Read: Ruth 2
I’m the youngest in my family, eight years younger than my sister who is nearest to my age. So, when we went on car trips, in the 1980s (imagine a 1980 Oldsmobile 88 Sedan because this was before the minivan seemed to take over American family life), my two sisters sat on either side of me, the whole way, wherever we were going, no matter how far.
Almost every summer, we’d drive somewhere. We’d drive from Ohio to Florida or to Colorado or to Pennsylvania or to Iowa. Dozens of hours of driving at a time, the three of us stuffed into the back seat, with me in the middle. I’m sure that you can imagine the kinds of fights that would happen because we were in such close proximity to one another for such a long time.
I was absolutely obnoxious on these trips, laying, leaning, and napping all over poor teenage sisters’ shoulders. If they dared to push me off of them or to tell me to knock it off, you know that my first response was to immediately yell, “Mom!” to get them into trouble. And it worked because I was the baby.
Not terribly long ago, I heard something that I wish I had learned long ago. It would have saved me and my sisters a lot of grief in the years to come.
I was in a waiting room (I don’t even remember what I was waiting for), doing what we all do when we wait these days and was checking email on my phone and there were two little kids playing on the floor. They were mostly playing nicely and quietly, but the boy, ever so often, would start to whiningly tell on his sister, saying, “MOM!” and then fill in the blanks of his tattling.
“Mom, she’s not sharing.” “Mom, she’s looking at the magazines.” “Mom, she’s looking at me funny.” Mom is mostly ignoring her son, but, finally, she motions for him to come really close to her face and she whispers and asks an amazing question, “Are you telling on your sister to get her into trouble or out of trouble?
“Look, you’re the older brother. If she’s going to get hurt, you run as fast as you can and tell me what’s happening. That’s telling on her to get her out of trouble. But, if you’re telling on her just so I will get her into trouble, then you’re not being a very good brother.
“So, are you telling on her to get her into or out of trouble?”
Here, for us this morning, we hear Ruth, chapter 2, and we find ourselves in the middle of a situation in which someone is tattling for all the wrong reasons.
The chapter begins with the announcement of Boaz and who Boaz is to Ruth and to Naomi (Gaston). If you were those earliest readers of Ruth that I have talked about, you would have already known what was coming next, what was possible because of Boaz’s relationship to Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. He and his familial background are named before anything happens in the chapter.
But, once we know who Boaz is, we find Ruth, desperate to feed herself and Naomi, heading out to scavenge some food. The scripture calls it gleaning. And, wouldn’t you know it, Ruth finds herself in Boaz’s field.
Gleaning is the most difficult practice to describe because we don’t have practices like this in our society and in our times. But, back in the days of Ruth and Boaz, the Law of the Hebrew Bible required all farmers not to harvest the edges of their fields so that the poor could come by and gather. And, at harvest time, the poor could come and clean up whatever grain or corn or other food fell to the ground after the pickers had come through to harvest.
As I thought about gleaning these last few weeks, I have racked my brain to find a similar practice in our times to share with you and the only thing I have come up with is… Here in the neighborhood, we have these guys who come through our alleys, looking through our recycling bins, taking out the cans and bottles, and taking them to the recycler where they can get a little money. The guy who does it right here in the neighborhood (I won’t use his name, but we have become pretty friendly in the past year) lives on this street, is on disability of one kind or another and uses his one good arm to gather what is left and thrown away. By doing this every day, he keeps a roof over his head and food in his stomach. I think this is the closest thing to what was called gleaning for Ruth.
Back to the story: Boaz is gone when Ruth comes to glean in his field, but when he arrives back, he’s curious as to who she is. Some commenters find a lot to say about this as if this was a love-at-first-sight moment, but Boaz would’ve known, at least by sight, every person in his field. This was someone new, so, of course, he is curious.
He asks his foreman (Is this Billy Bob, Thursday Bible Study friends?), “Who’s that?” And, here is where the begins. He says, and this is from Hebrew scholar, Jonathan Grossman’s translation work, “This is Ruth, the Moabitess who came back with Naomi, she asked to glean even among what it is gathered.” Also, depending on whose translation you rely upon, he might say either, “She has worked all day without a break,” or, “she has been sitting in the house for a little while.” He says these things to Boaz.
