A sermon by Rod Benson
Call me Ruth. And let me tell you a story from the days when the judges ruled Israel. It’s a story of fear and failure. It’s a story of hope and joy. It’s a love story.
You’ve already heard how I came to leave Moab in the east, and settle in Judah with my widowed mother-in-law Naomi. When we arrived, weary and footsore, in Bethlehem, Naomi’s home town, we had nothing. Nothing. No husbands, no children, no assets, no food stores, almost no hope.
It wasn’t hard to accept what Naomi said out on the road, as we prepared for the journey from my home to Bethlehem: “The Lord’s hand has turned against me” (1:13).
We were in need of grace. Not for the first time, and certainly not the last. And, as it turned out, we were also in need of a lesson in what the grace of Naomi’s God looked and felt like.
Hunger demanded boldness, and letting go of pride. So I persuaded Naomi to let me go out into the fields, picking up the left-over grain after a field had been harvested. It’s called “gleaning.”
Naomi thought for a moment, and said, “Go ahead, my daughter.”
And with that, our lives were set on a trajectory to take our place among the beggars of Judah, among the institutional poor.
So out I went, and found a field that looked promising, and I began to glean behind the harvesters as they went about their work (v. 3).
Now, unknown to me, Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of good standing from the clan of Elimelek, named Boaz (v. 1). Boaz was reputed to be kind and generous, a faithful follower of the one true God whom the Israelites worshipped.
As luck would have it, the very field I picked was one owned by this Boaz, and on my very first day gleaning, he arrived from Bethlehem and greeted his harvesters in the late morning, as the sun was at its zenith: “The Lord be with you!” (v. 4).
And they responded, “The Lord bless you!”
Then he turned and saw me as I stood there, hot and dirty and tired, my basket beside me filled with his grain. He was very handsome, tall, with kind eyes and an open face. I remember that first day well. He asked his manager who I was, and shame filled me as I heard the answer:
“She is the Moabite woman who came back from Moab with Naomi” (v. 6).
I had been outed. I was finished: the foreigner, the parasite, taking advantage of her mother-in-law, helping herself to Israelite grain.
But it was not so. I learned two important lessons that day. Call it fate or call it providence, there is no doubt that God was at work that day. The living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The same hand of God that sent the famine to these lands (1:1), and forced Elimelek and his family off their land and into the plains of Moab, and later provided food (1:6), and later still guided Naomi and me back to Bethlehem, precisely at the time of the barley harvest, is the same hand of God that now leads me to the specific field belonging to Boaz.
The second lesson I learned, equally important, was that people should not be defined by their problems. I expected Boaz to confiscate the grain I had gleaned, and order me off his land with a warning never to set foot on it again. I felt like an outcast. I blamed myself for who I was, and for my misfortune.
And then I was overwhelmed by the mercy and grace of God. Boaz walked over to me, and smiled, and said words I’ll never forget – words that assured me that my wandering days were over:
My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled” (vv. 8-9).
I bowed down with my face to the ground, and gathered the courage to say, “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” (v. 10).
And Boaz replied, saying he knew all about me, and what I had done for Naomi, and the sacrifices I had made.
And then he said the most beautiful thing: “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (v. 12).
Here was Boaz, a leader in Bethlehem, showing not only basic respect but favour, the patriarchal responsibility he would show to a native born member of his clan.
Other lesser men might have treated me like a slave, forcing me into debt bondage. Others might have taken sexual advantage of me. It wasn’t uncommon in the days when the judges ruled Israel (see also v. 22).
And not only did Boaz show me favour, but the overwhelming loving-kindness, the hesed, which is the exclusive characteristic of the God of Israel and all who are faithful to him: divine love, mercy, grace, kindness, goodness, benevolence, loyalty and covenant faithfulness.
I was unaware at the time, but I now understand, that Boaz was a remarkable individual, not one of a kind but an exemplar in Israel.
He treated people the way God treated people. He allowed his heart to be moved, and his mind to be changed, in response to divine direction.
Boaz had come to a profound awareness, through practical experience, that
true covenant faith is expressed by concern for the welfare of others … [and that] The measure of a people’s or a person’s faith is not found in the miracles that one can wrest from the hand of God nor in one’s personal wealth and property, but in demonstrating ethical character.
With his words, Boaz assured me of God’s protection and a secure future with the people of God. But he did more: he himself became my protector, my defender.
In this man, God’s loving-kindness became flesh – all the more astonishing since I was a Moabite. I was indeed truly blessed.
Something else I have never forgotten from that first meeting: the beautiful image of God that Boaz imparted when he said, “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge” (v. 12b).
I had never thought of my own household gods like that.
The God of Boaz was like a majestic eagle, a mother bird who stretches out her soft strong wings for the protection and care of her defenceless young. Never let go of that image of God.
And so I replied, “May I continue to find favour in your eyes, my lord,” (v. 13). And we went about our work again until sunset, although we both knew that everything had changed.
And then, when it was time for the evening meal, and I turned to go home, there was Boaz again, and his loving-kindness exceeded even what I had already experienced.
See verses 14-18. That is what grace looks and feels like.
Where Naomi went from Bethlehem full and came back empty, I went into the fields that day empty and came back full – grain enough to feed us for ten days, but far more than that: a beginning awareness of the excellence and the compassion and the beauty of the God of Israel.
That night, Naomi explained to me who Boaz was. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered he was a close relative of hers! And not only that, but one of our “guardian-redeemers” (v. 20).
But more of that next week. Suffice to say here that I took her advice, and joined the women labourers who worked for Boaz, and gleaned until the barley and wheat harvests were finished (vv. 22-23).
You’ve heard my story. Now, if you will be so kind, please allow me to ask:
- How has God showed his kindness to you?
- What picture of God gives you most comfort and hope?
- What do others learn about your God from the way you treat others?
- What are you doing to help strangers and foreigners?
- What do you do to make non-Christians feel at home here?
Sermon 646 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 November 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 1999), pp. 612, 615. See also Prov 14:31; Lev 19:9-10; Dt 10:17-19; 24:19-22.