December 18, 2016
4th Sunday in Advent
“The Promise of Redemption”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Q: What do Snowmen call their offspring? A: Chill-dren. Q: Where does a snow lady keep her money? A: In a snow bank. Q: What do they sing at a snowman’s birthday party? A: Freeze a jolly good fellow.
We’ve been going through the Old Testament book of Ruth this Advent season, for a number of reasons. The most trite reason is that there are four chapters to Ruth and four Sundays in Advent. The relevant reason is because of the relationship between Ruth and Jesus - in both the link of their hometown of Bethlehem and the link of their ancestry.
So far, before she was Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi and her husband Elimilech were living in Bethlehem, where their two sons were born, Kilion and Mahlon. When a famine struck, they moved from their Jewish homeland to a “pagan” place called Moab, in essence, backtracking from the Promised Land.
But for the ten years they were there, things weren’t so bad. The sons married Moabite wives and they weren’t starving. But then Elimilech and his two sons died, immediately making Naomi and daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth widows and in need of rescue. Orpah went back to her family, at Naomi’s suggestion, but Ruth vowed to stay with her mother-in-law, come what may.
Forced to pick up the leftovers in the fields, Ruth met the field owner, Boaz, and she caught his eye. At the end of the harvest, the micro-manager mother-in-law suggested that Ruth seduce Boaz, no doubt hoping that Ruth would then be “taken care of.” But Boaz was the definition of a righteous man, and knowing that another relative had first dibs on the young woman, he made sure everyone’s reputations remained intact. In the morning, Ruth went home with her “engagement dowry,” to her mother-in-law: 50 pounds of barley.
Ruth 4 NIV
1 Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat down there just as the guardian-redeemer he had mentioned came along. Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down.
2 Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so. 3 Then he said to the guardian-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. 4 I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.” “I will redeem it,” he said.
5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
6 At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”
7 (Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.)
8 So the guardian-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal.
9 Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”
11 Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. 12 Through the offspring the LORD gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
Naomi Gains a Son
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”
16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
The Genealogy of David
18 This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, 19 Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 21 Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, 22 Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.
Thank you, Bill. This chapter is full of cultural cues that are foreign to our 21st century ears. From the treatment of women as chattel to strangers naming a child, there is enough material here to keep a Bible geek busy for a month of Sundays. But there is a good bit that has relevance for us, despite the historical, cultural and social spans of time.
By-the-way, that sandal thing was a custom from long before the days of Ruth and the practice of it can be found in the book of Leviticus. Maybe it was the ancient version of notarizing or signing documents without paper. And if the holidays weren’t breathing down our necks, it would be an interesting exercise to see what anyone might see in the symbolism of this strange act.
It’s also interesting that the writer of Ruth mentioned only two of the four mothers of Jacob’s progeny: Rachel and Leah. If one didn’t know better, their servants, who bore four of the twelve sons, Bilhah and Zilpah weren’t even valuable enough to count builders of the family of Israel.
And then there is the odd juxtaposition: Naomi and Ruth, as widows, were in need of someone to take care of them, yet they had the farm that would probably bring a fair price. So either women couldn’t be trusted with financial matters, or the guardianship issue wasn’t as much about money as we might think it was.
There’s a point that we might not immediately see, but it, too, is another juxtaposition, of night and day and good and not so good. In chapter three, Naomi wanted to make a deal with Boaz under the cover of night, using Ruth as the innocent one to bring the deal to fruition, her seduction also being a shady marriage. But Boaz makes his deal in the light of day, with ten official witnesses and out in the open. It seems a little pedantic, but sometimes we need to be reminded about those things that are good in life, even when they don’t involve chocolate or fishing.
What really seemed to stick out, both last week and this week, to me, is the phrase “guardian-redeemer.” The Hebrew word for guardian-redeemer is a legal term for one who has the obligation to redeem a relative in serious difficulty, a “law” also going all the way back to the book of Leviticus, the book about rules for the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people.
This phrase combination guardian-redeemer occurs nine times in the book of Ruth, and I would guess that most of us get what a guardian is, both in legal and in super hero terms. But redeemer is a little more enigmatic. We sing of the word often enough in church or maybe even hear it in a scripture passage, but have you ever really thought about that word?
Obviously, a redeemer is one who redeems, and I don’t know about anyone else, but when I think about redeeming something, I think coupons. Obviously Ruth and Naomi weren’t in need of someone to give them coupons, and their lives were more valuable than fifty cents, but there is the idea of value mixed in with the meaning of a redeem.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘redeem’ as “to free from captivity by payment of ransom.” Obviously, no-one had kidnapped and asked for a ransom with Ruth and Naomi. But they were being redeemed - rescued from a demeaning life of begging at the city gates.
Because of the laws in those days, when a brother-in-law married his dead brother’s wife, any children they would have would carry on the deceased man’s name. Most of us would probably not even want to think about such a practice, but it served its purpose, in allowing Christ’s lineage to be traced as well as the prophecies about the Messiah’s coming to be proved true. Sometimes, that which appears most odd, strange or even adverse to us is opportunity for God to do God’s redeeming work through Christ.
Merriam Webster’s definition, “to free from captivity by payment of ransom” also brings to mind the first verse of the well-known carol: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” As Boaz freed Naomi and Ruth from a life of begging, so does the Messiah free us from an eternity of loneliness, fear and worry.
Merriam-Webster also says that “redeemer” is a 15th century word that describes “a person who brings goodness, honor, etc., to something again.” In today’s passage, we see how a redeemer has a double benefit, not only because of the goodness and honor brought to Naomi and Ruth, but of the goodness and honor that it brings to Boaz.
Redeemer is not necessarily a word we would connect to love, but if you stand back, and squint your eyes a little, hopefully you begin to see that to redeem a person or situation comes not so much from a light-hearted, frivolous place, but a place of deeper, honorable and noble love - of people, of people loved by God and entrusted to us. It was that deep, honorable and noble love by which God sent us a baby to redeem us, crazy as that sounds. But it is what God promised when God promised to send a Messiah. As we celebrate the gift of the baby Jesus this coming week, let us also temper our celebration with “The Long View” of “God’s Peace Provision,” “God’s Joy Provision” and “The Promise of Redemption,” which we can begin right now in prayer.
Hope-full, Peace-full, Joy-full and Redeemer God, we thank you for preparing our hearts these last weeks for the birth of your Son. Continue to prepare us for the celebration of your great promise of love, hope, joy and redemption in the coming week. Help each of us to redeem any feelings of hurt, loneliness or disappointment with feelings of comfort, forgiveness and courage. Help us to reach in to our own selves - with your help - as Boaz did, to do what is honorable and pleasing to you, most especially when it can bring goodness to others. For the gift of your Son, in whose name we pray, all your people say, Amen.