Neighbour love - Ruth 2

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 29th April 2007.

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I wonder if anything has ever happened to you that was a really helpful co-incidence.  Maybe you bumped into someone that you needed to speak to at just the right time.  Or you spot something in the paper by accident that answers a question you’ve been asking.  Certainly that kind of thing’s happened to me many times.  Even our move [SF/ Riverside] last year was sparked by a sort of co-incidence.  Kate was looking for the website of a different St John’s.  And by accident, she stumbled across St John’s Newland where there was a job advert;  and the rest, as they say, is history.  A co-incidence?  Not really.  Because in God’s world there are no co-incidences;  just God-incidences. 


The book of Ruth is a giant illustration of that basic truth about God.  The truth that God’s totally sovereign.  He’s in complete control;  even over the tiniest details of our lives.  And the truth that there’s a reason for the way every aspect of our lives is the way it is.  . 

And that’s easy to accept when our lives are going well.  But are we still trust going to trust in that kind of God when the economy crashes as we saw last week?  When your life crashes.   Because that’s what happened to Naomi.  The economy of her life crashed.  She suffered a triple bereavement.  Her husband and her 2 sons.   In worldly terms she’d lost everything.   As she put it herself back in 1:20:

20 [The Lord] has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. The LORD has afflicted [e] me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."

Naomi’s life was a mess.  She was in pain and distress.  But she knew that the Lord was still in control.  She didn’t have all the answers.  But despite what had happened, she continued trusting the Lord.   

So as we saw week, the book of Ruth is the story of how the Lord refills Naomi.  How the Lord was going to bring blessing back to her life.  How he was going to provide her with a Redeemer.    By the end of chapter 1 we’d begun to see the Lord’s fulfilment.  He’d brought them back to the Land of Judah.  Back to the town of Bethlehem.  Back literally to the house of Bread. 

But there’s still a problem.  Naomi and Ruth are both widows.  And if you remember, at this time, there was no social security.  No equal opportunities legislation.  Women had no independent means of earning a living.  So widows were extremely vulnerable.    And these 2 widows were penniless.   

Just because the economy’s strong, doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone’s going to benefit. Where I used to work in the City of London, there were lots of people earning six-figure salaries.  And yet there were still others selling the Big Issue on the streets.  Just because the Lord had blessed the land and provided bumper harvest, didn’t necessarily mean food on the table for Ruth and Naomi.  And so the question is:  how was the Lord going to bless and refill Naomi in practice? 

And the answer is the Law.  The OT law that is.   Contrary to wrong perceptions both then and now, God’s Law is a road map for blessing.  Back on Mt Sinai, before God gave Moses the 10 commanded he said this:  I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.  And now as my saved and redeemed people, this is how you’re to live a life of blessing.   

The rest of the OT law simply unpacks how the 10 commandments applied at that time in the history of God’s people.    And a recurring theme of the Law was the protection of the vulnerable.  How to love your neighbour as Jesus puts it.  Neighbours like widows, orphans, unborn children and the poor generally. 

But how?  How were God’s people meant to love their neighbours in practice at this time? Well listen to these words from Lev chapter 19:

9 " 'When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. [Why because] I am the LORD your God.  [The Lord remember who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.]

Yes, there was also a role for direct handouts for those genuinely incapable of helping themselves.  But for the majority, God had a different way.   How did the Lord provide for the poor?  By instructing His people to leave some of the harvest for them.  It wasn’t a handout.  No the poor had to go into the fields and gather the leftovers themselves.  The Law gave them the right to enter other people’s fields and harvest from the edges.  The Law gave them the right to pick up what the farmers had dropped.     

And if you come back to Ruth chapter 2 you can see that’s exactly what Ruth wants to do.  Look with me at v2:

2 And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor."

But of course this illustrates the point that Biblical rights are matched by responsibilities.  To maximise their profits, farmers would have to harvest right up to the edges of their field.  And when they’d gathered in the harvest, they’d need to go over it again to pick up the bits that had fallen through the net.  To leave the edges and the leftovers to the poor was a cost.  There was a cost of obedience.  A cost in following Yahweh. A hard cost in terms of real cash. The rights of the poor, meant a corresponding responsibility on the better off. 

And that’s where there was another problem.     Back in chapter 1:1 we saw that we’re in the time of the Judges.  And the very last verse of the book of Judges says this: 

V25: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.

