Back in the nineties, the movie industry was really changing. Specifically in how movies were made in the first place, specifically the introduction of CGI. I can remember the original Jurassic Park movie being made with some computer graphics, but also a lot of puppets, sculpting, and modeling. Then, by the time we get to the second Jurassic Park movie, just four years later, and it is mostly computer graphics.
But the movie that stands out as being the movie to really embody the changing industry is a movie called The Matrix from 1999. It’s like the plot was written for the movie to be produced in a computer because it is science fiction story in which some people have discovered that all of reality is just a projection, created by computers and machines, in order to enslave humanity. And one of the only ways to show other people what is wrong with reality is to find a glitch. An example of a glitch would be deja vu. If you see something happen twice that should have only happened once, then that is a glitch. When you see something that shouldn’t happen the way it does – like a little kid bending a spoon with his mind, that’s a glitch too. By showing other people a glitch in that Matrix, it helps them to see that their reality is not true, is not the way things are supposed to be.
The graphics at the time were unbelievable and so well-suited to the story. But, now, if we try to watch The Matrix twenty-years later and we have seen so much more achieved by computer graphics, it is almost unwatchable. It is almost like a joke. It’s like showing the movie Nosferatu and expecting an audience today to be afraid. It just doesn’t work. We’ve seen too much. There’s no way to see it in the way that the original moviegoers did.
I’m finding that four weeks into Ruth, we’re having the same problem. First of all, we’ve seen too much. We can’t hear a story about a woman sacrificing her everything for another person and not realize how marginalized and humiliated society has set her up to be. Not to mention thousands of years of her daughters as well. We’ve seen too much to hear Ruth like her original readers did. But, this time, unlike Nosferatu, instead of it not being scary, Ruth’s story has continued to haunt us, even as it has tried to comfort us.
Vanessa Ochs, a Jewish scholar from the University of Virginia, says that she always longed for a story in the Bible in which the central characters were women. So, as she worked with Ruth, her first inclinations were to love this story. But, the longer she read and studied Ruth, the more she became unsettled, and the word that she uses for what caused her to feel this unsettledness is that she noticed a glitch. Just like in The Matrix, she realized that there is something about the story that doesn’t add up, that though women characters are central, there is something that doesn’t help, something that doesn’t quench the thirst for women and their empowering like she had hoped. I don’t think that she’s wrong about this glitch.
As I was preparing for this sermon series and reading commentaries and journal articles, I had similar glitch happen for me. I always want to know what the best something is. I read reviews for everything I buy and I want to buy the best so I don’t find myself rebuying something later. Like what’s the best Thai food in North Park? Or, I almost always type into Google: “best coffee maker” or “best portable scanner” or, in this case, “best Ruth commentaries.” I read list after list after list, at least five lists. Each list had ten or so commentaries on it. And each list had exactly zero women scholars listed among the best Ruth commentaries. I legitimately had to go to Jewish sources, Jewish commentators on Ruth to fix the glitch, to get a woman’s voice to speak into the story.
But, the glitch in Ruth continues to be bigger than the things that we see from our perspective today, from our position in history. The glitch that emerges is that, though it is named for her, Ruth’s story constantly pushes her out. Ruth is the hero but disappears almost entirely by the end of the story.
Perhaps the biggest example of this is found in this chapter, chapter 4, verse 17, the closing passage of our narrative. It says, “The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” It’s then that you realize that this story has not been about Ruth at all. It has been about Naomi and her people, her society, a society that values women for the ability to provide new men, and Naomi being brought back to a place of honor on the back of Ruth.
Rosabeth Kanter named this problem in our time by saying the problem for women in today’s society is that “The price of being one of the boys is the willingness to turn occasionally against one of the girls.” That is what we find Naomi doing with Ruth and with her social circle. In fact, her social circle and their applause at her finally being let back into polite society names how heavy the cost had been to be without an heir, without a man. They rejoice because the cost of admission had been paid, but not without her turning, in this case, against one of the girls.
The cost of admission for women in our society, to so many rooms, to so many of the things that we want to achieve, is to turn against other women. And the church has not been immune. The other day, I was listening to Kathy Keller, wife of esteemed Manhattan megachurch pastor, Tim Keller. She was on a podcast the other day speaking about how women should not lead in the church, especially not as a pastor. She talked at length about her own journey toward this belief because she met Tim, her husband, while she was in seminary and seeking to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church.
