Hebrew Scriptures Reading: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
NOTE: Because we so rarely get a reading from the book of Ruth on Sunday morning, AND because this passage is rather chopped up, I decided to completely re-tell this wonderful story as sermon.
Once upon a time, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons lived in Bethlehem in Judah. Then came a famine in the land. Bet-Lechem—House of Bread—had no more bread. So this refugee couple fled to a foreign country: Moab. A place of people the Israelites hated. While in Moab, the sons married. Elimelech died. Then both the sons died. Only the women were left.
They had lost the men in their lives. They had lost their social status. They had lost their economic security. How could they survive on the edges of society like this? Then Naomi heard that back home, in Bethlehem, the famine was over. Bread had returned to the House of Bread. Naomi hoped there might be some distant relative back home who might help them. But she knew that Ruth and Orpah, young Moabite women, would probably not be welcome.
The daughters-in-law began the journey with her. But at a certain point on the road, Naomi told both to return to their mother’s home. They were still young women. Marriage and children were still possible. For Naomi, the time of marriage, of fertility, of children, of status were all over. The best she could hope for was some kind distant relative to take her in, back in Bethlehem. Death had changed Naomi’s life. Suddenly, she was faced with change she did not ask for, change she did not plan for, change she did not like. Yet there it was: unwilled change.
The Sufi have a saying: “Willed change is not real. Only unwilled change is real.” In her book on the story of Ruth, Sr. Joan Chittister expounds on this quote. She notes that “only unwilled change catapaults us into what we did not plan to do. Only unwilled change really matters to the molding of the soul, to the stretching of the self beyond the self, in other words . .Willed change is what I seek and shape. Unwilled change is what seeks and reshapes me.”
In the biblical story, “unwilled change” forces not only Naomi, but Ruth and Orpah, who faced a big decision. They could return to their mother’s home, to comfort, to the possibility of another husband and children who would continue the circle of life in a home tribe. Orpah made a logical, socially correct, traditional decision. She turned to go back home. But Ruth? For Ruth, the world had shifted. For reasons we are not told, Ruth decided to cast her lot with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She chose to go and live in Bethlehem, “where race and religion [would] marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she [would now profess] faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she [would opt] for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her.”
In the ancient world, Ruth’s choice was astounding, unusual and scary. Yet in every generation, there have been women—and men—whose growing consciousness of God and God’s intended order have disrupted, interrupted and transformed the world.
Naomi and Ruth returned to Naomi’s homeland. After years of being a housewife— baking bread, cleaning a house—Ruth had to go to work. It was fall, the beginning of the barley harvest. Naomi told Ruth she could go out and follow the harvest reapers,because Hebrew law allowed the poor to glean the fields. Whatever grain the reapers left behind, the poor could gather and take home. It was the only way Ruth and Naomi would have bread to bake. The way the women could sustain themselves.
On that day, Ruth “happened to come to the part of the field owned by Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.” Now Boaz was one of two kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband. In ancient tradition, the nearest kinsman could buy the land that had belonged to the dead man, then take the widow of that man as his own wife, and have children on behalf of that kinsman. In this way, the family land and the family line could be preserved. The amazing thing in this part of the story is that not only did Ruth end up gleaning in Boaz’s field, but Boaz noticed her. Why?
Because by day’s end, this energetic, committed young woman had gleaned an entire basket—an ephah—of grain. That would have been equal to twenty nine U.S. pounds today. As one writer has noted, “The ration of food that a working man of the period would be given rarely exceeded two pounds a day.” Ruth had gathered over two weeks’ worth of grain in one day! No wonder Boaz noticed her. Boaz had also learned, from the men in the field, just who Ruth was. They told him that she was the “Moabite maiden, who came back with Naomi.” Naomi. Widow of Elimelech. Relative of Boaz.
Yet although Boaz was clearly taken with Ruth—he summoned her at lunchtime and shared his bread and wine with her—he still did not do the morally right thing. He did not offer to redeem Naomi—thereby taking Ruth into his home and providing for both women. Instead, he just told his men to drop more grain by the wayside, to provide more easily for Ruth.
That evening, when Ruth told Naomi that she had gleaned in the field of Boaz, Naomi was astounded. “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Then she told Ruth that Boaz was a relative of theirs. It was obvious to Naomi that Boaz had treated Ruth well already. First, he had treated Ruth like he would have treated a Jewish woman, not as a Moabite or an outsider. Second, he did not ignore Ruth nor did he belittle her.
He just suggested that she work along with his women servants and not roam into other fields—because he knew that could be dangerous for her. Finally, Boaz actually empowered Ruth, when he told his men to drop extra grain for her to gather. 
With these providential developments, Naomi took matters into her own hands. She told Ruth to wash, to anoint herself with perfume, to put on her best clothing, and to go to the threshing floor that night. Once Boaz was content with good food and wine, he would lie down to sleep. Then Ruth was to “uncover his feet and lie down.” Naomi said, “He will tell you what to do.” You and I do not know exactly what happened that night, but we can very well read between those lines, can we not? Yet three other things were clear. First, Ruth had told Boaz, “Spread your [garment] over your maidservant, for you are next of kin.” In other words, Boaz, you have a responsibility to me, and you need to take that responsibility. Second, very early the next morning, before there was enough light to see, Boaz urged Ruth to leave the threshing house quickly. Ruth was not a woman of the night, and he did not want anyone to think that. Boaz was a respected town official, so he did not want anyone to think ill of him. Third, Ruth had confronted Boaz about his role as kinsman redeemer, and he promised he would take care of this issue. He said that another man was closer kin than he, therefore had a greater right.
