Sunday, January 17, 2016

Ruth 2 - "A Generous Welcome"

1.     The Story So Far …

Naomi with husband and two sons moved from Judah to Moab because of a famine. Husband dies, then later both sons die, and Naomi is just left with her two daughters-in-law. Famine ends in Judah, so Naomi sets out with Ruth and Orpah to return home. Along the way, Naomi realises that her daughters-in-law may be better off in their birthplace of Moab and tries to send them back … eventually Orpah agrees to return, but Ruth will hear none of it and “clings” to Naomi. Just as well too, for soon is revealed the depth of Naomi’s pain and grief.

And this is what really captured my imagination! As Naomi returns to Bethlehem supported by Ruth, the local community is “stirred”. What does this mean? A clearly distraught Naomi supported by a young foreign woman! Even though Naomi feels that God has abandoned her, she enters her home town of Bethlehem with the evidence right beside her, that she has been afforded a special measure of loving-kindness. This was a remarkable scene.

What grabs your attention in chapter 2??

2.     Finding the Place to Be (v.1-3)

At chapter 2 verse 2, we see that Ruth was willing to go out and work; indeed this would have been necessary, to support herself and Naomi. Naomi supported Ruth in this initiative. They were both hoping that there would be some kind and compassionate person in the fields who would make Ruth’s endeavours to gain food successful. Sometimes we take on a new job and it works out well; other times, not so! But we can always be hopeful, and it is surely better to be positive, than to go into something new with a negative mindset. Yet, Ruth would likely have concerns as a young foreign woman in the fields amongst strangers, especially the men. How would she be received?! There is the later suggestion of danger or exclusion in certain fields.

* This is the dilemma of anyone moving into the unknown: new country, new community, new situation!

I wonder what it is like having the idea of coming to church, or responding to an invitation to a church activity, without knowing too many of the people, and not having an understanding of the culture one is entering, and being unsure concerning the level of welcome that will be received!?! There might be those who have a sense of need, even spiritual need, or who are experiencing tough times, but fear whether they will be accepted or not (within a new or different community of people).

In such a field there would those cutting with hand sickles teamed with those bundling up the sheaves. The background to Ruth’s endeavour, was that when a field was being harvested like this, the workers would leave behind bits and pieces, and not be too pedantic about collecting everything up. This was because the landowner was probably more well-off than most, and the poor or ‘landless’ would be able to follow behind and pick up the grain (and be able to make a meal out of it). So the grain at the edges of the field might be left, and the workers wouldn’t be concerned about other bits that were accidentally missed along the way. How often this was practiced we can’t know – there were likely to be landowners hostile to foreigners; but obviously Ruth was hopeful concerning the field that she went to.

We might sense that Ruth was seeking some Divine guidance so that she would arrive in the right field. Usually there would have been one very large field, divided into areas belonging to various owners … but where to go?! Back in verse 1, we are introduced to the character of Boaz, and the situation of him being a rich relative of Naomi; this verse suggesting to us that we should expect some positive outcomes ahead. We then read in verse 3 that, “As it happened, [Ruth] came to the … field belonging to Boaz”! “As it happened”!! As we proactively seek God’s lamp over our path, a lot of good things might happen; or at the very least, we will be where God would have us be – which is the place of ultimate blessing.

We know that from this moment, Ruth’s fortunes, so to speak, turn around (for the better). But we haven’t yet got to the part where we see the quality and impact of the welcome and hospitality that Boaz provided that lay behind this.

3.     A Kindness Hero

If Ruth was our ‘kindness hero’ last week, then Boaz is this week! Boaz was clearly one who practiced kindness towards the poor, allowing people in need to walk behind his “reapers”, and making sure these “reapers” left enough behind to make it worth their while. As well as this, Boaz clearly had a great reputation and relationship with his workforce – refer verse 4. He obviously treated his workers well, as he brought his spirituality into his management of people. Boaz probably gained kudos and respect for his attitude to the less fortunate. When he suddenly arrived at the field, as verse 4 suggests, he found his workers being industrious and commended them. These workers had clearly also been cooperative with people in situations like Ruth, and we might sense that they had acquired such consideration from the fine example of Boaz.

Who was this new woman asked Boaz! He was to find out that she was the Moabite woman who had emigrated to Bethlehem with his relative Naomi. Do you sense God’s hand in all this! The prospects for Ruth coming to Judah as a stranger may have been frightening, but God had already provided. And Boaz was to be the (chosen) instrument of blessing. Boaz also found out that this Ruth had approached his field humbly seeking permission, and had been working all morning without rest. His welcome and consideration of Ruth was complete. Boaz went on to suggest to Ruth that she should stay in his field, because clearly she would be safe there, and Boaz would make sure there was to be more than enough left around to meet her needs.

Why was Boaz favouring her in this way, Ruth wondered out loud. ‘I’m not from here … I don’t really belong’! Ruth actually fell with her face to the ground in wonder (refer verse 10). We mentioned last week that people from Moab were not well thought of in Judah … quite the opposite! They were tainted, they had a different religion, they could taint us … according to common opinion. They should be shunned, it was thought. Not by Boaz though! And especially not … on the evidence of Ruth’s loving-kindness to Naomi (refer verses 11-12). Far from shunning Ruth, Boaz announces a blessing upon her (verse 12). [We might wonder if something has happened behind the scenes and Naomi has already put in a good word for Ruth with her relative Boaz!]

