by Daniel Harrell
Often when I return to the South to visit, folks can’t resist a playful poke at my living in the North. These days it’s all about enduring winter, bland Scandinavian cooking, loons and Garrison Keillor up in Minnesooota (you betcha). Before that the joke was about “Bahstan” where they “pahk the cah” and blow 15 billion tax-payer dollars on a Big Dig tunnel that still leaks water. Behind the mockery lies unsaid befuddlement as to why any God-fearing Southern boy would abandon the Promised Land of azaleas and sweet tea for such northern, liberal landscapes, both of which were our enemies in the War of Northern Aggression. I’ve tried to assuage my Southern cousins by telling them how both states in which I’ve live do vehemently hate Yankees (the pinstripe variety), but they’re not much impressed. Neither have been my Northern neighbors. Whenever my residual twang betrays my origins, eyebrows raise in skeptical befuddlement up here too. What’s a grits-loving, NASCAR wahoo doing so far from home?
Prejudice knows no prejudice. We’re all infected. Over and over again Ruth herself is derisively designated the Moabite, or Moabitess, which to Israel’s ears immediately ignited contempt given the bad blood between the two rival nations: think Shiite-Sunni, Hutu-Tutsi, Israeli-Palestinian, and most days Republican-Democrat. You can just hear the derision slithering off an erstwhile Israelite’s lips as he would say, “Moabitess.” Clearly aware of the racism, Ruth the Moabitess nevertheless abandoned her own country, her family, her friends, her culture and her religion to accompany her mother-in-law, Naomi, into enemy territory and a maw of bigotry. I mentioned last Sunday how Jewish rabbis have always considered Ruth’s extraordinary decision nothing short of a religious conversion. How else to explain her doing it if God was not involved?
Especially given the evangelism methods Naomi employed. A bitter old woman bereft of husband and children, Naomi blames the Lord for all of her troubles. She tells Ruth to return to her own people. Not that Naomi had lost faith in God’s goodness, mind you, she was just angry that none of it was coming her way. Naomi’s invitation to Ruth was effectively “God loves you and has a horrible plan to ruin your life. Have faith in him.” Surprisingly, it’s a kind of invitation that ancient Jewish rabbis commended. We read in the Talmud:
If a person desires to convert to Judaism, he or she is to be addressed as follows: “What reason do you have for wanting to become a convert? Do you not know that Jews are persecuted and oppressed, despised, driven from place to place, and overcome with hardships? If he or she replies “I know and yet am unworthy of becoming a Jew,” he or she is accepted immediately.
And thus Naomi immediately embraced Ruth and escorted her to Israel, even though for Ruth being widowed and childless and an immigrant in that culture meant destitute social marginalization and financial calamity. Ruth was walking into deep trouble. Surprisingly again, however, Jewish law did provide a welfare safety net. God’s particular compassion for the alien, the orphan, the widow and the poor took shape in a Levitical practice called gleaning. Israel may have been God’s chosen people, but being chosen came with expectations of how you were to act toward the disenfranchised. God commanded that when harvesting a field, whatever produce accidentally dropped to the ground was to be left for the poor and the foreigner to gather. If your harvesting methods proved too thorough, then you were then commanded to be sloppier for the sake of the needy. We read in Leviticus, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Do unto others as God has done unto you.
So why not just give the poor the extra produce? Why make them pick it up for themselves? It was for the sake of self-respect. Gleaning allowed the unemployed to enjoy the dignity of work. It also allowed the poor and alien to be recognized as sharers in the fruit of the good land that God had given to everyone. Moreover, gleaning gave the poor access to worship. Throughout Leviticus, God provided discounts to the poor when it came to sacrifices. For those who couldn’t afford an animal to sacrifice, grain offerings could substitute. Gleaning supplied the grain. And finally, here the book of Ruth, gleaning will also turn out to be a good way to catch a husband.
