The Third Act Twist (Ruth 4)

The story of Naomi is almost finished. In Chapter 1 she came home from exile angry, wondering if God was on her side. In Chapter 2 she learned that God had been on her side the whole time. In Chapter 3 she learned that God does not need her help. She finally came to true repentance and rest, trusting that God is going to finish her story the right way.

But for us, as the readers, the tension is still on. Yes, whatever happens, Noami is going to be taken care of. But really we are worried about Ruth now! She has given up so much already in order to be faithful to her covenant with Naomi! And last week, we thought, “Oh, good, Boaz is going to marry her and she is finally going to be rewarded for all her faithfulness!” and then —

Oh no! There’s another guy in the way!

It’s great that Naomi is getting some peace and rest now, but what about us?

Well, Naomi’s very last words to Ruth were, “Let’s relax. Boaz is not going to rest today until he has sorted this problem out.”

So…let’s catch up to Boaz, and see what he is going to do.

In verse one we discover that Naomi is right: Boaz does not rest. He goes straight back to town and sits down in the gateway to wait for the other guardian-redeemer to pass through on the way to work.

This was a good idea because in those days, the town gate was the meeting place and the courthouse for the whole town. I’m sure we have all seen the al-Famosa gate in Melaka? The gate of Bethlehem would have been something like that: a cool, covered archway through the wall, a good place to conduct business and to hold court cases.

But he doesn’t have to wait long. He sits down “just as the guardian redeemer” passes through.

— which, again, is the writer’s way of saying, “It was by ‘chance’, but it wasn’t really by chance. God is at work here!”

So Boaz says, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So the man does.

But actually, in the original Hebrew, Boaz doesn’t say “my friend.” He says, “Hey, what’s-your-face!”

Now, Boaz probably called the man by his real name. But the writer wrote down “what’s-your-face,” leaving out the man’s real name. Which raises the question: why?

We will come back to that later.

Then Boaz grabs ten elders of Bethlehem as they are on the way out to go to work, and he has them sit down to witness what is about to happen. Remember, Boaz is a righteous dude. He is going to make sure everything happens perfectly legally.

Then he says to the guardian-redeemer, “So, FYI, Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek.”

And he basically goes on to say, “Do you want it, or not? You are first in line to benefit from this financial investment. But if you don’t want it, I want it.”

And at this point we all say, “What? I thought this was about marrying Ruth?”

Well, this is about marrying Ruth, as we are going to see. But, even though Boaz is a righteous dude, he is being what the New Testament would call “wise as a serpent.” And we will see why in a moment.

But what is this about Naomi having land?

Well, if you recall from Chapter 3 we discussed how Elimelek’s land got passed on to his sons when he died. But when the sons died without children, then basically Naomi and Ruth, the widows, became the holders of the land.

Notice that I said they became “holders” of the land. In ancient Israel, a widow could not inherit her husband’s land. If a man died without children, one of his brothers got the land and married his widow. God’s law obligated him to marry the widow and try to give her a son. That son would grow up to inherit the dead brother’s land. This would ensure that the family line did not die out and become cursed. But if that man had no brothers, then one of his uncles would inherit the land and the widow; and if no uncles then one of the cousins, and so on down the line.

So Naomi is not actually selling the land because she doesn’t actually own it. I know this verse says “selling”, but that is because English doesn’t have a word to describe what exactly is going on here. Basically — according to Boaz — Naomi is advertising for the the next relative in line to come and inherit her husband’s land, and marry her, and give her a child.

But as we already know, Naomi is getting old. Her chances of having a child are quite small. Which means that this cousin would get the land and the widow, and most likely when the widow dies he will just get to keep the land!

Boaz is basically telling his relative, “Look, you are next in line to inherit our cousin’s land and his widow. But she is quite old already, as you know, which means that the only real financial cost to you is that you have to feed his widow for a few years until she dies.”

And that is a really good deal! After all, how much can one old lady eat?

It’s basically free land!

So the guardian-redeemer says, “Gee, let me think…! I will redeem it.”

Now, let me pause here for a second to explain something. Some people have wondered how Boaz knew that Naomi was ready to hand over the land. Did he have a chat with her before going to the gate? Not likely: there wasn’t enough time, he has gone straight from the threshing floor to the gate to catch the people going out to work early in the morning.

So how did Boaz know Naomi was ready to do this?

