10/10/21 “Providence and Provision”

Ruth 2

If you could choose a superpower, what would it be? In 2011, a Marist poll found that 10% of Americans would choose the power to become invisible. 11% wanted the ability to teleport, and 16% chose the ability to fly. More than a quarter—28%—chose mindreading and the same percentage chose time travel.

Suppose we as a congregation could travel back in time so that we could hear the story of Naomi and Ruth and Boaz with the original listeners. We might need to go back as early as the time of King David, or a little more recently to the exile in Babylon, or to end of the exile when the Jews were returning to Jerusalem. But, since we’re new to our time-travelling superpower, let’s go back to the most recent time that the story likely was written. We’re sitting around a fire with friends and neighbors in Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE. The temple has been rebuilt and repairs to the city walls are underway.

But there’s been some social upheaval.  The prophet Ezra had been dismayed that God’s people had been “polluted” by intermingling with foreigners, and he called for all foreign wives to be sent away, along with their children. The people gathered around the fire with us have mixed feelings about the role of the stranger in the story of God’s people.

After a while, someone turns to an older woman and says, “Tell us a story.” She thinks for a moment, and then she begins to tell a story about a Jewish woman named Naomi. The crowd leans in. They know this story, and they’re anxious to hear again about how Gd uses human activity to carry our God’s intentions for the world—how God’s providence works hand in hand with human provision.

Naomi had gone with her husband and sons to the foreign land of Moab to escape a famine in their own land. Moab was inhabited by people who were hated by her own people, the Jews. While they were there, Naomi’s husband and sons died. Bitter at her misfortune and angry at God, she decided to return to her hometown of Bethlehem, where the famine had ended. One daughter-in-law took Naomi’s advice and returned to her own people. But Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth insisted on going to Bethlehem with Naomi, in spite of the fact that she would now be an immigrant, and likely a hated one at that.

Wherever Ruth goes, her immigrant status goes with her. Throughout the story, she’s called “Ruth the Moabite,” which might as well be “Ruth the outsider.” “Ruth the alien.” “Ruth the unwelcome.” “Ruth the immigrant takes jobs away from our citizens and uses up our resources.” “Ruth the Moabite (and you know what kind of people those Moabites are).”

But Ruth has taken Naomi’s God as her God. She’s adopted Naomi’s people—God’s people—as her own, whether they want her or not. She’s committed herself to Naomi’s well-being, until death do them part. This is no small thing. Being a childless widow was a bad thing no matter where you lived. Poverty was almost a given. So, it’s no surprise when the storyteller says that Ruth asked Naomi for permission to go and glean in the fields, so that she and Naomi would have something to eat.

Oddly, there’s no mention of Naomi joining Ruth in this work. Maybe she was too weak from the long walk back to Bethlehem, or maybe she was paralyzed by her bitterness and grief. Maybe she was too proud to join the ranks of the poor in the fields. In any event, Ruth went alone to the field that was being harvested, just as the reapers reached the part belonging to a man named Boaz. The storyteller lets us in on something that Ruth doesn’t know yet: Boaz is a rich, powerful man who happens to be related to Naomi’s dead husband.

Boaz himself arrives at the field to check up on the harvest, and he notices the unfamiliar face among the gleaners. He asks who she is. The supervisor tells him, “She’s Ruth the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab.” But then he describes how hard Ruth has worked from the moment she arrived asking permission to glean in the field.

Something about Ruth makes an impression on Boaz. Not only is she a hard worker, but he’s heard of how well she’s taken care of Naomi. He arranges for her to work safely, without fear of harassment by the young men around her. In grateful response, the storyteller continues, “Ruth fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to Boaz, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’”

The listeners around us chuckle at the storyteller’s play on words. They pick up on the fact that the Hebrew words for “take notice” and “foreigner” both come from the same root word meaning “to recognize.” “Why have you recognized me when I’m not recognized?” Ruth asks. “How is it that you recognize me as a human being like yourself, when so many others don’t, or won’t?”

Boaz explains that Ruth’s reputation has preceded her. He’s heard of her courage in leaving her homeland and her kindness and care for her mother-in-law. Then he offers a blessing: “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

Boaz is counting on God to take care of Ruth. He’s relying on what we often call God’s providence. We use the word “providence” in various ways. But, its primary meaning is connected with the loving guidance and care for the world that God provides. We even sometimes use “Providence” as another name for God.

As far as Boaz is concerned, Ruth has sought refuge in God, and his prayer is that God will provide for her. But, although Ruth has indeed placed herself in God’s hands, she isn’t willing to let Boaz off the hook so easily. She knows that the blessings of God’s providence are often delivered by human hands. She very diplomatically challenges Boaz. “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord.”

Providence is divine, but provision is a human activity—the act of laying up supplies or providing needed material goods. Ruth’s needs are both spiritual and material. She needs a prayer of blessing, but she also needs food for her and Naomi to eat. She knows that God’s providence is expressed through human provision.

One of those expressions in ancient times was the practice of gleaning. In Leviticus, God’s people are specifically told not to harvest to the very edges of the field or vineyard, and they weren’t to retrieve what had fallen to the ground. Instead, God said, the edges and the fallen grain and fruit were to be left for the poor and the alien. Deuteronomy adds that any sheaves left in the field by mistake were to remain there for the alien, the orphan, and the widow—in other words, for the least secure and most vulnerable people in the community. Gleaning was essentially an ancient social safety net.