Chapter 2 opens with Ruth knowing the law. She says to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” Her addendum “find favor” or “find grace” implied that the gleaning law, while compassionate, was not always complied with. We might assent to the idea that caring for the poor and the stranger are good things to do, but when it actually comes to doing them, prejudice rears its head. There’s a strange mixture of sympathy and scorn that accompanies an encounter with the destitute stranger. Living in the city, I was regularly awoken by those who pushed grocery carts in the early morning hours, scrounging garbage in search of recyclable cans. Few spoke English; and I usually ended up doing little more than making sure my bottles and cans were left on top. My neighbors tended to be more resentful of what these can-handlers were doing to the neighborhood. Then there was the harassment that occurred in stores where clerks didn’t want to redeem the cans, even though the law required it. This is what gleaning was like. You might admire the determination that comes with earning that kind of living; but the humiliation required to do it is repugnant. It’s why Ruth hoped to find some grace. She needed God to do something.
As it “just happened,” verse 3 reads, Ruth stumbled upon a field belonging to a prominent relative of Naomi’s named Boaz. This coincidence Ruth enjoyed is deliberately ironic, since there are no coincidences with God. Likewise the fact that Boaz “just happened” to show up and take note of Ruth. Boaz asks his foreman, “What’s her story?” I imagine the foreman getting a disdainful smirk on his face. “She’s that Moabitess. Got no kids. Rolled into town with the bitter old widow Naomi.” He’s clearly unaware that Boaz and Naomi are kin. “She’s begging to glean and has been standing around all morning waiting for a favor.” Ruth perseveres in the face of the foreman’s denigration, racism, sexism and her own humiliation.
By deliberate contrast, Boaz, who was in every position to act differently, responds with remarkable tenderness, granting her full privileges to gather grain alongside his other employees, issuing strict anti-sexual harassment orders to his men. Boaz also gives Ruth access to the company water cooler and to the lunchroom, both of which would typically have been off limits to foreigners. And then when lunchtime comes, Boaz invites Ruth to join him at the management table; a move that conveys enormous public and cultural acceptance. And then not only does Ruth the lowly laborer, a woman and an immigrant, get to eat with the boss, but with what must have caused corporate shock, the boss proceeds to serve her! And there’s more: Once Ruth returns to work, Boaz makes sure his workers understand that Ruth can gather grain beyond the gleanings, that is, from the stalks which had already been bundled. They are not under any circumstances to embarrass her. In fact, the workers are to make certain and pull out some stalks from their bundles and drop them for her to pick up so that she wouldn’t feel any shame. By the end of the work day, Ruth gathered a whole donkey load of wheat and barley, the equivalent of at least half a month’s wage, all in just one afternoon. Talk about finding grace.
It reminds me of a similar discovery from grace, from just as unlikely a source. I found it at an auto repair shop, the last place in America you’d ever go expecting grace. Dawn and I were driving from Boston to the Promised Land for one of those Southern visits in an ancient Honda Accord on its last legs, when the tachometer went nuts and the engine started to violently sputter. Enough of a mechanic to know that I wasn’t going to make it to much further with my car in this shape, I coasted into a Southern small town Honda dealership (dealerships being a huge no-no when it comes to auto repair). The good ol’ boy at the service counter greeted me hospitably enough and asked what my trouble was. I told him about the sputtering and the whacked out tachometer. He said he reckoned it was a faulty ignition coil. “Critical” he called it, which could men only outrageously expensive.
But what could we do? We were from out of town. Auto repair hostages. He then looked at my registration. “Oh, I see you’re from Baahstun, Massatoosetts.” Here we go. Looking at his docket, the service manager said that they were pretty full up today but that they could maybe get to it next week. Maybe. Great. I guess I should probably just buy a new car? Check into a hotel for week? But then the service rep told us to hang on a second. “Let me see what I can do,” he said. He shuffled his papers and told us to give him a couple of hours and he’d see if somebody couldn’t take a peek at it. “Go have some lunch and come back around 2.” So we did and when we came back we were told that the problem was indeed the ignition coil and that they didn’t have one in stock but would have to order it and that probably would take a week to get, but then he paused and said, “Let me see what I can do.”
