St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

The Wings of Refuge

The Wings of Refuge, Enmore 2018

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Pente­cost 27, 11th Novem­ber 2018

Read­ing: Ruth 3.1–5; 4.13–17 & Mark 12:38–44.

On this Remem­brance Sunday when we often focus on the men who gave their lives in com­bat we also need to remem­ber the great con­tri­bu­tion of women to the war effort and also the great suf­fer­ing of the women who lost hus­bands, sons, broth­ers, and oth­er loved ones and whose lives were changed forever as a res­ult. So it is fit­ting that our lec­tion­ary for this Sunday gives us two stor­ies of women who suffered loss, not through war but through the ordin­ary cir­cum­stances of life. The Old Test­a­ment read­ing gives us a very abridged account of the story of Naomi and Ruth and the Gos­pel read­ing describes the un-named woman who put her last coins into the temple offer­tory.

The book of Ruth has been described as one of the most beau­ti­ful short stor­ies in the world and if you haven’t read it lately may I encour­age you to do so. Accord­ing to the text it is set “in the time when the Judges ruled” but the date of com­pos­i­tion is mat­ter of dis­pute. The story begins with a man named Elimelech who is forced to move his wife and two sons into the unfa­mil­i­ar and poten­tially hos­tile ter­rit­ory of Moab because there is fam­ine in Israel. Iron­ic­ally, their home town is Beth­le­hem, which means, ‘House of Bread.’ The nar­rat­or makes no judge­ment regard­ing this decision. Mov­ing house is nev­er done lightly espe­cially in that age, and Elimelech clearly believes he has no choice if he is to keep his fam­ily alive. In our own age mil­lions of moth­ers and fath­ers have faced the same decision. At first all is well; they settle in Moab and there is food. Then dis­aster strikes when Elimelech dies and Naomi which means, ‘pleas­ant’ /’lovely’ is left with her two sons, Mahlon (sick­ness) and Chilion (fail­ing). Hope returns when the two sons marry Moabite wives and they live in peace for ten years. Tragedy strikes again when the two sons become ill and die, leav­ing Naomi without the pro­tec­tion of any male fam­ily mem­ber in a for­eign coun­try where she can expect little sym­pathy or sup­port. Her situ­ation is dire and she not sur­pris­ingly feels that ‘the hand of the lord has turned against her.’ Naomi decides that her only option is to return to Beth­le­hem because she has heard that ‘the Lord has con­sidered his people and giv­en them food.’ Naomi believes in God’s provid­ence, namely that all that hap­pens in life both good and bad is all part of God’s pur­pose and plan.

She sets out with her daugh­ters in law but on reflec­tion decides their chances of a new life will be much bet­ter in their own home coun­try. She advises them to return to their own moth­ers and hope that they can find anoth­er hus­band. She prays for her two daugh­ters in law and asks “that the Lord deal kindly with them.” Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and returns to Moab but Ruth, the oth­er daugh­ter in law decides to throw in her lot with Naomi. Her elo­quent declar­a­tion to Naomi, “Where you go, I will go: where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die-there will I be bur­ied” is one of the most mov­ing pas­sages in Scrip­ture.

Naomi returns to Beth­le­hem burdened by a sense of loss-she is a wid­ow with no chil­dren of her own and no pos­ses­sions. She declares “I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty.” But the first chapter of the book ends with a tiny ray of hope. They came to Beth­le­hem at the begin­ning of the bar­ley har­vest. This appar­ently unre­mark­able fact becomes very sig­ni­fic­ant for what fol­lows.

At the begin­ning of chapter 2, the nar­rat­or tells us that Naomi had a kins­man on her husband’s side of the fam­ily, a prom­in­ent rich man whose name was Boaz. The fam­ily was the basic unit of Israel­ite social and kin­ship struc­ture. It was also the basic unit of Israel’s sys­tem of land ten­ure, because the land ulti­mately owned by God, was giv­en to fam­il­ies as an inher­it­ance. Fam­ily solid­ar­ity was there­fore extremely strong in ancient Israel and mem­bers of the wider fam­ily had oblig­a­tions to help and pro­tect one anoth­er when need arose. But at this stage of the story neither Naomi nor Ruth are aware of Boaz and his con­nec­tion to them. They are without any resources so Ruth decides to go to the fields where the har­vest­ing is in pro­gress and find someone who will allow her to gath­er sheaves left behind by the har­vesters. Boaz notices Ruth and make enquir­ies about her. His ques­tion is: “To whom does this young woman belong?” In that ancient pat­ri­arch­al soci­ety a woman had to belong to someone, she could not be inde­pend­ent. He is told that she is the Moabite, who came back with Naomi from the coun­try of Moab. Boaz allows her to gath­er as much grain as she needs and tells his ser­vants to treat her with respect, they are not to molest her. Ruth is over­come by Boaz’s gen­er­os­ity but he explains that he has heard of all that she has done for her moth­er in law and her will­ing­ness to join her in a new coun­try where she is a stranger. So Ruth goes home to Naomi and tells her of her encounter with Boaz and his kind­ness to her. Naomi is excited by this news because she real­ises that Boaz is a rel­at­ive of her late hus­band. Ruth and Naomi now have a secure source of food for the dur­a­tion of the har­vest and are also able to make some pro­vi­sion for the future.