But it was more than that. It was more than simply a generous nice thing to do. As a part of the Mosaic law, it was part of the covenant between God and God’s people. Leaving part of the field for others reminded owners that all that they had ultimately belonged to God, not to them. The practice of gleaning reflected God’s lovingkindness for all people and God’s desire that all people experience the wholeness we call shalom. When the poor came to glean, it wasn’t just to receive a hand-out. They found meaningful work and a chance to participate in the local economy.

The grain and grapes they harvested were of the same quality as the owner’s harvest. They weren’t low-quality or unwanted cast-offs that were past their “best-used-by” dates. They weren’t leftovers or rejects that didn’t meet the standards of more well-off folks.  This was good produce, obtained through honest work, through the grace of God, whose providence was expressed in the requirement that the poor share in God’s blessings. The poor, the stranger, the voiceless and the powerless reaped dignity along with their grain and grapes.

The practice of gleaning was an ancient link between God’s providence and human provision. God’s care for all people was embodied in the human act of provisioning those outside the mainstream with a way to access the blessings bestowed through God’s divine providence. Human provision was the practical means by which the blessings of God’s providence were made available to all.

We see God’s providence in the world’s abundant resources. It can be seen in the wisdom of laws and systems that reflect God’s intentions for a just and compassionate world—one where all people have enough, where they can live safe and healthy lives, and where each person is treated as a creature made in the image of God. Divine Providence offers the raw materials by which the world’s needs are met—whether those are material resources or things like ingenuity and wisdom and generosity. God’s Providence sets the stage for the building of God’s kingdom on earth.

But God’s providence is delivered through human hands. God has provided ample food and water, but people have to figure out how to distribute it so that all have enough. By God’s providence, we have the beauty and abundance of the natural world, but people must preserve and protect it. God has provided us with minds that can conceive of wondrous things, but people are responsible for using them in ways that are consistent with God’s desires for the world.

I read an article in “Christianity Today” about gleaning in our modern-day world. But, it wasn’t just about projects like the Society of St. Andrew and the Ugly Fruit & Veg campaign, or even our own Gleaning Project here in the Maumee Watershed District, that go out into fields to glean what’s left behind for sale or distribution to the poor. It gave an expanded view of gleaning for our times.

The article described business people who do more than simply make generous donations to charitable causes. They make resources available to give people access to our social and economic networks, where they can realize the dignity that comes with being a productive member of society. When the tech company Tengo Internet expanded its offices, they intentionally set aside some office space for “outsiders” to use. A construction company began making jobs available to people with criminal records.

Both companies described this modern form of gleaning as transformational. The “gleaners” gained a new-found sense of dignity and more confidence in their place in society. But it was transformational for the business owners and employees as well. They began to form relationships with the newcomers. They began to see that their work was about more than profit. It was also about making their business a reflection of God’s nature and remembering that what they had was entirely God’s. God’s providence for the world was embodied by their making provision for others.

Ruth’s gleaning was transformational in similar ways. After her conversation with Boaz, Boaz went further than simply wishing Ruth well. He invited her to eat with him. He instructed his workers to allow Ruth to glean among the sheaves, and even to leave some extra handfuls for her. Just as importantly, he instructed them to treat her with respect. Imagine how “Ruth the Moabite” must have felt when she was offered work, and companionship, and dignity.

The transformational effects of Ruth’s gleaning extended to Naomi.  Naomi had been laboring under her anger at God. She was convinced that God had caused the loss of her husband, her home, and her sons. She was bitter at the emptiness she felt—not in her belly but in her soul. I wonder how much of that was related to the vulnerable position she now found herself in. But then, the storyteller says, Ruth returned home with an ample supply of barley—about a half a bushel that she had obtained through her own labor. Plus, she was able to treat Naomi to a meal of the parched grain she had saved from her own lunch with Boaz.

Ruth tells Naomi about her experience and her opportunity, and a change begins to happen in Naomi. She begins to speak of God not as the cause of her misfortune, but as a God of lovingkindness. She also speaks in way that shows a change in how she sees Ruth. Naomi exclaims, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” Ours. At the beginning of their journey back to Bethlehem, Ruth had declared to Naomi, “Your people are my people!” Now, Naomi affirms to Ruth, “My people are your people.” Ruth had been attached to Naomi by marriage to Naomi’s son, but now Naomi considers Ruth truly a part of her extended family.

God’s providence is mediated through human provision. Ruth’s story is an example of that truth. But we have an even better example in Jesus. God’s desire is that the whole world will know God’s love and grace, and so God sent God’s own son to be human hands that offered the blessings of God’s providence to all. Jesus gave more than hand-outs. Jesus fed the hungry—so they could be filled in body and in spirit. Jesus healed the sick so that they could be whole and productive again. Jesus forgave sinners so that they could be included in the community. Jesus welcomed the poor and the alien, offering them the dignity others wanted to deny them. Jesus made human provision of the blessings of God’s providential grace, and everyone who is touched by his provision is transformed.

Our time traveling has taken us to a story told around a fire in ancient Jerusalem and back again. As we continue to discern the future of our church, as well as the direction of our individual futures, this story from the past is a good one for the present. It reminds us that all we have belongs to God. It prompts us to look at how God’s providence has been made visible through our provision. It challenges us to see what we have in our fields that could be made available to others so that they may have what they need to live lives of shalom. And it reminds us that the grace of God’s providential care was provisioned for us by Jesus, who gave his life so that ours might be transformed. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young