Pagans, Prostitutes, and Jesus
Sermon text - context issues
My sermon formed part of a 3-part series on the book of Ruth. The series consisted of a sermon on chapter 1, a sermon on chapters 2-3 and then mine on chapter 4 to conclude. This seems a fair way to handle it. Chapter 1 sets the scene and the problem, with the interaction between Boaz and Ruth dominating chapters 2-3, moving to resolution in chapter 4. (It does mean that there's a huge amount to get through in the second sermon).
As well as having Ruth 4 read publicly at an earlier point in the service, we also had Matthew 1:1-6 read for reasons which will hopefully become apparent. Although this repeats the genealogical lists somewhat, it was a deliberate move to alert the congregation that there is more to Ruth than meets the eye and going to be more to the sermon than just Ruth 4. If this simple approach to showing something of biblical theology is adopted, then there are other passages that could be candidates for being read alongside the sermon text - Genesis 12, Genesis 38 (possibly Genesis 29:31ff?) and Ephesians 2:11-22.
What this passage is not about - false trails in the sermon
Old Testament narrative is a hard biblical genre to get right as it often actually takes a whole-Bible biblical theology to provide any sort of controls on the decisions that are made. If biblical theology is ignored, there are a few possible false trails. Here are some of them, from the most ridiculous to the more significant:
1. The most ridiculous I came across (and this is completely true!) is that the sandal-exchange episode which takes place in 4:7-8 provides insight into different types of footwear Christians are to wear - e.g. no sneakers allowed as God doesn't like liars! This abuses not only the text but footwear! This particular example proceeded to biblical examples of footwear (e.g. Ephesians 6) but this mishandles the Bible inexcusably.
2. ‘Be a Boaz, not a Bozo!' One recent take on Ruth is to expound it as being about insight into male-female relationships, as seen for instance in the book Men are from Israel, Women are from Moab: Insights about the Sexes from the Book of Ruth, clearly a Christian version of John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. I haven't actually read this book but have read enough about it (reviews, endorsements and author explanations) to know that for all the true things it no doubt says, it still models how not to approach a biblical text. Some might feel this is harsh - the book rightly picks up the kindness theme in how Boaz and Ruth relate and uses this as the model for male-female relationships. But the issue here is not that Boaz and Ruth don't show us kindness but that the message of Ruth in salvation-history becomes subservient to reading us directly into the text and assuming that we're to be like Boaz and Ruth - and to be like them not even primarily in covenant faithfulness but in specific gender roles. ‘Israel' and ‘Moab' become ciphers for gender distinctions instead of terms connoting redemptive-historical distinctions and this domesticates the Scripture. The line from the text does not go direct from Israel to the secular west, with our concepts of romance and relationships, as if Bethlehem and Calvary hadn't happened.
The same goes for taking the text to be about how to be a godly grandparent, how to find a marriage partner or cope with childlessness! Using Ruth to make true statements about relationships may improve our marital communication or encourage greater kindness for a time; it will also make the Bible play a part in spiritual anaemia and immaturity by implicitly teaching that the Bible is there to affirm us and make us affirming and that the message of great David's greater Son, descended from Boaz and Ruth, is somehow less directly relevant to our lives than a happy marriage. (For a brief but incisive theological comment on the John Gray-type approach to men-women matters, see the excellent IVP book by Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, pp. 274-76).
3. A common false trail with Ruth is not so much reading specifically male-female relationships off the text but reading ourselves into the general circumstances of the characters and equating their salvation-history with our place in history. Again, this needs to be carefully unpacked - there are definite lessons for us from their lives but the lessons are primarily lessons about God and we need to be careful that we don't make what God did for them universal norms for what God will do for us.
Examples of this might be: Naomi faced bereavement and bitterness but found joy and fullness; we will too if we face bereavement (moralising the text); God has a way of working things out so that what seems impossible to us will become a reality: just like Boaz had to face the obstacle of the kinsman-redeemer who had first rights so we have to face the issues that God puts in front of us (spiritualising the text). These kind of applications risk being pastorally insensitive, they logically disintegrate somewhere along the line when the parallel between us and the biblical characters breaks down, and they cause a congregation to look for themselves in the Bible instead of God.
4. With some trepidation, I want to make the suggestion that one of the main ways the text is often used - to preach about redemption - could also be something of a false trail. This has been done in some very sophisticated ways and so if I am out of line here then please take my criticism as directed to those sermons where the redemption theme is handled very badly! When it's done badly, there is simply a direct leap from Boaz to Christ: ‘Boaz was Ruth/Naomi's kinsman-redeemer, Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer'. I think this is predictable (which doesn't in itself make it wrong) and far too simplistic. It relies on a certain measure of spiritualising to make the redemption motif apply to us and I think this is problematic given that Ruth 4 is dealing with a very particular type of redemption. I'd like to stress that I am sure there is a biblical theology of redemption here but I simply wasn't convinced that it's as straightforward as a lot of sermons make out and in light of this, because I didn't understand it clearly, I steered clear of it altogether for my sermon.
