8 November 2009
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 27B (RCL)
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
The book of Ruth is such a winning story. It’s among everyone’s favorites. When Ruth tells Naomi, “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die, and there be buried. The Lord do thus to me and more besideds if aught buth death separates me from you” is one of the most charming passages in literature anywhere. But the book is a sharp critique of the status quo delivered as a gentle joke. In Ezra 9 and 10, Ezra and the leading men who have returned from the Exile decide that Israel has yet again failed in its holiness by allowing the men to marry foreign women — Moabites, Jebusites, Perrizites and the whole laundry list. These are the men who have stayed behind in Judah during the exile — who else were they supposed to marry, one wonders? In any event, Ezra and the leading men decide that the foreign women must be sent packing. Imagine what would have happened to them. They would have ended up back in their fathers’ houses (if they were lucky), gleaning grain in other men’s field. Oh wait, just like Ruth!
Ruth is a Moabite woman, one of the women Ezra would have sent packing (if this fictional story were taking place in Ezra’s time). Instead, she evinces more faith to the God of Israel than many of the faithful men around. When she and Naomi get back to Bethlehem, she gleans in Boaz’s field. Boaz tells his harvesters to leave plenty for her to glean (marking him as a righteous man) and tells them not to molest her — which they could have done with impunity, since she is an unprotected woman. Naomi realizes that Boaz is a good guy, and tells Ruth to bathe, put on her best dress and go out to threshing floor. There, the men will be partying in thanksgiving for the harvest. When Boaz is good and drunk, says Naomi, go uncover his feet (a euhpemism for genitals), and he will tell you what to do. You think? In the bit we leave out, he sends her home with an apron full of grain (seed) just in case we missed the joke. He marries her, and she becomes the great-grandmother of King David, an unclean Moabite woman.
In the Gospel, we have another widow. The Scribes eat up widows’ houses. The scribes would have written out judgments for or against widows, bills of sale, whatever else one needed. Boaz could have eaten up Naomi’s house, by refusing to raise progeny for Ruth’s dead husband. Instead, righteous man that he is, he lets her children inherit Elimelech’s land. These scribes evidently found ways to take over open property. And then, one of these widows puts two half-pennies in the temple collection. In the very next passage, Jesus will speak the Temple word (not one stone will be left on stone). Her giving is futile, and yet Jesus praises her. He too is about to give his life.
Are we being called to give our lives to a failing institution? One thinks of the people on fixed incomes giving way more than they can afford to some remote televangelist. The temple was supposed to take care of widows, not eat them up. Yet, the woman sees God in her act. She’s crazy, she trusts God beyond any evidence. Is it so with those who contribute to the con artists? If the community behaved the way it ought to (leaving grain for widows to glean, protecting them and their children), her act wouldn’t be crazy. This is more about trust than it is about giving. And an indictment of institutions (even the church) that fail in their purpose. They aren’t worthy of the gift, yet the widow gives any way. Hmmm.