February 26, 2012

Risks of Faith

For two weeks now we have been working our way through the story of Ruth.  Rather than merely telling you about the story, though, we have been looking at the events described in the pages of Scripture through the eyes of the people who experienced them.  Last week we heard from Ruth and got to experience her unpacking her incredible first day gleaning and stumbling upon the field of Boaz.  This morning, we are going to jump forward a few weeks to the end of the barley season to hear some more of the story…

Greetings, friends!  How are you this fine morning?  You all are dressed so nicely.  Is there a festival happening about which I have somehow become unaware?  Surely a gathering of this many obviously wealthy people must be a powerful group.  One can only imagine the kinds of things of which you are capable when you work as a single unit.  Bah…these are just the idle ramblings of a man with far too much time on his hands.  I should get back to work.  After all, this grain won’t sell itself.  I wonder though…if you are traveling in my direction, do you perhaps have a few spare moments for a tale?  It doesn’t seem you have anywhere better to be so I might as well entertain you with the story of the events which have occurred so recently.  I confess that I am still in a mild state of disbelief at the thing which our God has done.  Going over the details once again might help me make sense of the goodness of Yahweh to an old man such as myself.  A tale it is then…but where should I begin?  Well, there is no place worth beginning quite like the beginning so to the beginning we shall go.

This story begins just a few short weeks ago.  Has it only been that long?  Well, the harvest is finished and everything started just as the early grain was starting to show itself so I guess that is correct.  It seems like a lifetime ago…back to the story.  I arrived at my largest field that day about the same time and in about the same fashion as has become my custom.  I always rise early in order that I might spend a few quite moments studying the law and striving to be sure I am living within its spacious bounds.  There are some among the people who consider the law as a tool of restriction.  This is balderdash.  The law is the greatest source of freedom we have as a people.  Its study should be an integral part of the daily pattern of anyone who would count themselves among the people of Yahweh…There I go again.  Friends, will you help me?  My mind is prone to chasing rabbits.  If I follow one again please wave a hand and stop me.

Where was I?…Ah, arriving to the field.  I arrived that morning and greeted the workers.  They are a faithful crew and I sincerely wish that our God would bless them with an abundance of His Spirit.  Once I had made my greetings, I went to check in with the foreman.  He is a kindhearted man.  It is so hard to find men of his caliber these days.  So many seem to prefer to follow their hearts instead of the law.  But this man knows how to walk in the compassion of our God.  There are so many struggling these days.  Why I should have had the great fortune of fortune in this life is beyond me, but I am in no place to keep it for myself.  The more gleaners and poor gatherers I can help the better I say…so does my foreman.  Speaking of gleaners and the like, as he was giving me the morning’s report I saw her.  There was almost a glow about her.  I can’t recall seeing a woman with such elegant and yet mysterious beauty before.  Even though she worked like a beast of burden and was filthy from her labors, the grime of the field seemed to have no effect on her.  If anything, it only served to increase her radiance.  Certainly aware of the conversation taking place between the foreman and me, she kept glancing in our direction with a worried look in her eyes.  Doubtless she was concerned that I would either take advantage of her, given her heritage, or run her off, but I wanted nothing of the sort.  Having heard her tale from the foreman, the feelings of my heart were only good.  A woman of such chesed as this Ruth had shown herself to be toward Elimelech’s widow, Naomi, was worthy of all the blessings she could receive.  I intended to give her another.

I summoned her to appear before me so that I could give her the reassurance she clearly needed.  She came with some obvious trepidation, but her head was held high.  She was sure of herself and was filled with a righteous determination.  I remember thinking then that a woman such as this would make a good, strong wife and mother.  Those thoughts were only reinforced when she was finally standing before me.  She was even more beautiful than I had reasoned from a distance.  I barely kept my wits about me.  And yet, blathering like a love-sick puppy in front of my workers would not do so I held my composure.  I made certain she knew she was welcome in my field.  I even cautioned her against going to any other fields lest she not receive treatment at the level I was prepared to give her.  I also praised her faithful dedication to Naomi.  She didn’t understand how I knew this—a point of confusion I intentionally left in place—but she would once she told Naomi about these events.  She went back to work glowing a bit more than when she had first approached me—if that were even possible.  She had a decided bounce in her step as well.  But I wasn’t finished.  I had to see her again.  When it came time for the day’s meal, I could see that she wasn’t going to stop working.  This wasn’t going to do.  So I went to her and invited her to eat at my table.  You should have seen the looks on the faces of the men I ate with every day.  They sat there in utter disbelief.  How could I offer such an intimate experience to this Moabite widow?  When I personally served her the roasted grain, though, a couple of the men nearly fell off their seats!  I gave them clear instructions as to how they were to frame their behavior toward her.  They thought I was out of my senses, but I didn’t care.  There was just something about this woman; an attractive quality that I couldn’t resist.  Fortunately, by my being able to give her free reign to glean in my fields, I didn’t have to.

