This scripture for this sermon is the third chapter of Ruth.
Ruth from the despised country of Moab stays with Naomi her mother in law when Naomi has to return to Bethlehem, even though her husband, Naomi’s son, is dead and she would be better off in Moab than Israel. This is the loyalty that Ruth has for Naomi, a loyalty born of both love for Naomi, and a kind and generous spirit.
In Bethlehem, she meets the wealthy landowner Boaz while she is gleaning his fields, picking up the scraps left behind with the other poor people. Boaz’s act of charity goes beyond what is expected when he feeds Ruth, gives his men special instructions not to bother her, and sends her away with extra grain. His charity represents both his appreciation of Ruth for being loyal to her mother in law and a clear attraction to this Moabite woman who has come to his fields.
In this third chapter Ruth reports back to her mother in law Naomi how nice Boaz has been. Naomi hears the attraction of Boaz in Ruth’s story and comes up with a startling plan, that almost needs a disclaimer before we go any further, “People, do not try this at home.” Her plan is to remind the wealthy Boaz that as a relative he is expected to be the redeemer of the family. For Naomi, this means both marrying Ruth and securing the property that her husband left behind when he went to Moab years ago.
This is a lot to expect from Boaz, no matter how charitable he is. So Naomi sweetens the pot so to speak by getting Ruth all gussied up and telling her to make her case not in some stuffy office on his farm, but rather in the middle of the night, while he is sleeping, after he has celebrated with a lot of wine. The Hebrew is full of double entendre. Just like sleeping with someone has two meanings in English, it has a couple meanings in Hebrew, too. Certain body parts that even we don’t like to say aloud were sometimes referred to as feet in Hebrew. Naomi tells Ruth to look your best, uncover his “feet”, lie down next to him and Boaz being a man will figure the rest out.
Ruth hears this over the top plan and says yes, as you wish. Her loyalty to Naomi is again made clear. The plan goes off without a hitch. Something wakes the drunken Boaz up in the middle of the night to find a relatively young woman he doesn’t recognize asleep at his feet. Ruth reminds him of who she is, and then boldly asks for two things. One, that he marry her, this is what spreading your cloak means. Second, by telling him that he is next of kin, is asking that Boaz take care of Naomi, too.
Boaz is amazed that she has done all this for Naomi. He tells her she could have had any of a number of younger men, for all Ruth needs is a husband to make her life better. We are left to believe that even though Boaz is wealthy either his age or his looks don’t make him such a great catch. Boaz indicates that Ruth chose him solely because of his obligation to Naomi’s family.
Boaz again is shown to be someone full of charity and kindness, even though he is obviously being manipulated. He agrees to marry her and buy her family’s property so Naomi will be taken care of. He tells her to remain the night and they would sneak her out in the predawn morning so as to preserve her reputation. He even gives her a bunch of grain to take home to Naomi as a gift. He then tells her to continue “sleeping” at her “feet”, you know, as long as you are here anyway.
The story has a happy ending. The next day, Boaz, a man of honor, does go and legally buy Naomi’s property, thus providing for Ruth’s mother in law a means of support for the rest of her life. He does marry Ruth in his old age. God blesses them both with a son. This son becomes the father of Jesse, who as many of you know is the father of David, the greatest king of Israel.
Should we be shocked at Naomi’s plan and Ruth’s excellent execution of it? Should we assume the worse about what might have happened while Boaz’s “feet” were being uncovered? Should we admire the way these women manipulated the male dominated system they were forced to live under securing a future for them both?
Important in this story is the Hebrew word hesed, which means God’s loving kindness or grace. Ruth by being loyal to Naomi in Moab bears hesed, God’s loving kindness. Boaz bears God’s loving kindness in his charity to Ruth. Boaz, on the threshing room floor tells Ruth she is bearing God’s loving kindness for Naomi again by coming to him. Grace abounds in this story.
However, Ruth’s actions even if taken charitably would not have been condoned or approved by proper, religious and upright people in Israel at the time or even in America today. An unmarried woman does not come alone in the middle of the night and lie next to a drunken half clothed man. It is scandalous behavior then and now, but scandalous behavior that resulted in God’s loving kindness being made known and changing lives for the better.
For that matter, none of these characters acted in totally admirable ways. Boaz is likely more charitable to Ruth because of his attraction to her. Naomi is willing to use her loyal daughter in law as bait to secure their future. Ruth even if nothing happened on that threshing room floor is obviously using the promise of sexual relations to convince Boaz to marry her. Israel itself can be indicted for societal mores that give women few choices for support.
Yet, all of the characters showed God’s hesed to each other, in the midst of their brokenness. An honest view of this story rather than a careful scrubbing of it to make it fit for minors, or our own weak Sunday School memory of the bible, will emphasize the power of God to work grace, kindness, hesed in the midst of our fumbling, questionable human ways. This is how God’s goodness works in the world, through our brokenness internally and the brokenness of our society externally. If it didn’t, would any of us know God’s love? While it is true that our most charitable acts or most loyal moments are full of motives less than Godly. It is also true that God’s presence is known and lives are changed whenever anyone of us shares grace with each other as Ruth, Naomi and Boaz did in this good story of scripture. God’s grace always wins.