Welcoming the Stranger (a sermon for November 11th on the Book of Ruth)

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of feeling like an outsider or a stranger. I’m a white Anglo-Saxon male and my first language is English, so in western Canada I don’t often have that experience! However, when I was in my early thirties I lived in a small aboriginal community in the central Arctic where my kids were the only non-aboriginal kids in the local school. The community was made up of large extended families and everyone was connected by those networks. Also, for everyone over the age of forty Inuktitut was definitely their first language. So even though many people made us welcome, at times we couldn’t help feeling like outsiders and strangers.

Of course, you can have a similar experience just by walking into the local café in any small town on the prairies. Have you ever tried that? Trust me – you’ll stand out like a sore thumb! Once again, most people in those communities are connected by extended family networks, everyone knows everyone else, and when they look at you as you walk I the door you just know they’re wracking their brains trying to figure out who you are and who you’re related to!

This morning in our Old Testament lesson we read the second half of the story of Ruth – the foreigner, the Moabite – who became the great-grandmother of King David and so was also an ancestor of Jesus. Let’s remember that in those days Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judah, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be unusual for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.

Naomi heard the famine was over in Bethlehem so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them: “There’s no point in you coming along with me,” she said. “Even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?” This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Naomi’s sons had died without producing heirs.

So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. “Where you go, I will go,” she said to Naomi. “I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you.” So Naomi accepted her company and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. He found out who Ruth was – apparently her reputation for caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around. So he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. As a result Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish traditions to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the custom was that a near relative should marry the widow so the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. “He’s going to sleep there tonight,” she said; “When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do.”

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, “Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel.” Boaz was pleased; he was an older man and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered she had gone to him rather than someone younger. “I’ll do what you ask,” he said, “but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true I’m a close relative but there is someone closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will.”

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: “Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line.” The man replied, “I’ll redeem it.” Boaz said, “The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” The other man replied, “Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance.” So Boaz said to the people sitting around, “You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth.”  They all agreed, “We’re witnesses.”

So Boaz married Ruth and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this is a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

If you read the Old Testament you’ll come across a discussion about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that isn’t God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image.’

Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah – that were probably written about the same time as Ruth – take this line. In those books Israelites who’ve married outside of ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve put Israel in danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: “Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!”

This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In other words this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

In New Testament terms we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the New Testament the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently with the message Jesus gave us: that everyonewho is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that allpeople are invited to become his disciples?

And what about the folks who are coming to our country as Ruth came to Bethlehem – to look for a better life, or to get away from disaster at home. I say this, of course, as an immigrant myself. What’s our attitude going to be? Are we going to choose fear, like so many people in Old Testament times? Or are we going to choose to welcome the stranger, as Boaz and the people of Bethlehem did?

This is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should give us an object lesson about where that attitude leads. Sadly, we’re seeing more and more of it in North America today.

The story of Ruth tells us that to God there are no outsiders. There are only people made in the image of God, loved by God, people God wants to draw into the community called by his name. But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi and Boaz to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great.

Who is the stranger God is bringing into your life? The person from somewhere else, the person who looks and sounds different? The person who needs to hear a word of welcome and kindness, and a little extra help to find their way around? Are you going to be a Boaz for them? Are you going to extend a warm welcome?

And of course we can understand this in terms of the witness of the Church as well. Outside the borders of organized Christianity there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who would love to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect you know some of those people; I know for sure that Iknow some of them. Are you going to be a Naomi or a Boaz for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?

2 thoughts on “Welcoming the Stranger (a sermon for November 11th on the Book of Ruth)

  1. Allen Unger

    Tim, I was really blessed by your sermon on Ruth! And a powerful application for us in receiving those from other parts of the world to Canada.

    I probably shouldn’t even mention this but I have a question about what you said about when Ruth was written. You said that Ezra and Nehemiah were written at about the same time as Ruth was. But weren’t Ezra and Nehemiah written after the 70 Year Captivity? Hm. Just wondering.

  2. Thanks Allen, glad you enjoyed it!

    On the date of Ruth, here’s what the New Oxford Annotated Bible intro says:

    ‘The book of Ruth was written by an unknown author, probably in the Second Temple period, when there was opposition to marriage by Jews of foreign women, particularly Ammonites and Moabites (see Ezra 9-10; Neh 10.29-31, 13:24-37). Nehemiah 13.1 cites Deut 23.4 as the basis for its demand to exclude all foreigners from Israel. Our book voices an alternative view: its heroine is an ideal Moabite woman, a model of righteousness, who altruistically follows her mother-in-law. Formal conversion to Judaism did not exist in this period, but Ruth clings to the God of Israel, and God blesses her and provides her with posterity: David. Boaz is also blessed, like the young Moabite woman whom he redeems.

    ‘The language of the Book of Ruth supports a Second Temple period dating: its words and expressions, and their spelling, attest to a substantial Aramaic influence. Moreover, it shows no sign of the Deuteronomic redaction that characterizes the earlier historical books (Joshua – Kings), suggesting that it was written by a later author to be inserted between Judges and Samuel, and not by the main preexilic authors of those books. An alternate view is that the book was written during the period of the monarchy, because of its interest in the ancestry of King David’.

    So, that was my main source (although I do have others too), and I find it persuasive. It would mean that Ruth, Ezra and Nehemiah are written at about the same time, and represent alternative viewpoints on how to keep Israel free from idolatry. I actually find that encouraging – that the biblical people, just like today’s church, didn’t always agree on what it meant to be faithful to God!

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