* Also, we notice that Boaz has thought about Ruth's own personal loss!

In any case, well over and above what would be considered normal, Boaz provided for Ruth. First, the water that was offered, which would have come from the supply that the other workers would have taken the trouble to draw from the village well and bring to the field. Some might have raised their eyebrows, but for Boaz this was just a natural thing to do. Then, when it came to the lunch break, Boaz raised Ruth’s status in Judah, by inviting her to “sit beside” his own workers and eat with them. And just like with Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand, rather than there being a shortage, there was food left over (refer verse 14).

Grace was abounding for Ruth. You would imagine that there might have been the more hardhearted or prejudiced few there that day, who might have resented this affirming treatment of Moabite Ruth; some who would seek to protect their own interests at the cost of newcomers. But Boaz seemed to just keep pressing the point!

4.     Generous Welcome

We remember that the loving-kindness that Ruth has showed Naomi, and that Boaz has shown Ruth, is like the loving-kindness that God continually shows us: generous, sacrificial, in solidarity with our human need. This is the loving-kindness that we all received from Jesus. This is the loving-kindness that we are all expected to offer to those seeking and needing a welcome and caring hospitality. When we ourselves have already received this from God, who are we to hold it back from others!?!

We think of all those people forced to cross borders looking for a new home. We think of all those who have become stranded in refugee camps or detention centres experiencing less and less hope. We think of all the difficulty and complexity of all this, but then are caused to think about this generous sense of welcome that comes out of the heart of God. And we wonder who needs a generous welcome within our own neighbourhood!?

It’s sad that Ruth was threatened by this move from Moab to Judah. It’s disturbing that the reader of chapter one, would have feared for Ruth on her arrival in Bethlehem. It should not have been this way! Boaz teaches us this. Boaz responds as a person of God would naturally respond. Boaz goes on to give Ruth even easier and more generous access to the sheaves of wheat, so there would be some for her mother-in-law Naomi as well. As Boaz told his workers to allow Ruth access to the “standing sheaves” (v.15), again, her status, her level of acceptance, and her prospects are lifted. This was a tremendous outcome for Ruth, and there was even more blessing to come.

In verse 12, Boaz incisively states that Ruth had moved from Moab to Judah, under the refuge of God’s wings. And it was Boaz himself that confirmed God’s loving-kindness to Ruth, in the extraordinary level of encouraging and practical welcome he provided. Boaz also personally saw to Ruth’s protection, first in his own field amongst his own workforce, and then by making it unnecessary to go anywhere else to get help. I think we could agree with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who in 2012 said: “More and more people are forced to flee in search of refuge. Together we must care for some of the most vulnerable people in the world, people who have been uprooted and dispossessed, people who need our support to rebuild their lives and to restore their vision of the future.”

Happily, the “Welcome to Australia” movement, founded by South Australian pastor Brad Chilcott, has been very proactive in providing welcome and hospitality to many hundreds of newcomers. And many here have been supporting Andy and Jan’s efforts in terms of resettling Chin refugees from Burma . As a church we have been supporting, in a number of ways, a family originally from Sri Lanka with various needs. And, on another front, there has been great financial support recently for the Zoe’s Hope project, so that a community in Zambia can have simple access to clean water. We know that this is not a side issue to the Gospel … this activity is central to the Gospel.

5.     God’s Agency

Boaz blessed Ruth (v.12) and said, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds [i.e. of kindness to Naomi] … the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge”. When she heard this, Ruth knew that it was to be Boaz himself that would be an agent of God’s blessing to her. Ruth replied to Boaz (in verse 13), as anyone would reply, “May I continue to find favour in your sight … for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants”. This was a welcome that reached out beyond one people group, across an artificial boundary that the complexity of life had thrown up. May we continue to be a party to many coming under the refuge of God’s wings.

We sense how Ruth would become such an asset to Judah – a model of the “unexpected asset” (J Waldron). We need to be able to offer a sincere welcome with open minds and hearts, sometimes against the tide of our comfort levels (and also common opinion).

Where might I or you fit into this narrative? Am I the shy newcomer like Ruth, aware of my possible level of difference, knowing that without assistance I am unlikely to survive? Will I put in a good word for others as Naomi may have done? Or am I the well-resourced employer like Boaz, who has great power for good or for evil in the way in which I treat those working for me? I can set a good culture of fairness and kindness, or I can promote a sort of dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest! What will happen when the shy newcomer enters my workspace?? How will they be treated? As that shy newcomer in need of support, how will I act in response to the kindness I receive? Even if we are not in any of these situations, what is it about Ruth or Boaz that inspires us? In whatever role we have, and from whatever situation we come from, how can we make a positive difference in others, and how can we build community?

Where is God in all this? Doesn’t all loving-kindness begin with God! Doesn’t God seek to carry all of us, throughout the whole world, under His wings! Isn’t there a welcome for us all! Aren’t each of us asked to live out this loving-kindness and welcome as agents of God!

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