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Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Love Story

February 13, 2011
Sermon: Stories for Children and Grown-ups: A Love Story
Text: Ruth 1:16


We have asked the children in our church to take part in this series entitled Stories for Children and Grown-ups by reading key passages of Scripture from the Bible.  Ruth 1:16, the pivotal verse in the book of Ruth, is very special to Clare and me.  It was actually used in our wedding almost forty-five years ago as a part of the solo entitled “Whither Thou Goest, I Will Go.”  The song continues, “Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge.”

Clare and I had an interesting wedding ceremony on a very hot day in Leesville, South Carolina, as some of you know.  I had just finished saying my vows when Clare’s brother, Ben, fainted.  He had had a fever the night before but did not tell anyone.  Standing in that little hot Methodist church in Leesville, which is close enough to Columbia to be hot all the time, he passed out and fell.  He hit his mouth on the kneeling rail and knocked out his two front teeth.  My three brothers, the other groomsmen, picked him up with arms and legs dangling and hauled him off through the back of the church.  Clare’s daddy jumped up and followed the others out of the Sanctuary.

Clare was about to begin repeating her vows when Ben fainted.  She was worried about her brother, of course, and concerned about her father being present for the rest of the service.  Her father returned about five minutes later, white as a sheet, and the service continued with Clare saying her vows.  I have always joked that Clare had an advantage.  When she said, “for better or worse,” she at least had some idea about what that meant.  I did not have a clue.

It was not until later that I realized Clare should have said the words “Whither thou goest, I will go” to my mother.  In the book of Ruth, a daughter-in-law speaks these key words to her mother-in-law.  These words, though, are appropriate for every love relationship.

A sociologist at the University of California has tried to understand the nature of love by watching American films as far back as the silent movies.  She identified what she calls the “seven patterns of love relationships.”  The first pattern is love-at-first-sight.  Two people – possibly from different worlds, from previous marriages, or a widow and widower – meet and almost immediately fall in love.  The example given is Titanic. A second pattern is love between an older person and a younger person.  Usually, an older man falls in love with a younger woman.  The love begins as a relationship between a mentor and a protégé.  The best example is My Fair Lady.  Third is obsessive love, which is so clinging, so possessive, that it actually becomes a fatal attraction and usually ends in great heartache and sometimes in violence.  Wuthering Heights serves as an example.

The sociologist calls the fourth pattern the upstairs-and-downstairs love.  A person of a lower socioeconomic class falls in love with somebody of an upper socioeconomic class.  Two examples are Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.  The relationship may end in tragedy, but sometimes the couple has a very happy life together.  The fifth pattern is love characterized by sacrifice.  One person loves another person but refuses to pursue that relationship, knowing it is not in the best interest of another person.  An example is Casablanca.  In a relationship of rescue, one person tries to lift another person from some plight or dire straits, as in Beauty and the Beast or Shadowland.  Finally, courageous love is characterized by the willingness to take a risk, take a chance.  In the end, the relationship works out well.  Sleepless in Seattle is the example given.

As I read the sociologist’s analysis of these patterns and movie illustrations, I began thinking about the love story before us today.  I see here many of the characteristics just mentioned.  We see love-at-first sight; apparently, Boaz immediately fell in love with Ruth.  We see the motif of an older man falling in love with a younger woman.  A real discrepancy exists here between a man who is clearly wealthy and a woman who is poverty-stricken.  This story contains sacrifice and courage on the part of Ruth, as well as a rescue motif in Boaz actually rescuing this woman.

The three main characters in the story are Boaz, whose name means “powerful” or “strong,” Ruth, whose name means “lovely friend,” and Naomi, whose name means “pleasant.”  The third woman mentioned in the story is Orpah, whose name means “back of the neck.”  Scholars believe that she had this name because she actually turned her back on her mother-in-law, Naomi, by returning to her own land.