Well, he knew because of Ruth’s marriage proposal. In that culture, as we have just discussed, women and land go together. When you marry the woman, you get the land. When you inherit the land, you get the woman. That’s how the system worked. That is how God made sure that women would be valued and cared for in that society. And it worked well for the most part.

But anyway, back to the story:

[5] Then Boaz said, “…Oh, by the way, on the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”

And this is where we discover just how very clever Boaz has been.

At first he made the deal sound incredible: you get the land and, in return, all you have to do is marry and feed one old lady.

But now Boaz introduces a young woman into the mix. A woman who is far more likely to get pregnant and have a son who will grow up to inherit the land.

Suddenly this is not such a good deal. Because if the cousin takes the land and marries Ruth, most likely he will end up having to feed not just Naomi, but also Ruth and the bunch of kids that she is likely to have. And in the end, after all that expense, he’ll have to hand over the land — for free — to Ruth’s oldest son. Suddenly there is no profit at all!

So, [6] At this, the guardian-redeemer says, “Mmmmmm…I’m gonna have to pass on this one. Boaz, you go for it, man!”

Ahhhhh…and now we can relax. Ruth is going to marry Boaz. Everything is going to be okay.

But now we’re a little angry at the writer, yeah? Why did he keep us in suspense with the whole land thing? Why didn’t Boaz just start by saying, “Hey cousin, you don’t want this deal, and here’s why”?

Why did Boaz have to be so clever here?

Well…this is why:

If you remember, last week we discovered that Boaz is not obligated by God’s law to marry Ruth. He is willing to marry Ruth, but only out of compassion for Naomi. Legally he does not have to marry Ruth.

This is also true of the cousin. He does not have to marry Ruth and give her a son. He could just take the land, and Naomi, and in a few years inherit all the profits from the land. It would cost him almost nothing.

So if Boaz had started by saying, “Hey cousin, the land is yours if you want it — but you also have to marry Ruth,” the cousin could have laughed in his face and said, “No I don’t! Thank you very much for the land and the old woman, but the girl is someone else’s problem!”

So Boaz, knowing he could not put any legal pressure on his cousin, decided to use social pressure.

This is how he did it:

Remember how, at the beginning, he sat down and called his cousin over, and called ten elders to stand by as witnesses to a property transaction?

This is the clever bit: Boaz did not need ten witnesses for a property transaction; he only needed one. By calling ten elders he was making it seem as if this was going to be a big deal. Which would attract attention from others who were passing through the gate. Just like a car accident on the highway, right? Everyone slows down to take a look. A crowd gathers.

Then Boaz makes it clear to everyone that he is willing to inherit Elimelek’s land and Elimelek’s widow…but only if the cousin doesn’t want to, of course.

And the cousin falls for it. Not only is this a good financial deal, but it is also an act of compassion for a poor helpless old widow. Who is going to say no to that, especially with all these people watching?

But then Boaz switches widows. He reveales that Ruth is willing to be a surrogate wife and a surrogate mom for Naomi. And even better, she really is the widow of one of the sons —

Now, is the cousin obligated to marry Ruth? No. But in that moment, as he looked around at everyone, he basically realized that if he took the land without the young widow…he would lose a lot of Facebook friends. But, if he took the land with the young widow he could lose a lot of money.

Boaz set the situation up so that, no matter what happened, Naomi would win. If the cousin marries Ruth, Naomi wins. If the cousin does not marry Ruth, Naomi wins.

But as we have already seen the cousin did the calculations in his head and said, “I can’t afford the privilege of being this compassionate. You go ahead, Boaz.”

And that is when we all breathed a sigh of relief.

At this point, the writer explains that, during the days when the Judges ruled, people used to sign contracts by passing over a sandal. So the guardian-redeemer passes over his sandal as a way of saying, “I am passing my rights to the land to you.”

[9] Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people — 

— because there is a crowd there, watching! —

“Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. [10] I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”

And Boaz’s announcement is significant because the names of the two sons, Kilion and Mahlon, have not been mentioned since the very beginning. They were dead, and their names were dead; their names were under a curse.

But now, because of Boaz’s compassion, their names live again. The curse is being lifted from the family.

[11] Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses.

And then they speak this blessing upon the marriage: “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem.

Boaz is taking a risk. He is an older man, so he probably has other sons from another marriage. But if his sons die for some reason, and if Boaz only has one child with Ruth, that child could grow up to inherit both Elimelek’s land and Boaz’s land. In other words, Elimelek’s name will continue, but Boaz’s name will pass away.

