Gleaning Courage

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay         
*This sermon was given at the end of July 2019, but due to circumstances going on at that time, I set this aside and never shared it on Wisdom Wanderings.  However, today I received a nudge, a God wink if you will, that it was time to dust this off and share it. 
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. – SM

Today, we will be visiting the Book of Ruth with a focus on chapter 2. 

As you may recall, just to catch up, the first chapter of the Book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi and her family, and their move out of Israel to Moab because of a famine.  Then tragedy strikes the family leaving Naomi a widow with two daughters-in-law in a foreign land.  

She decides to make the move back to her home country and tells her daughters-in-law they are free to leave her and return to the homes of their fathers.   One takes her up on it and heads back to her people, but the other one refuses to go.  

We are left with the images of a bitter Naomi who is calling out God for taking everything that had given her purpose and meaning in her world.  Naomi’s husband and two sons have both died while the family had been living in Moab to escape the famine that had fallen on Bethlehem.  

With Noami is her daughter-in-law Ruth, the Moabitess that had been married to Naomi’s son, Mahlon, who is now also a widow like Naomi.  She has bound herself to Naomi with her famous vow while at the same time converting and accepting Naomi’s God as her God.  

In the older woman we see emptiness and bitterness while in the younger we see enormous courage and loyalty in spite of the bleak future ahead.

The two women have arrived back in Bethlehem, and have apparently settled.  That is where we pick up in chapter two.  

By settle, I mean that they have found someplace to stay.   Perhaps the house that Naomi’s husband Elimlech built is still standing and is able to provide the women with a ready made shelter.  However, that is all that Naomi and Ruth have going for them.  They have no one to provide them with food and no means to purchase any food for themselves or anything else for that matter.  Chapter two starts with a conversation  between Ruth and Naomi concerning how to go about getting food.  

In Ruth 2:1-3 we read,

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.  And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.”  She said to her, “Go, my daughter.”  So she went.  She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers.  As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.”  

Now, personally, I have to wonder what Naomi was thinking agreeing to this.  Most likely she is either still buried too deeply in her personal grief that she isn’t really engaged in the conversation or she realizes there are no other acceptable options of employment for Ruth.   So what exactly is gleaning?  What occupation is Ruth volunteering herself for?

The Merriam Webster Dictionary has two definitions for the word glean. 
The one that we in our current time are probably most familiar is, “to gather information or material bit by bit.”  However, the other definition, the one that Ruth and Naomi are familiar with, is, “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers.”  

Gleaning is essentially the social welfare program of Israel.  It is established in two places in Leviticus –

Leviticus 19:9, “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest,”

and Leviticus 23:22, “When you reap the harvest of you land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien:  I am the Lord your God.”   

So what does this mean for Ruth and Naomi?

Israelite land owners have been commanded by Yahweh that when it is time to harvest a crop they are not to harvest the entire field.  Instead they are to leave the edges and corners of the fields unharvested.  They are also to only pass over the remainder of their fields once and not return for any grain that they may have missed during the first pass.  This is to be done to ensure that the poor, the aliens, the widows, and the orphans have a means of feeding themselves while also maintaining their human dignity.  The gleaning law doesn’t say to harvest the crops and then give portions to these groups of people, but to leave areas for these people to come to in order to harvest and earn their food for themselves by their own labor.  It also doesn’t say how much to leave at the edges or corners.  

So Ruth’s plan is to go out and find these fields and to try to work and glean enough to feed herself and Naomi.   Remember, Ruth has sworn to care for Naomi and that is just what she intends to do.  However, the exact reasons she needs to go to the field and glean, she is an alien, a widow, and a woman with no male to protect her, are the very reasons it is actually a very dangerous enterprise for her to engage in.  

In the Ancient world, the gleaning fields are a dangerous, hand to mouth means of existence for hungry people.  The poor Israelites are already in the field with the meager corners and edges that are available competing with each other to see who can glean the most. Violence can and does happen when the hungry gleaners clash and the stronger of the two takes from the weaker.  In Ruth’s case, she is in double jeopardy in these fields not only because she is a foreign woman, but more so because she has no male to offer her any protection of any kind.  

It was not unusual for women in Ruth’s position to be taken advantage of and exploited in every way imaginable.  But she has sworn to her loyalty to Naomi and Ruth intends to care for her by courageously setting out in this strange new land she has adopted as her land to try to find a field to glean in.  

Ruth is literally gleaning courage.  

You may have noted that twice in the passage I read a few moments ago that a man was also mentioned by name in these first couple of verses of Chapter two. 
The name is Boaz.  He is the first male character mentioned in the Book of Ruth who is not only living, but also a blood relative a Naomi’s dead husband, Elimelech.  The first thing we read in chapter two is that he is a relative and then in verse 3 we read that it just so happens that unbeknown to Ruth, the field she winds up in to begin her gleaning in happens to be a field owned by this same man, Boaz.  