This story consists of four chapters containing four episodes.  It begins in sadness.  A famine has occurred in the town of Bethlehem, a word that ironically means “house of bread.”  Naomi, her husband, and their two sons decide they must leave their home.  The family is not happy about moving to a land known as Moab in order to survive.  The Israelites had very low regard for the Moabites.  Associating with people from that region was considered off-limits.  The Israelites considered these people tainted because the Moabite descendents came from the unholy and incestuous union between Lot and his oldest daughter.  Nevertheless, each son takes a Moabite wife.  The untimely death of these sons leaves the two women as widows.  Naomi loses not only her two sons, but her husband also dies.  At that point, she wants to change her name to Mara, the word for “bitterness” (Ruth 1:20-21).  She experiences bitter disappointment and grief over the deaths of her husband and two sons.

The Moabite people were traditional enemies of the Israelites.  They felt that the Israelites had no business being in their land.  Certainly it was not a good idea for a Moabite to consider going back to the land of Israel.  Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law – Ruth and Orpah – that she plans to return to her homeland of Bethlehem.  She actually encourages them to stay there in Moab with their people.  Orpah does decide to return to her own people.  You will notice that Naomi does not condemn this daughter-in-law for the decision she makes.

Ruth chooses to remain with Naomi though the odds were stacked her.  She is a poor woman in a foreign land; but her courage, ingenuity, unfaltering loyalty to her mother-in-law, and willingness to listen to Naomi’s wise advice help her overcome her very difficult circumstances.  Ruth tells her mother-in-law, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you.  Where you go I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, your God my God.  Where you die, I will die.  There I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me ever so severely, if anything but death parts me from you.”

In the year 2000, as many of you know, our son Erik died.  He left a twenty-five-year-old widow, June.  Clare and I wanted to maintain our relationship to our daughter-in-law, and she wanted the same with us.  June moved back to Nashville, Tennessee, but we continued to visit each other over the next five years.  We drove to Nashville about twice a year.  June liked me to help her with a garden every year, which I enjoyed doing.

One day while standing in the garden talking, I said, “June, Mama Clare and I are praying that God will give you a new husband.”

She answered, “Papa Kirk, husbands are a lot of trouble.”

Clare answered, “Yes, they are.”

It is true.  Husbands are a lot of trouble, but so are wives.  It is also true that marriage is hard, but it is so worth it.  God has given to us this beautiful gift, but we have to work at marriage constantly.  Everyone I know has to work at it.

June has since then told us the story of how she got a second chance with God’s gift of marriage.  One day June’s cousin invited her to hear a missionary who had been on the mission field.  This missionary had actually been in the Kurdish area of Iraq with June’s cousin.  June admitted, “That was the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” but she agreed to go.  She and her cousin picked up the missionary on the way to church.  When he got in the car, June said that he was cutest missionary she had ever seen in her life.  She confessed, “I did not know missionaries came like that.”

June and this man, named Ian Kern, really saw no way that they could have a relationship.  Ian lived in Oregon, and June lived in Nashville.  A lot of circumstances seemed to mitigate against the relationship.

A year or so later, Ian called and asked me for June’s hand in marriage.  I said, “Ian, this is weird.  You are calling the father of her deceased husband to ask for her hand in marriage.”

He said, “Papa Kirk, June talks about you like you are her daddy.  I could not imagine doing this without getting your blessing.”

I had never met Ian, but I gave him my blessing.

He said, “I want you to come to Nashville.  I am going to give her a diamond ring on Valentine’s Day.”

How could we turn down that request?  Clare and I made arrangements to be in Nashville for Valentine’s Day.  After Ian gave June the diamond ring, I took everyone, including June’s family, to supper.  That rascal surfed and turfed me that night.  To be surfed and turfed means the person opens the menu and orders the most expensive item, usually lobster tail and a rib eye steak.

I teased him, “Ian, you just wanted me to come to Nashville to pay for this supper.”  Every time we have taken Ian and June out to eat since then, he has surfed and turfed me.  It is a standing joke.  I make sure I have plenty of cash on hand when we go out for a meal.