So the elders are praying for two things: first, they are praying that Ruth will have many children, just like Rachel and Leah, who were the mothers of the whole nation of Israel. Second, they are praying that Boaz will have a long-lasting name, a famous name, as a mark of God’s blessing upon his family.

And then they say, [12] “Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

Tamar was the mother of their tribe, the tribe of Judah. And she had been a foreigner, a foreign woman. So there is actually more to this blessing than just a prayer that Ruth will give birth to a powerful family, a powerful tribe. The elders and the people are officially recognizing that Ruth is one of them now, one of God’s covenant people, just like Tamar was.

So Boaz marries Ruth, the Lord enables her to conceive — which suggests that the Lord kept her from conceiving in her first marriage. Mahlon married a pagan woman, so God judged him for that by not allowing them to have kids.

But now Ruth is no longer a pagan, she is in fact one of the finest living examples of what true covenant love looks like. So God gives her a son, and when the son is born, the women of Bethlehem carry him over to Naomi’s house and announce his birth: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! [15] He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

Naomi is over-flowing with messiahs. Ruth has been her messiah. Boaz has been her messiah. And now this baby is her messiah, her guardian-redeemer. He is going to inherit Elimelek’s land — lifting the curse from Naomi’s family — and he will soon be strong enough to do the hard work of planting and harvesting and taking care of Naomi as a son should.

And what we are seeing here is that Naomi, who came home empty, is now full again. And she is full in every way. And this is important for us to notice:

The Book of Ruth began with God’s curse falling upon a disobedient family, and here it ends with God’s curse being lifted from that family. That is the deeper foundational story that has been running through the book like a backbone.

But running on top of that deeper story has been this personal story about a woman who has lost everything that makes life worth living. And while in some ways the most important problem to resolve has been the problem of that curse on the souls of Naomi’s family…she has also needed food. She has needed companionship. She has needed a reason to live.

And God knew this. He knows this about us: saving our souls in the afterlife is really important, but giving us joy, today, in this life, is also really important.

And so here we are seeing both of these storylines resolved in the same moment: God is providing for Naomi’s spiritual needs and her emotional/physical/psychological needs.

So [16] Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. [17] The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!”

And there is a poetic symmetry here, because a year ago, when Naomi first came home to Bethlehem, it was the women who said, “Can this be Naomi?” The women’s question then was like the official recognition of God’s curse upon Naomi.

But the women’s announcement here is like the official recognition of God’s blessing.

And they named him Obed.

Which means “worker,” because that is what he is going to do: he is going to grow up to work in order to redeem Naomi and to redeem her husband’s land.

And now, this is the writer’s mic-drop at the end of the story: Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

And the original readers, if they didn’t already know the story, would have said, “No way! Ruth is the great-grandmother of our greatest king?”

And they would have realized that the elders’ blessing was really a prophecy: just like Rachel and Leah, just like Tamar, Ruth really did give birth to a great family, the greatest family in all of Israel!

And to reinforce this point, the writer ends with a geneology:

[18] This, then, is the family line of Perez : Perez was the father of Hezron, [19] Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, [20] Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, [21] Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, [22] Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

Just like all ancient geneologies, the writer has carefully crafted this one, leaving out certain names and including others in order to send a particular message.

First, the number of names is important: there are ten names on this list. Ten names told readers, “This is a royal family line.” Jacob prophesied that Judah would give birth to kings, and here is the fulfillment of that ancient prophecy.

Second, the structure is important. There are five names from the time of Judah to the time of Moses — from Perez to Nahshon. Nahshon was the chief elder of the tribe of Judah during the Exodus. Then there are five names from the time of Moses to the time of David — from Salmon to David. And this means nothing to us — until we remember that most of the years from Judah to Moses were spent in slavery to Egypt; and most of the years from Moses to David were spent in the Book of Judges. So this structure told readers, “Do you see how God was in perfect control preserving David’s family line even through the darkest centuries of our history?”

Third, the names are important. Perez’s mother, Tamar, was a foreigner who seduced her own father-in-law. Salmon’s wife, Rahab, was a foreigner who had a career as a prostitute before she got married. Boaz’s wife, Ruth: also a foreigner. By including these particular men, the writer was telling his original readers, “Our greatest king, David, is a king for all nations, all people.” This geneology — really, the whole Book of Ruth — is a prophecy, a preview, of the messiah’s kingdom to come, which will draw in people from all nations.

