10/24/21 “Redeemer”

Ruth 4

We’re making our last time-travel trip back to Jerusalem where the wise-woman is telling us the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. There’s a sense of anticipation in the air. No spoiler alerts are needed; we all know how the story turns out. We all know there’s a happy ending. But we know something our friends around the fire didn’t. We know that the happy ending of this story leads to an even happier ending. The story of redemption that we hear in the book of Ruth is simply a precursor to the story of the Redeemer of all creation, even Jesus Christ.

Last week, the story-teller left us with something of a cliff-hanger. Ruth had carried out the plan to confront Boaz on the threshing floor. She had returned to Naomi and, after listening to Ruth’s report, Naomi had predicted that they wouldn’t have long to wait to find out what Boaz would do. “The man will not rest, but will settle the matter today,” Naomi had said.

Well, now it’s today. The action moves to Bethlehem’s city gate. City gates were more than simply an access point to the central business district. Archaeologists have found that the gate areas in most Israelite towns were lined with benches. They were places to see and be seen by others. They were places for transacting business and were the sites of public discussions and legal proceedings. Townspeople who were passing through could be enlisted to serve as witnesses or as members of a jury.

When the storyteller says that Boaz went to the gate and sat down, it’s clear that Boaz has a plan in mind. Sure enough, the kinsman he had spoken about to Ruth shows up. This is the man that Boaz had said was a nearer kinsman to Naomi than Boaz was himself. Ruth had asked Boaz to act as next-of-kin, but this other man had that place, and the rights and responsibilities that went with it.

At this point, we might be inclined to think that Boaz was trying to wiggle out of any responsibility for Ruth. But our friends around the fire would have understood the context of Boaz’s words. In Hebrew, the next-of-kin Boaz referred to was called the ga-al, or “the redeemer.” His duty was to preserve the family’s property. Leviticus tells us that if someone suffered from financial difficulties and had to sell their land, the ga-al­ had the opportunity and the responsibility to redeem it by buying it back. The honor of a family was redeemed when restitution for a crime was made to the ga-al. Ga-als could even exact blood in order to avenge a crime. The role of next-of-kin—the family’s ga-al, their redeemer—was serious business.

So, Boaz sees this guy and calls him over. Then, Boaz calls over ten other men—men with some standing and authority. They sit down, too. I wonder what the unnamed man is thinking now, because clearly something’s going on. Our storyteller uses a colorful Hebrew phrase to describe what Boaz says to the unnamed kinsman: Boaz thought he should “uncover his relative’s ear” in order to tell him about something he needed to know, in a very public forum. It appears that Naomi, in her financial straits, is selling—or has sold—some property that her husband had owned. Naomi may have inherited it from Elimelech—widows could do that. Or, someone may have simply claimed it while the family was in Moab. But, since Naomi and Ruth were living off Ruth’s gleanings, even ownership of the land wasn’t enough to support them.

Whatever the reason for the property leaving Naomi’s hands, it was the ga-al’s right and responsibility to redeem it by buying it for himself so that it would remain in the family. Boaz needs to know if the guy will honor his role as redeemer or not, because Boaz is next in line.

Given the very public way Boaz has made the situation known, the man has little choice. “I will redeem it,” he says. Then, Boaz springs the trap. “Oh, and by the way,” he says to the would-be redeemer, “When you acquire the land, you’ll also acquire a wife—Ruth, the Moabite. And, that land will be treated as part of the widow’s dead husband’s inheritance, to be passed on to his descendants.”

The laws outlined in Scripture don’t specifically require the ga-al to marry a widow in the family if he wasn’t a brother to the dead husband. But, scholars believe that it came to be expected that if the ga-al benefitted from gaining the property of a family member, he should also take on any other related obligations, such as marrying the family member’s widow and treating their first-born son as the dead man’s heir.

Now, picture that man’s reaction. “What?! I have to take on a wife? And she’s a Moabite? And, I won’t even be able to pass this land down to my own descendants?! No, thank you.”

This is pretty shameful behavior. It may be the reason the story-teller leaves him unnamed. I wonder if Boaz knew him well enough that Boaz was pretty sure this would be the man’s reaction—too prejudiced to accept a foreigner in spite of her stellar reputation, and too greedy to redeem land that he couldn’t keep. Boaz’s gamble pays off, and Boaz makes the purchase. They complete the legal requirements to seal the deal, and all of us around the fire breathe a sigh of satisfaction, and maybe a touch of relief.

The story-teller describes the happy reaction of the townspeople who served as witnesses.  They join in a beautiful blessing on Boaz and on Ruth. “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

That would have been a good way to end the story, but wait! There’s more! Boaz and Ruth have a son. More specifically, God caused Ruth to conceive and bear a son. The women of Bethlehem, who may have been the same women who witnessed Naomi’s bitter return, rejoice with Naomi. “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

They celebrate Naomi’s blessings: that the baby was borne by a daughter-in-law who loves Naomi more than seven sons ever could. That this baby will be as a son to Naomi—the next of kin who will provide for her in her old age. That God has proved faithful after all.

This baby is a “restorer of life” for Naomi. Her life had been empty and bitter. She had felt that she was either being punished by an angry God or toyed with by a capricious one. But, the birth of Ruth’s baby brings her back to life. Her emptiness is filled. Sweetness washes away the bitterness. She’s no longer alone but has a place in a new family where she can cradle the precious newborn in her arms. In a very real way, this baby becomes Naomi’s redeemer.

