“Who are you?” This is a question that is asked of and about Ruth from the moment she crosses from Moab into Bethlehem with Naomi. The women who asked each other “Is this Naomi?” surely must also have asked “Who is the woman with her?” When Ruth goes to the fields to glean and Boaz notices her, Boaz asks his superintendent, “Who is she?” Months later, at the end of the barley and wheat harvests, Boaz asks the woman laying at his feet, “Who are you?” Finally, if we translate the Hebrew of our passage literally, Naomi asks the same question of Ruth when she returns from the threshing floor: “Who are you?” It’s also a question that we can ask of the other characters in the story. And, it’s a question we can—and perhaps should—ask of ourselves: “Who are you?”
Let’s use our time-travel superpower again this week to return to ancient Jerusalem and the crowd gathered around the fire, eagerly listening as a wise woman tells the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. Last week, we left just as she was relating Ruth’s report to Naomi about how well she had been treated by Boaz, and Naomi had revealed that Boaz is actually related to her by marriage. Naomi counseled Ruth to continue working with Boaz’s other young female workers, and Ruth did just that—gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests (about seven weeks). This is where we pick up the story.
Maybe Naomi had hoped that Boaz’s initial interest in Ruth might grow into something more. Or, maybe the concern she had expressed back in Moab had been on her mind all along—that her widowed daughter-in-law needed the security that only a husband could provide. She might have had some concern about her own prospects as well, since it appears that the two were surviving on the food that Ruth could glean—a subsistence existence at best.
Whatever her reasoning, Naomi devises a plan. She advises Ruth to get cleaned up and dressed up and to go to the threshing floor where Boaz would be found winnowing barley. Naomi tells Ruth to conceal her identity but keep an eye on Boaz. When Boaz lay down after an evening of dining and drinking, Ruth was to go to the place where he’s sacked out. “Go and uncover his feet and lie down,” Naomi says. “He will tell you what to do.” Ruth agrees to the plan.
The parents listening around our fire may already be glancing a little nervously at their children. Our storyteller is clever in using double entendre, and she’s already gotten a good start. So many of the words she used are rated G on the surface, but definitely rate an “R” or at least a “PG” on another level. Washing, anointing, and wearing your best signaled the end of a time of mourning, but they were also the preparations of a bride for her wedding. The threshing floor was, well, a threshing floor, but it was also a popular spot for less savory activities between men and women. “Uncovering,” “lying down,” and “feet” all have perfectly innocent meanings, but they are also used in Scripture in more suggestive ways. The storyteller lets us make our own decision about what Naomi’s plan actually involves.
“Who are you?” we might ask Naomi. Is Naomi a scheming mother-in-law, anxious to use her daughter-in-law to gain the security she lacks? Or is she a woman in desperate circumstances, using the only means she has at her disposal? After all, a plan like this had been used before by equally desperate women in her own and Ruth’s family tree. There were Lot’s daughters, who had no hope of finding husbands in the cave where their father Lot had taken them to escape the aftermath of Sodom and Gomorrah. They waited until their father was in a drunken stupor and then they “lay with him.” (The offspring of the older daughter was a boy by the name of Moab.)
When Tamar’s father-in-law Judah denied her the marriage to her dead husband’s brother, to which she was entitled, Tamar took off her widow’s mourning clothes, wrapped herself up, and sat down near a city gate that Judah would pass by. He assumed that she was a prostitute and proposed a liaison. Tamar became pregnant with twins. One of the twins was Boaz’s ancestor, Perez.
“Who are you, Naomi?” The storyteller allows us to decide whether she is a cold-blooded manipulator, out to entrap a wealthy man, or a woman with no resources other than her wits and the body of her daughter-in-law.
The story continues. Ruth does as she’s told. Boaz is feeling all “relaxed,” and he finds a comfy spot to sleep off his “relaxation.” At midnight, Boaz is startled awake, and what does he find but a woman at his, um, feet! “Who are you?” he asks.
