Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ruth part three: "A New Future" (Ruth chapters 3 & 4)

1.     The Story So Far …

Naomi with her husband and two sons had previously moved from Judah to Moab because of a famine. First Naomi’s husband dies, followed later by the death of both her sons. Naomi is just left with her two Moabite daughters-in-law, and is in desperate grief. The famine ends in Judah, so Naomi sets off home to Bethlehem in Judah, with her daughter-in law Ruth determined to “cling” to Naomi. We reflected on the “loving-kindness” that was so extensively expressed in chapter one, especially in Ruth’s strong commitment to the well-being of Naomi.

Then when the young foreign woman Ruth is seeking food, and finds her way to the fields gleaning leftover grain, she is discovered there by a prosperous and well-regarded landowner in Boaz (who also happened to be a relative of Naomi). For Ruth, Boaz remarkably provides protection, wise advice and more access to food in his field than would ever have been expected. This was truly a blessing for Ruth – a sense of coming under the refuge of God’s wings. We reflected in chapter two, about the generous welcome and awesome hospitality that Boaz provided for this newly arrived foreign woman.

In both the “loving-kindness” of Ruth, and the extraordinary generosity of Boaz, we reflected that such attitudes and expressions come right out of the heart of God. And as we are called to be agents of God (and followers of Jesus), “loving-kindness” and warm generosity are attitudes and expressions that we are meant to emulate. And sometimes, as we have seen in the early chapters of Ruth, such expressions of love are often needed as against what might have become normal practice (i.e. fear, selfishness and exclusion).

2.     The Dilemma

Yet, Naomi, having moved back to Bethlehem, following the death of her husband and two sons, was still a destitute widow. Despite the kindness of Ruth, in returning with Naomi and providing food for her … Naomi’s life was still in tatters.

Ruth, despite having the love of her mother-in-law Naomi, and now the extraordinary generosity of Boaz, in allowing Ruth unlimited access to his fields and their bounty … Ruth remains another widow in limbo.

Is there a real way forward for either Naomi or Ruth? Given their respective losses, is there any way that life can feel fully blessed again for them??

What about any sense of human depletion? What about any of us? Can there still be a future when life has hit a brick wall??

3.     The Kinsman-Redeemer

Underlying chapters 3 & 4 is this role of the ‘next-of-kin’. Understanding all this is a little illusive – it’s not fully clear and things changed over time. It seems there was a parcel of land in Judah to be inherited from Naomi’s husband Elimelech. Because Naomi and Elimelech had been in Moab up until the time of Elimelech’s death, that land in Judah may have been sold off or leased out for someone else to farm (or otherwise surrendered and utilised by others). One could not leave land idle having moved away. Different to our time, such a sale or arrangement only applied until the time when a family member could buy this land back i.e. redeem it. Alternatively, this land may be, due to Naomi’s current poverty, up for sale now, but with a preference for a relative to purchase it (rather than having to be redeemed from another in the future). In any case, family property was never sold off permanently, ownership ultimately rested within a certain family line, who had the right to buy it back (if it had been temporarily let go).

A ‘next-of kin’ or close relative would be needed to do whatever it took to redeem that land for its original owner. In this case, responsibility would initially be with Elimelech’s closest known relative, and then if necessary pass down the chain. This role had become known as the ‘kinsman-redeemer’. There was also another role to perform for this so-called ‘kinsman-redeemer’ – a far more personal role. This ‘kinsman-redeemer’ could also make arrangements for the line of his relative/s, in this case Elimelech and Naomi, to be continued. As Naomi would have been too old to bear children, this ‘kinsman-redeemer’ could still fulfil this role by marrying Ruth, taking the role of Ruth’s deceased husband who had been Elimelech and Naomi’s son. Culturally speaking, any child from this marriage would be seen as providing an heir for Naomi.

4.     Overview of Chapters 3 & 4

Naomi thought that Boaz might be that “kinsman-redeemer”; she clearly hoped this would be the case. Naomi, then, thought that it would be a good idea for Ruth to make Boaz understand that, if he was of such a mind, she [Ruth] would be happy to have Boaz as her husband. Certainly Naomi had a scheme going to attract Boaz to Ruth … we might raise our eyebrows a bit, but her heart was in the right place, and Ruth was willing to go along with it (trusting Naomi’s judgment). This was something akin to throwing herself at Boaz; yet Boaz didn’t need too much convincing, while at the same time having honourable intentions. From Ruth’s side, she certainly wanted to do what was best for Naomi, and provide some security and descendants for her (if that was at all possible).

So not any man for Ruth, but rather the right man (for all concerned)! Ruth could have provided her own descendants through marrying any young man willing and available, but she could only address Naomi’s need of a male heir to inherit her deceased husband’s responsibilities, if she married a close relative of Naomi. This level of loving concern and kindness is behind Boaz’s comment to Ruth in 3:10: “May you be blessed by the Lord; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, rich or poor”.

