A sermon in our continuing series on Ruth.
It seems that Baoz is not going to waste any time. His night with Ruth on the threshing floor is barely over.
Just a few hours ago she uncovered his legs and lay down beside him,
just a few hours ago she asked him to take her in marriage,
When Ruth returns to Naomi in the earliest hours of that morning, and tells her everything that has happened, Naomi responds. “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.” And Naomi is exactly right, for the narrative turns very quickly from a private moment on the threshing floor to a very public event at the city gate. And that’s where we find Boaz that next day – at the city gate.
We should know that in ancient times the city gate is the heart of the community. It is where all of the important political action takes place. It is where major business transactions are completed. It is where prophetic denouncements are made, and sermons offered. The city gate represents the heart of the community
And Boaz goes to the city gate because he has a business matter to resolve. According to the practice of that day, upon arriving at the city gate Boaz assembles a group of elders to serve as witnesses to what will transpire. The Elders represent the conscience of the community – they represent the traditions of God’s people.
But we should ask – why does Boaz go to the city gate? What business is he on?
As chapter 4 of Ruth unfolds we discover that we have been missing a piece of the puzzle all along. You see, Boaz goes to the city gate to determine what is to be done with a piece of land – a field. Well, this is perhaps a surprise to us. What field are we talking about? What does it have to do with the rest of the story? Well, the field in question once belonged to Elimelech, the husband of Naomi.
Here a little background information is important. According to the law and conventions of that ancient culture, all of the land belongs to God. But according to tradition, God parcels out the land to the male members of the community and their families. Particular pieces of land are worked by particular families, providing nourishment for them and serving as a possible source of income. Very important within that community, was the conviction that a piece of land must remain within the family to which the land has been given. The land can’t be sold to just anyone.
Of course Elimelech has died. His sons have also died. There is now no immediate family member to claim this piece of land. So who then is responsible for it? As Boaz makes clear, Naomi the widow of Elimelech has some claim on the land. She has right to the land. But on account of her poverty, and probably on account of the fact that she is a woman, Naomi is unable to make use of the land. The only way forward is to find a man from the extended family who will buy the land from her and work it.
What she needs is a kinsman redeemer. That’s a technical, legal term. A kinsman redeemer is a relative, perhaps a distant relative who, because he is a family member, is able to take possession of the land, to work the land. To sell the field to this relative; to give this relative rights to the land, is to keep the property within the extended family of Elimelech.
Now Boaz is a relative of Elimelech, so perhaps he can act as the kinsman redeemer – perhaps he can buy this piece of land from Naomi. But it turns out that Boaz is not the closest relative. There is another relative who is more closely related to Elimelech and that man gets has the first opportunity to buy the land.
We read in Chapter 4:
No sooner had Boaz gone up to the city gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin came passing by….Boaz then said to him: “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know, for there is no one prior to you to redeem it and I come after you.’”
Boaz says to Mr. Noname, as we’ll call him: “Have I got a deal for you. And you better act quickly. There’s a piece of land available to be worked for profit, and it can be yours.”
Mr. Noname mulls the offer over. He begins to see this as a long term investment opportunity. Now the land hasn’t been worked through the past years of famine – if he buys it it’s going to cost him in the short term. He’ll have to spend some money to buy the land. He’ll have to invest some money to clear it and make it fertile. But in the long term, this could turn out to his advantage – he’ll get years of harvests out of the land. He’ll pass the land on to his sons. Short term pain, long term gain…
So he answers Boaz: “You’ve got a deal. I’ll redeem it. I’ll buy the land. I’ll keep it in our family, the extended family of Elimelech.”
But no sooner has he offered this reply than Boaz throws a wrench into the works.
“Maybe I should clarify something,” says Boaz. “You see, when you take possession of the field, you must also take Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, as your wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance. In other words, sir: If you want the land, you have to marry Ruth, too.”
Whoa. That changes everything for Mr. Noname. What seemed like a good business deal suddenly doesn’t look so good. He could live with the short term pain if there would be a long term gain. But now there will be no long term gain.
Why? To understand this, we have to look quickly at the law of levirate marriage. As you’ll read on the insert in the bulletin, the law of levirate marriage says that if there were two married brothers, and one of the brothers dies before he has a son – the other brother has to marry the widow in order to provide a son to carry on the name of the deceased brother. That is, if the widow is able to have a son with the living brother, the child would actually be considered the son of the dead brother – to carry on his name in the community.
Now we know that Elimelech has died. And both of Elimelech’s sons have died. There is no son left to carry on the family name and honour. Elimelech’s line has ended.
So Boaz is saying to Mr. Noname: “If you buy this land of Elimelech, then you also have a moral obligation to marry Ruth to provide a son to continue the line of Elimelech and Mahlon.” If not a legal obligation, there is at least a moral obligation for the next of kin to marry Ruth and provide a son for Mahlon, a grandson to Elimelech. This is shown on the back of your insert – the child born of Ruth and the kinsman redeemer continues the line of Elimelech and will claim the land.
But that means that the land Mr. Noname is going to buy will never really be his. If he and Ruth have a baby boy, then land will be passed to that boy, who will be considered the son of Mahlon and the grandson of Elimelech – in a technical sense, the boy will not be the son of Mr. Noname.
So, the money that Mr. Noname will put up to buy the land, and the money he will invest to make the land fertile and profitable… He’ll never get it back. The land will revert to the family of Elimelech, not to Mr. Noname’s sons.
