Life is hard. Life is strikingly hard when you’re poor. It’s harder still when you’re poor and from an immigrant group that is despised and demonized by those around you.
And it certainly doesn’t make it any easier if you’re a woman.
I’m not talking about the twenty-first century, though I could be.
No, this is the story of Ruth.
Last week, we met our heroes Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. Having left Bethlehem in the midst of a famine, Naomi and her husband and two sons settled in the land of the Moabites.
The Moabites were despised by the Israelites because they were descendants of a sexual relationship between Lot and his oldest daughter. (You know, Lot from Sodom & Gomorrah.
Lot was the man who offered his daughters up to be raped when evil men pounded on his door because he dared to offer hospitality.)
Naomi, her husband, and family made a life for themselves in Moab. Despite the Israelite disgust for Moabites their sons married Moabite women. One of them was Ruth.
Then the doo doo hit the fan.
Naomi’s husband died… PAUSE …And so too the two boys. The three women were left on their own.
A woman without a man in the ancient world had no easy choices or means of support.
In this time of grief Naomi decides to return home. Having left Bethlehem a wealthy woman, Naomi arrives home an impoverished woman with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth in tow.
“Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has returned me empty.” (Ruth 1:20 CEB)
Life is hard. Life is hard even when you’re middle class. Even when you’re white and one side of your family arrived on this continent in the 1600s.
It’s certainly a bit easier if you’re a man but life remains hard.
After five years of full-time service, I was tenured. I was on track to make more money than I’d made in my whole life.
But Maggie was called from New York to West Virginia and I followed.
This was a time of a deep recession. This was a land of poverty and suspicion.
Having been taken advantage of by outsiders for generations, the culture had evolved until all outsiders were eyed with suspicion.
(Can you blame them? It is the only state in which the US army dropped bombs to stop workers from striking. Look up the Battle of Blair Mountain!)
But it was hard for me. It was over a decade before I found a full-time job again.
Life is hard for everyone. However, by virtue of color, gender, or lack of resources some have more significant struggles.
But this is the story of Ruth. It’s a story that reveals the particular struggles of immigrants, women, and living in poverty in the ancient world.
Though in different form, these struggles remain in our time.
With no options left, with no one coming around with casseroles or welcome home baskets, Naomi and Ruth are left with few options.
So, Ruth goes gleaning. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus command our ancient kindred to care for the poor and the immigrant.
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest…
Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant, [let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows]; I am the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 24:19 & Leviticus 19:9, 10b CEB, Deut. inserted in brackets)
You’ll recall Jesus told us that no commandments are greater than love of God and neighbor. Gleaning is an example of how ancients were to share a significant part of their resources with others.
These were commands to care for others in concrete ways.
This command is STILL for us! As a church, as a city, a state, and as a nation we are called to put love of neighbor into action.
The war on the poor is inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and the Hebrew Bible.
Of course not everyone followed God’s command anymore then, than we do in this century. There were those who marginalized those who were poor and sought to keep wealth for themselves.
It is likely, given that Ruth feels she must ask Boaz if she can glean, that not all growers left crop for gleaners.
But God’s command to love neighbors in concrete ways still matters.
Social safety net programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, legal provisions that prevent people from losing healthcare, and even our own community meal and support of Jackson Street Youth Center are all examples of loving our neighbors.
We don’t live in an agrarian society in which literal gleaning is effective but we can sustain ministries and support other entities — governmental or nongovernmental — with our own hands and dollars.
We are called by God to do so.
When Ruth goes to glean, she is not safe. Notice how Boaz warns his employees to not harass or harm her.
“I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you” (Ruth 2:15b CEB)
“Let her glean between the bundles, and don’t humiliate her.” (Ruth 2:9b CEB)
Boaz wouldn’t do this if it was unnecessary. I’m reminded of the #MeToo movement in our country right now.
The number of powerful men and not as powerful men who have harassed or assaulted women is not new.
We teach in the Safeguarding God’s Children training that at least one in five women are sexually abused or assaulted by the time they’re 18. It happens in Hollywood, in Washington, in families, and in the church.
THAT is a sin. As church and as a people we can and must do better.
I’m sure that Ruth was thankful for the protection from the reapers and others. But…But Boaz did nothing to change the system.
It is as if he turned a blind eye to other women who were gleaning!
But don’t you think it’s time we listened to women? Love of neighbor includes implementation of policies and standards for behavior in the church and beyond.
Jesus points us toward respect of women. Though the gospel writers fail to count her, Mary Magdalene was one of his apostles. The early church included prominent women leaders. Jesus crossed cultural boundaries with the woman at the well.
He even allowed himself to be schooled by the Syrophoenician woman. If she can teach Jesus, certainly we can teach our boys that girls and women are full human beings created in the image of our God!
Our ancient kinswoman, Ruth, is the great-grandmother of David and an ancestor of Jesus. She was an immigrant. Though she was despised by the Israelites, Boaz crosses cultural borders.
He does so despite the warnings by the worker that she is Moabite and somehow inferior.
Perhaps Boaz crosses the metaphorical border between the Israelites and Moabites because Ruth has been kind to Naomi. Perhaps.
This story, however, was written and included in the Bible because we are to learn something.
I think that what we are to learn is that the circles we draw to separate Moabites and Israelites, Latinx and Anglos, queer and CISgender, housed and unhoused, conservative Christians and progressive Christians, and so many more are not drawn by God.
Rather God includes all of us in God’s circle of value and love.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us in the same place that it always does:
[We] must love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength… said Jesus. And You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 CEB)
This is no abstract calling. We are called to do love even when it makes us extremely uncomfortable.