Lay Reader: Acts 28:23-31
23After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.24Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, 26‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 27For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ 28Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” 30He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
We are continuing our story looking at the story of Ruth in the Old Testament. The first week we tried to walk a mile in Ruth’s shoes and know what it means and what if feels like to be an outsider. Last week we saw how Boaz the insider went above and beyond to show extravagant hospitality to Ruth the outsider. But this week the tables are turned. Ruth, the outsider, takes center stage. Ruth, the powerless, shapes the powerful.
Last week I had to let you in on ancient farming techniques. This week let me explain Israelite inheritance, because that’s the backdrop for this chapter.
When God gave the promised land to the Israelites, he set things up in a particular way. In capitalism, who owns most of the property? People, right? And in communism, who owns most of the property? The government on behalf of the people, right? God sets up a different system in the Old Testament, and that’s where God owns ALL the property, but he parcels it out to the twelve tribes.
And since God gave his property to particular tribes, there are also rules about how to make sure the various family lines keep going. If a family line doesn’t have an heir and all the men die, it is then the duty of the closest male relative to marry the widow and create an heir on that family’s behalf.
In our story, Elimilech, Naomi’s husband, died. All of his sons died. There is no one left to carry on this family line, so the closest relative is then supposed to marry the widow – Ruth – and produce an heir. We’ll see in the next chapter that this isn’t always a desirable arrangement. After all, if an heir isn’t produced, that closest relative will probably stand to gain a larger inheritance of land for themselves than if they perform their duty as a kinsman-redeemer. That’s the phrase you’ll hear in some translations. The one we’ll hear today just says “next-of-kin,” but it’s the same concept.
So once Naomi realizes that Ruth has caught the eye of one of their close relatives – someone who could be the kinsman-redeemer who would marry Ruth and produce an heir – she decides to speed things along a bit.
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” 6So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. 7When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. 8At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! 9He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” 10He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. 12But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. 13Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.” 14So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.”
15Then he said, “Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city.16She came to her mother-in-law, who said, “How did things go with you, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her,17saying, “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” 18She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”
OK, let’s just go there. I know you’re thinking it. Did they…or didn’t they? Right? It’s OK. When my seminary class studied this section that’s what we all asked the professor. With all this uncovering of feet and lying down and staying the night…did they or didn’t they?
Let’s just start there, shall we? But let’s back up first and ask about Naomi’s plan. She has Ruth wash herself, put on perfume, and sneak into the threshing floor after Boaz has had a lot to drink. And here’s what the text says she tells Ruth, “go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” Now we know, since I just explained it to you, that this whole kinsman-redeemer, next-of-kin thing is commanded by God, right? It’s a part of the legal landscape of Israel. Ruth and Naomi could just ask Boaz if he is willing to perform his duty and marry Ruth. So why sneak in at night, when he’s a bit tipsy, and have her dressed and ready for the prom? I think it’s safe to say that Naomi is hoping a little romantic encounter will happen, and that it will encourage Boaz to perform his duty as next-of-kin.
I don’t know why she thinks this is the right course of action. Maybe she’s worried that Ruth is too much of an outsider – she’s a foreigner after all – it would be pretty easy to say she doesn’t count. She’s not an Israelite, so there is no legal duty. But let’s just go with the assumption that Naomi wants something to happen romantically.
Now for the more important question: what does Ruth want? Well, Naomi tells Ruth that “he will tell you what to do.” But Ruth doesn’t remain silent. She tells Boaz, “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” She is asking for Boaz to act as the kinsman-redeemer, the one who will produce an heir for the line of Elimilech. She is asking Boaz to marry her. When she says “spread your cloak” that’s a legal term, not a sexual one. She’s asking for him to formally offer her his protection. So Naomi wants this to be a romantic encounter to hustle things along, but Ruth wants it to be above-board while still honoring her mother-in-law’s wishes. She’s not a passive observer of her story, she makes her story happen how she wants it.
So to answer the question, “did they…or didn’t they,” I think we can say Naomi wanted the romantic encounter to happen. Ruth didn’t so she spoke up. And Boaz? He says to Ruth that she’s blessed for her loyalty and honesty. And then he says, “remain this night” and “lie down until the morning.” In English, that sounds suggestive given the context. But in the Hebrew it is not. The only suggestive term in Hebrew is when Naomi says to “uncover his feet.” That’s a suggestive phrase for uncovering other things, but what Boaz says does not have any romantic connotations. So Naomi tried to set it up, but both Ruth and Boaz seem to want things to be above board. So, even though it sounds a bit suggestive from where we stand, I would say “no, they didn’t.” There you go – that’s all you really wanted to know about this chapter.
But I find something else to be far more interesting. Naomi wants this to be about Boaz. “He will tell you what to do.” Boaz will make the decision. Boaz will decide your fate. Boaz knows what is best.
But that’s not how the story plays out. This chapter isn’t about Boaz. It’s about Ruth. What she does. What she says. What she wants. How she acts. Her sense of self and sense of character. This part of the story doesn’t hinge on Boaz the insider. It’s directed by the voice of Ruth the outsider.
Last week we heard how Boaz offered extraordinary, extravagant hospitality to Ruth. That made a big difference in her life. That’s a model for how our church should treat guests and those who are struggling in our community. But this week we get to see what she actually, really, truly wants and needs. Having an easier time in the fields is great. But what she really needs is to not be a widow anymore. Boaz never would have thought of that.
This week it’s Boaz’s turn to listen. His turn to hear what she has to say.
And that’s this week’s main lesson. Insiders can’t even imagine what the outsider sees and hears and thinks and needs. When a Ruth speaks, it’s a perspective that cannot be gained in any other way. Those who suffer have something to say to us, and we cannot hear it from anyone else. Those who have been left on the outside for far too long have something to say to us, and we cannot hear it from anyone else. There is a truth here that is unknowable from any Google search. No consultant can show us. No one other than that particular person knows this piece of truth.
How can we hear? How can we listen? How can we make sure that the vulnerable, the outsider, the Ruth’s among us feel comfortable sharing their unique truth? We are incomplete without their perspective. We are blind to certain things. Only a Ruth can reveal those things to us. How can we listen? How can we make a space where they can speak?
If you’ve been following the trial of Larry Nassar – the former Olympic gymnastics doctor who abused the little girls under his care – then you’ve heard a whole lot of ways NOT to listen. Michigan State and USA Gymnastics have a lot of reckoning to do for how they went out of their way to ignore and silence the vulnerable in their midst.
But let me share with you one of the most incredible nuggets of truth from that trial. Rachael Denhollander was the first to accuse Nassar of abuse. She was ridiculed for it. But she persisted. And she is apparently a woman of deep faith in Jesus, because here’s what she said to Nassar from her faith perspective.
“In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.
You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.
If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.
The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.”
I could live a thousand years and never be able to demonstrate the nature of God’s forgiveness and call to repentance like that. That should put our little squabbles into perspective. Is there anyone you won’t forgive? Anyone you would rather see in hell than in heaven? If so, can you really justify that in the face of Rachael lining out the path for Larry Nassar to find forgiveness in the eyes of God? She’s telling him, “this is the painful but attainable path to heaven through the same Jesus you pretended to know.” We can’t get that kind of perspective anywhere else, folks.
When I came to this church I said from day one that embracing the people of our community in every direction was part of our calling. The essence of who we are. But that calling isn’t just about us going out and doing Boaz-y things. It’s not just about us knowing what the community needs and offering that. Our calling also means listening to what our community has to say. Even if it’s uncomfortable or painful for us. Because their perspective contains a truth we cannot find anywhere else.
What will the Ruth’s around us say? And how will we hear it?