Scripture Readings: Psalm 127 Ruth 3:1-18, 4:13-17
In the Mayan village where I lived for a year in Guatemala, this is the season when the cornstalks are brown in the fields. Families and neighbors gather the maiz by hand, and they heaping up huge piles of corn on their patios. People gather to shuck them and lay them out to dry in the sun. As they work, there is talking and joking, dreaming and even flirting; the children jump and play in huge piles of cornhusks, not unlike our children play in the leaves. There is a festive spirit, as everyone takes breaks from the labor to share food and drink.
That’s how I imagine the threshing floor in the Book of Ruth, where we come back to the story this morning. Last week we heard how the Moabite widow Ruth clung to her mother-in-law Naomi and vowed “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Arriving in Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter from losing her husband and two sons, but Ruth takes immediate action on her promises, going out into the barley fields to glean. Israel’s covenant with God stipulated that poor folk would be permitted to collect any grain missed by paid harvesters on their first pass through the fields. But it was a hard and risky way to get a meager meal. A young foreign widow in an unknown man’s field was vulnerable to abuse by other field hands, a greedy owner, or even other, competitive gleaners. So it is a blessed turn of events when Ruth, “just happens” to glean in the field of Boaz, a prominent man who is a kinsman of Naomi’s deceased husband. Further, Boaz “just happens” to show up at that very moment. Noticing Ruth, he extends extra protection and favors to her.
Ruth is overcome by his hospitality to a foreign woman; but we find out that he’s heard Ruth’s story, and outsider or not, Boaz recognizes that her words and deeds exemplify life in covenant relationship with God and neighbor. Boaz prays blessing upon Ruth, saying, “May you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Keep Boaz’s words fresh in your mind, for they sow a seed of hope in Naomi, when Ruth reports them. She suddenly remembers that Boaz is not just any kinsman, but one with a specific relationship to her through her deceased husband. He is a “covenant-redeemer,” as Eugene Petersen renders it. The position of covenant-redeemer entails specific responsibilities. If an Israelite family falls on tough times and must sell off land provided to them under the covenant, they might call upon a covenant-redeemer to buy back the land and restore it to them.
But though Boaz has already extended a measure of protection to Ruth, Naomi decides he must be awakened to the fullness of his covenant calling. So we find her offering Ruth some bold advice. “Wash up, put on some fine perfume and your best dress, and head down to the threshing floor. When the party has settled down, and Boaz is headed to sleep, go, uncover his feet and lie down; he’ll tell you what to do next.” Now, this advice seems even bolder when you know that the word “feet” in the Hebrew scriptures is occasionally used as a euphemism for a more private portion of the male anatomy! Nonetheless, Ruth says to Naomi, “All that you’ve said I will do.”
So Ruth goes to the threshing floor. The threshing floor is the place where everything needed to sustain the people for future seasons comes together, not just the basis for bread for future eating, but also the basis of the bread of community relationships. Therefore it’s a prime location to encounter God’s grace in action.
In the story, at the threshing floor, the work of winnowing, separating the grain from the chaff, has become a sort of harvest party. Boaz enjoys the festive mood, eating and drinking, and finally heads off to his pile of grain to sleep. Ruth slips in and continues following Naomi’s instructions. Now, we can speculate all we want on this scene, as if it were a soap opera to gossip about. But that’s the thing about euphemisms—they conceal as much as they reveal. Maybe we should just leave it as Petersen does, telling us that Ruth “lay down to signal her availability for marriage.”
And the truth is, the most important part of the story comes next, when Boaz wakes up, startled to find a woman near him, and Ruth most certainly does not wait for him to tell her what to do, but again takes gusty initiative, telling him what to do and proposing marriage: “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are a covenant-redeemer.”
Now, you should know that Ruth’s choice of words is very careful. The words “spread your cloak” could also be rendered “spread your wing,” which ought to remind us of Boaz’ prayer for Ruth. So, here she is at the threshing floor, boldly claiming the full measure of blessing Boaz had prayed she would receive in coming under the LORD’s wings, and Ruth is claiming that blessing by calling Boaz to uphold his covenant responsibilities and take her under his wing. I think it’s significant, that having prayed for Ruth, Boaz discovers that he himself is the answer to his prayer!
The happy ending of this story comes about because Boaz recognizes and accepts his role as Ruth and Naomi’s covenant-redeemer. He goes straight from the threshing floor to the city gate to tie up the loose ends and certify their marriage.
Coming full circle the story ends with Naomi, who had suffered so much loss, now holding and caring for Ruth’s baby; the women of Bethlehem wondrously affirm that the foreigner daughter-in-law is worth more than seven sons, and we find out the baby Obed will be the great-great-grandfather of King David.
That is the happy ending, but the good news of this story doesn’t stop there. For the God who is at work in this story, behind, in, and through the words and actions of the everyday people seeking their daily livelihood is the same God who is at work, here and now, in us.
In Jesus Christ, we, too, have come under the wing of God’s gracious hospitality, and we have been welcomed into the heart of covenant life becoming people blessed to be a blessing. In Christ, we who were strangers have been adopted into God’s family, and called to extend the very hospitality we have received.
What does that hospitality look like? Sometimes it looks the way we might expect, when we have the chance to offer food or shelter to a stranger. But other times it might look like the hospitality Ruth gave Naomi—with nothing but her own presence to offer, she refused to leave Naomi’s side. Maybe it looks like Ruth’s bold faithfulness inspiring Boaz to step up his own generosity and compassion.
Or maybe it looks like Boaz’s hospitality, as he offered protection and prayer for Ruth, later discovering he had the calling and ability to be her blessing. Whatever form it takes, under God’s wings, each of us is called and empowered to offer the peace of Christ to neighbors near and far.
And the mystery of hospitality is how inextricably connected we are to one another, as we are transformed from stranger to guest to host, whether we’re in our own home, our workplace, this church building, or on a far-off road.
Friends, as we move from harvest towards Thanksgiving, as we look toward a new season, of anticipating Christ’s coming reign on earth, let us give thanks for the refuge and rest we find under God’s wings, and let us dream new ways to welcome the strangers in our midst. Amen.