Who exactly is this Boaz person?  Our scripture describes him as a prominent rich man, but this doesn’t really capture all that the actual word used to describe him in the Hebrew version ,hayil, fully means.  In preparing for this message I became the student of author Carolyn Custis James, who has written two books specifically on the book of Ruth which have shaped many of my thoughts.  In her book, Finding God in the Margins: The Book of Ruth, she has this to say about the meaning of hayil,

“The storyteller opens this scene by introducing Boaz as a towering figure.  Hayil is the Hebrew word the narrator uses to describe Boaz.  It indicates that he is a man of valor, stature, wealth, privilege, and power.”    

Right away the author of the Book of Ruth is painting us a picture of a very successful man who is very well off and therefore highly respected in the community.  We know that he is related to Naomi’s husband Elimelech and we also know that he is the owner of the field that God has led Ruth too.  Most scholars agree that Boaz was most likely in the same age group as Naomi and her husband as we later hear him refer to Ruth as “daughter” when speaking to her.  

What we don’t know from reading this, but the original listeners of this story would have known, is that Boaz isn’t just any old random wealthy landowner.   In addition to his own merits, Boaz’s family line gives him an impressive Israelite pedigree.  To start off with, he can trace his lineage back to Abraham, which perhaps many in this society could probably could do I suppose, but he is the direct descendent of some pretty strong power players along the way, starting with Judah, son of Jacob who was the father of Perez by Tamar.  Boaz’s grandfather was Nahshon, which may not sound very familiar (I didn’t recognize his name at first) but if you turn back to the pages of the Exodus  and Numbers  you will discover that he was third in command behind Moses and Aaron.  

So that is where we find Ruth being lead.  To the field of a very important and powerful man from a very important family line.  Boaz himself makes his entrance in verse 2:5,

Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem.  He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.”  They answered him, ‘The Lord bless you.’”  

We can see right away that Boaz is a very faithful follower of Yahweh.  This stands out to us if we remember that this story is taking place during the time of the Judges, a very dark period for the Israelite people who had turned away from God’s law and each person did what was right in their own eyes to paraphrase Judges 21:25.  Not only does Boaz practice the gleaning law as commanded, but his very greeting to his employees is a blessing requesting Yahweh to be there in his fields with his workers. 

He continues on to have a conversation with his field manager in verses 5-7,

Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.  She said ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even a moment.”  

It is evident that Boaz is very involved in the happenings of his estate. He isn’t content to sit around at home eating grapes and taking it easy.  He instead appears to make regular trips out to check on his various operations.  I assume this because he very quickly zeroed in on Ruth and identified her as someone new, someone he didn’t recognize or know.  Out of all the people who are engaged in all kinds of activities in that field, Ruth is the person who catches Boaz’s eye.  

There are actually two major things going on in this small passage.  By asking who Ruth belongs too, he isn’t just satisfying an idle curiosity.  He is actually asking not only who she is, but what are her circumstances.  What is her story?  This all sounds very nice, but in actuality it is a testament to Boaz’s character that he even inquires!  He is a very powerful and influential man in a patriarchal society.  

Even today, oftentimes the plight of the poor is beneath the notice of the rich and powerful.   I like to think that Boaz asks this question because he wants to ensure that all the gleaners in his field are safe and taken care of.  The fact that Ruth has no male that she “belongs to” means she has no protection, no voice, and no recourse if anything rough or worse happens to her.  

The second thing we are finding here probably seems very inconsequential in our eyes. 

Read it again,

the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.  She said, “Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’” 

Are you picking up on anything that might be a little unusual?

This servant isn’t just making idle, gossipy conversation with his boss.  He is actually conveying something very unusual.  Something that he may even be offended by.  Ruth, a woman, has addressed the supervisor of the field who is a man.  This poor widowed foreigner has had the audacity to make her presence known.  They are both coming to work in the field, but she has no rights and he has all the advantages.  It was shocking enough that she would dare talk to the supervisor but what is more astonishing is WHAT she is saying to him.  Ruth has truly made an outrageous request to the supervisor.   One that he can’t handle on his own but needs to escalate to the top – the owner of the field, Boaz.

So what is it about Ruth’s request that is so outrageous?  

Let’s dive a little deeper into the hierarchy of the field work being done. 

A harvest, (remember Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest) is 100% manual labor.  There aren’t any tractors or machines of any kind.  Everything is done by hand and so this requires a lot of people.   

