"Boaz' Benevolence: Welcome the Stranger"

January 13, 2008 Ruth 2

"All Welcome" - Really?

It's easy to welcome people we like, who are like us, people with whom we are comfortable, and don't seem 'strange' in any way. Yet God commands us to love our neighbour, even those who aren't like us, whose ways seem foreign.

When we were opening our Christmas presents as a family, one of my daughters received quite a unique gift from another daughter. It's a poem written on a piece of cardboard. Not much to look at, you might say. But the poet is Crazzy Dave (photo on back), a homeless person who makes his sidewalk space near a Chapters store in Ottawa. My daughter-in-law commented she's sometimes seen him sleeping outside the store on her way to work. So, with this gift, not only did someone get a unique poem - a street person was able to buy some necessities. However, the comment was made that the municipality recently banned sidewalk sales by street artisans; the city only wants the likes of hot-dog vendors to hawk their wares. I wonder what that will mean for Crazzy Dave and his friends?

Doug Koop, editor of ChristianWeek, describes how he likes the 'cozy arrangement' and 'comfortable pattern' of worship and social hour with his congregation on ordinary Sundays. "Something about me loves predictability on Sunday mornings.I respond well to orderly reverence.I like my coffee fellowship with my kind of people.I like my comfort zone a lot."

"But sometimes," he notes, "Clive comes to church, and then the dynamics change...Clive lives on the streets and can look pretty rough.But a gentle soul survives inside that swollen, mottled body and grungy clothes...He joins right in with our rituals and makes a beeline for the coffee fellowship downstairs as soon as the service is over.It's his favourite part. Sometimes he brings friends."

One Sunday Clive showed up with seven visiting cousins in tow. "The pastor began with an anecdote about a well-deserved speeding ticket. 'Preach the word!' came an admonishing voice from the back. 'Preach the word!' After another worshiper mentioned a book with 'archangel' in the title, one of Clive's friends in the pew ahead of me spoke up. 'I wish I was an archangel,' he said. 'Then when they nailed Jesus on the cross I'd have come and beat them back.' My pastor thanked him for the comment, adding, 'Jesus could have called 10,000 angels' but chose to die instead. 'I know, I know,' replied our visitor. 'But if I were there I'd have taken them and really given them some rrrrrrrrrrrrrr!' Here he took his right fist and pummelled it against the palm of his other hand.There was no way this man would stand by to see Jesus suffer abuse at the hands of others.The service continued."

Koop notes at the fellowship hour after, 'None of our church members were rude to our visitors.Not visibly, at least.Most sat at their own tables and carried on their own conversations.A few sought to befriend our visitors, to sit and speak with them."

What if you or I had been there - which group would we be with? Those who stuck to their usual friends - or those who made an effort to visit with the strangers?

Today as we continue in the book of Ruth, we meet a man who, with others in the 'hometown crowd', showed God's grace by welcoming someone strange to the community. Through their kindness, God worked in a mysterious way to bring much-needed support to a pair of women in need - and ancestry to Jesus' earthly parents.

Bethlehem's Most Eligible Bachelor

Ruth 2:1 introduces Boaz as "a relative on her husband's side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing..." NRSV translates that last bit "a prominent rich man"; a Bible encyclopedia describes him as "a man of position and wealth." He's old enough to refer to Ruth in v8 as "my daughter"; and old enough to obviously have the respect of his foreman and workers. Yet he's single. Surely Boaz must have been Bethlehem's most eligible bachelor! Why isn't this 'prominent rich man' hitched? Did Boaz have "b.o."? Probably no more than anyone else in that hot climate. Was he overweight, on the pudgy side (as in some illustrations)? His name means 'fleetness' - that hardly suits an obese person. More likely Mr Fleetness was just hard to catch. Boaz didn't have BO, he had BOUNDARIES - as we'll see in chapter 3, he had standards, self-restraint, he was probably waiting for the right one to come along, in God's timing.

Let's see if we can put together a bit of a Facebook profile that would describe this eligible young prospect. First, we already know from v1 that he's wealthy and influential. V4, he's attentive - "Boaz arrived from Bethlehem" out in the harvest fields, he's looking after his affairs, paying attention, not like some absentee landlord. His workers apparently get along well with him, like 'Mr Darcy'. Here he's arriving perhaps to check on progress, maybe bringing lunch supplies for the work crew. We also know he's attentive from v5: Boaz asks his foreman, "Whose young woman is that?" So he knows his workers and can spot someone new to the scene.

