"Ruth's Risky Resourcefulness"

(Annual Meeting) Jan.20, 2008 Ruth 3

Man's Avoidance of Maturity

Few words in the English language are as simple - or as powerful - as the words "yes" and "no". To say "yes" is to give our commitment, it obligates you to follow through on your promise. At our annual meeting later today, motions and budgets and approvals will be decided on the basis of "yes" or "no"; as a congregation we will be making commitments, putting ourselves on the line, supporting projects and persons for Kingdom purposes, all through something as simple as a visual show of hands, affirmative or otherwise.

Chapter 3 in Ruth is about a man being drawn forth to make a commitment, to say 'yes'. The story of Ruth and Boaz is about far more than just 2 individuals; psychologists might say it's 'archetypal' - the interchange of these two characters also reflects the depths of the man/woman relationship. Here's a proposition about manhood and womanhood that could be supported by this story. Now, this is not 'unisex', and may fly in the face of popular thinking, so listen carefully: "Manhood finds a degree of fulfilment vis-a-vis woman by extending its strength to provide protection. Womanhood finds a degree of fulfilment vis-a-vis man by inviting the man to discover hidden strength and be a significant force in her life, offering additional security." (repeat)

Modern culture and 'political correctness' have wandered away from Biblical ideals of manhood and womanhood. Unfortunately, since the Fall, sin has gotten in the way and made it hard to find good role models of great womanhood or manhood. Selfishness and pride get in the way and pervert leadership into abusive domination. I read with anticipation Dr Larry Crabb's book, Men and Women: Enjoying the Difference. But most of the book turned out to be about overcoming selfishness, helping us learn with Christ's help how to be more 'other-centred'.

For a guy, selfishness retards our progress to maturity, tempting us to stay in the boyish or adolescent 'play' stage. Whereas adults become more or less defined or constrained by their commitments and roles, adolescents strive to be free to do their own thing. The single man in our culture hesitates to make commitments, knowing that will curtail his freedom. So develops an epidemic of infidelity; there are many family units in which some man is avoiding his responsibility entirely (being absent). "The 1991 Census reports that there were 954,700 single-parent families in Canada, representing 13 percent of all families and 20 percent of all families with children. The vast majority of single-parent families (82 percent) were headed by single mothers." That's nearly a million single-parent families! In the 20 years leading up to 2001, single-parent families increased by almost half, from 11.3 to 15.7%. Economically, woman-led single-parent families average only 2/3 the income of such families led by men. This results in poverty for many. "In 1990, 45 percent of divorced or separated single-parent families had gross incomes under $20,000." [source: http://www.justice.gc.ca/en/ps/rs/rep/1994/wd94-12a.html; http://www41.statcan.ca/2007/40000/grafx/htm/ceb40000_000_1_e.htm]

Often those who are big names in the entertainment world offer prime examples of self-focussed individuals who resist making long-term commitments. There was a news story this week about Eddie Murphy, whose name could be considered a household word. "'Just married' has become 'just friends' for actor Eddie Murphy and film producer Tracey Edmonds, who announced Wednesday their intention to 'remain friends' despite exchanging vows just two weeks ago.The 46-year-old actor...traded vows with Edmonds on Jan.1 on a private island off Bora Bora in French Polynesia.

However, the ceremony was not legally binding under U.S. law and in a statement Wednesday, the couple described it simply as a 'symbolic union' [whatever that is!]. 'After much consideration and discussion, we have jointly decided that we will forego having a legal ceremony as it is not necessary to define our relationship further...While the recent symbolic union in Bora Bora was representative of our deep love, friendship and respect that we have for one another on a spiritual level, we have decided to remain friends.'"

One has to wonder about Murphy's commitment level even in a 'symbolic union', given his history. The article notes, "Murphy divorced his wife Nicole in 2006 after 13 years of marriage and five children.Not long afterwards, he faced a tabloid scandal over the paternity of Spice Girl Melanie Brown's daughter. In 2007, four months after the baby was born, medical testing confirmed he's the father." [source: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/media/story/2008/01/17/murphy-wedding-friends.html] And these are people we bring into our homes electronically to make us laugh! We call them 'stars'!

By contrast, Ruth and Boaz demonstrate submissive risk-taking that calls forth in a man generous commitment and laudable moral standards that have a positive impact in society.

