Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Text: Ruth 1:1-19a
Dear Friends in Christ,
What was life like in Israel in about the year 1300 B.C.? The book of Judges gives us an account of some of the big geo-political events. But Judges does not give us a picture of everyday life. In this, the book of Ruth is unique. Here we have common people going about their affairs. We see a picture of life in Israel during the period of the judges.
The setting is a little village called Bethlehem Ephretha. It is just south of a Jebusite settlement called Salem or Jerusalem. The name means House of Bread. It was a common name, there were many Bethlehem’s in Israel. But this one has a second name to distinguish it. It is called Ephratha, the fruitful one. It is the place where Jacob buried his beloved Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. But Bethlehem was a village in the tribe of Judah. Judah, of course was born of Jacob’s first wife, Leah.
A man named Elimelech left Bethlehem during a famine and went to live in the land of Moab. This is just the other side of the Dead Sea. The Moabites are descended from Lot, though an act of incest with his oldest daughter. They were not Canaanites, though they were pagans. They had adopted the Canaanite gods. The Israelites were warned not to marry foreigners who would lure them into the worship of their gods. But the sons of Elimelech did just that. We don’t know if they became idolaters. All we do know is that Elimelech and his two sons died. His wife, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. The two daughter-in-laws, Orpah and Ruth start out with her. They were unlikely to marry again in Moab. Widows were treated terribly - even young widows. Many were forced into prostitution. This was also true in Israel. Noami bids them to return to their homes in Moab and plead for mercy from their families. Orpah does. But Ruth begs to remain with Naomi. Then she says something extraordinary. “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” She is begging to become an Israelite. - a true Israelite.
Back in Bethlehem, she goes out and gleans in the fields. Now she could have simply entertained the workers and been paid well. But she did not. She chose the more difficult path of gathering grain. Israelite law required the farmers leave the edges of the fields for the poor. Some followed this, some did not. She caught the attention of a man named Boaz. Now, Boaz is the son or descendant of Salmon and Rahab. Rahab, you will recall, was the prostitute who hid the spies in Jericho. Salmon was one of those spies. Rahab likewise placed her trust in the true God and became an Israelite. Boaz took note of Ruth and ordered his men to protect her. This was important as some would have tried to use her as a prostitute. He also instructed his men to leave extra grain for her to harvest. After this, Naomi instructs Ruth to ask Boaz, a kinsmen of hers, to redeem her from widowhood. Again, this was required by Israelite law, but many did not follow it. Boaz indicated that he could not because there was a closer relative. But Boaz went and confronted this man, who, in front of the village, surrendered his rights to Ruth. Boaz then took Ruth as his wife. From the line of Boaz and Ruth would come the kings David and Solomon, and all the kings of Judah that would follow. And eventually, from their line would come the Christ.
Ruth, though born a Moabite, was a true Israelite. Romans 4:16 says: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” St. Paul here is explaining how Jews and Gentiles were both descendants of Abraham. Those who share Abraham’s faith, are his children, down to the present day. Christ Himself calls heaven “the bosom of Abraham,” in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. When Ruth claimed Naomi’s God for herself, she was an Israelite. And some of those who did not trust in God, were not true Israelites, though they were born of that line. Abraham is the father of the faithful. Ruth became one of those faithful.
Throughout the period of the Exodus, the conquest under Joshua, and the time of the Judges, many foreigners became Israelites. Moses married twice, both times to foreign women. The second wife was probably a black African. The Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them. Once the deception was known, Joshua agreed to uphold the treaty so long as the Gibeonites were circumcised and became followers of the true God. They did. We’ve already mentioned Rehab, the prostitute from Jericho. All these came to faith and were rewarded with a place in the household of God. Thus it has always been. Israel was chosen not to be God’s exclusive people, but to stand before God on behalf of the whole world. The Church of today fulfills a similar role, when we pray for our leaders and our nation.
How can this happen that foreigners become Israelites? Because the household of God is gift of grace. God gives us a place in His household by the forgiveness of our sins. This gift is given to all men. It’s there for all of us. It is grasped by those who trust in these very promises of God. So it was there for Orpah. She too could have journeyed to Bethlehem and become an Israelite. Apparently, she did not trust in God. She did not have faith. Ruth did.
The story of Ruth is one of grace, forgiveness, restoration, and confession. St. Paul reminds us: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10:11) This was certainly true for Ruth. She boldly confessed the true God. She was not put to shame. She was given a place in the household of God, among the people of God. And so also for us. We confess Christ as our God, as Yahweh, as Savior, and we have all that Christ gives. We have forgiveness, we have a place among God’s people, we have eternal life in God’s household. All this is a gift of God’s grace, received through faith. Ruth trusted and was saved. So we also trust and are saved.