We don’t know what Ruth and Boaz, or even Naomi, might have called the little one. But we do know what the village women called him. They called him Obed, which means “serving.” It may have been a shortened version of the name “Obadiah,” which meant “servant of God.” They saw in little Obed an expression of God’s goodness working in Naomi’s life—a goodness she was unable to see for a time but which was redeemed through the faithfulness of Ruth, the righteousness of Boaz, and the birth of a son.

So often, when we read this story, we’re encouraged to read it as a morality tale focused on Ruth and Boaz. We’re supposed to look at Ruth as a model for selfless love. We’re supposed to look at Boaz as an example of how to treat the poor and the outsider with respect and care and generosity. Those are good lessons to take away. But this is more than a story about the vulnerability of the poor, or the need to welcome the stranger.  It’s a story about redemption—about the restoration of abundant life, which can only be found in relationship with God.

Throughout the story, there are moments of redemption—of land, of a family’s name and legacy, of a woman’s faith in God. More importantly, it’s about the one who does the redeeming—not the unnamed kinsman, not Boaz, not even little Obed. It’s about the Lord God whose desire was (and is) to redeem God’s people.

Naomi had lost so much—her husband, her sons, her home, her place in the community. Worst of all, she lost her trust in a loving God. Little by little, that trust was reclaimed for her—first by Ruth’s experience in Boaz’s fields, and then by the proof of God’s care and concern.  More is redeemed in this story than a field. Naomi’s life is restored to her by God who provided a redeemer, wrapped in the soft folds of a baby blanket.

Naomi wasn’t the only one who needed a redeemer. We need one, too. What is it that we need to have redeemed for us? What in our lives needs to be restored? I don’t blame anyone whose trust in God has become a little ragged over these past couple years, what with climate change and COVID and political and social turmoil. There are personal struggles, too—the ones that weigh on your heart. They may not have you crying out to your neighbors as Naomi did, but they can eat away at your confidence in God. They can have you wondering like Naomi if God is angry at you, or that God has turned away. Troubling questions surface when you lie awake at night. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why is there so much injustice and pain in the world? We need a redeemer who can help us reclaim our trust in a loving God.

We need to have the image of God in us restored. God created us to enjoy love and community, with God and with each other. God created us for hope and joy. But, God’s image in us is marred by our love of earthly things. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that it’s obscured by that misplaced love.  When we put anything other than God at the center of our lives, the image of that thing overshadows the divine image in us. If money is at the center, we become selfish. If possessions are at the center, we become greedy for more. If our losses are at the center, we become bitter. If friends and family replace God at the center of our lives, we become fearful—fearful for their safety, fearful of others, fearful of anything that can separate us from those we love, including our own death. We need a redeemer who can restore the image of God in us.

We need to be redeemed from our enslavement to sin. We often describe redemption as being bought back from Satan—as being ransomed. “Incarnate Deity, let all the ransomed race render in thanks their lives to thee for thy redeeming grace,” Charles Wesley wrote. We’ve been enslaved by sin and we need to be redeemed from our enslavement, just as God redeemed the people of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt. We need to be redeemed, and we need a redeemer.

Scholars say that a Biblical redeemer had to meet three requirements. A redeemer had to be a near kinsman, he had to be able to redeem what had been lost, and he had to be willing to redeem it. Jesus meets all of those requirements.

In Jesus, God became flesh and lived among us. God literally became our human next-of-kin in Jesus, who reclaims for us what we’ve lost through our sinfulness. As a human being just like us, Jesus knew what it meant to feel pain and hunger, weariness and fear, and even anger sometimes. He knew the grief of losing people he loved. He even knew what it was like to feel abandoned by God. And yet, he showed us what life can be like when it’s lived in relationship with God. In his humanity, Jesus became our next-of-kin with the authority to act as our redeemer.

Jesus was able to be our redeemer. He had something of value to offer for our redemption. That something was his own life, and not just in the moment on the cross when that earthly life ended or even in that moment in the tomb when he lived again. It was also the days and nights he spent healing and teaching. It was the mealtimes he shared with others, and the mealtimes that passed without time to eat. It was the long nights he spent on his knees in prayer. Jesus offered his entire life so that our lives are restored when we place our faith in him.

Finally, Jesus was willing to redeem us. To the disciples he said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, as the crowd arrived to arrest him, he made his choice known: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” Jesus didn’t have to redeem us, but he chose to redeem us, going to the cross rather than turning away from his role as our redeemer.

In the story of Ruth, we see that human redeemers can be unreliable. There was a near kinsman who was able to act as a redeemer and yet turned away. But in Jesus we have a redeemer who is completely trustworthy. He promised his disciples in the upper room, “I will not leave you orphaned.” “Remember, I am with you always,” Jesus said after the resurrection. The Letter to the Hebrews assures us that Jesus said, “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

It’s time to leave the fireside and the story-teller in ancient Jerusalem and return to the present. When we do, we can read the story of Ruth for ourselves. In it, we find something of a post-script. It’s a genealogy that traces the descendants of Perez who, if you recall, was the son of Judah and Tamar. The genealogy reads, “Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.” The gospel of Matthew adds more generations, all the way from David to a carpenter in Nazareth named Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Ruth needed a redeemer, and Boaz stepped up to the plate. Naomi needed a redeemer, and God gave her one in baby Obed. Like Naomi, we may have times when the life we want seems out of reach, and the God we claim seems out of touch. In those times, we need a redeemer, and God answers our need in Jesus. In Jesus, we have our ga-al, who reclaims us from the sinfulness that can destroy our lives. In him we have our next-of-kin, who regains for us what we have lost. In him, we have our redeemer, with the authority, ability, and willingness to secure for us what God has promised—fullness, sweetness, and hope for abundant, eternal life. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young