A Mixed Up Minister?
What insights does the book of Jonah have for ministers today?
Led by The Revd Tom Stuckey, a former President of the Methodist Church.
A Rite of Redemption
We've thought about some of the great themes of the Bible: in chapter 1 we thought about providence; in chapter two our theme was grace; in chapter 3 it was provision and now, in chapter 4, our theme is redemption. We have three 'Cs' to guide us through: the challenge, the condition and the celebrations.
Firstly, then, the challenge: when the morning came, Boaz made his way to the town gate. It was a very busy place. Everyone went through the town gate on their way to work in the morning. It served as a meeting place and also as a law court, where justice could be done publicly. Eventually, this other relative, who is never named, arrives. Boaz calls him over and asks him to sit down, signaling that he has some legal business to discuss. He invites ten elders to join them to act as witnesses, a little like our modern-day juries, and he presents his challenge. Naomi is selling a field that had once belonged to her husband. Under the kinsman-redeemer laws, it was the responsibility of the nearest relative to buy the land in such circumstances to ensure the property remained in the family. If the nearest relative couldn’t do it, another relative was expected to. This closest relative saw an opportunity to expand his ‘property portfolio’ and so willingly agreed to purchase the field. Boaz, however, knew what he was doing and so moved on to the next stage of the plan: the condition.
Boaz said to this other relative, ‘On the day you buy the land from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabitess, you acquire the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property’ (v. 5). Such were the requirements of the kinsman-redeemer laws. Of course, many people do find these concepts rather unpalatable today, questioning what they say about women’s rights and so on. However, let’s try to avoid sitting in judgment over these things. No one is suggesting a return to this system, but it is important, I think, that we try to recover the principles that were upheld within these customs: care and compassion, protection and provision, and family values. When the closer relative heard about the condition that was attached to the purchase of the field, suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good deal to him. It’s not entirely clear why, but it may well be that if he married Ruth and she subsequently bore a son, the son would be treated, in the eyes of the law, as being the son of her first husband and he would inherit the field and everything that was associated with it and this relative may feel that therefore he would then have nothing to show for the deal and would have lost his investment. The risk was too high, so he declined the offer and the right to become kinsman-redeemer passed to Boaz. This was acted-out by the relative taking off one of his sandals and giving it to Boaz (see Deuteronomy 25:7-10). It seems to me that Boaz had carefully thought all this through and had presented the situation to the relative in such a way that he was likely to turn down his right to be kinsman-redeemer. Boaz, I think, had fallen in love and desperately wanted to marry Ruth, but perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic!
That’s the challenge and the condition. Then came the celebrations. A crowd had gathered by the gate, anxious to see what was going on and when they saw the sandal pass from one man to the other and heard of Boaz’s desire to marry Ruth, they all celebrated. They said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah’ (v. 11-12). It’s a wonderful blessing. Finally, we arrive at the ‘they all lived happily ever after’: ‘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’ (v. 13). Naomi, who was centre-stage at the beginning of the story, takes centre stage again at the end: ‘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! 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.’ Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.’ And they named him Obed’ (v. 14-17). Their prayers were answered because this child did indeed become famous throughout Israel, famous because of his descendents.
So the emptiness at the beginning of the story has turned into fullness and bitterness has turned into joy. The book itself concludes with a genealogy which tells us that Salmon was the father of Boaz, ‘Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse and Jesse the father of David’ (v. 21) who was to become Israel’s greatest king. If you were to turn to the first page of the New Testament, Matthew chapter 1, you would find there the same genealogy, but extended, traced from David down to a man named Matthan and it concludes, ‘Matthan [was] the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ’ (Matthew 1:15-16). The consequences of Ruth’s selfless devotion were far, far greater than she could ever have dreamed. The story that began with three funerals has ended with a wedding. The story that began in desolation has ended in glorious hope for all the world, found in Jesus, ‘Great David’s Greater Son’.