He checked with his parts guy who said that he could have the coil over-nighted and here by noon tomorrow, which was better than next week. But then the parts guy yelled that he could have it shipped express overnight for an additional $20 meaning that they could start work first thing in the morning. OK, but before I could even consent to the work, the service manager again said, “hang on,” and made a phone call and said there was another Honda dealership an hour away that had a coil and that his mechanic agreed to stay late while another employee would drive over to fetch it. They’d go ahead and do the work today. OK, this was really going cost me, but it was better than having to spend the night, we’ll go sit in the waiting room, but then the service manager said, “Hang on” after which he returned with a set of keys to a brand new Honda and told us to go do some sightseeing and come back after supper and here’s a coupon for a local restaurant.
Our car was fixed and ready to go after supper. The service manager, the general manager and the mechanic were all there to greet us, big smiles on their faces. I’m thinking that I am now doomed. Nobody’s this nice for nothing. Farewell 401k retirement plan. I braced for my own financial calamity. I tremulously squeaked, “How much do I owe you?” And the service manager replied, “$5.18. We did some research and discovered we could cover most everything under your extended emissions warranty.” I didn’t know I had an extended emissions warranty. “Oh yeah,” he added, “and we checked and found that you can also get a free tune-up once you get back to Baahstun, courtesy of Honda. Sometimes they forget to tell you that.” And finally, get this, once we got back to Boston the phone rings and it’s this Honda dealership calling, checking to make sure we got home OK.
Now I’ve experienced plenty of Southern hospitality—sometimes I even practice it—but this was ridiculous. I’ve told this story to Southern friends and even they look at me with the same dumbfounded look that’s on some of your face and that must have been on Ruth’s face too. Her reflex was to hit the ground with gratitude, bowing to Boaz as one bows to a generous king or a gracious God. I know the feeling. Why was Boaz being so kind and magnanimous toward her, a poor and scorned Moabitess? “Why have I found favor in your sight,” she asks, “that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” “You treat me,” the Hebrew implies, “as if you know me!”
Which, of course, Boaz did. He’d been told of all Ruth had done for his cousin Naomi and about Ruth’s ridiculous decision to leave her homeland to live among total strangers who were her enemies. Boaz recognized Ruth’s actions to be as acts of kindness and courage, but he also saw them as acts of faith, the fruits of her conversion. “May the LORD reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel (no less), under whose wings you have come for refuge!” The grace that Boaz extends to Ruth is the grace of God Himself—a grace that extends toward all who will make the ridiculous decision to put their trust in Him. Despite Ruth’s unworthiness, her social marginalization, her destitution and the shame she feels and Boaz knows; Boaz chooses her. That’s how grace operates.
Ruth gets home to Naomi that night, her arms loaded with food; her pockets filled with leftovers from lunch—and Naomi’s eyes bug clean out of their sockets: “Where in the world did you get all that grain?!” When Ruth informs Naomi it was Boaz, Naomi fell over backwards with joy. “Cousin Boaz! God bless him! Do you realize he’s one of our nearest kin?” Though he was actually more than that. The expression Naomi used for nearest kin” was “our kinsman-redeemer, an ancient term of Jewish family law dictating responsibilities kinfolk had for one another in order to preserve and care for the tribe, including in some cases the social redemption of childless widows through marriage. You can just hear the wedding bells starting to go off in Naomi’s head. “Blessed be the Lord,” she said, “He has not withdrawn his kindness and forgotten me and my family after all.
That’s how grace operates, whether with a small town car dealership or a distant cousin named Boaz, or a Savior who redeems by rising up from the dead. So honored is Ruth’s faith in Jewish tradition that the Talmud teaches how the Messiah will descend from Ruth’s eventual offspring. The Messiah Christians believe to be Jesus Christ, a descendent of Ruth, the one who’s rich harvest field is available for all to glean to their heart’s delight. If Ruth chapter 1 challenged you to keep faith when you’re bitter, chapter 2 invites you to expect grace when you’re desperate. Because that’s how grace operates.