If you know the book of Judges you’ll know that it was a bad time in Israel’s history.  There was mass disobedience by God’s people.    In fact there are parallels with the church in the West today.    On issues where God’s Word is clear, the community of God's people either ignore it or try to change it.   J says love your neighbour.  Which means: Don’t exploit the poor.  And the overwhelming evidence suggests that gambling exploits the poor.  And yet some of God’s people endorse the National Lottery;  or Hull’s bid to host a Super Casino; or other forms of gambling.

25In those days Israel had no king [no anointed king that is;  no Messiah.  And so]. Everyone did as he saw fit. 

Now everyone doesn’t mean every single person ignored the Bible.  We know that Naomi and Ruth we true worshippers of Yahweh.  But everyone in the sense that the vast majority of professing believers were actually ignoring God's laws.  They did what was right in their own eyes.  Which means it was probably wrong in God’s eyes.  

So coming back to Ruth, there was a problem.  Yes the Law gave her a right to glean the leftovers.  But would wealthy land-owners obey the Lord and leave any gleanings for her.  Would they even let her into their fields?    No doubt there were plenty of land owners who were prepared to make it difficult for the poor to exercise their rights.  Or maybe worse.  Look with me at v9

V9: Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the girls.  I have told the men not to touch you.

And look on to v22:

 22 Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, "It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with his girls, because in someone else's field you might be harmed."

There was a real danger that in exercising her right, Ruth might be touched in v9 or harmed in v22.  Both words have violent and sexual connotations.  To put it bluntly, there was a very real danger that Ruth could be molested or even raped.  Not by the pagan Moabites, but by men who professed to worship the Lord. 

Yes the Lord had given his people a law.  A law which said look after the poor.  Let them glean in your fields.  But at a time when most people were ignoring God and His laws, how would God provide for Ruth.  How would he protect her from being raped.  And how would she find a field where she could glean. 

And that brings us to an amazing co-incidence.  Come back with me to v3:

3 So [Ruth] went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.

What a co-incidence.  Of all the farms that surrounded Bethlehem, Ruth happened to end up in a field belonging to a relative.  A relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband.    But remember:  there are no co-incidences with God.  Only god-incidences.  And just in case we miss the point, our author has already spelt it out for us back in v1. 

1 Now Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.

The man whose field Ruth happened to choose, was owned by Boaz.  One of Naomi’s in-laws.  But so what?  In some families, the in-laws are hated more than the neighbours.  What if this relative was as disobedient as the surrounding majority? Just because he was related to Naomi, didn’t mean he would help? 

But in v1, we get a big clue that he will.  Boaz was a man of standing.  Now it’s clear from the rest of the chapter that he’s a man of considerable wealth.  But the phrase ‘man of standing’ also has a moral overtone.  Boaz was a man of character, a man of ethics, a man of obedience to the Lord his God.   And we can see this being worked out in v4.   Notice how he greats his workforce:  “The Lord be with you”. 

In some Anglican church services, that’s part of the liturgy.  “The Lord be with you” the vicar says:  and the congregation replies:  “and also with you”.  But Boaz says it in the workplace. On the farm.  In the factory. In the office.  Can you imagine doing that.  Mixing the sacred and the secular.  Blurring the distinction between Sunday and the rest of the week.  Because for the true worshipper of Yahweh, piety and godliness aren’t just for church services.  They’re for the whole of our lives.  At church, at home, at school, at work. Is that your faith?  Or are you a Sunday Christian only?  Worth pausing for thought isn’t it? 

So back to Boaz.   And in v5 we see that as soon as he arrives he notices that there’s a girl gleaning his fields.  What’s his response?  Is he annoyed?  Not more charity!  Profits are already down.  I’ve already done my giving for this month.    Well let’s look at v8, where Boaz immediately goes over to her and says:

My daughter, listen to me. Don't go and glean in another field and don't go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the girls. I have told the men not to touch you.

Notice immediately the respect and affection he treats her with: “my daughter”.   He doesn’t say, you sponging asylum seeker.  He doesn’t say naff off out of my field.  He doesn’t even make life difficult for her so she chooses to work somewhere else.  No, Boaz willingly obeys God’s gleaning law.  Yes you can stay here he says. 

But there’s more.  He not only obeys the letter of the law.  He obeys the spirit of the law by extending God’s hand of protection and provision.  As we’ve already seen, he’s concerned that if she goes into another’s field, she might be harmed.  Stay in my fields and glean there.  I’ll make sure your safe on my farm.  My men won’t touch you.   

But there’s still more.  Boaz not only obeys the spirit of God; s law, he goes well beyond it.  Look at the end of v9:

And whenever you are thirsty, [he says to Ruth] go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled."