At the top of the organizational chart would be the supervisor, or manager of operations.  This the person entrusted by the landowner to ensure things go as planned and to handle all personnel issues.  Next comes the harvesters.  These workers are men who are paid each day with a portion of the harvest.  They work across the field cutting down the grains.  Following the harvesters are hired women who gather up the cut grains into bundles that can then be moved to the threshing floor.  Finally you have behind this group the gleaners.  Poor people who are hoping for scrapes that have fallen out of the bundles or that are fighting for the few edges or corners that still have standing grain on them. 

So, to recap, men cutting down the grain, women gathering the grain into bundles to be moved, and then the poor hoping for the scrapes. 

Ruth’s request, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers,’ is so outrageous because she is asking for permission to go around the established system.  She doesn’t want to be with the gleaners at the back of the pack fighting for a few scraps.  Ruth wants to be right behind the men who are cutting, among the hired women who are gathering the bundles of grain, also known as sheaves.   

Why would she make this request? 

To increase her chances of being able to gather enough not just for herself, but enough to take care of Naomi as well because Ruth has sworn to care for her.  Ruth is all too aware of the fact that if she stays with the gleaning pack she has all the disadvantages – she will have next to no chance of being able to provide for herself and Naomi.  She will be pushed around, taken advantage of, possibly robbed of whatever she does collect because she is the lowest of the low on the pecking order.  She is a foreign widow woman.  

Can you imagine Boaz’s reaction to this request?  This is actually jaw dropping worthy!  What must he be thinking about this strange new woman?  

Even more surprising than Ruth’s request though, is Boaz’s response and he doesn’t give it to the supervisor.  He addresses Ruth directly!  A woman who is clearly far beneath him in every way possible according to their society.  

As we continue with our scripture we read,

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women.  Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them.  I have ordered the young men not to bother you.  If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”

Astonishingly, Boaz is granting her request!  In fact, not only is he granting it, he is accepting responsibility for her safety.  No one is allowed to touch her.  Who would dare defy these instructions from this powerful member of the community? She won’t be at the back of the pack with the gleaners, but safely in the midst of the paid women employees with the opportunity to gather plenty of grain.  He even goes one step further to help ensure she can be successful.  He gives her access to water to help ease her work in the hot, harvest sunshine. 

Ruth’s courage has gleaned her special permissions.  Ruth herself is amazed at all of this and sounds as surprised as you or I might have been had we been there witnessing this.  We hear her response to this immense kindness by Boaz and his reasons for granting her request in verses 10-13.

Then she fell prostrate, with her face on the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”  But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.  May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wing you have come for refuge!”  Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants. “

Why was Boaz willing to help this poor foreign woman?  Her own actions towards Naomi have earned the respect of Boaz.  The gossip has been running wild around Bethlehem, and though he hadn’t seen her until just this moment, Boaz has heard about the vow Ruth has made to Naomi.  He knows that she has willingly chosen a hard and bitter path instead of the easier one that may have been available to her among her own people in Moab.  She does all of this out of care and concern for Naomi, and it wasn’t just empty words.  

Ruth is putting her best foot forward to do all that she can to provide for Naomi. The servant tells us that she arrived early to the field and hadn’t stopped for a single break.  And because of all of this she has earned Boaz’s respect and admiration.  He willingly grants her requests and offers her a blessing and an acknowledgement of her conversion to faith in the God of Israel. 

But he doesn’t stop there.  

Verses 14-18,

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”  So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley.

Boaz has gone above and beyond for Ruth.  He feeds her and gives her every advantage to help her do well.  She is successful in securing ample food for herself and Naomi.  She has collected more than most of the paid workers would get over several days.  Not to mention she has every expectation of continuing to gather like this for the rest of the days of the harvest!  

In doing so, we hear and see from Ruth some of her own suffers that haven’t really been noticed up to this point in the book.  Naomi isn’t the only one grieving.  Ruth has also lost a husband.  In addition she has left behind everyone and everything that she has ever known to go live with a bitter and empty woman in a land where all the people despise her.  Boaz’s response to Ruth is quite possibly the first good thing to happen to Ruth since the death of her husband, Mahlon.  

There is however more than just a little kindness going on here. 

Boaz and Ruth have been engaged in some very radical upside down kingdom interactions.  What makes these few simple passages so radical?  

Ruth is sharing her perspective of the gleaning law with Boaz, challenging him to look past the letter of the law to consider what was actually God’s intent of this law.  What was the intended spirit of the law?  She sees that as the hierarchy stands she has no way to glean enough to support herself and Naomi.  So she comes up with a solution and she sends the request straight to the top.  The owner of the field. 

Rather than being offended by this foreign woman, Boaz hears her out instead of dismissing her completely or ridiculing her.   He then rethinks his position of what the gleaning law requires of him and reacts favorably!  A man of long faith is learning from a woman who is a recent convert.  Ruth’s interpretation allows Boaz to grow in his understanding of his own faith!  