Serving Notice to the Kinsman-Redeemer

The third chapter of Ruth has likely always been a favourite to the romantically inclined. Some might even consider it "risqué": a woman, sneaking around in the dark, cuddling up beside a man - isn't that pretty suggestive, if not downright forward? Was Ruth being a 'hussie'? It's jumping to conclusions though to superimpose our 21st century morality on the threshing-floor scene some 3000 years earlier. There are at least 3 important factors to take into account in interpreting what goes on here.

First, what's called "levirate marriage": this has nothing to do with the Levites, one of the tribes of Israel. The word comes from Latin levir meaning "brother-in-law". Back when there was no state to speak of, no social assistance or medicare, individuals had to rely on their extended family for support when accidents or fatalities happened. Levirate marriage made it obligatory for a brother-in-law to marry a dead brother's widow and beget children to carry on the family name and estate. It's written right into the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 25(5-9): "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family.Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel..." (De 25:5ff) Note the word "duty": it was an obligation owed to the family of the deceased.

This wasn't some invention of Moses; we see it much earlier, in Genesis 38(8), when Judah's son dies and the obligation of the other brothers to marry Tamar is similarly recognized. "Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.'" (Ge 38:8) Romance wasn't involved; it's a matter of social obligation to provide for persons who might otherwise become destitute. The custom is so accepted that we see the Sadducees try to stump Jesus with a hypothetical case involving seven consecutive brothers (Mt 22:23ff).

A second factor affecting the threshing floor scene is the answer to the question, "Whose idea is Ruth's action, anyway?" Ruth doesn't come up with the idea of approaching Boaz at a merry moment; look back at the first 4 verses of chapter 3. It's old Naomi's plan, all the way. V1, Ruth's mother-in-law says to her, "My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?" NRSV for 'home' translates 'security'; in a patriarchal society, property passed generally to males. The plan is hatched by Naomi in a well-meaning attempt to look after her widowed daughter-in-law. Contrast the beginning of chapter 2, where Ruth asks Naomi to let her go to the fields to glean, and Naomi responds, "Go ahead, my daughter." THAT's Ruth's initiative, not what happens at the threshing floor. 3:5,6 clearly indicate Ruth is merely submitting to her mother-in-law's instruction: "'I will do whatever you say,' Ruth answered. So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do." Also in v9 Ruth clearly presents herself to Boaz not as a seductress but a servant: when he asks in the dark, "Who are you?" She replies, "I am your servant Ruth...Spread the corner of your garment over [literally] your servant..." It's Naomi's initiative, made possible as reality by Ruth's humble submission.

The third factor that keeps this from becoming a seamy story is Boaz' impeccable integrity. Note the age differential in passing. In vv10-11 Boaz consistently refers to Ruth as "my daughter"; and blesses her for her 'kindness' in not running 'after the younger men'. Think of Lazar Wolf the grey-bearded butcher/widower in Fiddler on the Roof and his proposal to marry young Tzeitel. Aren't we relieved when Tzeitel's father relents and she gets to marry the much younger tailor she loves instead? Now imagine fairly-young Ruth being told to go lay at the feet of a man who might have been old enough to be her father. Changes the dynamic, doesn't it? Her submission starts to be seen as an act of sacrifice.

Yet you've got to give Boaz credit. He knows nothing of Murphy's law-lessness; Boaz has boundaries. How many guys, woken at midnight after partying to find a bathed perfumed woman lying next, would have restrained themselves from an obvious invitation? Who's to know what goes on in the dark? But, as the saying goes, "Integrity is what you are when no one is looking." Despite this treat being practically handed to him on a plate, Boaz resists the temptation to take advantage of the situation; he refuses to defraud (steal from) Ruth OR the other potential kinsman-redeemer who might have married her. He has great self-control. His generosity then goes beyond the requirement of the law; he gives Ruth half-a-dozen measures of grain so she doesn't go back to her mother-in-law empty-handed (17).

Spread Your Wings - as God's Redeemer

Although she's washed and perfumed and dressed in her best clothes as a prospective bride might be, Ruth's words indicate she's not there for romance, but something longer-lasting. She's serving notice on the kinsman-redeemer: the family member (like the brother-in-law) who in the custom of levirate marriage had the right and the obligation to take the dead relative's wife as his own. Note Ruth's terminology in the second half of v9: "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer." She uses the Hebrew term ga'al, the official title for kinsman-redeemer. Just this is a little more subtle approach than a subpoena! And, "spread the corner of your garment" is literally "spread the corner of your kanaph", your 'wing'; why's she say that?