Also from v4 we can detect (or at least suspect) Boaz is a godly man from the nature of his greeting to the harvesters, "The Lord be with you!" They respond similarly as if they've done this before, "The Lord bless you!" Godly people often find a way to bring reference to the Lord into a situation. Also in v12 he again brings the Lord into the conversation, asking that God may repay and reward Ruth.

So is this wealthy guy chiefly a consumer, looking after his own interests? Vv8-9 show that he's a protector of others, particularly the vulnerable. He tells Ruth not to glean in other fields or go away, but to stay with his servant girls where she'll be safe. As the men harvested the barley with sickles, the women followed to bind the grain into sheaves; then Ruth and other 'gleaners' would gather up stray heads into their own sacks. Boaz is urging Ruth to stay close to the binders. he adds, "I have told the men not to touch you." He's a protector, offering shelter to the stranger. In Mt 25:35, the King at judgment sorts the righteous 'sheep' from the evil 'goats', then says to the righteous, "I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in..."

To review our Facebook profile for Boaz so far, we have: wealthy, attentive, godly, protective; add to that, provider. Second half of v9, "and whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled." He supplies her need, for gleaning all day in the sun would be thirsty work. Then in v14 there's a cute picture of Boaz personally encouraging Ruth to help herself to their food and giving her more roasted grain than she could eat. He probably knew any leftovers would find their way home to the elderly Naomi.

In v16 Boaz goes belong polite provision to deliberate generosity, ordering his men, "Pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up..." He's taking special measures to ensure Ruth gets a great yield from her day's work gleaning. Sly in a good way!

The law instructed farmers to not harvest scrimpingly, but to leave some for gleaners, those in poverty. Lev 23(22) states the gleanings at the edges of the field are to be left "for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God." Deuteronomy 24(19) adds, "When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, [AND NOTE THIS OBJECTIVE] so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." If you're stingy, that blocks God's blessing for you.

Boaz was godly and generous, he went beyond just what the Law required. On purpose he ordered the harvesters to pull out grain and leave it on the ground for Ruth. Proverbs 19(17) says, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." Perhaps Boaz felt his kindness to the like of Ruth was in some way a gift back to God from all that with which he'd been blessed.

Boaz had a BIG picture of God. Note his beautiful word-picture in speaking with Ruth at the end of v12: "May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." Isn't that a beautiful, protective, caring-for kind of imagery? We'll see Ruth re-visit this protective-covering-wings idea in the next chapter. Years later, when their descendant David was being hunted down like a wild animal by Saul and having to hide in caves in the wilderness, David prayed, "I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed." (Ps 57:1) Jesus lamented that He'd oft longed to gather the people of Jerusalem "as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" but they weren't willing (Mt 23:37).

Boaz' big picture of God, with sheltering wings, frees him from the clutches of wealth to share generously with others in need.

An Unseen Guiding Hand

So now you've met Boaz; let's flip back a moment to Ruth, who we met in chapter 1. The character of this widow from Moab continues to shine. In v2 she shows commendable initiative, asking permission from her mother-in-law Naomi to go pick up leftover grain. It would have been safer to stay at home; a single, lone, young widow going into the wide-open fields with working men involved considerable risk. We see hints of this throughout the passage: v8, Boaz' urging her not to go away to other fields; v9, he's told the men "not to touch her"; v22, Naomi comments that "in someone else's filed you might be harmed." There was also the chance of being incriminated unjustly on other counts: v16, Boaz' men are not to rebuke Ruth for gathering among the sheaves; sometimes unscrupulous gleaners could pull grain from bound sheaves when no-one was looking. So Ruth shows bold initiative in spite of the risk.

She's very polite, asking permission from Naomi, then the foreman of the harvesters; and when she meets Boaz, v10 "She bowed down with her face to the ground." She is humble; in v13 she notes to Boaz that "I do not have the standing of one of your servant girls." But slowly she has been getting a good reputation with the townspeople; in v11Boaz relates how he's been told all about all she's done for her mother-in-law and ventured far from her native land to take care of her.

