Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17, 1 Kings 17.8-16, Hebrews 9.24-28
Here are two Old Testament readings in the lectionary - a hard one and an easier one. The hard one comes from the story of Ruth, and it’s a hard reading to talk about because it is so alien to our understanding of what women should aspire to in their lives.
Ruth was an immigrant, and worse still she was the daughter-in-law of an elder widow, Naomi, whom she had to try to support. Purely because of her own unselfishness and loyalty to Naomi, whom she could just as easily have abandoned and gone back to her own family, she found herself stuck at the bottom of the economic pile and the future didn’t look too bright for her.
But Naomi had a cunning plan. Strictly speaking, the head of her husband’s clan - Boaz - had a duty to take care of them both. Clearly this wasn’t happening, otherwise Ruth wouldn’t have been going out scrounging for barley - picking up the gleaners left behind by the reapers in the field. But by God’s providence Ruth had found herself in one of the field’s belonging to Boaz, and he had recognised who she was - and how kind and loyal she had been to her mother-in-law - and had allowed her to collect more than just the leftover grain. He had also ordered the young men not to bother her and had shared his lunch with her, but he hadn’t offered to look after Ruth and Naomi. Compassion and family duty apparently had their limits.
Naomi’s plan, therefore, was for Ruth to get dolled up - to make herself look and smell as beautiful and appealing as possible - and then to sneak under Boaz’s blanket while he was asleep on the threshing floor with the rest of his gang of harvest labourers. It was a fairly desperate plan, because the intention was for Ruth to compromise her good name by making herself look like a young woman of loose morals, in the hope that Boaz would take pity on her and do the decent thing by them both. Naomi was banking on the fact that Boaz was obviously a man with a social conscience and that, just to give him a nudge in the right direction, he would be attracted to Ruth.
It all worked out just as Naomi had schemed, and we are meant ot feel positive about the outcome because so much good clearly came out of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz. The prayer that Ruth’s son might be renowned in Israel did not come true but eventually - long after their deaths one suspects - Ruth and Boaz became the great-grandparents of King David .
Of course, even today one way for a young woman to make her way in life is to find a wealthier man to appreciate her and support he and no doubt a mixture of feminine wiles and allure can be useful in helping a man to realise what’s going to be good for him. But is that any longer an accepted role model?
And, even if it is, the problem with Ruth’s story is that she was trapped into the role. Today we would hope that young women might have a choice about their marriage partner, their career path and their lifestyle. But, life conspires against us, sometimes, doesn’t it? The first time she got married, Ruth may have had a choice, but then her husband and father-in-law died, leaving her with a difficult moral dilemma - to stick with Naomi and become a pawn in Naomi’s own attempts to secure the future for both of them, or to claim her right to walk away and remain in charge of her own destiny.
In some ways, then, Ruth’s story is very contemporary. It brings us up sharp against the modern debate about rights and responsibilities. Today we would be concerned about the rights of people like Ruth and how to protect her from exploitation by Naomi and Boaz. The Old Testament chooses, however, to focus on responsibility - Ruth’s perception that she was responsible for looking after Naomi and Boaz’s perception that he was responsible for looking after both of them. Ruth emerges as the hero of the story precisely because she chooses to put her own rights and self-interest to one side out of a sense of loyalty and love for her mother-in-law.
The second Old Testament story is a more straightforward one. It’s about another widow, this time unnamed. However, like Ruth she is not an Israelite. Elijah goes to stay with her to escape the consequences of a drought and to hide from his enemies and takes advantage of the traditional Middle Eastern custom of showing hospitality to strangers.
Elijah asks for food and water, without even saying ‘Please’. The woman happily obliges with the water but points out that she has almost nothing to eat. Elijah asks her to trust in his God to supply the needs of all of them - the widow, her son and himself - but, in a supreme gesture of faith, she must give the first bun that she bakes to him and not to her starving child.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, ‘I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.’ That’s what Elijah asked the widow to do. She had to deny the certain knowledge that there was only enough flour and oil left in her storage jars to make one last meal for herself and her son, and in faith she had to bake a bun for Elijah before they fed themselves. The woman did make room for faith, as Elijah had asked. She denied the evidence of her own eyes and her faith was rewarded. Her household ate for many days.
Do we make enough room for faith? Are we too quick to be cowed by the facts into believing that what God wants is impossible?
I heard a comedy sketch in which someone was told that he couldn’t have his favourite drink because the barman had run out of stock, to which he replied, ‘I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer’, and, ‘I’m the kind of person who always gets what he wants.’ Of course, it didn’t make any difference. The barman still didn’t have his favourite drink in stock.
Some things just can’t be done. But Elijah was effectively saying the same thing. Sometimes we do have to be willing to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer if we are to get done what God wants done.
The kind of person who always gets what they want is traditionally an aggressive, often unpleasant and pushy sort of person, who disregards the needs of others. But Jesus is a different kind of person who gets things done an doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. He doesn’t do it by ruthlessly pursuing his own interests; he does it by putting his own life on the line for others.
During the First World War a man disobeyed his commanding officer and crawled out into No Man’s Land to rescue his friend who had been shot while laying barbed wire. He picked the friend up, put him on his back, and started running towards his own lines. Just as he reached the safety of the trench the German machine gunner opened up and peppered him with bullets. He and the friend fell into the trench covered with blood. The friend was dead and the man who had gone to save him was dying.
‘Why did you go?’ said the officer furiously. ‘You have thrown away your life. And for what?’
‘No,’ said the man. ‘It was worth it. When I got to my friend he said to me, “I knew you’d come!”’
Well, we didn’t know Jesus would come to rescue the human race, though the prophets had predicted that God would act to save us. He came and, in the process of saving us, he himself lost his life. But his was not a sacrifice like the soldier’s sacrifice, that has to go on being made in each generation to save wounded men under fire, like the soldiers who have lost their lives or limbs in Afghanistan going to the aid of their friends. His is a once for all sacrifice.
Sacrificing yourself is not a popular idea in a culture obsessed with success, but Jesus is someone like Ruth who puts obligation and responsibility above self-interest. In her case it was her obligation to her husband’s family, even when he had died. In Jesus’ case it is his sense of obligation to God and to doing what is right.
Are we willing always to do what is right, whatever the personal cost, and to refuse to take ‘No’ for an answer in order to do God’s will? Are we willing, if necessary, to deny the odds against us in order to make room for faith?