Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and You
By The Reverend Charles Hoffacker
Today’s first reading is the opening of a short story from the Bible known as the Book of Ruth. In many editions of the Bible, this short story occupies no more than half a dozen pages. A simple story on the surface, the Book of Ruth reveals itself as a deep and delightful work of literature and an effective channel of God’s message.
Part of the power of this story is that it deals with ordinary people and the dilemmas and opportunities they face. There is drama and comedy in this story, but no spectacle, no voices from heaven. Where God is at work in the tale of Ruth is through the characters themselves, their actions and interactions. These characters are people like us, or people of the sort we can be. It is by this similarity that the story reveals the gracious in the midst of the ordinary.
This short story features three main characters: Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. As Eugene Peterson puts it, each of these characters demonstrates a way of “getting into the story” that we know as the Book of Ruth. [Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (William B. Eerdmans, 1980, p. 98.] Thereby each character reminds us of a way that our own short story may possibly be linked with the grand drama of redemption.
We hear about Naomi in today’s reading. In the course of only a few verses, her world moves from difficult to hopeless. On top of political instability, the occurrence of a famine causes Naomi, her husband, and their two sons to move from Judah to Moab, where they live for an extended period. The husband dies. The two sons, now grown, marry Moabite girls. Then the two sons die. The line of descent has come to a crashing halt. The three women are impoverished, marginalized in a world that doesn’t know what to do with widows.
Naomi packs up and heads back home to Judah; she’s heard that the famine there is over. When she and her daughters-in-law reach a fork in the road, he urges them to go back to Moab and find new husbands. The two daughters-in-law resist leaving Naomi.
It’s here that she lets loose. Naomi gives voice to her broken heart. She starts to bellyache. What she does is complain. As Naomi sees it, she has nothing more to offer the other two women. Her sons are dead. Even if she became pregnant again, certainly her daughters-in-law would not wait a generation for a new pair of sons to reach manhood. It’s better that they go home to Moab. Naomi complains that God’s hand has turned against her, that the Almighty has slapped her in the face.
There are many instances of complaining in the Bible where people lament loud and long against God and their own circumstances. In the same way, there are times when each of us need to voice our complaints, to gripe, grouse, whine, bitch, and moreover, be heard and taken seriously, not only by God, but by at least one human listener.
Naomi not only complains to her daughters-in-law, she also complains when she returns to her home town and announces, “Don’t call me Sweetie”–the name Naomi means “pleasant” or “delightful”–“call me bitter, for that’s what I am.”
Naomi has grounds for complaint. She simply must give vent to her unhappiness. This is not only a psychological truth, it is a spiritual one as well. And if we are honest with ourselves, all of us have times like this.
What about the daughter-in-law who follows Naomi to Judah? Ruth asks for what she wants. This is something many of us have trouble doing, and a woman of Ruth’s culture and circumstances must have found it a special challenge. Yet Ruth, strong-willed Ruth, does this near the story’s dramatic climax, with some coaching from Naomi.
The two women realize that they have a chance to escape poverty and that Ruth can get a new husband. It all seems to depend on how Ruth decides to handle a particular encounter with a distant relative, a man named Boaz.
Naomi pictures Ruth in a relatively passive role on this occasion, but what Ruth actually does amounts to telling Boaz, “I want you to marry me.” [Peterson, p. 101.]
Ruth thus demonstrates that she is something more than the social roles that have fallen to her. She is not simply a foreigner, a widow, a day laborer. She has a will of her own, and is bold enough to step into a story that is new to her.
The third man character is Boaz. From the very first, he is presented in a positive light, in Peterson’s words, “a person of good reputation and solid prosperity. . . . Everyone seems pleased to have him around.” [Peterson, p. 102.]
The way Boaz enters the story is that he doesn’t rest on his reputation, his prosperity; he takes up new responsibilities. In a time when many are concerned only to satisfy themselves, Boaz recognizes that he is connected with others and has obligations towards them. Ho goes past the mere letter of the law to pursue a more complete and creative justice. Boaz appears as someone who makes good things happen.
The Book of Ruth is a short story and something more. It reminds us that our own lives, our own short stories, find their true home in the great story which is the epic of God and his people.
It may be hard for us to imagine how we are to bridge the gap between the ordinariness of our lives and the grandeur of divine purpose. But Naomi and Ruth and Boaz give us, if not models to imitate slavishly, then certainly hints at how the connection sometimes takes place and the promise that the connection can take place even in lives like ours.
Important things can happen when we give voice to our complaints. When we dare to demonstrate initiative. When we do more than is expected of us. Important things can happen when we take a cue from Boaz or Ruth or Naomi.
The short story we call the Book of Ruth ends with a startling bit of genealogy. Ruth and Boaz have a baby named Obed, and Obed becomes grandfather to the great king David and an ancestor to our Lord Jesus Christ. The most celebrated Old Testament king as well as the messiah of Israel thus have among their ancestors a Moabite woman, of all people.
Don’t ever say that God can’t work through somebody, whatever that person’s gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or other label. Even Moabites, for crying out loud!
And don’t ever say that somebody’s short story–even your own–is necessarily disconnected from the grand epic of divine grace.
Realizing the connection may take doing something more than what’s expected of us, as Boaz did.
Or realizing the connection may require that we demonstrate unexpected initiative, as Ruth did.
Realizing the connection between our short story and the grand epic of grace may even depend on us complaining from the gut, as Naomi did.
Any of these actions, and many more, can open a space where God will act in our own place and time. Any of them can lead us to discover that, just as the text we call the Book of Ruth has its place among the pages of the Bible, so our short stories, the lives we live, are firmly enshrined in that greater sanctuary, which is the heart of the eternal God, the One whose story never ends.
Copyright 2006 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.