Often being kind on a one-off basis is not that much of an issue, but continuing on with that kindness through challenging and self-sacrificing circumstances can really mark a person out. Ruth’s level of loving-kindness is crowned with this sense of loyalty (or selfless devotion)! Ruth continues to respond to Naomi’s feelings of emptiness, in the most active of ways.

Boaz, ever the gentleman, was NOT going to take advantage of the situation, as he was already aware that there was someone else who was a closer relative, and that this person may be prepared to be the “kinsman-redeemer”. There is no doubt that Boaz wanted the role, and wanted to be Ruth’s husband, but he had to go through the right channels. Boaz assures Ruth that he will act in her best interests, and also protects her reputation from any accusation of impropriety.

Boaz didn’t waste any time seeking to make contact, and again we see the hand of God in this, as that ‘closer relative’ “came passing by” (4:1). When this closer relative was unwilling to take on this “kinsman-redeemer” role in all its implications and responsibilities, then the way was clear for Boaz. This other relative was willing to redeem the land, but not take on the further responsibility of Ruth and producing a descendant. It seems that the financial implications, given his current situation, may have been too great (4:6). But we know, as the reader, that Boaz was the man of God’s choosing!

5.     A New Future

Boaz and Ruth plan to marry, and despite Boaz marrying a Moabite women, the community are able to add their blessing and celebrate (4:11-12). Perhaps this is because both Ruth and Boaz have great integrity, and have expressed such caring devotion to Naomi. Soon following their marriage, a son whose name was Obed was born. And Naomi, who had lost her sons, was now given the opportunity of participating in the upbringing of this new boy, who would be considered her descendent (refer 4:16). And not only Naomi’s descendent, but through the line of Boaz, Obed would be the grandfather of David, ultimately leading to Jesus (through Joseph).

Boaz was no doubt a very happy man. And Ruth would now have a secure future in Judah. But the biggest turnaround of all … was for Naomi. She was deeply and desperately depressed and grieving when she first returned to Judah. The community heard her cries: I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? (1:21). Naomi was at her lowest point, even doubting the loving-kindness of God.

But now she has a descendant! Her prior emptiness caused by the death of her husband and sons, and the state in which this left her, has been alleviated. Life cannot actually be put into reverse, former loses remain abiding tragedies – but a new future, with new opportunity, can open up. We may need to live with the consequences of our past actions, but we do NOT have to live as a prisoner to them. Praise God! Naomi’s grief was displayed for the whole community to see, but now this same community can celebrate a huge turnaround.

The loving-kindness of God, sometimes doubted, has been made real through the actions of Ruth and of Boaz. Naomi’s empty life has been filled. No longer “Mara” (meaning ‘bitter’), Naomi is “Naomi” (i.e. ‘pleasant’) again! When there was no other source of hope, and where human resources had reached an end – God’s loving-kindness prevailed. As it turned out, God had NOT abandoned Naomi, as she had thought, far from it! There is a new completeness to Naomi’s experience of life (“Ruth is more to you than seven sons” – 4:15b).

Turnarounds in our lives can indeed stir the community around us, and that is why we need to tell the stories publicly of what God has been doing in our lives. Naomi’s community said (4:14-15):

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.

6.     Our New Future

This is a model for a turnaround and a new future that all human beings can experience. This is especially the case in a spiritual sense, where, at the moment we think we might have lost God, God offers us the grace that brings forgiveness and defeats guilt and shame. We learn again that our home can be with God. This is where we belong, this is where we are accepted, this is where we are valued. When the criminal on the cross next to Jesus was at a complete loss, he humbly sought the grace of Jesus, and Jesus responded to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). There is another turnaround!

This spiritual renewal can then travel to all aspects of our lives, meaning that those troublesome facets of our lives … emotional, relational, behavioural and physical … can all be touched by the transforming power of God. This is surely a great model of the possibilities before us, right here and right now, as the child born to Ruth and Boaz, named in their joy by the whole community as Obed (meaning ‘servant’), was the grandfather of David, whose earthly line would progress through to Jesus himself. As Boaz was “kinsman-redeemer” for Naomi; so Jesus is “kinsman-redeemer’ for each of us.

Just like in Naomi’s case with Boaz, our redemption comes through someone else’s faithfulness. Jesus takes that role of closest relative, that no one else can or would (take), and returns to us what has been lost. Jesus offers to redeem us. Jesus, in a once-for-all loving sacrifice, buys back what was sold off to other interests, or lost seemingly without hope of return. In this way, lives are brought back to the heart of Creator God. In the case of Jesus, one act of redemption leads to the redemption of the whole world.

Now this new future, this complete turnaround can be our personal experience – it has been mine, and I trust it has been yours. Yet, our new future doesn’t end there, it is just the beginning. For our new future is (or, should be) a foretaste of what each and everybody’s new future could be. When Naomi’s life was in tatters the community around her in Bethlehem noticed. We have now seen the community rejoicing when Naomi’s life became transformed and God-filled once again. They were stirred! So it can be today!

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