Ruth also seems extremely hard-working and diligent; the foreman recalls, "She went into the field and has worked steadily from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter." (7)

Yet the most significant factor in the happy outcome of this whole series of events does not depend on Ruth and all her good qualities - polite, humble, hard-working go-getter that she is. There's a factor of Divine Providence well beyond her. It's subtly alluded to in the middle of v3: "As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz..." It just so happened, eh? But the Biblical reader knows that Yahweh is the Lord of all being, bringing to pass whatever may happen. It's as if God guided her to this encounter with Boaz; Naomi clues into this in v20. Explaining to Ruth that Boaz happens to be their close relative, one of the "kinsman-redeemers" provided by law to be responsible for and look after the needs of relatives who fell into misfortune. Naomi sees God's hand at work behind the scenes, saying that the Lord "has not stopped showing His kindness to the living and the dead." A glimmer of hope starts to shine amidst the gloom of Naomi's grief and bitterness. God is still showing His goodness, He cares.

The Bible teaches that God scatters His gifts to the poor; not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Heavenly Father's will (Ps 112:9; Mt 10:29). More important than Boaz' benevolence or Ruth's resourcefulness, God's grace is directing events according to His merciful purpose.

Finding Favour by Being Noticed

I'd suspect many people walk by Crazzy Dave outside the Chapters store each day scarcely realizing he's there. We train ourselves not to notice what we don't want to see. Or during the Fellowship Hour at Doug Koop's church, how many regulars were busy trying to spot their friends so they could sit together, instead of noticing the roughly-dressed visitors? By contrast, Boaz noticed Ruth in the field the very first day.

There's a little phrase that crops up in variations three times in this passage that's significant. V2, Ruth plans to glean in the fields of "anyone in whose eyes I find favour." In v10, upon meeting Boaz, her first words are, "Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?" And in v19, having been shown the abundant proceeds of a single day's work, Naomi exclaims, "Blessed be the man who took notice of you!" Ruth, a foreigner, might tend to be looked away from or ignored. But she has found favour in that Boaz noticed her. He saw what others might have overlooked.

Around Christmas the Salvation Army ran an ad of a park bench with the semi-transparent figure of a sleeping homeless person curled up on it; the accompanying text says, "We see what most don't." God's mercy helps us to notice the poor or hurting that other people may tend to ignore because it's not convenient to notice.

Lisa Lorteau is a Winnipeg woman who in September spent a night at a mission hostel as part of a challenge fundraiser. She went expecting to see stumbling, dirty, substance-abusing street people. She writes, "However, I was somewhat shocked to find average, everyday people staying at the shelter as well. One very attractive woman running from an extremely abusive partner had nowhere else to turn. I met a clean-cut teenaged boy whose mother is a crack addict and neglectful, to say the least...I was also surprised to find several men who will sleep at the shelter for a few hours, then get up at 4 am to stand in line again, this time at a temporary employment company, hoping for a day's work in something like construction....I discovered that I'd accepted all the stereotypes of what a 'homeless person' looks like...You'd never know they were homeless if you saw them at church, the grocery store, your child's school or even at work.And the cold, hard truth is - you just might have."

A World Vision Canada regional program director notes that "Nearly 50% of all single parents live in poverty...It's everywhere." He recommends, "Look at your neighbourhood...Look for new Canadians and single mothers near where you live and worship.When was the last time you had a cup of coffee with someone who's not like you? Engage with those less fortunate in your neighbourhood.They need time and emotion, not just money."

One of my offspring invited a new neighbour, an older man who'd recently been widowed, to our family Christmas dinner. At first I resisted the idea, thinking it was important to 'protect' our usual gathering of relatives for 'just us'. But I tried to adjust to the idea. As it turned out, he was not well enough to come on the day. But my prejudice had been exposed.

Then I think back to December 1981. Yvonne and I were foreigners ourselves our first Christmas in Africa. We were new, isolated, had a 5-month-old baby, and our French was abysmal. But a kind French missionary couple up the road took pity on us. Their names were Munch, and they headed up the Salvation Army Training College there in Congo. They invited us to share their Christmas Eve family celebration, complete with palm-tree-come-Christmas-tree that looked very upside-down when it was decorated. But there was love and kindness and personal warmth, and we were a long way from home. We were glad they heeded the Lord's nudge to notice and welcome the stranger. Let's pray.