She looked around and, even while admitting her own giftedness toward pastoral leadership, and even while admitting the giftedness of the women around her, she removed herself from the seminary and her ordination process, and began speaking out against the leadership roles of women within her church’s organizational structure, ultimately becoming one of the most influential anti-women-in-Church-leadership speakers of the past twenty-five years.
It wasn’t enough for her to accept the current state of the Church and its difficulty in affirming female pastors (it was already really hard!), she had to begin the work of unraveling the small amount of progress that had already been made. “The price of being one of the boys is the willingness to turn occasionally against one of the girls.”
This is where I find Naomi this morning. There are moments when it doesn’t feel quite so bleak. Admittedly, we do find her and the people around her recognizing Ruth’s worth, when they say things like, “your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons.” But, we have to consider whether Naomi changes her views on Ruth from that very first chapter in which she says, “I left full and came back empty.” Has she changed at all? Because the only reason that she is full in chapter 4 is because she now has a grandson who has brought her back to having status among her friends and her society.
What they call this having a male heir after one’s husband and/or sons have died is ‘redemption,’ being made whole by a kinsman redeemer. Redemption as a word that, as a concept, means to be saved. And what is Naomi being saved from? The life her society would give her because of her circumstances. Because she was all out of children, sons, she was worthless to her people. But Boaz, because of his relationship to Ruth, redeems Naomi.
Whenever I see a Bible Study curriculum about Ruth, it always has the question at the end of chapter 4 – How is the story of Ruth about Christ? The question is almost rhetorical. It has an expected answer. ‘Well, people need to be saved. And, like Boaz, Christ comes along and saves us all.’
But, If I am to give my answer that question, reading Ruth this time around, it’s not Boaz who redeems like Christ. It’s Ruth. She cries at her own suffering in chapter 1 and, through her bitter tears, she still commits to serve Naomi. The one who will ignore her blessings. The one who will send her to do the work in the field. The one who will make her use her body so that she (Naomi) can be redeemed.
Ruth hears Naomi’s cries and cries with her. Ruth hears Naomi’s need and feeds her. Ruth hears Naomi’s hope to be redeemed and will do anything to redeem her, even doing the thing that could possibly get her killed.
This was never Ruth’s problem. She could have seen Naomi’s suffering and walked away, gone home. She could have worried about herself and instead, she commits herself to Naomi’s care. It sounds a lot like Christ. Just like the story of Ruth becomes the story of Naomi, the story of Christ so often turns into the story of us. Christ sees our problems, cries with us, and we ignore him. Christ does the work, uses his body to redeem us, dying on a cross and creating the Church, and we don’t say thank you; we just ask for more. We want to be redeemed in our own ways. Christ redeems us and we celebrate ourselves.
Who hasn’t experienced moments in which it was like Christ said to you, “Don’t urge me to leave you… Where you go I will go… Where you die I will die (and we know that he did, even death on a cross)… May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely if even death separates you and me.” Christ destroyed death and its sting so that we might be with God forever. Even death won’t separate us.
Now, wouldn’t it be great if we all responded at least as well as Naomi and stopped pushing God away? Naomi may have her problems, but she has one thing going for her. Though she doesn’t make the same commitment to Ruth that Ruth gives to her, she does at least stop pushing her away. “When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her [to leave].” And from that small amount of reluctant agreement, Ruth redeems Naomi.
God is determined to go with us. And all it takes is a small amount of reluctant agreement for God to redeem our hearts and lives, but we have to stop pushing God away. God has redeemed us but is not content to leave us there. Just like Ruth never leaves Naomi’s side, God never leaves our side and is waiting for us to grow close enough to be able to say, “I will never leave you. You will be my God and I will be yours. Even death will not separate us.
So, we’ve seen too much. We’ve recognized the glitch. Like the Matrix, we know that our world today is not what it should be, and there’s no way to read Ruth like the first readers, there is no way for us to read her without thinking about Christ. So when we hear her story, we know that redemption doesn’t always come from where we think it will. We look to society and to our world and we’re told that redemption comes from anywhere but God. And, sometimes we get caught up in it and look at the things that have, the blessings that we have been given, the relationships that we’ve made, and we misattribute where they came from, just like the rest of the world outside of the Church. We have been redeemed and we must recognize where that redemption came from. Just like it was Ruth and not Boaz who redeems Naomi, it is Christ who lived and died for us so that we might have life and light for ourselves.
Stop pushing him away. Keep listening for his cries, the tears he cries for you. Keep him close. Say to him, “Never will I leave you… even death won’t separate us…” for you are my God and I am yours.