Interestingly, some sermons I came across handled the text in terms of what I will argue is the correct biblical theology but then concluded by saying ‘... and don't forget, Jesus is our redeemer'. My impression was that the preacher felt it just wouldn't have been right to end the sermon without mentioning Jesus as redeemer because we've met the word redeemer in Ruth! This might be an indicator of the kind of framework we're operating with and how naked we feel handling the text without making it fit our framework. But a number of excellent theologians and preachers have preached the theme of redemption from Ruth 4 and I am willing to admit I could be very wrong! More on this below.
What this passage is about - the difference biblical theology makes
(i) The biblical theology of Ruth
Before we come to look at my particular sermon text it might be helpful to step back and see the bigger picture of Ruth's biblical theology as a whole. Let me very briefly outline where I'm coming from in terms of how I think biblical theology works here and then outline the key biblical theology strands in Ruth.
Graeme Goldsworthy offers a helpful model of how biblical theology shapes the interpretation and application of the biblical text. The following diagram is from his Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (IVP, 2000), p. 100:
In this diagram the text is linked theologically to Christ as the focal point of Scripture and therefore the application of the text to us has to be as part of a deliberate movement along the time-line of salvation-history. Many of the first three false trails I suggested above have as their Achilles heel a movement straight from Text to Hearer which by-passes how the text of Ruth applies to Christ before it applies to us.
In his excellent chapter on Ruth in Five Festal Garments, Barry Webb suggests a number of key biblical theology motifs which run through the narrative. He distinguishes two main themes that are part of salvation-history in the strong sense: firstly, the genealogical material in Ruth 4 and its ties to Matthew 1, and secondly, the ‘kindness' motif with its ties to salvation in Christ as the supreme kindness. He then points out other aspects of Ruth that forge connections with the NT understanding of the gospel: the theme of God's providence or continuous salvation in Ruth connects with Romans 8:28-30; what Ruth teaches about kindness in narrative form we see enjoined on us in direct exhortatory form in Galatians 5:22, Ephesians 4:32 (see pgs 55-57). If we combine Webb's specific suggestions on Ruth with Goldsworthy's general suggestion about Christological application, I think we have a good lens for viewing some of the biblical theology motifs. We will consider genealogical and redemption issues below when we look at the biblical theology of Ruth 4; here we will look at the themes of kindness and providence (although these obviously run through into chapter 4 as well).
Firstly, ‘kindness' is the key theological motif in the book of Ruth. It surfaces as early as 1:8 and becomes the key descriptor of both Ruth's (3:10) and Boaz's (2:13, 20) actions. The word here for kindness is hesed and Webb points out that it carries the sense of ‘acceptance of the duty of care involved in covenanted relationships, especially marriage and family' (p.43).
The vital factor in terms of biblical theology is that the actions of kindness, particularly on Boaz's side, are located in an OT theology of the law so that what happens here in the relationships of the characters are specific instances of a kindness that is fulfilling the law. As Webb argues, in all his actions Boaz is a model of law-keeping (even with regard to the ban on Moabites!) so that the book of Ruth "identifies the ‘spirit' of the law as ‘kindness' (hesed) or more specifically, ‘loving-kindness - kindness with the excess and richness of love" (p.54). This can be seen by the provision in the law for foreigners in harvest fields which Boaz both complies with and goes beyond; the legal proscriptions for levirate marriage in passages like Deuteronomy 25; the issues of the land in the light of redemption texts like Leviticus 25; and the ban on Moabites in Deuteronomy 23. There is a wealth of biblical theology material here but I think the key way to handle it is to realise that what binds it together is its fundamentally legal character so that all Boaz's actions are constrained by the OT law.
So my point here is simple: it is precisely this character of Boaz's actions as fulfilling the law which should stop us from developing an application of ‘Christians must be kind' straight off the text as if the line of the text goes from Boaz in Israel to us in London, or wherever we are. In the terms of the whole Bible, Boaz's actions have to point us forward to Christ and his words in Matthew 5:17: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.' Boaz does on a small scale, and with regard to sections of the law, what Christ does completely and with regard to the whole law. Webb briefly hints at the salvation Christ brings as the supreme example of kindness and points to Ephesians 2:7 and Titus 3:4 (p.56). This is an instance of the text being applied to Christ first before us, as in Goldsworthy's model, so that when we do get to us it may well be right to draw out the ethical imperatives of Christian loving kindness as fulfilling the law of God (Romans 13:8ff), but not before we realise what Christ has done on our behalf. This is surely the key to circumventing a new kind of legalism in our application of ethical imperatives - what we must do flows from what Christ has done and this order is vitally important. This makes the Christian virtues of kindness and love in Galatians 5:22 and Ephesians 5:1 part of our imitation of God and Christ, not primarily imitation of Boaz. I would suggest this is one of the right ways to view biblical characters as exemplars - the exemplary value of Boaz lies in what he shows us of what Christ fulfils.