We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for not knowing who Ruth was. It had been two months since their lunch together, and she would have been dressed in her widow’s clothing then. It was dark there on the threshing floor. She identifies herself: she is Ruth, his servant. She’s identified herself to him before, but the words she uses are ones that suggest an increasingly close relationship. In their first interaction, she called herself a “foreigner.” Later, she described herself as Boaz’s servant. Now, she again identifies herself as his servant, but one with a higher status than she referred to before. The crowd around us knows that the kind of servant Ruth now describes herself as is one who is eligible for marriage with her master.
Ruth departs from the script Naomi had given her. Rather than wait for instructions from Boaz, Ruth takes the initiative. “Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin,” she says. “Spreading one’s cloak” is one of the storyteller’s play on words. It, too, can have both innocent and suggestive meanings.
In Hebrew, the word for “cloak” also means “wing,” and we remember that Boaz had spoken to Ruth of God’s wings of protection. Now, Ruth cleverly recalls Boaz’s own words and calls on Boaz to provide her with the very protection he wished for her. After all, God’s providence is often provisioned by human action. Like Judah, who acknowledges Tamar’s actions as justified, Boaz acknowledges the righteousness of Ruth’s action. Boaz agrees to do what he can, although there are a few complications to iron out first. Then he invites her to “lie down until morning.”
“Who are you, Ruth?” Are you a spineless pawn who does whatever your mother-in-law tells you, even to the point of jeopardizing your reputation, even to the point of deceiving a man who has been kind to you in the past, hoping for more, even to the point of prostituting yourself? The storyteller allows us to decide if she’s that, or a woman who, like her mother-in-law, is in desperate straits. We have to decide whether we should respect, or at least to understand, her willingness to take charge of her future rather than allow circumstances to defeat her. We have to decide whether or not we’ll condemn her for doing what she did, considering the situation she was in.
We also must ask of Boaz, “Who are you?” Is he the knight in shining armor prepared to swoop in and rescue the damsel in distress? He’s been described in ways that suggest he’s a righteous man. In that case, maybe he’s simply doing his moral duty, even if he doesn’t have a legal duty in the strictest sense. He praised Ruth for her exceptional kindness to her mother-in-law. Perhaps he wants to be known for having that same kind of compassion beyond the call of duty.
On the other hand, he knew about Naomi’s and Ruth’s plight, but he didn’t do anything about it until Ruth confronted him. Although he’s described as powerful (another play on words here—the Hebrew word also means virile), maybe he’s not as strong as he’s reputed to be. Maybe he needed a nudge to do the right thing, especially when it involved a foreign immigrant. Who are you, Boaz?
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Boaz sends Ruth on her way, with barley and a message to give to Naomi. Arriving home, Naomi asks Ruth a question. Our translation says the question was “How did things go with you, my daughter?” But, literally translated, the question is very different. The question is “Who are you?” This isn’t the confused question of groggy man in the dark; Naomi obviously knows it’s Ruth. And, it’s not simply a request for a status report on their shared project. It’s a question about how Ruth’s identity may have been changed by her encounter with Boaz.
If things had gone according to plan, Ruth would have come home with more than barley and a message. By virtue of her encounter with Boaz, her identity would been transformed. she would have been transformed from widow to wife. The woman whose identity had been that of a foreign outsider would now be connected to a powerful insider. The childless widow whose life was defined by living on the knife-edge of poverty would have found the “rest” Naomi sought for her—security and the possibility of children. If things had not gone well, Naomi’s question would have brought a more discouraging answer. Ruth’s identity would have been the same as it was when she left for the threshing floor—a woman alone in the world, without power, without resources, with only a lifetime of grinding poverty ahead of her.
“Who are you, Ruth?” Naomi asks. “Has your identity changed as a result of your encounter with someone more powerful than you—by someone who can offer you security, inclusion, a family, maybe even love? Has who you are been changed by that encounter?”
