Naomi, Ruth & Boaz
March 31, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Ruth is the great grandmother of King David. Jesus is her great-great-great…grandson. She’s a Moabite. She refuses to leave Naomi’s side – even though life has broken Naomi – whose name means pleasant – so much she changes her name to Mara, which means bitter. Even though when Ruth arrives in Bethlehem she is immediately shunned by all of Naomi’s friends. Even though survival meant following the harvesters in the fields to try to collect what little they left behind.
One summer, when I was in ninth grade, my mother, father and I traveled to southern Illinois to help my grandfather get his farm ready to sell. It was brutally hot. Conditions were primitive (nobody had lived at the farm for years) and my father and grandfather got into a brutal fight over how to repair a porch. Shortly after my grandfather had disowned my father, we received news my mother’s great uncle had died in not so nearby Champaign Urbana. Glory halleluiah, my mom declared, and packed my father and I off to the welcome embrace of the Parkers, my maternal grandmother’s extensive clan. There, greeted more like prodigal children than refugees from dysfunction, we mourned a man we’d never met, ate food loving prepared by people who didn’t know us and were dotted over by aunts and cousins so distant we could have married them. To this day, if my car broke down in Champaign Urbana Illinois and I identified myself as a Parker, I would probably find a welcome reception.
Blood, they say, is thicker than water. The relationships between family and clan are among the most elemental across human history. God, after all, calls Abraham and promises him a great family – a family who would be tied not only to their patriarch but also to their patriarch’s god. Torah law puts family at the center of the social safety net – when government fail, when communities fail, when religion fails, what’s left is family.
In popular imagination Ruth’s story can be interpreted as a love story. Ruth’s promise to Naomi – where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; your God my God – has been weaved into marriage proposals and read at weddings. Sunday School books portray Ruth and Boaz as a couple in love. They may have been – but their courtship has more to do with family obligation than romantic intent.
In the ancient Near East women gained all their status, security and legal rights through their connection with a man – first their father, then their husband and finally their sons. Should those connections fail, women had to rely on more tenacious relationships. The brother of the deceased might marry his widow. Uncles might offer protection. Orpha, Ruth’s sister-in-law, probably goes home to her father, a brother or an uncle. Ruth’s extreme loyalty to her mother-in-law may have been aided by having no other place to go.
Boaz, we’re told, is Naomi’s kinsman, a relative of her husband. As a male relative, Jewish law obligates him to care for any vulnerable members of his clan. Now, as Naomi’s a distant relation, no one would blame Boaz for simply ignoring her and her plight. After all, he has many responsibilities and probably many other dependents. Yet when he finds out Ruth’s connection to his kinswoman, he puts her under his protection and ensures the two women have enough food. By later marrying Ruth, he makes his protection of Ruth – and by extension Naomi – permanent. Boaz may have been in love but, most importantly, he was loyal to his family.
My father and grandfather eventually put the epic fight over the porch behind them. I remember it taking a while. Both could hold a grudge and neither were very good at communicating, but my grandfather’s health began to fail, my grandmother had even greater problems and the construction of a porch neither would walk upon seemed less important by the hour. Family remains family, until it doesn’t.
I wonder if Ruth followed Naomi because extreme poverty in a strange land with someone who cared for you and whom you cared for was better than supposed security with her own family. Families love, cherish and protect. They also abuse, wound and victimize. Love is the flip side of hate; betrayal the flip side of protection; banishment the flip side of grace. Addiction, mental illness, anger and the other interpersonal demons all affect family first. Families can be as judgmental as they are forgiving. Distance, at times, can be healing. Distance, at times, is necessary for survival. Yet it hurts.
My mother’s mother was the pro at keeping family together. Phone calls, letters, Christmas cards, visits. She’d been one of twelve children, her mother had been one of twelve children and she kept in touch with almost all of them – even the great nephew who’d been disowned by his parents after becoming a Moonie. He may have abandoned his good Methodist upbringing and joined a cult, he may have married the bride he’d been assigned by the cult leaders, he may have been seriously weird – like don’t let him near your children weird – but he was family.
Family. The most basic of all relationships. At times the hardest of all relationships. Strong families can be one of life’s greatest blessings. Broken families can cause the most pain. Most of our families live somewhere between strong and broken. We’re left to navigate them with a combination of prayer and grace, wisdom and wariness. Sometimes like Ruth we must close the door on one chapter of family in order to find healing, security and a new life with another. Sometimes like Boaz we’re called to put loyalty to family above all else. Yet even when prudence calls us to shut doors and create distance, we should remain open hearted, seek reconciliation when possible, and hold each other in our prayers.