And in v14, he provides her with a meal as well as take away to bring back to Naomi for tea.  And after lunch in v15&16, Boaz tells his farm workers to leave lots of extra leftovers for Ruth to pick up.  Deliberately. And in v22 we discover that he’s even told her to come back every day until the harvest is over.

In lots of ways Boaz points us forward to Jesus.  If you look at v20 you’ll see that Boaz is one of Ruth and Naomi’s Kinsmen-Redeemers.  In some form, Boaz can provide for their redemption.  Redemption that will point us forward to the redemption Jesus secures for His people on the cross.  And we’ll be unpacking that more when we get to chapter s 3 & 4.    But for now, notice how Boaz’s attitude to the Law mirror’s J’s sermon on the mount.  You have heard it said that this is how to obey the letter of the Law, but I tell you:  this is how you obey the spirit of the Law.  This is how you really love your neighbour.  by asking how much can I do, not how little can I get away with. 

So let me ask you:  what’s your approach to Christian obedience?    Do you do enough to get by with God.  Do enough to tick the giving box, the serving box, the praying box – just  like the Pharisees?  Or do you go beyond the letter of the law, beyond even the spirit of the law and be lavishly obedient like Boaz.  Not to earn brownie points with God.  But as a loving response to all he’s done for you;  as a loving response for the redemption Jesus has secured for you?    What aspect of your Christian obedience is the Lord putting His finger on this morning?

In His sovereignty, God has chosen to shower His blessing through the extravagant obedience of His people.  And so as a result of Boaz’s generosity, we find at the end of v17, Ruth has managed to glean an amazing amount of Barley on her first day.  An ephah.  And if you look at the footnote an ephah is 22 litres, or 5 gallons in old money. 

So when Ruth gets home with the Barley and the takeaway, Naomi immediately knows that whoever’s field she’d been working in must have shown her unusual kindness.  “Blessed be the man who took notice of you” she says in v19.   And when Naomi discovers that his name is Boaz, she breaks out into praise.  Look with me at v20:

20 "The LORD bless him!" Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. "He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead."

In chapter 1, Naomi saw the Lord’s hand behind all the calamites in her life.  The famine.  The triple bereavement.  Her impoverishment.  And once again she see the Lord’s hand in her life.  But this time, she can see the Lord’s hand working to refill her;  to bless her.  She knows that it was no co-incidence Ruth picked Boaz’s field to work in.  Remember:  in God’s world, there are no co-incidences, only God-incidences.  As the Children’s song puts it:  he’s got the whole world in His hands.  Or perhaps you prefer the adult hymn:  God is working out His purposes our as year succeeds to year:  working his purposes out through and behind the everyday events and choices of ordinary people like you and me.  And in this case, His purpose is to refill Naomi;  to bring her back up from calamity to blessing.  

The Lord is totally sovereign.  He controls everything and everyone one.  But Ruth’s and Boaz’s humble obedience warn us against a ‘let go and let God’ kind of attitude.  The kind of attitude which says:  Oh, it’s not worth bothering if God’s in control anyway.  No, at the same time as teaching God's absolute sovereignty, Ruth teaches us about human responsibility.  We are morally accountable to the God who made us. He’s told us how he wants us to live.  And on Judgement Day, we’ll all have to give an account of how we’ve lived our lives.  Our sin and disobedience can’t thwart God’s sovereign purposes.  But we won’t enjoy God’s blessing if we reject His rule and His providence;  if we live in His world and try to live as though he weren’t Lord;  if we’re not truly one of His people.   If we’ve rejected His Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, who’s the only way our sins can be forgiven.  We won’t enjoy the eternal blessing of the New Creation if we’re not one of His forgiven people.  People like Ruth, Naomi and Boaz.  People who demonstrated the reality of their faith in the Lord by the way the lived.  By the practical way they loved God, and the practical way they loved their neighbours. 

It’s deeply challenging isn’t it.  Is yours a faith like Naomi’s; like Ruth’s; like Boaz’s.  A faith that trusts and sees the Lord’s hand in everything that happens to you.  And yet a faith that isn’t lazy.  But rather a faith that responds to His commands in generous loving obedience.  Not let go and let God.  But love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself.    So how does your faith measure up?  Let’s have a moment for quiet reflection, before I close in prayer.

Let’s pray. 

Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for reminding us once again that you are totally sovereign.  You have the whole world in your hands including every detail of our lives.  But so often we ignore your Word or twist it into an excuse for laziness, for not working hard at obeying your commands.  Forgive us and help us not only to trust in your sovereignty, but to obey your loving commands.  For our blessing, the good of those around us, but your ultimate glory we pray, Amen. 

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