Another sermon in our series on Ruth. Again, I largely follow the Interpretation series commentary on Ruth.
It was a fateful evening on the threshing floor – no doubt the events of that night were burned into the memory of Boaz. It was a night like no other.
The threshing floor is out in the middle of a field – it is a place where the wheat and barley that have been harvested will bee processed. The valuable grain is separated from the stalk of the plant and from the chaff. After a long day of threshing wheat or barley, and after a meal and some wine with his men, Boaz settles down for the night. No doubt the combination of hard work and wine knock Boaz out pretty quickly – no doubt he is in a dead sleep not long after he puts his head down to rest.
Why is he sleeping there – well, because the threshing floor is an open space out in the middle of a field. The processed grain is vulnerable to theft, and so as the owner, Boaz, sleeps with the grain for security purposes.
In any case, some time after Boaz falls asleep, he finds himself starting to wake up. You’ll know that feeling – you’re half asleep, half awake, and you’re not sure why. The nights are cool in Judah and somehow the robes of Boaz are no longer covering his legs – it is the chilly air that is waking him up.
Perhaps it takes him a few minutes, coming out of his grogginess, to realize that he is awake because of that chill. But as the grogginess of sleep passes, Boaz begins to realize not only that he is partly uncovered, but that there is someone lying there, up against him. The moon is just bright enough for him to make out the figure of a woman curled there beside him. No doubt it is a strange moment. He probably isn’t sure if he is asleep or awake or somewhere in between. And as he begins to realize that it is in fact a woman, and he is indeed awake, there is probably confusion about how she came to be beside him. There is likely fear at the prospect of being caught in such a compromising situation. Mingled with the confusion and fear there are perhaps feelings of sexual attraction and arousal with a woman so close to his body.
After a few seconds of being totally at a loss – completely disoriented – Boaz collects himself sufficiently to blurt out to the figure now sitting up beside him: “Who are you?”……
Earlier that day Naomi and Ruth were deep in conversation – and once again the subject was their own security; how to win it. Naomi is clearly more seasoned and wise,
familiar with the social structures of Judah,
familiar with possible avenues toward security,
familiar with the very real challenge they are up against.
Naomi has returned to Bethlehem empty and bitter, but her feelings of emptiness and bitterness do not have such a grip on her that she is immobilized. Far from it. From the moment of their return to Judah, she works together with her daughter-in-law Ruth to ensure their protection and survival.
So it is earlier in the day, and Naomi and Ruth are in conversation about their security. Remembering that Ruth has already encountered Boaz, and that Boaz has acted for her benefit, Naomi hatches a plan. Her plan is to win their security, by winning a man – indeed, as we’ve pointed out, the only way to financial security and social standing in that ancient society was through the male members of a household.
Naomi says to Ruth: “I want you to wash yourself, I want you to put on your best clothes, and I want you to anoint yourself with oil.” Bathing certainly wouldn’t have been an everyday or even a weekly practice in that ancient culture. And anointing with oil was for special occasions and religious ceremonies. Naomi clearly has something in mind for Ruth – she wants her at womanly best.
As Naomi continues to outline her plan, we can only surmise that Ruth might have been slightly aghast at what Naomi suggests, though she offers no objection: “Ruth, this evening after the sun has set I want you to go down to the threshing floor. After Boaz has finished his meal and finished his wine, and when he has settled down to sleep for the night, I want you to go to him. And there at the threshing floor I want you to uncover his legs and lie down next to him.
Naomi wants Ruth looking her best, and dressed in her best, on account of this plan to win their security by winning a man. Naomi can’t know whether Ruth’s attractiveness and desirability will help them win this man, but she knows that it can’t hurt their chances.
Looking for a moment at Naomi’s words we should realize something that might surprise us. We should realize that Naomi’s words actually introduce a kind of sexual tension into the story. Naomi says to Ruth: “Go and uncover his feet and lie down.” And we should know that the Hebrew word ‘feet’ is sometimes used as euphemism for genitals in that language and culture. The Hebrew word used by Naomi is a words either for legs or feet, but in any case it has a double meaning – the sexual connotation remains.
We also note Naomi’s instruction to Ruth ‘to lie down’ – which also has a double meaning. It can simply mean to lie down and to go to sleep. But in certain cases it can mean to sleep with – as in to have sexual relations with someone.
Let’s be clear, the movement of the story, and the words of the narrative do not suggest that Ruth and Boaz were involved sexually on the threshing floor. Yet the story contains within itself allusions and tensions that point to the compromising nature of the situation itself. The language of the story points to the fact that a night-time encounter between a man and woman of this sort is culturally inappropriate – it is far from customary or accepted practice. This particular situation is also fraught with sexual tension and desire.
Boaz has shaken off his grogginess. He realizes now that he is awake because his feet, his legs have been uncovered, and because there is a woman lying next to him. He blurts out “Who are you?”
She answers him – “Boaz, it’s me, Ruth, your servant. Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next of kin.”
Once again, the words used here matter. When Ruth says, spread your cloak over your servant, the word used could equally be translated as wing. Ruth is not simply asking Boaz to keep her warm with his cloak. Rather, she is inviting Boaz to place a wing of protection around her and around Naomi. She is telling him that as next of kin to Naomi, he is well-placed to provide for their security.
Earlier in the story, when Boaz encountered Ruth gleaning in the field he announced this prayerful blessing upon her: “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Now Ruth turns around and in effect says to him: “Boaz, you asked God to protect me. Will you be the instrument of God’s protection?” Boaz, will you be the answer to your own prayer?