Remember Boaz' blessing to her when he first met her back in 2:12: "May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [kanaph] you have come to take refuge." We talked last week about how Boaz had a big picture of God - a divine sovereign who shelters His people under protective wings. Here, now, Ruth seems to be adapting Boaz' word-picture to suggest he is in fact God's means of giving her refuge in the immediate situation. The 'wing' of Boaz' cloak would become the instrument of the 'richly rewarding' God's grace.

See Ezekiel 16:8 for a prophecy hundreds of years later in which the Lord, addressing Jerusalem, uses exactly the same language to describe His rescue of His people when they were filthy, naked, despised, and 'kicking about in [their] blood'. God says, "when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment [kanaph] over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine." (Eze 16:8) A website notes, "a similar custom still prevails at an orthodox Jewish wedding, when the bridegroom covers his bride with his tallit, his prayer shawl, with its tassels at each corner, signifying that he is taking her into his care." What a beautiful picture, for Christians, of Jesus our Lord covering our sin and nakedness, our shame, restoring us, raising us up to sit with Him in the heavenlies as His bride! (Eph 2:6)

Naomi's plan works; Ruth's bold appeal for shelter prompts Boaz to give himself in commitment to care for her. V13, "Stay here for the night, and in the morning if [the nearer kinsman-redeemer] wants to redeem, good; let him redeem. But if he is not willing, as surely as the LORD lives I will do it. Lie here until morning." He gives a most solemn commitment in the Lord's name that, one way or another, he'll see she gets looked after.

Not Doormats but Doorways

Ruth exemplifies the beauty of submission coupled with bold initiative, bordering on riskiness. She respectfully adopts a humble posture as a servant, waiting at Boaz' feet not beside him, drawing out the man to assume a leadership role, to move beyond boyhood and adolescence into maturity. Other women in Scripture show similar initiative; within humility they find room to affect the course of events. Tamar holds Judah to his obligation; Abigail calls herself David's 'maidservant...ready to wash the feet of my master's servants' (Gen 38; 1Sam 25:41). The industrious "Proverbs 31 woman" is of 'noble character' as Boaz described Ruth in v11. Jesus admires the faith of the Canaanite woman who presses Him in requesting deliverance for her daughter (Mt 15:22ff). Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow who, while she had no clout, through her dogged perseverance wore down the unjust judge's resistance to dealing with her case (Lk 18:1-5).

All these women, though they exhibited true submissiveness, were not doormats. They worked within the limits of their situation and won lasting respect by their insight. They altered the course of events and became doorways through which God's salvation could be freshly appreciated.

Today we have our Annual Meeting as a congregation. Moving into the future and making plans involves risk. Our posture in worship and in the community, like Ruth's, deserves to be marked by respect and resourcefulness. For many Canadians in the 21st century, the old ways of 'doing church' are no longer relevant or meaningful. The decades of Christendom when a majority of the population came to church because it was 'the thing to do' are past. Heeding God's direction, we must risk new initiatives so we can be doorways by which the Lord's help, truth, and grace can become experienced where people live.

Servanthood is obvious as we peruse the pages of our annual report. There are countless hours put in behind the scenes so corporate worship happens. Serving people's needs involves experimenting with new programs (like GodRocks!) which risk success or failure because we may not know what the response will be until we try. This past week, a new servanthood initiative began in partnership with other churches - "Homework Club". All I did was help a youngster measure angles with a protractor. My conversation had absolutely nothing 'spiritual' about it; yet of his own accord he asked something like, "Are you one of those people helping out from the churches? Which church do you go to?" And then he indicated which one he belonged to. As we obediently adopt a servant posture at people's feet, doorways appear.

The local paper showed a picture of a young lad skateboarding at the YouthPark in January. There we're more literally at the 'threshing floor'!

Or there's the individual who hailed me at the grocery store, whose life has had many hours poured into it by one of our members. The Lord's work continues 24/7 when His people make themselves available. Let's continue as a congregation with Him, under the shelter of His protective wings. Let's pray.