Three Funerals and a Wedding Part 2
In the last edition of METConnexion, we began a new Bible study series, exploring the book of Ruth and we considered chapter one. We come now to chapter two of this great book and, having thought about providence in chapter one, we turn our attention to another great theme of the Bible: Grace. Here we also meet another character of the book: Boaz, who is described as ‘a man of standing’ (v. 1). He was a good and godly person, a man of reputation in the local community. Just as importantly, he was a relative of Naomi’s by marriage. When we considered chapter 1, we noticed three stages in the story-line. We can do the same with this chapter, giving each section a title beginning with the letter ‘G’: Gleaning, Guidance and Grace.
We begin with the gleaning. When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem they were, in all probability, destitute. They had come home after many years away in a foreign county, both were widows and often in those days and in those cultures, widows were not treated well. There was, of course, no system of social security, so unlike in our day and age here in this country, there was no safety-net to catch them. It’s wonderful, therefore, as we read the Old Testament, to find that God had given Israel special laws to ensure that the poor within their communities were cared for and provided for. There was, for example, a law that instructed farmers, when they were harvesting their fields, not to harvest everything, but to make sure that there was some grain left behind which the poor could freely gather. Leviticus 19:9 makes it clear: ‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien [immigrants]. I am the Lord your God.’ Elsewhere, the Lord promises a special blessing for those who keep these laws. Deuteronomy 24:19 repeats the same law and then adds, ‘so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands’. If we wanted to find a challenge for our daily lives here, we might ask ourselves if we have such a concern for the poor and those in need as the Lord clearly has and, if people were to look at the lives of our churches, would they see the Lord’s caring and compassionate nature expressed through us? So Ruth, newly-arrived in Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, is able to say to Naomi, in Ruth chapter 2:2, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the left over grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour’. Naomi agrees and so off she goes.
That brings us to the second stage of the story in this chapter, guidance. Just as we were in chapter 1, we are thinking again here about providence. We discover that the Lord’s hand, behind the scenes, is guiding all the events and circumstances. There are four wonderful words half way through v. 3, ‘As it turned out’: ‘So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz who was from the clan of Elimelech’. We are reminded again that Boaz was related to Naomi through her husband, Elimelech, and therefore was related to Ruth as well. That relationship is stressed. It was described in v. 1 and repeated in v. 3. The author wants to make it very clear to us that Ruth’s choice of that field was no accident. Unseen, God had guided her there and her being there is absolutely crucial to everything else that is going to happen in the story. We return to a theme we were thinking about as we considered the last chapter: nothing happens in our lives by accident. The Lord is the unseen guide in all the events of life and the wonderful thing is that he weaves all those events together to make something beautiful for his glory. As it happened, Ruth found herself in Boaz’s field, but it was, in fact, no accident.
We arrive at the great theme of this chapter: grace. Ruth finally meets Boaz for herself. It strikes me that we can see right from the beginning that Boaz was a great man of faith. The first words we hear him speak are about the Lord: ‘Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you!’ – ‘The Lord bless you!’ they called back’ (v. 4). Right from the beginning also, Boaz treats Ruth with great grace. He speaks directly to her, which would have been unusual in that culture. He welcomes her to his fields and encourages her to stay on his land. He makes sure she is protected and gives her water to drink. That’s all in v. 8 and 9: ‘Boaz said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls. I have told the men not to touch you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.’ Later he gives her food to eat: ‘At meal time Boaz said to her, Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar’ (v. 14). Then he even instructs his men to deliberately drop grain so there is more for her to collect: ‘As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, ‘Even if she gathers among the sheaves, don’t embarrass her. Rather, pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her’ (v. 15-16). Consequently, the results of Ruth’s day’s work were extraordinary. The barley she had gathered, according to v. 17, amounted to about an ephah (about 22 litres), equivalent, it seems, to at least half a month’s wages. It was far more than she would have even dared to dream of hoping for. This was extraordinary grace: kindness upon kindness and grace upon grace and it was grace extended not only to Ruth, but also to Naomi, who was assured that she had not been forgotten by the Lord and could be safe in the knowledge that she would be provided for for months – Ruth was invited to glean there for all that remained of the harvesting season.
Kindness upon kindness and grace upon grace: such kindness and grace are extended towards the most unlikely of people. Ruth was a foreigner and as far as the Israelites were concerned, she was amongst the worst foreigners on the earth. She was from Moab, the nation they hated, the nation which had ruled over them and oppressed them for eighteen years. Ruth was one of them. She didn’t have a penny to her name and, in the eyes of many people of that time and place, she didn’t have a lot of social status either - she was a widow. Boaz shows kindness and grace to her – the most unlikely of people.
Perhaps you’ve noticed as you read the Bible that time and time again God has a habit of extending grace to the most unlikely of people – to people who don’t deserve it. If you look for a reason why God should be gracious to them, you can’t find one except of course that grace, by definition, can only be shown to people who are unworthy and undeserving. If grace was only shown to you because you deserved it, then actually it wouldn’t be grace at all. It’s worth asking ourselves the question, where would we be if God was only gracious to those who deserved it? If that was the case, then there would be no grace for me and there would be no grace for you, but Boaz showed kindness upon kindness and grace upon grace to Ruth, the most unlikely of people and so it is with God. He shows kindness upon kindness and grace upon grace to you and to me. It’s the most wonderful mystery in all the universe that God should be gracious to us, the most unlikely and unworthy and undeserving people.
We must conclude our thoughts on this chapter: gleaning, guidance and grace. We end with another ‘cliff hanger’ and another hint of hope. When Naomi heard that Ruth had been shown such kindness by Boaz, she said, ‘‘The Lord bless him! … He has not stopped showing kindness to the living and the dead.’ She added, ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers’ (v. 20). We’ll think about what that means as we come to look at the next chapter. For now, chapter two concludes, ‘So Ruth stayed close to the servant girls of Boaz to glean until the barley harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law’ (v. 23).