Perhaps it is worthwhile to stop just for a second and ask whether we are prepared to be the answer to prayers we offer for others.
When we pray for someone who is lonely, are we prepared to be part of God’s answer to their loneliness.
When we pray for those who are hungry, are we prepared to be part of God’s answer to their need of food.
God touches our human lives, not exclusively, but frequently through each other. And when we pray for others, we need to remember that God may invite us to be the answer to our own prayer. Ruth invites Boaz to be the answer to his prayer to God for the protection of Ruth.
Ruth’s words to Boaz have another dimension as well – you see, the language of spreading a cloak over another is also the language of marriage. Ruth is not asking for protection in some general sense – rather she is asking him to take her as his wife. “Boaz, place your wing of protection around me, spread your cloak over me. Boaz, marry me, so that Naomi and I might find security.”
It is a strange and inappropriate situation set up by Naomi and Ruth.
It is a dramatic question that Ruth asks of Boaz.
Perhaps Naomi and Ruth are willing to take this risk, this unusual step – because they have some sense that Boaz will respond with kindness.
He is known as an upstanding member of God’s people.
He has already displayed kindness by helping Ruth in her gleaning.
He has shown himself to be trustworthy.
On account of this perhaps they are trusting that the cultural inappropriateness of the scene will not lead Boaz to reject Ruth.
So then, how does Boaz respond to this inappropriate and even sexually loaded intervention. How will he respond to the question? They’ve taken a risk. How will it turn out? The short answer is that Boaz in fact acts with loving kindness.
He says to Ruth: “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty, your hesed, is better than the first… Do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.”
Boaz praises Ruth and describes her request for marriage as an act of loving kindness. But maybe this leaves us confused. How is her request that he marry her an act of loving kindness? To answer this question we have to realize that Ruth had no obligation to seek a marriage with Boaz. She was free to seek marriage with any eligible man – perhaps a younger man, a more handsome man.
But if she is free to marry any man, why approach Boaz? Ruth asks Boaz, because she is thinking about Naomi’s security. You see, if Ruth had married just anyone else, Naomi would not be a part of that new family picture. Ruth would start a new life in a new family, but Naomi would be left out of the scenario. But because Naomi is related to Boaz, a marriage between Ruth and Boaz will mean protection and security not only for Ruth but also for Naomi.
This act, of seeking marriage to Boaz, is an extension of her act of loving kindness toward Naomi – expressed in her earlier commitment to Naomi. Remember Ruth’s words: Where you go, Naomi, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your God will be my God; where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.” Ruth’s commitment to Naomi – her kindness and love toward Naomi – is further revealed in her willingness to seek a marriage with Boaz.
Carolyn James has written a commentary on the book of Ruth that is titled as follows: The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God enough to break the rules. That subtitle, I think, points toward an important lesson in Ruth chapter 3. Loving God enough to break the rules.
And, it’s actually a lesson that fits in well with the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry, from day one, was about fulfilling God’s law – about fulfilling the true spirit of God’s law. Jesus’ own ministry, was about fulfilling the law of love. And in fulfilling the law of love,
Jesus never let the legalism of the Pharisees prevent him from loving.
Jesus never let the confused ideas of his culture determine his actions.
Against the objections of the religious leaders, Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
Against the objections of many, he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Against the logic of almost every culture, he showed that the way to new life was
through his suffering death.
Ruth goes to Boaz in a way that goes against almost every convention of her culture. She breaks the rules of her culture. Why?
Because of her love for Naomi.
On account of her commitment to Naomi.
If the news of this night-time encounter gets out, it will be to her eternal shame. There is a risk that Boaz will look at what she’s done and reject this Moabite woman. But she takes this profoundly counter-cultural action for the sake of her love for Naomi – her commitment to Naomi. She acts for the sake of loving-kindness – doing so she becomes an emblem of the loving kindness of God toward his people. Phylis Trible, a biblical scholar, calls this encounter between Ruth and Boaz: “salvation by courage alone.” Ruth’s courage, is for the salvation, the security, of Naomi and Ruth.
There are so many instances where we face a similar choice – whether we will love God enough to break the rules. Whether we will courageously ignore the cultural rules of our society – rules that often have nothing to do with the kingdom of God – in order to who the love of God? If we are serious about following Jesus Christ, serious about displaying his love toward those around us, then as a congregation and as individuals we have to be willing to seriously consider our lives – doing so prayerfully before God.
There are so many ways we can apply this to our daily lives that it almost doesn’t make sense for me to enumerate them all. But let me offer some examples.
Is there some group of people with whom we would prefer not to associate or spend time because of our own sense of propriety – our own deep biases about class or ethnicity?
Or – Does our culture’s increasing, sneering contempt for Christian faith prevent us from speaking honestly about our faith in Christ?
Do we constantly wrestle to make ourselves beautiful, acceptable, according to the standards of our culture?
In each of these situations, and in a multitude of others, the gospel invites us to shake off the ingrained habits we have learned from our culture – in order to give expression to the love that is displayed in Christ Jesus. The gospel invites us to love God enough to break the cultural rules that prevent us from reaching out to others in friendship, in mercy, in love – from living fully in the love of God. To follow Christ is always a risk. There is always the chance that people will look at you sideways and
wonder what you’re spending time with those people,
wonder why you cling to such outmoded beliefs,
wonder why you would waste your time praying,
wonder why you don’t spend a bit more on stylish clothes.
The invitation to follow Christ is an invitation to love God enough to break the rules of our culture. Ruth took a chance, breaking the rules of her culture – it was salvation by courage alone. She broke out of the cultural mode for the sake of her love for Naomi. We are invited to follow her lead.