As part of our Advent sermon series at Redeemer East Harlem, I had the chance to preach a sermon on the Book of Ruth. In returning to this beautiful story, I was struck by a number of things that I hadn’t fully appreciated before.
The Gleaning Laws
First, I had never fully appreciated the central role the gleaning laws play in knitting together the entire narrative. The gleaning laws, found in Leviticus 19:9, Leviticus 22:23, and Deuteronomy 24:19-22, state that when Israel goes to harvest their fields, they are not permitted to reap all the way to the edges. Instead they must leave the margins of their fields untouched so that the poor and the foreigner can glean food from what remains. They also are not permitted to go back over their field a second time to gather anything that may have been left behind.
It is a remarkable law for several reasons. First, it makes providing for the poor a legal issue, not a benevolence issue. It was a moral issue that could not be made subject to the whim of a landowner’s generous feelings. To maximize one's own profits in the field was, in essence, to steal food out of the mouths of the poor. Second, the gleaning laws provided more than just charity for the poor. It provided the dignity of work. The command in Israel was not to maximize profits and then give generously out of one's surplus. No, the command was to leave profits in the field in order to extend to the poor the dignity of honest work. Third, and most relevant to the story of Ruth, the gleaning laws created social space where the lives of the poor, the working class, and landowners were brought together.
We see this in Ruth 2 where Boaz greets his reapers and learns that Ruth the Moabite had been coming in behind them to glean what was left behind. He then tells Ruth not to glean behind his harvesters, but instead to harvest alongside them and to glean directly from the sheaves that they have bundled together. He goes on to invite her to partake of the food and drink provided for his workers and even to break bread with him. The gleaning laws not only mandated that the needs of the poor be met. They not only provided the dignity of work to the poor. They effectively reweaved the poor back into the community at large. They made it impossible for poverty to be isolated and concentrated. After all, this reweaving meant not only partaking of the bread that was shared at the table. It also meant partaking in the fellowship, the opportunities, the information, the skills, and the social trust that was also shared at those tables.
The Formation of Boaz
This leads to the second thing I hadn’t noticed before – Boaz. On the one hand, Boaz, of course, stands out in this narrative as a man of righteousness. It is worth noting that righteousness in the Bible is best understood in social terms. We tend to think of righteousness in terms of individual ethics or private morality. But in the Bible, righteousness is nearly always social. It is used to refer to someone who can be counted on to do right by his or her neighbor. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke famously put it, a righteous person is someone who is willing to disadvantage themselves in order to advantage the entire community. Boaz demonstrates this righteousness in his observance of the gleaning laws, his invitation to Ruth to work essentially as a member of his household, and in his willingness to pay the cost to serve as Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. All of this is fairly obvious.
What I hadn’t wondered about before was how Boaz came to be the kind of person who could be so attentive and responsive to the needs of the vulnerable. What or who was responsible for his moral and spiritual formation to be the kind of person who could be so instinctively attentive and responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable? We find the answer to that question in Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew. Boaz’s mother was none other than Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute from Jericho.1 Think about that for a second. Boaz, as a young boy, was formed by a mother who knew exactly what it was like to be despised, rejected, marginalized, and vulnerable. And he was raised by a mother who also knew what it was like to be redeemed, forgiven, embraced, and completely transformed by the undeserved kindness of God. Boaz was able to safely hold on to wealth and status and power because he had been formed deeply by the love of someone from the margins. Genuine righteousness is forged far more by the company we keep than by the laws we keep.
The Book of Ruth
Yet as intriguing as Boaz is, it is important to note that the book is not called the Book of Boaz. It is called the Book of Ruth. It is named not for the wealthy, Israelite man; it is named for a poor, Moabite woman. And this led to a third observation that I had not fully appreciated before: the vast majority of the Bible is written not from the perspective of those at the centers of power but of those on the margins of power. Outside of the psalms of David and the wisdom literature of Solomon, every book of the Bible is written from below. It is the collected literature of an enslaved people. It was written by emancipators and exiles, the occupied and the subjugated, the prophets and poets of suffering. Even its kings and soldiers were the leaders of a tiny nation, dwarfed by the world’s great empires that surrounded it. The God of the Bible isn’t the god of the pharaohs; he is the God of the Exodus. He isn’t god of the empire; he is the God of the exiles. He isn’t the god of kings, warriors and philosophers. He is the God of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the immigrant. And this isn’t just limited to the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament was written during a time when Israel was buckling under the oppressive weight of Roman occupation. The writers of the New Testament wrote as exiles and sojourners to exiles and sojourners. They wrote missives of a diasporic community. What is more, as Esau McCaulley insightfully points out, the person who penned the largest percentage of the New Testament was Luke, a Gentile convert, an outsider to the promises of faith, grafted into Israel by faith in Jesus the Messiah.2
The Christian Bible is unique in that it is Holy Scripture comprised almost entirely of the literature of the crushed and the broken-hearted. Practically, this means that if we want to see the world the way God sees it, we don’t look over the shoulders of the rich, the powerful, and the influential. The view from above, paradoxically, is not the viewpoint of God. A truly biblical worldview is one in which we see the world the way God sees it by looking over the shoulder of the poor, the despised, and the oppressed. It is the view from below. The Book of Ruth does not tell a story where the righteous, wealthy, Israelite insider is the hero. On the contrary, it tells a story where the hero is Ruth, a poor, Moabite woman, a disdained outsider.
The Song of Mary
And during this Advent season, I can’t help but think of the lullaby that was sung to the One who was born in Bethlehem as the true and better outsider. The one who left the safety of heaven and came to a people who would despise and reject him, who would not only threaten harm, but would kill him. The true self-sacrificing outsider who clung to us and promised that he would never leave nor forsake us, that not even death would not separate us from his love. And if Ruth introduces us to a righteous kinsman-redeemer shaped deeply by the love of a mother in Bethlehem, in Advent we hear to a song sung by another poor mother to her son, the one who would grow to be the one true Righteous One, the Great Redeemer, Jesus Christ:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
1 Thanks to my friend Jon Dennis, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, for this beautiful insight.
2 Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black, 75.