Well, things from that point went better than I had hoped.  Ruth was in my fields working each day from sunup to sundown.  She worked harder than many of the men in the field whom I was paying for their labors!  Each day I invited her to dine at my table with me.  Eventually the other men, as they learned more of her character, grew to accept her.  They began to see what I did from the start.  There was only this: she was a widow and still wore her clothes of grieving each day as she worked.  This provided her a small measure of safety from the interests of unscrupulous men, but it kept a distance between her and myself as well.  All the same, the friendship between her and me grew each day.  Although I privately desired more—and I think she might have as well—I never once broached the issue.  Her time of grieving was for her alone to determine its end.  I have been there once before and it was a long road back to sanity.

This all continued for the rest of the harvest season.  By the final day of harvesting we had grown quite close, but there was no movement to the relationship.  I was coming to the point where this was not such an unfortunate situation.  To be able to simply bask in the glow of her loving faithfulness to Naomi as it reflected off that of Yahweh Himself was a blessing for me.  I wondered, though, what Naomi thought about the state of things.  I was one who was legally capable of taking Ruth as my wife, but still she wore her grieving garments.  I would not intrude.  I hoped Naomi would respect her time of mourning as well.

At last came the time of winnowing the barley.  This was a season of late nights for me, but it was good work and I was excited about it.  This had been an especially good year.  Our God had clearly smiled down upon my fields and I would return thanks to Him with my firstfruits gladly.  Each afternoon during the threshing season I went to the threshing floor with the other men and set to work.  We worked hard, but there was always a great meal when we finished for the night.  After finishing, I always slept on the hilltop, next to the grain, lest someone try to steal the fruits of my labor.  I slept the same way each night—wrapped up in my cloak to guard against the cool night winds and with my sword close at hand.  Every night the same thing…except last night.

I’ll never forget last night.  There’s something you should know before I tell you about last night, though.  During the threshing season, there are many farmers who take their grain to one of the hillsides around Bethlehem to winnow.  Everyone knows this happens.  Everyone including some of the women of the night.  It is not an uncommon occurrence for such women to wait until the food and wine are nearly gone and make themselves available to these men who have worked hard and are in good spirits and willing to part with a bit more of their work than they might at other times.  Between you and me, this is a detestable practice.  I have refused many an invitation and developed a well-known reputation for righteousness in these matters.

You can imagine my shock then, when I awoke last night to discover a woman lying beside me.  I work hard enough that I don’t often rouse until first light.  But last night I woke with a start when a stronger breeze blew against my feet and sent shivers up my spine.  I never sleep with my feet uncovered.  I wrap them up tightly as I lay so I will stay warm as I told you just moments ago.  As I reached for my sword in preparation of defending my grain, my arm brushed against something solid, but soft.  The pleasant aroma told me quickly that this was a woman lying beside me and not merely some animal.  Yet what woman would attempt such an obviously foolish thing as this?  Had my reputation in the city changed?  In the past, when I was still in the process of establishing what kind of attention I would tolerate, I politely and firmly refused such advances and sent the women away empty-handed.  But it has been many years since that had happened.  I was prepared then to take things further now so that there were no more questions regarding my distaste for such forays into lawlessness.

With a slight edge to my voice I demanded to know who this woman was.  I wanted her name before I turned her over to the local authorities.  When I heard her voice, though, the momentum I had built fell completely flat.  It was Ruth.  Her beauty was evident even in the dark of that moonlit hilltop.  Last night, though, it was her words that struck me the hardest.  She identified herself, saying, “I am Ruth, your servant.”  This was appropriately humble.  I would have expected no less, but I still could not grasp why she was lying next to me, bathed and perfumed in a manner not unlike the women of the city on one of their hilltop forays, and yet also like a bride prepared for her wedding.  Her next words hit me in the face like a hard slap.  “Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.’  Using the words from the blessing I had spoken over her on the day we met, she was proposing marriage to me.  She was calling me to fulfill my duty—and the desire of my heart—as a family redeemer and take her as my wife.  For a long time I was silent.  My ears were still ringing with her words and I wanted to react to them in a manner appropriate to my feelings.