Now, when the writer wrote this he did not know how that kingdom was going to happen; he just knew that it was going to happen through David’s family.

But we know how it happened. We know that after the baby Obed was born as a messiah in Bethlehem, one thousand years later another baby was born as a messiah in Bethlehem, a baby who would grow up to become the Messiah, the Guardian-Redeemer for the whole world: Jesus, the son of David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth.

Okay, then.

So, what does all this mean to us? This is very ancient literature. How is this supposed to touch our lives and transform us?

Well, the writer has led us on a journey with Naomi: from rebellion to angry repentance, from angry repentance to recognition that God really does care, from recognition to full repentance and rest, and then from repentance to full restoration. And the writer has been careful to make two foundational points.

First, God is always at work to redeem his covenant people — spiritually and physically — even when it does not look like it.

Second, God always redeems his covenant people by sending them messiahs — redeemers — from among his own covenant people.

And there is a very practical conclusion we can draw from these two points. If God is always at work to redeem us, and he always redeems us through messiahs that he sends to save us — then we cannot be our own messiah.

We cannot be our own messiah, but we can be the messiah for someone else.

And the writer has made this clear by giving us several contrasting examples of people: some who tried to be their own messiah, and others who were willing to be someone else’s messiah.

The writer compared Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, with Boaz. Both were well-respected men, from a well-respected clan. Elimelek used his wealth to try and save himself — and fell under a curse. His name disappeared (for a while). But Boaz used his wealth to save others — and God blessed him by making him the redeemer of Elimelek’s name, and the redeemer of King David’s line.

The writer compared Orpah with Ruth. Both were pagan young women, both were widows in need of husbands. Orpah made the smart choice and returned to her people. She saved herself physically — but her name has disappeared from history. We don’t know what became of her. But Ruth gave up all hope of a future husband for the sake of someone else — and God blessed her by giving her a husband anyway, and making her the great-grandmother of ancient Israel’s greatest king.

And last, the writer compared the guardian-redeemer — the cousin — with Boaz. Both were well-respected men, from a well-respected clan. The cousin turned down Naomi’s offer in order to preserve his own wealth and his own family name — and ironically, here we are three thousand years later, and we don’t know his name. The writer deliberately called him “what’s-his-face” in order to make this point: if you spend your time trying to save yourself, to save your own name, your own reputation, your own property, you will lose everything. But by contrast, Boaz trusted God with his property, his name, and as result here we are, three thousand years later, talking about him by name!

So, practically speaking then, what are we supposed to believe and do because of these concepts?

Well, believe this: sometimes we are like Elimelek or Naomi. Sometimes we are like Ruth or Boaz. And what we are called to do is different depending on our situation.

Sometimes we are like Naomi: struggling to repent, struggling to believe, out of money, out of resources, out of hope. When that happens, remember this: you cannot be your own messiah. You need someone else to lift you up. If you are not a Christian, you need Jesus to come and lead you, carry you, into the light. If you are a Christian…you still need Jesus!

So if you are here today, and you are like Elimelek or Naomi — if you are worn out, despairing of hope — then do this: pray and ask for Jesus to come and carry you home. And whether you are a Christian or not, he will hear you and he will answer. That is the gospel.

And after you have prayed that prayer: pay attention. Because when Jesus answers those prayers, 99% of the time he sends a person. He sends a messiah, one of his covenant people, to save you, to help you, to carry you, to teach you how to walk in faith. Sure, sometimes God sends a dream, sometimes he sends a vision, sometimes he sends a miracle, but that is actually very rare. God prefers to let ordinary people do his work of redemption.

So this is first main lesson of the Book of Ruth: God works through his people to redeem his people. So when you are Naomi, pray, and then be on the lookout for God’s people to come and help you.

And this leads us to the second main lesson of the Book of Ruth. The first lesson is that God works through his people to redeem his people, so when you are in trouble, look to God’s people for help. The second main lesson is that God works through his people to redeem his people — and we are those people who are called to help.

Sometimes we are helpless like Naomi. But sometimes we are like Ruth or Boaz. Sometimes our faith is strong, our bank account is full, our bodies are healthy. When that happens, remember this: you are called to be someone else’s messiah. Someone else out there needs you to lift them up and bring them into the light: perhaps physically, perhaps spiritually, often a mix of both.