Our identities are shaped by so many factors. We’re identified by our relationships with other people, like Naomi, whose neighbors had ideas of who she was and were surprised when they saw she had changed. Like Ruth, who was identified as Naomi’s daughter-in-law and Mahlon’s widow, our answer to the question “Who are you?” is likely to include who our parents were, and in this community, probably a long list of siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well. When I go back to Tuscarawas County, where I grew up, I’m Bud and Marilyn’s daughter, Marie Williams’ grand-daughter and, because my brothers maintain a lot more connection with our hometown than I did, as the sister of Craig, Doug, or David. “Who are you?” In large part, we define ourselves by our relationships with family and friends.
Our identities are shaped by what we do. Boaz was identified by his work as a farmer and his status in the community. Likewise, we may identify with what we do now or what did before retirement. But that can be an unreliable indicator of who we are.
When I was a member of Epworth, and then on the staff there, we had a custodian named Les. It was some time before I learned that Les had advanced degrees in mechanical engineering. He liked the hands-on nature of his custodian’s work, and it gave him time to focus on other things that he was so gifted at—like photography and creative writing. Identifying him with his work—whether it was as a custodian or an engineer—didn’t begin to embrace all that he was. He was a fortunate man who knew he wasn’t defined by the job he was paid to do. Often, though, when we ask ourselves, “Who are you?”, we equate our identities with our work.
Our identities are shaped by the events of our lives—both positive and negative. Next week we’ll hear of the positive identity-changing events in the book of Ruth, but think of what we’ve heard so far. Think of how Naomi actually asked to be called by a new name after losing her husband and sons and, to some extent, her faith. “Call me Mara,” she said. “Call me ‘bitter.’”
These may be identities that only we know about. When we ask ourselves, “Who are you?”, we may answer, “Call me the kid who was too embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t read in school.” “Call me the person who had to apply for food stamps.” “Call me a survivor—of illness, of addiction, of abuse, of a terrible accident, of the loss of people I love.” These are the names by which we identify ourselves when we look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Who are you?”
Like Ruth, though, our identity can be changed by an encounter. Certainly, they can be shaped by encounters with other people—for better or worse. Dating experts say that people should date someone who brings out their best self or, to paraphrase a popular saying, the person who helps you be the person your dog thinks you are. Maybe Ruth was that person for Boaz, as she gave him the opportunity to live up to his reputation. Maybe Ruth was that person for Naomi, as she demonstrated faithfulness in the face of tragedy. Maybe Naomi was that person for Ruth, too, by guiding her into a situation where she could ask for what she needed. We hear other people’s voices when we ask ourselves, “Who are you?”
Our identities are shaped by our relationship with Jesus. They’re shaped by the work he calls us to do in his name: to love and serve our neighbors, and to make disciples of all nations. They’re shaped by the events that mark our lives in him. Some of them are events that are formalized in ritual and experienced by other Christians, like baptism and confirmation—our own or our children’s, the day we joined a congregation, the day we were married in the sight of God.
But, others are unique to us. The illness we faced with a sense of calm because we were certain Jesus was with us. The crisis we confronted with a sense of hope. A long and grinding situation that we soldiered through on the strength he gave us. “Who are you?” Someone whose identity has been shaped by events in which Jesus was present.
Our identities are shaped by being part of Christ’s body, the Church, and our relationships with other members of Christ’s body. Our baptism grafts us into that body. Our Book of Worship reminds us that when we are baptized, the Church promises that “’Your joy, your pain, your gain, and your loss are ours, for you are one of us’…What happens to a new member of the body of Christ will make a difference to every other member, and the rest of the Church will never be the same again.” Think about that. With each baptism, each one of us is changed and our identity is reshaped. “Who are you?” A member of the body of Christ.
But, our identities are transformed most profoundly when we encounter the living Christ. Jesus is more than a story, more than a connecting point, more than a cheerleader and empowering force. Jesus is a person—a living person who, as we say in our funeral services, “knew our griefs, died our death, and rose for our sake, and who lives and prays for us.”
When we meet him, when we turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, when we accept the love and grace he offers us, we become a new creation. We are given a new identity—one of his beloved. When we encounter Jesus, we are given a new answer to the question “Who are you?” We can answer, “I am his.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young