Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 6, Number 5, February 18 to February 24, 2003

Renewed Hope

A Sermon on Ruth 2:1-23

By Rev. Russell B. Smith

Covenant-First Presbyterian Church
Cincinnati, OH

When last we left our heroines, they had just returned from the far away land of Moab. You will recall that Naomi had traveled to Moab with her husband and two sons. After many years in that foreign country, all three men died, leaving Naomi with two Moabite daughter-in-laws. In her grief, Naomi decides to return home, but bids the two daughter- in-laws to stay in Moab where they might remarry. One does stay, but the other, Ruth, makes an astounding profession of faith in Naomi's God, the God of Israel, and vows to return with her to help take care of her. And as we left off last week, Naomi and Ruth returned to the town of Bethlehem.

Last week, we saw Naomi as a woman in despair — we saw that the scriptures took an honest look at despair and didn't censure her for it. She felt despair, but didn't lose faith in God. We also saw that God's hand was working through ordinary people to do extraordinary things. This week, we look at how God renews Naomi's hope.

Ruth 2

1Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi's husband, Elimelech. 2One day Ruth said to Naomi, "Let me go out into the fields to gather leftover grain behind anyone who will let me do it." And Naomi said, "All right, my daughter, go ahead." 3So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech. 4While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. "The LORD be with you!" he said. "The LORD bless you!" the harvesters replied. 5Then Boaz asked his foreman, "Who is that girl over there?" 6And the foreman replied, "She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. 7She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes' rest over there in the shelter." 8Boaz went over and said to Ruth, "Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don't go to any other fields. Stay right behind the women working in my field. 9See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to bother you. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well." 10Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. "Why are you being so kind to me?" she asked. "I am only a foreigner." 11"Yes, I know," Boaz replied. "But I also know about the love and kindness you have shown your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. 12May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully." 13"I hope I continue to please you, sir," she replied. "You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not as worthy as your workers." 14At lunchtime Boaz called to her, "Come over here and help yourself to some of our food. You can dip your bread in the wine if you like." So she sat with his harvesters, and Boaz gave her food--more than she could eat. 15When Ruth went back to work again, Boaz ordered his young men, "Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. 16And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don't give her a hard time!" 17So Ruth gathered barley there all day, and when she beat out the grain that evening, it came to about half a bushel. 18She carried it back into town and showed it to her mother-in-law. Ruth also gave her the food that was left over from her lunch. 19"So much!" Naomi exclaimed. "Where did you gather all this grain today? Where did you work? May the LORD bless the one who helped you!" So Ruth told her mother-in-law about the man in whose field she had worked. And she said, "The man I worked with today is named Boaz." 20"May the LORD bless him!" Naomi told her daughter-in-law. "He is showing his kindness to us as well as to your dead husband. That man is one of our closest relatives, one of our family redeemers." 21Then Ruth said, "What's more, Boaz even told me to come back and stay with his harvesters until the entire harvest is completed." 22"This is wonderful!" Naomi exclaimed. "Do as he said. Stay with his workers right through the whole harvest. You will be safe there, unlike in other fields." 23So Ruth worked alongside the women in Boaz's fields and gathered grain with them until the end of the barley harvest. Then she worked with them through the wheat harvest, too. But all the while she lived with her mother-in-law.

First of all, note that God's own law provides hope. In His law, God instituted some structures to provide hope for widows in Naomi's situation. In those days, widows without male heirs were very likely to be impoverished and without a means to provide for themselves. However, God's law instructed the Israelite people in mercy. In a time when the strong could easily exploit the weak, God's law provided restraint —

Exodus 22:21-22 provides the general principle:

21"Do not oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. 22"Do not exploit widows or orphans.

Deuteronomy 14:28-29 gives financial provision for widows like Naomi:

28"At the end of every third year bring the tithe of all your crops and store it in the nearest town. 29Give it to the Levites, who have no inheritance among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all your work.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 provides the instruction that we see enacted in our story today:

19"When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don't go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all you do. 20When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don't go over the boughs twice. Leave some of the olives for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. 21This also applies to the grapes in your vineyard. Do not glean the vines after they are picked, but leave any remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. 22Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command.

Remember that these were the days when all harvesting was done by hand. Here we have the barley harvest which takes place in early April. Teams of men would go out into the fields armed with sickles. Each harvester would grab a handful of grain stalks, and cut them off about a foot beneath the head. Then they would place the stalks on the ground behind them and move on. Following behind them were binders, who were often children or servant girls. They would gather the stalks together and bind them into bundles. Finally, the bundles would be carried away to the threshing floor to have the husks and the stalks ground away from the edible grain. This was a very labor intensive process, and there were plenty of opportunities for good grain to be missed. God's law simply said that this grain was to be left for the poor.

In the years after World War II, an American professor, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, went to Japan to help them rebuild their industrial system. He helped several corporations develop a process of statistical analysis that focused on eliminating errors and waste while maximizing efficiency. The fruit of his labor led Japan into world prominence in business and manufacturing in the 1980's — and the Deming process came to American companies and launched the Total Quality Management movement. The philosophy of total quality management is the ideal of eliminating error through meticulous analysis on the part of all employees. It's a good philosophy in many respects — but the unfortunate result when misapplied is that people are treated as machines.