So if you are here today, and you are like Ruth or Boaz — if you are strong, determined, stable — then do this: pray and ask Jesus to reveal to you someone who needs your help.

And after you have prayed that prayer: pay attention. Jesus will bring someone to your notice. Because our world is full of God’s covenant people who are in trouble. Our world is also full of people who are not yet God’s covenant people, but they are going to be because of what you do for them.

And this leads us to the third main lesson of the Book of Ruth. The first main lesson is that God works through his people to redeem his people, so when you are in trouble, look to God’s people for help. The second main lesson is that God works through his people to redeem his people — and we are those people who are called to help.

The third main lesson is this: significance comes from service. We don’t how our actions are going to affect history, but we do know that whatever we do to serve another is going to be remembered for eternity. The cousin was only concerned to preserve the wealth and reputation of his family…and he remains nameless. Boaz was only concerned to have compassion on Ruth and Naomi and Elimelek; he risked his wealth and the reputation of his family — and he became the great-grandfather of a king.

So, practically speaking, this means that if you want to make a difference in this world, then be on the lookout for people to serve. If you want to be significant, then do the small, slow, humble works of compassion that God puts in your path.

And I am going to warn you, brothers and sisters, of something that you already know: our world is 180 degrees opposed to this kind of thinking. Our world says that if you want to be significant, if you want to make a difference, you’ve got to be famous, you’ve got to be talented, you’ve got to be promoted into positions of power. And we know that many churches, many Christians, have caught this fever also. We often think, “Oh, if only this or that celebrity would become a Christian, then the world would see that Christians are cool too!” Or, “If only we could get a Christian song on the secular radio…”

And the reason this is happening is because our modern age is obsessed with significance, the desire to be recognized, the desire to be known. This is, in part, an effect of social media, where videos can go viral and ordinary people can become famous overnight for no apparent reason. And as a result, there is this ever increasing pressure — especially on young people — to be somebody, to be special somehow. That is one of the reasons that western cultures have now identified 63 different genders: more and more people don’t want to be just an ordinary boy or an ordinary girl anymore. We are all looking for a new way to be special and different. And as a result, discontent with ordinary life is sky-rocketing. More and more of us who are living perfectly healthy and ordinary lives are falling into despair because we are not achieving what the world says we must achieve in order to be fully actualized.

The irony about all this is that the real reason people want to be different is so they will be noticed. And the reason they want to be noticed is so they will be accepted into a group where they can finally be the same as everyone else.

We long for significance ultimately because we long to be accepted.

We want to belong.

This phenomenon is reaching a fever pitch in our late modern societies. But it is not new. Every generation has wrestled with this longing. In fact, C.S.Lewis, the Cambridge scholar, came up with a name for it. He called it The Inconsolable Secret. He describes it as a longing for acceptance, and he says that it comes to us most strongly, “just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends or as the landscape loses the celestial light…Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance…The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”

Like Naomi, we all live with an inconsolable secret burning inside of us. We all secretly know that we were made for something more than just suffering and failing. And something even more horrible happens to us when we become successful, because then we discover that we were actually made for something more than just success! This is why rich and famous people kill themselves: because they have reached the top and discovered that the secret remains unconsoled; they are significant, as the world measures significance — but still they have this haunting sense that they do not really belong.

Our Father is telling us, through this little story about two widows, that significance and belonging comes through service. We cannot make ourselves belong, but by serving someone else we can help them belong. By serving others instead of ourselves, we act in faith that God will send someone to serve us, and help us belong. By serving others instead of ourselves, we act in faith that God will give our actions eternal significance.

In conclusion then: we all, like Naomi, live with this inconsolable secret: we know that we don’t deserve to belong, and yet this is the thing we long for more than anything else.

So let’s finish the Book of Ruth with this promise: no matter how insignificant we seem to ourselves — no matter how successful we seem to ourselves! — God has sent us a Messiah. He is the one, the only one, who can accept us, welcome us, and take us into the dance. Christ, by serving us, has brought us into God’s covenant people. In Christ, we belong. In Christ, everything we do has significance.

So, in closing then, let’s do this: since we have such great Messiah, who lived and died to redeem us, let us covenant with one another, just as Ruth did with Naomi, to live and die to redeem those around us who are in need. Let’s commit to being ordinary faithful Christians doing ordinary faithful things. And let’s leave our future significance to God.

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