Sunday 8 November 2015

Second chances

Address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 8th November 2015, the 3rd before Advent, year B

This morning I want to reflect on our 1st reading (Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17), the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.
First let’s remind ourselves who these three characters are.

Naomi and her husband, with their two sons, had left their home in Bethlehem years before for the land of Moab to escape a famine – they were refugees. Naomi’s husband died there, and then her two sons who had married Moabite women died as well. Naomi had lost her whole family. And she decided to go back to her home place, Bethlehem. But Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law and a Moabite foreigner, insisted on going with her. She said, ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God’. Ruth must have loved Naomi very much.

It was the time of the barley harvest when Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem. It was a Jewish tradition to leave the corn in the corners of the fields to be harvested by the poor – this was called gleaning. Ruth went out into the fields to glean to support both of them. There she met Boaz, the owner of a field, who was a relative of Naomi’s late husband – that’s important as we shall see. Boaz had heard about all that Ruth was doing to support Naomi, and praised her for it. And because he was a kind man, he made sure that Ruth was able to glean enough for two of them without being harassed. This is where today’s reading begins.

I found the reading rather odd when I first looked at it – perhaps you did too.
It sounds almost as if Naomi puts Ruth up to seducing Boaz, tricking him into marrying her! But that is only because the reading jumps from ch3 v5 to ch4 v13 - for some reason the good compilers of the lectionary have missed out an important piece of the story.

To understand what really happened we need to understand a Jewish tradition, called ‘levirate marriage’. In this case, if a married man died without leaving children, his next of kin - his brother or another close relative - could choose to marry his widow, and this was seen as a good and righteous thing to do. It kept the property in the family, it ensured the future of the widow, and any children of the marriage would be treated as children of the dead husband.

No doubt Naomi could see how Boaz was attracted to Ruth. So she sends Ruth to ask Boaz if he would marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth uncovers his feet and lies down beside him, and when Boaz wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. She is seeking his protection. And Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he will. And he is careful to guard her reputation and sends her away with a present.

Boaz is entirely honourable by the standards of his society - and he’s as good as his word. The next day he goes to talk to the closer relative in front of the elders. He establishes that the closer relative does not want to marry Ruth – in fact he persuades him that he shouldn’t. And then Boaz says to the elders, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to (her husband and sons). I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite … to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance’.

In this way Ruth becomes Boaz’s wife, and with Naomi they live happily ever after. Their son whom Naomi nurses is the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph.

It’s a charming story. But why should it have been included in our Bible, and why should we still read it in churches today?
I suggest it is because this very human tale illustrates how God works in individual human lives.

Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. Ruth had lost her husband. Suddenly they had become impoverished widows dependent on charity. It must have seemed as if the very heavens had fallen in on them.

It would have been so easy for them to give in to depression, to become bitter and angry. But they didn’t. Instead they make the best of their situation, showing their love for each other.

And then good things start to happen. They meet a good man, Boaz, who is attracted by the love they show each other. He wants to help them and sees how he can do so. New life and hope comes into all their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.

This, surely, is how God will work in our lives, if God forbid dreadful things happen to us. If we hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even when it seems we have been abandoned, even when we find ourselves in the depths of depression, then suddenly we will notice good things starting to happen. Our spirits will rise and we will start to discern new life and happiness.

I have had my own dealings with loss and depression, and this has been my own experience. The story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz is a message of hope to hold on to in the most difficult of times.

This is redemption - God redeeming us. This is God acting like our loving Father. In the words of the Benedictus, sung in the temple by Zechariah,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
In the house of his servant David

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