The week following the proposal, June and Ian called, asking me to officiate at their wedding scheduled for July.  During the ceremony, I told them the story of Ruth and her marriage to Boaz.  I added, “I want to tell you that Ruth had a child in her second marriage.  The Scripture says that her mother-in-law was like a grandmother to the child.  We have some expectations about this marriage.”

Many of you know that June and Ian have a wonderful marriage.  They now have two children.  The entire family is coming to visit in March.  Some of you may actually get to meet them.

Many people talk about their problems with in-laws, but it is not always that way.  Some in-law relationships are very good.  The story of Ruth and Naomi is one such example.

When these two destitute women arrive in Bethlehem about the time of the barley harvest, they talk about the fact that they have no way to make a living.  Ruth shows a lot of initiative, saying, “I am going into the fields to glean.”  Her suggestion is a strange concept to us, but it was a way people could receive charitable food.  Gleaners gathered the leftovers of those who were reaping the harvest.

Ruth and Naomi engage in conversation that I do not understand very well.  It is beauty shop conversation.  I know this much:  If you have a big decision to make at a deacons meeting, the best plan is to present it to the deacons.  Let them go home and talk to their wives.  Let their wives talk about it in the beauty parlor.  By the next meeting, you will know exactly what action should be taken.  The decision is actually made in the beauty shop.  Some of you may think that is a little crazy, but I have been around long enough to know that men are not aware of a lot that goes on in a beauty shop.

Ruth 2:3 says that “it just so happened” that Ruth began gleaning in the field of Boaz.  Using the particular words “it just so happened” is the Scripture’s way of saying that God worked out the women’s problem.  It may also be a way of saying that Ruth intended to wander into the field of the wealthy Boaz, an eligible man.

When Boaz arrived at the fields, he saw Ruth, a good-looking woman, following the reapers.  His reaction suggests that it was love-at-first-sight for him.  He immediately tells some of his workers to leave a little extra barley for her.  Later, when the workers sit down to a meal, he invites Ruth to join them.  Boaz also provides her with all the parched barley she wants.  I do not know what parched barley tastes like, but it must have been something like boiled peanuts.  She eats her fill at the meal, and Boaz makes sure she has plenty of food to take with her.

The laws in that day provided for widows and orphans.  For example, if a husband died, early on it was the responsibility of that man’s next brother in line to take that woman as his wife.  This marriage arrangement provided assistance to a widow.  Of course, men could have multiple wives in that day.  By the time of this story, this agreement was not pushed so much.

Boaz knows that he is a near kinsman of Naomi and therefore to Ruth.  These two women know that if Ruth can marry Boaz, all their financial problems will be solved.  Does Ruth want to marry Boaz for his money?  Part of the answer is yes, but I doubt that is the entire reason.  Ruth knows that she needs someone like Boaz who can provide for her needs.

Consider an example of how the system worked in biblical times.  I am the oldest in my family.  If I died, my brother Bill would have to marry Clare.  I can tell you that Clare does not even want to think about that possibility.  If he were to die before Clare, I have other brothers, too.  The responsibility of caring for Clare would go right down the line through each brother.

We find a teaching about this ancient practice from Jesus.  Someone posed the question, “If a man has seven brothers and he dies and the brothers keep marrying this same woman, whose wife is she going to be when she gets to heaven?”  (Luke 20:27-40; Mark 12:18-27).

The next part of the story begins when Ruth returns home with her barley.  Again, Naomi wants to know everything that happened.  Once she hears the account, Naomi says, “I will tell you what we have to do. Get all gussied up.  Get your hair done, and put on your lipstick.   Wear your nicest perfume and your best dress, and go to the threshing floor.”

In Chapter 3, the scene changes to the threshing floor, where a celebrative occasion occurs.  The harvesting of the crop was an occasion for great merriment and a good bit of libation, or heavy drinking.  Ruth knows that before she approaches a man about a matter that requires a decision, he must first eat his supper.