“Are telling on her to get her into to trouble or out of trouble?” This is a man who is trying to get her into trouble. We know that number one, according to the story, Ruth never asked for anything special. She just went, as the Law permitted, and gathered the leftovers. Number two, we know the character of Ruth and, as a result, can imagine that she probably did work all day without a break. The kind of person who promises to love and support her mother-in-law in the way that she did is probably a hard worker as well. In fact, this work is part of the promise that she made to Naomi. As she gathers food, she is fulfilling her promise to take care of Naomi.
We hear this foreman tattling on Ruth to get her into trouble and we have to wonder why does it bother him so much that this young woman is trying to make a life for herself and her mother-in-law at a time when her options were almost none. Remember the horrific version of this story is that their society had nothing for a woman like Ruth. If she wasn’t in her father’s house or her husband’s house, she was nobody. She had nothing and was nothing. And, now, she has this foreman trying to make her even less than nothing, trying to take away her only source of food. We have to ask ourselves why.
There may not be a good answer. Maybe he hated the Moabites. Maybe he thought that this practice of gleaning wasn’t fair to his boss, that Boaz should gather everything instead of the Law making him share. Maybe he wished that he could gather all the leftovers and sell them. At this point, any guesses are just that: guess. But it makes me wonder, just like I wondered who our gleaners are, I wonder in which ways we are like this foreman in our own times. In what ways do we make it harder for folks who are just trying to make it from one day to the next. I don’t even mean to just to talk about poverty and work. We have so many problems in our world. It’s not just poverty. I mean we have an epidemic of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and other illnesses. We have an epidemic of prescribed opiate abuse. And, at some point, we have to admit that we have an ever-widening gap, worldwide, between those who have and those who don’t.
So, looking at those problems, how do we, like the foreman, contribute instead of working at making them better? I do remember when I still lived in La Mesa that, every so often, there would be a report on the police blotter of someone who had called the police on trash day on the person gathering cans out of the recycling bins. And, other times, they’d call code enforcement on people growing food in their yards because, in both cases, actually, it was against the law.
Now let’s compare that attitude to what Boaz actually does. Let’s compare that foreman, compare the one to tattles, to Boaz. Boaz hears the tattling and, like that mother in the waiting room, offers a lesson. He teaches his foreman through his actions.
He goes straight to Ruth and, instead of doing what his foreman expected, he says, “Don’t glean anywhere else (protective, dangerous – vs. 22 Naomi “others don’t fall upon you.”). In fact, I’m going to let you do what you never asked to do. You can glean with my harvesters. In fact, come to have lunch with us. We’ll feed you and care for you. And, actually, watch this, here’s so much grain that it will feed you and Naomi for more than a week.”
The foreman tells on Ruth to get her expelled. Boaz hears the tattler and actually brings Ruth closer. This foreman actually makes the story possible because maybe Boaz never even speaks to Ruth without realizing that his foreman was out to get her.
[I want to head off the argument that Boaz only does this because he thinks that Ruth is ‘hot.’ He says that he does it because it is right because she has cared for Naomi. AND – that’s reading too far into the story. Wait. We’ll get there.]
In this situation, I like to imagine that generosity is something that I am capable of. But, I think I’m going to have to rely upon God on this one. I may be a whole lot more likely to tattle than to give. I may be more like the six-year-old in the backseat, the older brother getting his sister in trouble, or [Billy Bob] the foreman trying to get someone in trouble instead of trying to get them out of trouble. I’m much more likely to pray my anger and frustration at the unfairness of someone who got something more than I did than I am to pray for the one who has less.
But, God is generous and heard the cries of the world, all our fears, and our pain, and, instead of banishing us from himself, he came closer. God heard our cries, our needs, our desperation for a relationship with him – and God knew our sin, our brokenness, the ways in which we did ask for too much, take too much for ourselves – and sent Jesus Christ, sent himself to live and to dwell among us.
This is the first hint of redemption in the story of Ruth. It is the first hint of redemption for us. When others tattle, God draws us nearer. God’s generosity is endless and the proof is in Christ.
And so, let us not push him away. Let us accept that generosity, like Ruth, bowing low, faces on the ground in the posture of prayer, thankful and aware of our blessedness.
Teach us, O God, of your great love, your gifts, your grace.