not only benefited Ruth, but Boaz, too. His life changed forever when he spoke to this poor destitute woman in his fields. There is joy found when we help people in need. Paige and I recently replaced a big refrigerator with an ice maker. It was fairly new and in perfect shape. We asked our Joseph’s Coat Ministries to pick it up on a Saturday morning. Joann, who runs the ministry, gave it to a woman in need who had been to all the charities in the area looking for a refrigerator. No one had one for her and her family. When Joann showed her our refrigerator, she couldn’t believe it. It was far nicer than what she expected to receive. She thought she had won on The Price is Right. When I heard the story, the vision of her excited at our act of charity was worth far more than a couple of hundred bucks I could have gotten for it on Craig’s List. Not all acts of charity may bring this much excitement on earth. Yet, all our risky acts of love have the potential to change hearts and minds of both the giver and receiver. Plus, they surely all bring this sort of joy in heaven. Joy abounds when we are charitable. Amen