Clare often tells me, “When you come home, I need to talk with you about something, but I’ll wait until after supper.  I want to make sure you have a good meal first.”

Wives, I do not know if the rest of you do that, but you might want to make sure your husband is well fed before having a good peaceful discussion with him.

Ruth does as Naomi suggests.  She goes to the threshing floor and makes sure that Boaz has a good supper.  After having a bit to drink, he falls asleep on the threshing floor.  At this point, the story becomes R-rated.  If you read the account in the King James Version, you will not understand what happened.  I will word the events the best I can in this mixed company.  Ruth takes a big risk.  She gets under the covers with Boaz.  In doing so, she puts herself in a difficult position.  Her actions are actually a proposal of marriage to him.  She is saying, “Boaz, I want to be your wife.”  She has figured out Boaz well enough to know that he will not refuse her.

When Boaz wakes up, he is startled to find her there.  He asks, “Who is it?

Her answer, as it appears in the King James Version, does not come across quite right.  She says, “I am Ruth, your servant.”

If it had been daylight, you would have seen the big smile on his face, but he reacts very cautiously.  He commends her for her nobility, but then says that she should leave before daylight, before anyone sees her.  He wants to be sure that her reputation is not tarnished.  As happens in a little town like Bethlehem, by daylight just about everyone knows what has happened anyway.

Boaz knows that another man is closer in kinship to Naomi and Ruth than he is.  In Chapter 4, he goes to the city gate, where business transactions occurred and decisions were made.  Going to that particular location was like resolving issues on the steps of a courthouse before going to court.  This nearer kinsman understands Boaz’s intention, and he is ready to talk with Boaz.  Because the kinsman has no interest in marrying Ruth, he has no authority to take the property left to her after her husband’s death.  Doing so would jeopardize his own assets.

Swearing an oath on a sandal is a strange custom to us, but the action is similar to notarizing a document in current times.  It is a way to make things official, legal.  The kinsman’s removal of his sandal now gives Boaz a clear path to marrying Ruth.  As the story goes, everybody is happy about this arrangement.  Not long after their marriage, a child named Obed is born.  The Scripture says that Naomi swaddles and cuddles that little boy as her own grandson.

Ruth and Boaz have a compelling love story that plays a role in the history of the Israelites.  King David’s grandfather was Obed.  His great-grandmother was Ruth, and his great great-grandmother was Naomi.  If you read the book of Matthew, you will see that Ruth, this Moabite woman, is listed in the genealogy of Jesus.  She is a central figure in the Old Testament, but her influence carries over into the New Testament.

This story is also important because Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz exemplify commendable traits.  Naomi is a courageous woman who perseveres even in the face of such difficult grief.  Ruth is intelligent, strong, loyal, and level-headed; she knows how to seek and use good advice.  Boaz, a hard worked and good manager, certainly has an eye for a good looking woman and a wonderful opportunity when it presents itself.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.  When I stand in this pulpit close to Valentine’s Day, I am aware of a lot of heartache.  Many people who have never married somehow feel left out on Valentine’s Day.  This story shows us that we all have a near kinsman.  The Hebrew word for “near kinsman” is go-el, which also means “redeemer.”  Boaz redeems Ruth from the difficult circumstances of terrible grief and loss.  He gives her a future.  He gives her hope because he loves her and wants to provide for her.

We use the very same concept of the kinsman-redeemer in reference to Jesus.  He is our Redeemer.  We sing, “Blessed Redeemer…”  He loves us so much that he has overcome the difficult circumstances of our lives.  He has overcome the law of sin and death.  He has given us a future and a hope through the power of his blood, his death on the cross.  He has given us the promise of everlasting life.

Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as your Redeemer?  If you have never done that, could I please extend that invitation to you?  You respond as God leads.

Kirk H. Neely
©  February 2011

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