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.