God doesn't strive for total quality. He allows for less than total quality because in the flexibility that is gained, there is room for compassion. God's point is that compassion is a higher virtue than production. God built that principle into the basic principles that drove the ancient economy. Don't think that this principle is a repudiation of hard work — agriculture is extremely hard work and harvesting is hard as well. The principle is — don't be greedy. Give some flexibility in work for compassion. God built the principle into his law — the extent of application is up to each person. We see here in the case of Boaz that he applies the principle quite generously.

Here's the second principle — God renews hope through action and hard work. Ruth, who has probably been instructed in Israelite laws regarding widows by Naomi, takes to the field behind the gatherers and begins to pick up the leftovers. Notice in verse 6 the description of her work ethic by the foreman. She's not a slacker — she's been out there working hard, taking only one short break. Then in verse 11 — Boaz tells Ruth that her reputation for faithfulness precedes her. We see she gathered until evening, she threshed the barley, gathering somewhere between a half to 3/5 of a bushel of good grain — a very good take. Ruth takes the initiative — she works hard and good things begin to happen.

Haven't you had the experience of being depressed and not knowing what to do about it. Often times, what it takes to get out of a funk is to simply go and do something — anything. Work on a few items of that extensive to do list. Go exercise. Activity itself can relieve a depressed mood and invigorate the soul. However the principle here is not activity for the sake of activity. This is purposeful activity — this is activity done in faith that advances toward the goal of renewing hope.

We see this when we work with Habitat for Humanity. The recipients of Habitat Houses don't get their houses for free — there is a cost, both financial and in terms of sweat equity. The recipients of Habitat houses put in hundreds of hours of volunteer labor with Habitat — working on their own home or with other homes. It's not just a hoop they have to go through to get the home. Rather it is taking action in faith that God will provide.

A few years ago, I was on a short-term mission trip in Mexico — we were working with Ministerios De Fe, a Mexican ministry helping to do renovation and repair work on homes in the small border town of Reynosa. The neighborhood was built on a landfill and the houses we worked on were no bigger than our church office. They were simple cinderblock buildings and all we did all day long was mix concrete and pour. One of the big projects we worked on was digging foundations for the new neighborhood church. We were assisted by several Mexican volunteers. Here we were, a bunch of well-fed, athletic American adults and teenagers, and these middle aged, poor, Mexican ladies put us to shame. They worked stoically and tirelessly and steadily without taking breaks. They worked hard in hope — they took action in faith that God would come through and make the dream of this new church a reality.

So God renews hope through His law, God renews hope through hard work. Here's the third principle — God renews hope through the kindness of people. That's the overall theme of this book — ordinary people, extraordinary God. Last week, we saw Ruth as God's agent of kindness toward Naomi — this week, we see Boaz as the agent of God's kindness. We see in verse 1 that Boaz is a cousin of Naomi's dead husband Elimelech. And here we see him arrive in person in verse 4. The story seems to indicate he's an older man — I imagine him full of vigor with a booming voice as he arrives "The Lord be with you!" — I can see his winning smile and the genuine affection he has for his laborers. And I can hear their affection for him back in the reply "the Lord bless you!" He confers with his trusted and capable foreman, and then in the fields, an attractive young lady catches his eye. When he finds out about her, his heart is moved by her noble character. He offers her protection, water, provision, and full rights to gather even among his own workers. He even gives her a verbal blessing. He goes far beyond what can be expected from a property owner. Verse 12 reflects the theology of the book though — Boaz isn't just being nice — he's being the agent of God's blessing. He acts out the blessing that He speaks to her.

On September 18, Mike Hendricks of Bowling Green died of colon cancer. He was a soybean farmer, and he had just been diagnosed in January. In the last months of his life, he worried about his family, and he worried that he wouldn't be around long enough to harvest his crops. He died just weeks before harvesting was to begin. In those last few weeks, Hendricks' childhood friend and neighbor, Ron Bechstien, began calling other friends and neighbors. He organized a group of a dozen friends to help gather the crops. Unfortunately, they didn't finish before Hendricks died — they were still working on October 10 when the Associated Press picked up the story — and they had committed to come back and help Hendricks widow with the coming corn harvest. God works through ordinary people.

God renews hope through his law, He renews hope through our own hard work, and He renews hope through the goodness of ordinary people. We see that behind the events around us, it is God who takes initiative to renew our hope. It is God who establishes the law; it is God who works in our hearts to motivate us to action; it is God who stirs the hearts of others. It is God who provides the culmination of all our hopes through Jesus Christ. Christ through his perfect life, dying on the cross and rising again to conquer death is the fulfillment of all hopes and dreams. And then Christ sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us so that he can use us as his agents to reflect him and renew hope in others. You know that one of my favorite verses in scripture is Philippians 2:12-13 which states "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." The book of Ruth gives us a picture of ordinary people renewing hope — but it is our extraordinary God who works in them. The question for us is twofold. The first question is How will you be used by God to renew somebody's hope this week. How will you be a Boaz to somebody else? The second question is How will somebody be a Boaz to you this week? and will you have the graciousness to receive it? Until next time, you think about that — Amen.