Carolyn Custis James says in her book, The Gospel of Ruth,

Simply by doing what she knew to be right, Ruth’s actions elevate the discussion of the law to a completely different realm…she is also pressing Boaz to color the lines of his understanding of God’s law.  The letter of the law says, “Let them glean.”  The spirit of the law says, “Feed them.”  Two entirely different concepts.  Ruth’s bold proposal exposes the difference…Boaz’s response is as astonishing as Ruth’s request is outrageous, and this is where our strong admiration for Boaz begins to grow…he willingly follows Ruth’s lead.  He actually appears driven –you might even say obsessed —  to come up with ways of making her mission possible.  In an astonishing outpouring of grace, Boaz exceeds the young Moabitess’ request.   (James, The Gospel of Ruth, pgs 102-3).  

We discover that Ruth isn’t the only one gleaning courage.  Boaz is also gleaning courage.  The courage to act completely counter cultural.  He disregards what society would say or how it would react to his dealings with Ruth in the field.  But even more so is the courage to see Ruth as an equal who he was willing to learn from.  

It is the example of Ruth herself in her actions towards her mother-in-law that has earned her the respect of Boaz to begin with.  He sees God working through Ruth and in Ruth and he responds positively to Ruth and helps her ensure that she is successful in a society where she had every expectation of failing. 

The rest of our scripture today, verses 18-23, shows us the happy homecoming for Ruth that night and her sharing her day and the story of the blessings she has found that day:

She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.”  Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.”  So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.

Ultimately, all of this is being done for the benefit of Naomi.  God is using Ruth and Boaz to show Naomi that he has not forgotten or abandoned her.  What an amazing story of growth and learning for both Boaz and Naomi!  I think often when the book of Ruth is thought of we as people have a tendency to see Boaz as the great redeemer of the story, which he is.  However, we don’t realize that he wouldn’t have done any of it if Ruth hadn’t challenged him with a new perspective on the gleaning laws, which he has known his entire life.  

How often do we find ourselves in this same exact position? 

We grow so comfortable in our own understandings and sometimes become complacent with those understandings.  We, like Boaz, need to be open to listening to others and  willing to continue learning and growing our faith.  We need to be looking for the Ruths in our lives that can help us do exactly that and we must be willing to learn from them.   

God’s timing and planning never ceases to amaze me.  One of the greatest revelations I have had while writing this is how God has connected and prepared the way for his redemption plan for restoring right relationship between himself and broken humanity so precisely.  While I didn’t see any of the commentaries comment on this, I have come to the conclusion that Boaz wasn’t just a random character with a blessed Israel family lineage that happened to be available.  

He was handpicked for this precise place in the story of redemption because he was a man uniquely equipped and qualified to be receptive to seeing a foreigner as an equal and being willing to learn from that same foreigner.  Why? Because of who his parents were.  Boaz’s father, Salman,  isn’t a name we really remember, but we do remember and are familiar with who his mother was.  

Boaz is the son of Rahab, the foreign prostitute from Jericho!

  From the time he was a baby, I like to imagine him learning at the feet of this great woman of faith who would surely be teaching him that the foreigner can have value, and that a woman can have great faith lessons to teach you.

One last thought from Carolyn Custus James that I would like to share with you is this,

Jesus was that kind of newcomer in his day, another outsider to the religious establishment.  His teachings reveal that obedience to God is not a matter of precision (which is what the Pharisees thought), but that the parameter of true obedience are virtually limitless.  We can’t reduce life with God to a checklist of rules to be kept and deadly sins to be avoided. The Sermon on the Mount knocked down the walls that religious living had constructed around God’s law and pointed to a way of living that goes beyond the letter of the law to the spirit.  (James, The Gospel of Ruth pg 102).  

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to constantly be seeking to learn, to grow, and to deepen our understanding of the ways of Jesus and his Upside Down Kingdom.  No matter where we are in our spiritual journey, whether babes of the faith or mature believers, there is still always more for each of us to learn and so many ways to grow to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth.

Ruth gleaned courage to go out and find a way to provide for Naomi in a society where she was guaranteed to fail, but she trusted in the God of Israel to lead her.

Boaz gleaned courage to stand up for what was right and not let the expectations of society stop him from embracing the spirit of God’s gleaning laws in order to help Ruth and Naomi find provision for their needs despite whatever the consequences to his reputation might be. 

                What is God currently calling you to learn in your life, and who in your life might he be using to teach you this?  What are they challenging you to rethink or expand on? What laws are we merely observing that we are being called to embrace the spirit of instead?

How will you glean courage today?

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