Friday, November 17, 2006

Four meditations on Ruth

Overview of Ruth 1–4

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit (Judges 21:25).

Ruth lived during the time of the Judges, a period of disobedience, idolatry, and violence. Her story speaks of ordinary people caught up in difficult and distressing times. More than that, it is a story about the powerless, the poor, the marginalised, the forgotten people, people that you and I tend not to see. It is a story of three women who had the misfortune of losing their husbands and are left without any sons to look after them. Bereft of any means of support, what would be the lot of these widows? Would they still have a future and a hope? It is a gripping story that quickly arrests our attention.

Told in four parts, the first part of Ruth’s story could be titled: ‘From Fullness to Emptiness’. It asks the important pastoral question: How do we respond when bad things happen to us? The second: ‘Coincidence or the Hand of God’? The question arises: Do we trust in God alone or do we use our initiative? We have the story’s final resolution in the third part: ‘Providence and working with God’. It is a fitting finale as it reveals that the book of Ruth is ultimately the story of God’s providential grace. But the author saves the best for the last. The final part or the Epilogue has an ending with a twist. God sees fit to incorporate a despised Moabitess in the royal Davidic line! Truly, God’s grace knows no boundaries.

I find Daniel I. Block’s commentary on Ruth in the New American Commentary series, to be particularly helpful.

From Fullness to Emptiness

Read Ruth 1:1-22

I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Ruth 1:21

Naomi, her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, made the decision to live in the land of Moab to escape the famine in Israel. After their father died, the sons married Moabite women, named Orpah and Ruth. Ten years later, Naomi’s two sons also died. Heartbroken, Naomi decided to go home. ‘Call me Mara … I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty,’ she told her neighbours when she returned home.

These words show that she blamed God for her troubles. Nonetheless, her anger and bitterness with God did not prevent her from dealing kindly with her daughters-in-law. ‘Go home,’ she urged Ruth and Orpah. They were young and could still carve out a life for themselves. Orpah (although she was later persuaded to leave Naomi) and Ruth, however, put their mother-in-law first before their own welfare. They were willing to choose a life of destitution and deprivation out of love, faithfulness and responsibility.

Naomi and Ruth teach us how we should respond when bad things happen to us. They did not make any demands of God. Naomi, (despite her complaints) and Ruth especially, remained devoted to God. After all, one strong reason for Ruth returning with Naomi to Israel was due to the fact that she had made Naomi’s God her God (v 16). Their faith was a God-centred, others-orientated one, showing grace and kindness to others while alert to the signs of God’s working in their midst. As a result, they were able to discern the hand of God working in their everyday life. We shall see this in clarity in the later parts of the book.

When bad things happen to us, there is always the temptation to be self-centred and self-absorbed. Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus instead. Let us seek to serve first, before seeking to be served.

Coincidence or the Hand of God?

Read Ruth 2:1-23

And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour." Ruth 2:2

The laws of Israel reflect God’s concern for the needy and marginalised. In Deuteronomy 24:19, Moses commands the Israelites: ‘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, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.’ The only way in which widows like Ruth and Naomi could survive was to glean the leftovers in the harvest fields. It was a dangerous, backbreaking job (2:9).

What is the correlation between trust in God and taking and using our initiative to solve a problem? Are they mutually exclusive?

In Ruth’s case, as we have seen, God had made provisions for widows like herself. She therefore rightfully took the initiative to go to the fields to work and she worked hard, all day long (v 7). As she did so, she ‘happened’ to glean in a field belonging to Boaz, who ‘happened’ to be a relative and who also ‘happened’ to be her kinsman redeemer! She just ‘happened’ to be in the right place at the right time to meet the man who could redeem Naomi’s property! (Leviticus 25:25 tells us: ‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative (kinsman redeemer) is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold.’) An amazing series of coincidences? Surely not! These were no coincidences, but the providential working of God on behalf of Ruth and Naomi.

Our trust in God does not mean we do not need to work hard. Using our initiative does not mean that we do not trust God. Instead, let us do what we can, what we should, what we ought. At the same time we should always be trusting God and looking out for Him to work in our midst.

Providence and Working with God

Read Ruth 3:1-18

Although it is true that I am near of kin, there is a kinsman-redeemer nearer than I. Ruth 3:12

Naomi recognised that God had brought Boaz, their kinsman redeemer, providentially into their lives. Yet, God’s providence still had to be worked out. She therefore instructed Ruth to approach Boaz and to ask him to marry her so that her land could be redeemed.

Today’s women may find this somewhat unsatisfactory. They may ask, ‘Don’t I have a choice? Shouldn’t I marry for love and not out of duty? Would it not be better if God were to arrange for a man, that Ruth could marry for love instead of out of duty?’ Ruth, however, remained the dutiful, responsible and loving daughter-in-law to the end. For the sake of the family, she would do what Naomi asked of her. These are values that we Asians can more readily identify with.

Wonderfully, Boaz very much wanted to marry Ruth and be her kinsman redeemer. However, as an upright man, he acknowledged that there was another relative who was even closer to Ruth than Boaz himself. So he told Ruth, ‘If he (the closer relative) wants to redeem, good; let him redeem. But if he is not willing, as surely as the LORD lives I will do it.’

When something matters very much to us, it may be tempting for us to ‘bend’ the rules, or ignore what is right in order for us to get what we want. Often, our business ethics bear no resemblance to our Christian profession. The primary motive is profit, at the expense of compassion, responsibility, duty and integrity.

But in Boaz’s subsequent actions we see no manipulation and no devious manoeuvring. He did it by the book. When told that he would need to redeem the land for Naomi, the ‘closer’ relative declined to marry Ruth, leaving the way for Boaz to do so.

God promises in Romans 8:28 that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him who have been called according to his purpose.’ Let us trust in the providential goodness of God, and in all things and in all ways, do the right thing.

From Emptiness to Fullness!

Read Ruth 4:1-22

Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. Ruth 4:22

The story began with the bitterness of Naomi. She left Israel full, with husband and sons, and returned empty with husband and sons dead. Now at long last, the tide had turned. The LORD compensated Naomi for the years the locusts had eaten (Joel 2:25). The LORD finally turned Naomi’s emptiness to fullness!

Some of the most joyous verses in Ruth are verses 13-15. Who would have imagined ordinary villagers saying, ‘Your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons …’ in a patriarchal and male-dominated society during the time of the Judges? Ruth had come a long way. The Lord, under whose wings she had taken refuge (2:12), had truly taken good care of her.

But the twist to the story is that an even deeper fullness had been given to Naomi. Together with Ruth, the Moabitess widow, they would become the ancestresses of Israel's beloved King David. Obed, the son born to Ruth, would be Jesse’s father and Jesse in turn would be David’s father.

Looking in from the perspective of the New Testament, we realise that even this is not the end of the fullness given to Naomi. Ruth will become an ancestress to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself! Further, the inclusion of Ruth in our Lord’s genealogy makes the following message clear: no one will be excluded from God’s kingdom solely on the basis of race, or social status. In Christ’s kingdom, all who repent will be welcome.

The story of our lives is larger than us. How we live our daily lives has serious consequences on the generations after us. There is no telling how an ordinary life lived in faithfulness and obedience can be used by God to carry out His great purposes to bless and redeem not only our own families but the whole of mankind.

Let us renew our pledge to live faithful and obedient lives unto the Lord.

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