The next day, he waited at the city gate for the other man. Boaz found out the other man did want the land that had belonged to Elimilech. However, he did not want Naomi or Ruth, and the women came along with the property deal. So that man gave up his kinsman rights. In public, Boaz said he would buy the field and the women. Boaz announced that he would marry Ruth, a widow and a foreigner. He did. Ruth was redeemed. More importantly for survival’s sake, so was Naomi.
Out of this union, Ruth gave birth to a son. Then in an act unparalleled in all of scripture, it was not the father who named the boy. It was the neighborhood women in Bethlehem. They named him Obed. Then Ruth handed her son—not to her husband Boaz—but to her Naomi. Obed’s son was named Jesse. Jesse had a lot of sons. The youngest son’s name was David. Out of the house and lineage of David came Jesus. Our kinsman redeemer. The redeemer of the world.
I wonder what would have happened if Ruth had opted for safety, for stability, for the comfort of tribe and home. She did not, so that story was never written—thanks be to God. Instead, Ruth had the courage and vision to push outside her boundaries, to venture into the unknown. Naomi had the wisdom, insight, and survival savvy to coach a younger woman. In a world where women had no voice, no rights and no security net without a male patriarch, these women took charge. Because they did, the world was changed.
You and I—both male and female—have the chance to be the Naomis and Boazes of the world today. Who will we take care of or protect? Who are the ones who live on the edges of our society, those who glean our fields of waste and want? I think of the ones who forage dumpsters for food thrown out by fast food chains. I think of the men and women who depend on Elizabeth House every evening for one hot meal a day. I think of the women who have fled abusive husbands with their children—who cram their belongings into, and live out of, small motel rooms, with no permanent address. I think of the young black men filling our prisons—those who have the reading ability of a third-grader, whose eyes haunt, whose hearts hold no hope for a better life.
I think of a New York Times Magazine article I read yesterday, entitled “The Displaced: An Introduction.” The headline read: “Nearly 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution—more than at any time since World War II. Half are children.” Half are children. For the first time in its history, the New York Times offered a Virtual Reality App to download, to watch and hear three stories of child refugees.
Hana is a twelve year old Syrian refugee who has lived for three years in Lebanon. Instead of playing or going to school, she works in a field, picking cucumbers. She longs to go back to being a child. Oleg is an eleven year old Ukrainian. He now lives in the ruins of his village, which was bombed by separatists who fight on the Crimean peninsula.
Chuol is a nine-year old South Sudanese boy. He watched as soldiers raped and killed young women, as they burned his father and grandfather alive in their family hut. He escaped with mother and grandmother, then got separated from his mother. Later, his grandmother went back to find relatives. Now Chuol is alone, a child who is no longer a child, who fights for survival in crocodile-infested swamps. He noted that being eaten by a crocodile was probably a slow death, but he preferred that to being killed by soldiers. Chuol, a child, had a dream. It was to become a doctor, and he still dreams of that—if he can live long enough. If he can survive the nightmare of tribal conflict and somehow find his way back to some semblance of a normal life.
Yesterday, I downloaded this new virtual reality app on my I-Phone, then watched. By swiping the screen with my finger, I could experience a 360 degree panoramic view of scenes in Lebanon, Ukraine and South Sudan. Suddenly I was standing there in a field beside Chuol. I heard UNICEF airplanes drone above. I watched as bundles of food dropped from the air. I was in this scene—one of the participants. I thought, “Oh. At least we can eat now.” Then. . .“Maybe the planes will rescue us.” Yet the planes did not land. We remained behind, standing and looking up, then we all ran quickly to get a bundle of food. Maybe we will live another day. Maybe we will get to go home soon. Maybe someone will come to help us.
Here is the edge of the field. Here are the gleaners. And we who sit in a comfortable, warm, safe home, watching the newest available, high technology app on our I-phones, are shoved beyond our comfort zones. Almost without warning, we stand in the midst of rubble and crocodile-infested swamps and fields alongside our young sisters and brothers.
Will we be their Naomi? Will we be their Boaz? The world awaits our answer.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture of carving of Ruth & Naomi taken by McJilton at Virginia Seminary. This carving done by Peggy Parker, artist.
Other pictures accessed through Google images, except picture of Chuol in boat, accessed courtesy of New York Times, Nov. 8, 2015.
Quote from Joan D. Chittister, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, (Grand Rapids & Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 18.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 25.
 Ruth 2:3.
 Robert L. Hubbard,Jr., The Book of Ruth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 66.
 Ruth 2:6b.
 Ruth 2:29b.
 Idem, Chittister, The Story of Ruth,61.
 “The Displaced: An Introduction,” in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Sunday, November 8, 2015. Accessed through new app, nytvr.