by Pr. Elizabeth Rawlings
Ruth and Boaz:
A few years ago, I had a student ask me about the story of Ruth and Boaz relating to the story of Cinderella. Was this the perfect match, they asked? Is this how we should do it?
I was taken aback. It had been a while since I had read Ruth and I wasn’t sure if I was remembering incorrectly. After re-reading Ruth, I asked her where that question came from. It turns out that in more evangelical circles, Ruth and Boaz are frequently lifted up as the ultimate relationship. Women are instructed to wait for their Boaz as Ruth did. This is supposed to imply both that women should wait patiently for a suitor and that they should find a man who will protect them and treat them well. Which, well, is not how I read Ruth at all.
I tell you this because if you work in a context with people coming out of these more conservative strains of evangelical Christianity, you have some context for where they might be coming from and have an understanding of how important it is to talk about our heroine, Ruth.
This passage has so much that speaks to us today. Ruth is a foreigner shunned in the land she has adopted to her home – a land to which she has come because her husband, her lifeline, has died and because she has dedicated herself to the care of her mother-in-law. Ruth, a stranger in a strange land, may end up starving to death alongside the very person she pledged to stand by, if she doesn’t find a way to survive.
In the scriptures before this day’s readings begin, Ruth has been treated well by Boaz, as she showed up to his fields and he told the men in the fields to leave her be and instructed her to gather any gleanings so she may be fed. While this seems kind and welcoming (and is more than anyone else seems to have done to her), what he does is slightly above the bare minimum of welcome as prescribed by Jewish law (which in these times honestly looks like a revolutionary act, instead of acting with the bare -minimum of human compassion).
At the recommendation of Naomi, Ruth washed, gets perfumed, puts on her best dress and goes to seduce Boaz (Naomi even tells Ruth Boaz will know what to do when this fancied up woman shows up in his sleeping spot in the night). Some commentators read in this passage that they had sex, some say that’s not what happened (as I read it there is a difference between sleeping at his feet/legs and sleeping on them?). Regardless, a foreign woman who is in need sees a way forward in her life and she takes it with shrewdness and cunning (and a little help from her mother-in-law). Boaz is so flattered that a younger woman would do this for him he pledges to be her protector (if the other one interested doesn’t want her anymore). Boaz protects Ruth’s image by shielding her from being seen in the morning and as a promise or foreshadowing of things to come, he gives her barley that she might survive (or pours his seed into his shawl, if you know what I mean).
This is not a love story. It’s not a romance. It’s the story of a woman, a foreigner, using her cunning to survive and in the process transforms those around her, as they further embody the radical ethos of blessing of the Jewish people.
So, this is one way you could go. You could talk about caring for foreigners, the radical nature of Ruth, the power of women – all necessary conversations for our time. You could even be so bold as talking about this story looking like it might be sanctioning using sex as a legitimate way to make ends meet (or just try seeing that in the story for yourself if that sentence makes you get super uncomfortable). In writing this, I discovered and used info from a really great study of Ruth from a Jewish perspective you should check out: http://www.lookstein.org/resources/ruth_literary.pdf
The Widow’s Mite:
I live in the Seattle area, where Jeff Bezos lives and takes up space alongside Bill Gates and, until his recent death, Paul Allen. With all of these riches, we still have one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation – 3rd in homeless people even though we are the 18th largest city in the country. This past summer, the Seattle city council passed a tax on big corporations to help get the money necessary to fight homelessness through a wide array of measures. Jeff Bezos threatened to move Amazon. The city council caved and repealed the tax, a tax that would have provided $47 million/year to help the city fight homelessness (we don’t have sales tax in WA so we have to find creative solutions to public problems). Then Bezos announced he would put $2 billion into a non-profit that would work on homelessness and pre-k education. Which sounds like a lot of money, but in reality it’s 1.5% of his net worth. He could liquidate his assets, give away 99% of his assets AND STILL HAVE OVER 1 BILLION DOLLARS. And yet we lift up and laud million and billionaires who still have giant houses and planes and boats as being good charitable people. Meanwhile, according to the IRS, people who make under $25k/year give away an average of 12.3% of their income every year.
One of the byproducts of the aforementioned houselessness problem in Seattle is I frequently have a lot of homeless folx who live around my building. And from them I have seen incredible giving and community. I see them share the food and money they have collected for the day. I see them protect each others belongings. I see them share what they have in ways I so rarely see people with money do.
People who have everything would sooner start a space exploration program because they don’t know what to do with their money than end global hunger.
People who have nothing give all they can because they know they depend on one another.
Please, please resist the temptation to make this about giving of yourself (to the church). There are two things we don’t talk about enough in church within this story: Wealth and the poor. How often to we really talk about what we actually need to live and what is reasonable? Do we ever talk about how much we actually need to be happy ($70k, after which point happiness is flat or decreases)? How often to we challenge the cultural idea that some work is inherently more worthy than others and some work not worth much at all? How often do we challenge the idea that someone waiting tables or working at Wal-Mart clearly works half as hard as an engineer and so deserves half the salary? Do we ever talk, in church, about how some of us feel as though we occasionally deserve a break or to spend a little money on fun but also seem to believe that the poor do not deserve such things? What would it look like if the people in our congregations followed the example of the widow and gave away all that we could after we covered our basic expenses and went to a movie or a nice dinner out? Do most people even realize that the poor give more (and in many cases are taxed more) by percentage of income than any other population? Wealth does not equal dignity?
This story from Mark is an opportunity to begin some great conversations about how we view wealth, what we think we need, how we view people who live in poverty or are houseless. And this is a conversation we greatly need in these days.