We now arrive at chapter 3 and the pas­sage read as our first les­son. It’s a rather puzz­ling inter­lude and of course the lec­tion­ary leaves out the raci­er bits. The har­vest sea­son is nearly over and soon Ruth will not have an excuse for fur­ther con­tact with Boaz. Naomi comes up with a plan to test Boaz’s com­mit­ment to the fam­ily and his will­ing­ness to take respons­ib­il­ity for the two of them. Ruth is to go to the thresh­ing floor at night where Boaz will be alone. She is to make her­self look as attract­ive as pos­sible and then put her­self in a pos­i­tion of com­plete vul­ner­ab­il­ity. Will Boaz act hon­our­ably towards her or will he take advant­age of her? There are undoubtedly sexu­al over­tones in this nar­rat­ive. Ruth’s actions are designed to let Boaz know that she wants him to marry her but will­ingly and not out of oblig­a­tion. In the field Boaz had prayed that Ruth would ‘receive reward from Yah­weh, the God of Israel under whose wings you have come for refuge.’ Naomi’s plan works: Boaz is moved by Ruth’s beha­viour and speaks of her kind­ness in want­ing to marry him. The next day he sets in motion the leg­al pro­cess of redeem­ing the land and pos­ses­sions that formerly belonged to Elimelech. Ruth the wid­ow of Elimelech’s son comes as part of that pack­age! Our lec­tion­ary jumps over all those details and takes us to the happy end­ing.

Boaz and Ruth are mar­ried and Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who becomes the fath­er of Jesse, the fath­er of Dav­id, the King. Is this the point of the story? Some have read Ruth as simply an apo­logy for the Dav­id­ic mon­archy. Oth­ers have read it as a doc­u­ment of res­ist­ance against the exclus­ive notion of Jew­ish iden­tity pro­mul­gated by Nehemi­ah and Ezra. But Ruth defies easy clas­si­fic­a­tion. Its beauty lies in its account of ordin­ary people who faced with tragedy and dis­ap­point­ment refuse to give way to des­pair. Against all the odds they con­tin­ue to believe that God will some­how show kind­ness and bring them under the shel­ter of his wings. It’s a story about love, faith and loy­alty. Without Ruth’s love and loy­alty to Naomi the story would have had a very dif­fer­ent end­ing. God is men­tioned only in passing in this nar­rat­ive but as one writer puts it, “God can be exper­i­enced as the glue in life rather than some extraneous roy­al being before whom all ordin­ary con­ver­sa­tion stops.” God is between the lives in this story just as God is always present in our own lives, the glue that holds us togeth­er.

The Gos­pel read­ing gives us a pic­ture of anoth­er woman in a very vul­ner­able pos­i­tion. Before the woman makes an appear­ance Jesus has been scold­ing the scribes for their hypo­crisy: demand­ing pos­i­tions of great hon­our but exploit­ing wid­ows who had no-one to defend them. The action for this epis­ode takes place in the temple court, with Jesus and his dis­ciples watch­ing people drop their con­tri­bu­tions into the treas­ury. Many rich people put in large amounts with a great flour­ish but Jesus sees a poor wid­ow put in two cop­per coins of the smal­lest denom­in­a­tion. Jesus then declares that she has giv­en more than any oth­er because she has giv­en all the money she had. The usu­al inter­pret­a­tion of this event is that Jesus com­mends the woman for giv­ing all that she had to God, just as he was about to give all that he had, his very life.

How­ever this inter­pret­a­tion has been chal­lenged in recent years by schol­ars who believe that Jesus was in fact lament­ing the woman’s action because she was a vic­tim of a temple sys­tem that had become cor­rupt and was actu­ally tak­ing advant­age of the poor. In this view Jesus pit­ied the woman and con­demned the temple offi­cials who con­di­tioned her to give everything. Those who hold this view point to the fact that in the very next chapter Jesus will pre­dict the destruc­tion of the temple declar­ing that ‘not one stone will be left upon anoth­er, all will be thrown down.’ I believe there is truth in both views, either way Jesus once again is seen on the side of the poor and the mar­gin­al­ised. We pro­claim a Gos­pel which includes all without dis­tinc­tion. So on this Remem­brance Sunday when we remem­ber those who sac­ri­ficed their lives for their coun­try, we also remem­ber the one who gave his life as the full, per­fect and suf­fi­cient sac­ri­fice for us all.

Philip Brad­ford