With all of this running through the back of his mind, Mr. Noname concludes with words that have become familiar to us by way of CBC’s show Dragon’s Den: “I’m out! I can’t buy this land without hurting the long term prospects of my own family. You take the right of redemption – I won’t buy the land.”
Mr. Noname has weighed things – and this deal is not to his financial advantage. He decides not to buy the land – doing so he also relieves himself of the moral obligation to marry Ruth, to provide an heir for Elimelech.
Here we come to some peculiar words in the text, but also hopeful words for Ruth.
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
With the removal of his sandal, the unnamed relative gives up his right to the land. And having given up his right, it passes to Boaz. With the removal of that sandal, there is hope then for Ruth. Why is there hope? There is hope because Boaz had promised that if Mr. Noname won’t buy the land, he will. And surely Boaz will not reject the moral obligation also to marry Ruth.
We continue to read:
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are my witnesses.
Who is this Boaz – this man so central to the narrative of Ruth? What do we know of him?
Earlier in the narrative he’s described as a prominent rich man, in the land of Judah.
We have seen him protect Ruth the Moabite, the foreigner in his field.
We have seen him provide grain sustain Ruth and Naomi.
We have heard him offer a prayer of blessing on Ruth.
When Ruth lies down, outrageously, beside him in the middle of the night, doe he reject her or exploit her vulnerability? No, he again blesses her and promises to help her.
Throughout the narrative, Boaz is pictured as a reputable man – trustworthy and gracious. He displays hesed – loving kindness toward Ruth and Naomi. In this last scene all of this is confirmed.
You see, the situation for Boaz is no different than for Mr. Noname.
Boaz too will have to spend money to buy the land of Elimelech.
He too will have to invest money to make the land profitable.
And he too will likely lose it when it is passes back to the line of Elimelech.
In this scene, Boaz acts with a loving kindness not unlike that which Ruth displayed in committing herself to Naomi. As a Moabiate (a foreigner) and as a widow, Ruth had everything to lose in coming to Judah. But she showed loving kindness to Naomi – she stayed by her side and helped her. Similarly, Boaz acts with loving kindness.
Boaz redeems the land – thus doing honour to the name and family of Elimelech.
Boaz is willing to marry Ruth – thus keeping the land in the family to which it belongs.
At the same time, by buying the land and marrying Ruth, Boaz sees to the long term security of Naomi and of Ruth.
Having worked through the narrative of Ruth chapter 4 in this way, how are we to conclude? What are we to make of this part of the story?
There is a great temptation, at the end of a sermon like this – to conclude by saying. Well, go and do likewise.
Be kind like Boaz was kind.
Be generous like Boaz was generous.
Take gracious risks like Boaz took a gracious risk.
But maybe that’s a mistake. Too often we think of the Christian life as if its means being good and kind like those portrayed in the bible. It’s about being gracious and trustworthy like they were. But when we think in this way, we are often missing what matters the most.
This narrative of Ruth is set within a grand narrative – within the narrative of God’s loving kindness toward his people. That grand narrative encompasses the Old Testament and God’s loving kindness to his people Israel. That grand narrative encompasses our New Testament, in which loving kindness of God is decisively revealed in Jesus Christ.
The story of Ruth and of Boaz is set within that greater narrative, and the story of Ruth and Baoz points us to that greater narrative. It is, fundamentally, a story that reminds us that we live our whole lives under the loving kindness, the hesed, of God. As individuals and as a community of God’s people, God persists in extending loving kindness to us. We are a people who walk often through times of grief, darkness, anxiety,
a people who frequently mess up our lives, betray our friends, hurt family members,
who fail to reach out to hurting neighbours with God’s love.
Yet in Jesus Christ God has shown a decisive loving kindness toward us. By his grace God comes to encourage us through times of sadness, to carry us through times of anxiety, to heal our broken friendships, to encourage us in love of our neighbour, to strengthen us in our care for the earth
The loving kindness of Ruth and Boaz points us to the grand narrative of God’s loving kindness in Jesus Christ.
This becomes particularly clear when we turn to the opening verses of Matthew’s gospel. There we discover a genealogy of Jesus. It is a long list of names – a list of those who are counted as the ancestors of Jesus. And there in the list we read:
Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nashon,
Nashon the father of Salmon,
Salmon, the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth
Obed the father of Jesse…and the genealogy continues down to Jesus.
The story of Ruth and of Boaz, their acts of loving kindness, are set within the greater story of the gospel. Their acts of loving kindness are a reminder of the fact of God’s love – the truth that God is love, and that in Jesus the messiah, God’s amazing love is on display.
To see our lives within the grand narrative of the gospel is to understand who we are. We are those to whom God shows loving kindness. We are those God has forgiven and redeemed in Jesus Christ. We are those to whom God shows his face each and every day: encouraging us, helping us, equipping us, forgiving us, restoring us.
Of course we have to ask: When we become aware of God’s love for us, won’t it affect how we live and act? Well, how could it not affect how we live and act?
But that’s never where we begin.
It’s not simply about trying to do the right things.
It’s not simply about trying to be a good person.
It’s not simply about trying to be kind or gracious.
It’s about knowing who you are? You are a child of God, through Jesus Christ. To you God has shown loving kindness. God draws you close to himself in the Holy Spirit.
But won’t all of this make a difference for how we live. Perhaps it will…