Wednesday, 6 June 2007

A longer thought on the book of Ruth

I did a talk about the book of Ruth a couple of days ago, with a theme given to me by one of my colleagues, it was a challenge, but I think it made sense in the end! It is a longer post than usual, so grab a cup of tea or coffee, or a glass of wind, or a soft drink, or perhaps some water because its good to drink water or...

anyway, enjoy

Ruth and Redemption
Context - starting with Ruth Chapter 1

You would think that with the theme of ‘kinsman redeemer’ that runs through the book of Ruth that there would be a fair amount on Redemption there, wouldn’t you? Well, there is, I guess, but it’s not terribly explicit in the text! Paul kindly sent me some notes on this thoughts for this evening’s talk and I have to say that i couldn’t really wrap my brain around them terribly easy. Apparently there are two words for ‘redemption’ that occur 23 times between them through the book of Ruth, but I couldn’t find most of them! I did find some wonderful websites of Jewish sermons – or ‘Midrash’ – that talk about this wonderful book of scripture, but I did struggle with putting things together for this evening. Though that’s probably as much a mark of how busy things are at the moment apart from anything else.

What I hope you have figured out, if you were at the last Team Evening Worship, is that there is a huge amount to think about in the book of Ruth. Coming as it does in the time between the judges and the kings of Israel it is, it seems, an historical book – this may seem like an obvious thing to say, but if we look closely at some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures some things which seem historical may well be allegorical, the book of Jonah, for instance, and of Job. These books may be seen as parables rather than being necessarily historical – though scholars differ about that.

Anyway, this beautiful, exquisitely crafted and theologically broad and deep book offers us lots to dwell upon and consider for our own lives in Christ. Whether strictly historical, or allegorical – or perhaps a mixture of both – the book of Ruth fits in to our history of salvation and to the story of our faith, and closer study can draw us further on in our walk with Christ, if we let it.

What is not in doubt is that this is a story of great beauty, concerned with issues of fidelity, loyalty, love and even with grace. I lost count of the number of times that the words ‘Romance and Redemption’ were linked together when I searched on the web to try and find some material to back up my own intuitions and understanding of this Biblical gem of a book.

The key to the concept of Redemption in the book of Ruth centres around the figure of the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ in Jewish tradition.

Here’s part of a definition from
The "kinsman redeemer" is a Goel. The word means to redeem, receive or buy back. Provision was made in the Law of Moses for the poor person who was forced to sell part of his property or himself into slavery. His nearest of kin could step in and "buy back" what his relative was forced to sell (Leviticus 25:48f). The kinsman redeemer was a rich benefactor, or person who frees the debtor by paying the ransom price. "If thy brother be waxen poor, and hath sold away some of his possession, and if any of his kin come to redeem it, then shall he redeem that which his brother sold." (Leviticus 25:25; cf. Ruth 4:4, 6).
The nearest of kin had the responsibility of redeeming his kinsman's lost opportunities. If a person was forced into slavery, his redeemer purchased his freedom. When debt threatened to overwhelm him, the kinsman stepped in to redeem his homestead and let the family live. If a family member died without an heir the kinsman gave his name by marrying the widow and rearing a son to hand down his name (Deuteronomy 25:5; Genesis 38:8; Ruth 3-4).

The definition goes on to talk about having responsibility for vengeance in the case of blood feud and there’s lots more detail,it’s slightly wacky, and i wouldn't agree on all (much? some?) of the theology in it but its an interesting site!

So in Ruth we have this image of the kinsman-redeemer who has the opportunity, indeed perhaps the responsibility of buying back something which his brother cannot afford.

It’s not too much of a stretch to apply this to our relationship with God. The price of sin was so great, for as Romans tells us, the wages of sin is death, that there was no way that any one could pay the price until God himself became incarnate and redeemed us – bought us back from the power of death. Jesus is our kinsman redeemer – made our kinsman by becoming incarnate, assuming our human nature, and willing to pay the price for sin. How about that for starters? When we see the root of our faith in that of our Jewish brothers and sisters we realise a little more of the grace filled love of God, which made provision in the Hebrew scriptures for love to be put into action, but goes even further when we apply that understanding of grace to the work of God in Christ.

But – and this is a big but – the issue of the kinsman redeemer is only part of how we can see redemption in this wonderful book. We see much more when we consider not how redemption is achieved but what redemption means, and even more when we consider that our gracious God has given us a part in the work of redemption.

Look at Naomi’s lament in the first chapter of Ruth, verses 20 -21
20 "Don't call me Naomi, " she told them. "Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."
Mara – bitter, a change from Naomi’s original name, which means pleasure or pleasant. This is how she returns from Moab, a woman broken by the loss of her family and all that she had.