As I processed, I marveled at the courage it took her to do this thing; to come and sneak to my threshing floor and, uncovering my feet so that I would wake in the night, lie next to me.  I could have had her arrested and charged with infidelity since she had still been wearing her grieving garments only the day before.  I could have taken advantage of her and casually threw her to the side like a piece of trash.  I could have slain her on the spot and claimed to be defending my grain.  Yet she came here with the faith that the character I had displayed during the day was the same character I would display in the middle of the night.  I cannot remember when I have observed such tenacious faith before.  She took a huge risk of faith in hopes of receiving a reward of life, not death.  Consider her story and this becomes ever more incredible.  Her husband died.  Her brother-in-law died.  Her closest friend walked away from her.  She left her home and everything familiar to seek life in a new and foreign land.  Everything in her world had fallen apart and yet she kept looking forward, picking up the pieces, somehow confidant that if she honored Yahweh with risks of faith, He would honor her with life.  That such a woman as this who was raised to hate Yahweh could embrace both Him and His ways and receive the empowerment of His Spirit to such boldness as this suggested to me in a powerful way that He was at work here.  How could I resist His efforts when they were so obviously in line with the desires of my heart?

All of these thoughts swirled in my mind for what seemed like hours yet could not have been more than mere moments.  All the while she looked right at me with those beautiful, determined eyes.  Finally I spoke.  I praised her courage.  I praised her kindness.  I told her that this act of devotion and kindness was much greater than the first one that so drew me to her.  What acts of devotion you ask?  Her devotion to my relative, Naomi.  She left her land and her family and her gods in order to support her mother-in-law.  This when there are some who would rather not have a mother-in-law.  And now, she had chosen to come to me as a husband and hopefully father of the son who will be able to provide for Naomi as she continues to age.  She has developed such a reputation in town that she could have had anyone.  No longer was she derided for her nationality.  Now she was admired for her faithful courage and determination to provide a life for the two of them.  She could have sought younger men much wealthier than myself or perhaps much more physically attractive.  And yet she has made the decision to give her heart to me.  Who am I that I should receive such a gift as this?  Perhaps I finally won her heart not by seeking it, but by simply seeking her.

But there is a problem.  I am not the kinsman redeemer for her.  As she rightly stated I am merely a kinsman redeemer.  The other man knows little of the situation of Ruth and Naomi but the opportunity to lay hold of that which belonged to Elimelech will be sorely tempting.  Perhaps there is some way I can convince him to cede his right to me.  I will not rest until this is settled.  Such courage and faithfulness as Ruth has shown deserves no less.

After telling her all of this, I suggested that she stay on the threshing floor with me for the remainder of the night.  By our God’s good favor the other men had heard neither her arrival nor our conversation.  It wouldn’t do for them to discover her now lest her reputation become suspect.  Yet the road between here and her home is not safe.  It is in fact a small miracle that she made it safely here.  Perhaps Yahweh does indeed guard her steps.  We slept on opposite sides of the grain and both awoke early in the morning.  She wanted to leave before people started moving around in order to preserve both hers and my reputation.  I agreed, but sent with her a small bride price of six generous scoops of grain into her cloak to take back as a blessing to Naomi.  It was a considerable load, but one I’m confident she could bear home.

There is perhaps a lesson in all of this, friends.  Such a risk of faith as Ruth has taken this past night I cannot even fathom and yet she has found life because of it.  Indeed, by reaching and risking in this manner she has shortened considerably the road out of the valley she and Naomi have been walking since they arrived in town from Moab.   Some might look down on such presumption as she has shown, and yet I defy you to show me how Yahweh has not been involved in what has come to pass.  She has taken a risk of faith in hopes of finding life.  Risks of faith such as this, when aimed properly—and to be aimed properly they must be selfless as Ruth’s has been and not selfish in nature—may result in life.  Indeed, it would seem that such risks of faith are rewarded with gifts of life.  Risks of faith are rewarded with gifts of life.  But now, though, I must be getting myself to town.  It is time to sell this grain.  I will need the money from the sale this time.  With luck my family will soon be expanding.  Blessings on your journey.  And remember: risks of faith rewarded with gifts of life.