Delivered at Ames UCC on August 5, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Sometimes I get into conversations with people who aren’t religious who want me to offer proof of God or with people who are religious who want me to defend my concept of God. Often, I’ll talk about love. When I do, sometimes I get eye-rolls or accusations of making God weak. Why do we need a religion to practice love? Doesn’t calling God love deny God’s true power over us?
I don’t understand either response.
I don’t understand because nothing takes more focused, collective preparation than living into the love of God. And nothing, not any of the Biblical tantrums or pouts attributed to God, asks more from of us than God’s love.
Just look at the book of Ruth.
The book of Ruth offers a depiction of love which, in our tradition, is paralleled only by that of Jesus. It is a kind of divine love known as hesed. That’s the Hebrew writing on the cover of your bulletin. Hesed is hard to define, but you will see some attempts listed there, too: loving-kindness, so a love that takes a kindly form. Long-acting love, a love with long-term repercussions. Steadfast love, a love unmoved by time. Devotion: a love with a worshipful quality. Covenantal devotion: Love that is worshipful and relational at the same time. A love the will not let you go, no matter how hard you try. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment (to other people) that go beyond the bounds of law or duty.”1Hesed is to manifest God in the world between people.
The moment on the threshing floor that we just saw in light and shadow is considered the ultimate expression of hesed, of divine commitment, humanly expressed.
How is that possible? How is this story of sexual trickery a story of divine love?
It begins between the women. In her widowhood and childlessness, Naomi has nowhere to go but back to her homeland. Ruth has a choice. Ruth may be better off in Moab, where the language, customs, and religion are her own. Instead, Ruth chooses Naomi as once she had chosen Naomi’s son. She extends the vows she once shared with her husband to her husband’s mother. Ruth chooses the love that lasts longer than death when she says
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
That is covenantal devotion. That is Ruth’s insistence on remaining as present with Naomi as Naomi’s God is with them both.
It is no surprise, then, when on their arrival Ruth also takes on the work of gleaning for their keep. Ruth may be a stranger in a strange land, but she has a mother to feed. And while she does, Naomi is working out how to feed them for good. Fortunately, there’s a land law Naomi can leverage.
Legally, Naomi is entitled to find a member of her husband’s family to buy land she has inherited from her husband. Not only buy it, but then let Naomi work the land, and some day buy it back. There’s no benefit, no profit to the person who would be her kinsman-redeemer. He is out cash for the purchase and then cannot use the land for his own profit. Yet a kinsman will redeem the land because wealth and profit are not the point. Being a person of manna and mercy is more important than one of money and might.
But what about Ruth?
The two women might be able to work the land, but without more family, old age will eventually cause them to fail, and the hunger they feel on their arrival in Bethlehem will come back just as strong.
If Naomi had another son alive, they would be okay, because there is another law that would require him to marry Ruth and to give their first son his brother’s name so that it would not die out. But that son does not exist, and what Bethlehemite would want to marry a Moabite so that her family might live on?
Just as Ruth refused to let Naomi go, Naomi is determined to make sure Ruth herself will never have to go on alone. So Naomi proposes using the one resource all women have, our bodies and sex, to try to secure a future for them both.
Though Naomi’s request is hard, Ruth knows that Naomi’s love is as steadfast as her own, and so she trusts Naomi. What to us may read as shameful is a choice born of their devotion to each other, and the limited options they have in their society and the law.
So Ruth goes to Boaz in the dark of night, when he is tired from work and sated from food and drink. Before he knows what is happening, Ruth initiates sex with Boaz. When it is too late to stop, when the boundary of propriety has been breached, Ruth proposes marriage and land redemption:
Spread your robe over me, make me a bride, shield me as under a wing just as you ask of your God, and then be the kinsman-redeemer for Naomi.
Then the greatest act of hesed: Rather than slap the young widow away, rather than continuing to have sex with her all night then letting her take a walk of shame in the light of day, rather than choosing his pleasure over her dignity, Boaz himself assents.
Be blessed of the Lord, Ruth! Your loyalty to Naomi and our God is great, indeed, for you could have chosen a much younger man. Yes, I will marry you. And yes, I will serve as kinsman-redeemer, though there is another in line in front of me. Be sure to leave when it is still dark, and take with you grain as a promise to Naomi that all that I have said I have also promised.
Though Boaz is within his power and right to reject Ruth’s post-coital marriage and redemption proposal, he does not. Boaz not only does the right thing, he will come to do an extraordinary thing.
And all because of his love of God and God’s love of him. Because of hesed, a kind, devotional, long-acting, covenantal love shown in “loyalty and commitment (to other people) that go beyond the bounds of law or duty.”2
WE NEED HESED NOW
Again, I don’t understand when people, religious or not, reject love as a descriptor of God. Nothing asks more from us than the love of God and the love from God. Yet as the restoration in the final chapter of Ruth will show, no investment, not even in land, will give us as great a return.
In a society as riven by anger, bigotry, and poverty as ours, I can’t think of anything the we need more of today than hesed, sacred love, all it demands: to see foreigners as kin, to share our resources without any expectation of return, to make sure our laws work for everyone. For it is no longer one family that needs restoration. It is thousands. It is thousands of millions. It is a whole world.
1Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Zvi (Eds.). (2004). The Jewish Study Bible (p. 1578). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.