A Grandmother’s Story
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Chilmark Community Church United Methodist
November 8, 2015
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
I have come to love the story of Ruth as a story about one of my grandmothers. Indeed, I have met her in the lives of my actual grandmothers. So I wonder if we can imagine that kind of relationship with her as we look at the story today.
There are so many ways to enter the story of Ruth – – -so many story lines to develop and consider. Hers is a story of exile and return – one of the major movements throughout the Hebrew Bible; it is a story of welcoming strangers and of the call to be compassionate and kind to others who are not like us.
Her story is a story of emptiness and fullness as Ruth and Naomi experience incredible losses and sorrow and then gradually move toward lives that are full and rich.
This is also a story of loyalty and love between family members and how they deal with issues of justice and poverty. The possibilities for meaning in the story of Ruth are almost without limit.
The ancient sages pondered the question of the meaning of Ruth. Since the scroll says nothing about the Biblical laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness and it doesn’t have any information about what religious law prohibits or permits, they wondered why it was written and saved in the first place. The scroll doesn’t even say very much about the nature of God. So we well might ask along with the ancient rabbis: What is the purpose of the Story of Ruth? As followers of Jesus we might also ask “Where is the gospel of God – -where is the good news for us in this ancient folktale?”
As the 1st century sages turned the scroll again and again, they concluded that the story was written to teach about lovingkindness – – and not only about lovingkindness, but about how great the reward is for those who do deeds of kindness. (Midrash Ruth Rabbah 2.13).
The Hebrew word chesed is indeed one of the key words controlling the text. The word occurs three times: at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story (Ruth 1.8, 2.20, 3.10). The scroll begins with the chesed or kindness Ruth does for Naomi – from gleaning in the fields to bringing home food. Then there is the kindness she does in honoring the memory of the dead in Naomi’s family (which becomes, by marriage, her own).
Later in the story, Boaz acts in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to insure that they are able to have enough food and safety in their rather extreme situation. He gives permission for Ruth to glean in his fields and instructs his people not to harass her.
Every character acting in this brief story–from Naomi to Ruth to Boaz to the minor characters–behaves in a manner that demonstrates this heroic concept of some form of kindness. The main actors of the story all act in the spirit of chesed; some perform ordinary kindness, and some–especially Ruth– perform extraordinary chesed. Ruth is a story of a super abundance of lovingkindness – – there is more than enough to go around.
As Maimonides puts it, the concept of hesed: “Includes two notions, one of them consisting in the exercise of beneficence toward one who deserves it, but in a greater measure than he deserves it. In most cases, the prophetic books use the word hesed in the sense of practicing beneficence toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you” [Guide for the Perplexed].
Ruth’s mode is the second. She practices kindness toward people who have no claim on her for it. Herein lies the good news.
Way back in the book of Exodus, at the time of the sin of the making of the Golden Calf and Moses’ destruction of the first set of tablets given on Sinai, God commands Moses to cut two more stone tablets – and then carves the law on them again. This time, God also reveals God’s self in the form of 13 attributes – a sort of self description: God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, the preserver of kindness and the forgiver of sin for thousands of generations.
The words “abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of lovingkindness…” jump out of the passage. In the tradition of Jewish biblical interpretation, every word has meaning – the placement of words in a sentence – the space between the words – the repetition of words all has meaning. When the same word appears more than once in close repetition it kind of means “dig here for buried treasure” when it comes to understanding the meaning of a text.
So let’s look again at where this chesed appears in the story:
We see it in Naomi’s concern for Ruth and Orpah as she encourages them to go back to their mother’s homes and start over again. Naomi does not bind them to her even though she is within her rights to do so. She releases them in the service of their best interests.
We see kindness in Ruth’s refusal to abandon her aging mother-in-law, choosing rather to accompany her back to her home in Bethlehem –even though it means living among people who may not accept her because she is a Moabite.
We see lovingkindness in Boaz’s actions toward Ruth – providing for her safety, assuring her that she will have enough grain for her and Naomi’s daily needs. Midway through the story, Boaz negotiates with an unnamed kinsman in Ruth and Naomi’s behalf to be sure they are entitled to inherit Elimelech’s land holdings. Boaz extends radical kindness especially to Ruth, who as a hated Moabite has no right to claim anything from Boaz.
We see kindness near the end of the story as the women of Bethlehem celebrate Naomi’s return and rejoice with her at the birth of her grandson, Obed. In an extravagant act of lovingkindness, the village women “own” the child and give him his name – – thus offering the ultimate welcome to Ruth, the foreign woman, into the bosom of their community.
The story of Ruth invites us to consider the nature of Divine grace – – especially if we go back to Maimonides’ thought that chesed includes two aspects: one – doing acts of lovingkindness in a greater measure than is deserved – – and two – practicing lovingkindness toward one who has no right at all to claim this from you.
In the Exodus story, God reaches out to the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf. God offers them wholeness and a cohesive way of life again through a second set of laws. But even more, God reveals the Divine attribute of chesed – – lovingkindness – – more than the people deserve – – and far more than the people have any right to claim. Kindness is a wispy trace of God that weaves its way throughout so many of the stories in the scriptures.
There is one more thread to follow in this quest for the good news in Ruth. In the final verses there is this brief witness at the time of the birth of Naomi’s grandson, Obed:”They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17b). When we riffle through the pages of our Bible and fast- forward some 42 generations, we find that Matthew’s gospel traces the lineage from Ruth through the generations to King David and from there to the generation of Joseph who is the earthly father of the earthly Jesus – – who is God’s gift of grace – of lovingkindness.
I wondered a little at the placement of Ruth in the lectionary readings for today – – and then began to realize that we are encountering the deep back ground in the scriptures that helps to get us ready for the season of Advent. If we are not connected with the witness to Divine abounding grace that flows through the narrative of our faith history through the stories of people like Ruth, we are impoverished when it comes to receiving it as fully as we might.
The weeks are flying fast. In the blink of an eye we will be at the first Sunday in Advent – – waiting and anticipating the celebration of God’s great gift. We owe a great “thank-you” to our Grandmother Ruth for the role she plays in the story as she teaches us about the way of kindness and the way of the grace of God. In the coming weeks, may we softly and gradually open to the meaning of the gift of abundant lovingkindness that is always flowing toward us – – and may each act of kindness we do reveal God’s trace through us as we approach the holiday season.