And yet if we look at the end of the book everything has changed, in Chapter 4
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: "Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth."
16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him.
All change! Redemption means transformation. Buying back that which he had a right and a responsibility for transformed the lives of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi especially is no longer bitter, but her fortunes have been changed. Her life has been restored.

One crucial aspect of this is how Redemption comes about, or rather through whom redemption comes about. As nearest kinswoman Naomi could have been the one to seek redemption, but she chooses to allow Ruth to pursue this. So it is Ruth, the outsider, the non-Jew who is the one through whom this redemption is wrought, and more than that, by giving birth to Obed at the end of the story, the Father of Jesse, who was the Father of David, she is an ancestor of the kingly line, and ultimately ancestor of Jesus through whom salvation is wrought.

And this is something that should make us take notice. Ruth isn’t the only odd figure in the salvation history that has brought us to God. Rahab the prostitute from Jericho is also listed in Matthews genealogy of the ancestors of Jesus. These women, both outsiders, are grafted into God’s plans and God welcomes them, more than that, God uses them to bring about the greatest gift of all.

It’s a salutary lesson, for those of us who have been Christians for some while, for those who perhaps (maybe not consciously) are quite pleased with the way that God has worked in us, or what God has done with us. Be prepared for God to include the outsider, those who might challenge our preconceptions, indeed our misconceptions of who is in and who isn’t in the kingdom. Redemption isn’t confined to those we think are worthy, God has redeemed all people. Salvation is inclusive, not exclusive, God in Christ has saved us all. No one is beyond redemption.

And all the while, whilst drawing the outsider in, whilst in grace creating the possibility of God’s life spreading to all people and all nations, God works with fragile, frail, sometimes bitter, sometimes obedient humanity.

Perhaps one of the things which surprised me most about this story is that redemption is performed within the confines and traditions of the law. In all of this God works within the institutions which govern Israel. Yes, through including a Moabitess in his plan the kingdom is shown to go beyond boundaries of race or tradition or background, yet all that happens in this book is within the tradition of the kinsman-redeemer. It is, it seems to me, God’s gracious will to not allow our own human limitations to limit the actions of grace. Whether or not we can understand God, and Trinity Sunday is a good day to admit we can’t, whether or not we can grasp his vision, his will for us – God still works with us. As a minister I have to say I am constantly reminded of, and grateful for, the fact that God uses us despite our inadequacies. This isn’t a ‘worm that I am’ moment, I know that God uses our gifts and talents too. Yet we are limited, we have prejudices, misunderstandings, boundaries which we put up often without realising it. God will still include us in his work of redemption. God does not allow our limitations to curtail his work or redemption and we see here that God works within human confines to create a new situation.

And if we look at the wider picture around Ruth we will see in this story the macro in the micro! This story reflects the movement of Israel too at this time, as they moved from despair at the death of Eli, the great priest and minister, to the hope and prosperity which came about through David and on to Solomon.

Our task is to take the big picture and bring it into our world, not to allow this wonderful story of redemption to remain ‘out there’ but to bring it in to our own hearts and lives. As we consider the transformation that comes with redemption, we consider how our prayers, and our part in the redemptive purposes of God can bring transformation to ourselves and to the community around us. Within our Churches, our villages, amongst friends and family. God is calling us to be transformed.

We consider too how we can heed the outsider, reaching out to those outside our Church, but not just for the purpose of making them into ‘pew fodder’ but because God is at work in them – hearing the voice of those outside our accepted norms, listening to those with different understandings of life and faith can bring about change, transformation and growth all of its own.

And we remember that our institutions need not limit God, in fact our boundaries and traditions can offer us a place of safety from which we can explore the dynamic life of faith and love which God offers. Our redemption may not be mediated by the structures of our life and faith, but it doesn’t need to be limited by them either. God works in unexpected places, even if those places are our homes or churches!

And a closing thought – this story, this history, is our story, it is part of the story we are called to tell the world. We don’t invited people into a set of rules and regulations when we invited them into the Church, we invited them into a living, dynamic relationship with a living dynamic God. We need to own our stories, to allow them to sink into our bones, so that they leak out when we meet people.

Not a nice image, but you know what I mean. When we are immersed in the grace that leaps out from these great redemptive stories then we cannot help but shine with that grace and light. People are waiting to hear our story of redemption and of the kinsman redeemer that bought us back from the power of sin and death. Ruth choose to follow Naomi, to serve a God she didn’t yet know, yet whom she had faith in.’ Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.‘ Let us again offer ourselves to where God would lead us in this calling to be his redeemed people. Lets again open ourselves up to his story of salvation, and share that story with those who share our lives.

1 comment:

Dr.John said...

Well Done. One great Bible study and sermon.