Secondly, the theological theme of God's providence runs throughout Ruth too. This can be seen in both the ordering of the lives of Naomi and her family in the setting of the judges period and the crisis of flight from the land and then return (1:6); it is also sharpened by the apparent coincidences in the story - Ruth ‘happens' to glean in Boaz's field, the kinsman-redeemer ‘happens' to come along just when needed in chapter 4. God's providential working moves from the background to the foreground with the repeated explicit references to divine action in 4:11-14.
As we've already noted, Webb sees in this providential salvation and ordering of human activity links to Romans 8:28. I agree with this completely but with a qualification. I think it is vital that we don't neglect the second word in the phrase ‘providential salvation' by again drawing lines too quickly to us from the first word. In other words, Ruth is essentially and primarily a narrative about God's ordering of salvation-history (as the end of the book makes clear) and not just an identical parallel of our own history. If we neglect the salvation historical referent here the application will become: God was ordering the lives of Ruth and Naomi, God is ordering our lives. Of course this is completely true, but what God was ordering in their lives was a micro-salvation that would lead to a macro-salvation in the arrival of King Jesus. This means that I think the direct gospel explication of Ruth's providence is more Acts 2:23-24 before it is Romans 8:28-30. Let me stress that I do think we are caught up into the same salvation-history in the sense that there is only really one world history that God is working out. But the point here is that Christ is always the focus of world history not us - and that is even the point in Romans 8:28-30. We need to see that the specific aspect of providence we're given in Ruth is salvific providence and we need to ask how that providence climaxes in what it was always working towards - namely, Christ - before it applies directly to us.
(ii) The biblical theology of Ruth 4
With this as the big picture of Ruth's biblical theology we now turn to my specific sermon text of chapter 4. Here we come to two more significant matters in the biblical theology of the sermon text: the issue of redemption as seen in the kinsman-redeemer language and the issue of Ruth being grafted into a family line which looks backward and points forward to, and beyond, King David. We will look first at the question of redemption and then the genealogical line.
Although one of my teaching points used the word redemption, I used this simply to describe an event in the narrative and my sermon made no links at all to the redemption which Christ provides. I had three main reasons for making this decision.
Firstly, redemption as a key biblical-theological theme is almost entirely absent in the work of three main evangelical commentators on Ruth (Webb, Hubbard and Gow). Redemption is also absent in the articles on Ruth in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (also written by Gow) and the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Of course, this in itself proves nothing but is one factor to be reckoned with. It seems to be a pointer to a significant difference between academic and popular treatments of Ruth.
Secondly, the redemption in Ruth 4 is a very particular kind of redemption and the bottom line is that it was not obvious to me how to move from the redemption of the land (which is the dominant factor in Ruth/Naomi's redemption), to the redemption which Christ provides without a measure of spiritualising the OT narrative. Also, it's clear from the text that although Boaz acts as a kinsman-redeemer, the real kinsman-redeemer is Obed (see v.15 where the women state that Ruth ‘has given him birth', referring to the kinsman-redeemer). This doesn't tell against the redemption interpretation completely of course, but it does mean that the text is working with more fluid concepts of the kinsman-redeemer than simply seeing Boaz as a type of Christ.
Having said all of this, there is certainly a biblical theology of redemption at work here, not least given the backgrounds in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In an earlier work, Barry Webb comments that the redemption in Ruth points forward to the redemption of the land which David provided under his kingship and this would certainly provide a more fruitful avenue to go down if you're going to do it. Also, in the NDBT article on ‘Redemption', Hubbard argues that the kinsman-redeemer material of Leviticus 25 had more than just property matters at its heart: ‘Theologically, the divine mandate of redemption (Lev. 25:23-24) implements on Israelite soil the redemption won by Yahweh in Egypt (vv.42, 55), lest Israel produce its own cruel Pharaohs and impoverished slaves. To deny redemption is to infringe on Yahweh's rights (i.e. to enslave people belonging to him) and, in effect, to annul the gains of the Exodus' (p. 717). There are also further possible biblical theology echoes of Ruth-like themes in texts like Isaiah 54:1-8 where as redeemer Yahweh will marry widowed Zion and bless her with many children (Hubbard, NDBT p. 718).
In this sense you could argue that what happens in Ruth functions as part of a biblical theology of the land i.e. how God's people deal with each other in, and with regard to, the land draws on the ways in which God brought the people into the land in the first place and provides further models for the ways in which God will act again in the future. A case can also be made that because the type of redemption here relates to OT legal requirements the pointers are again specifically to Christ's fulfilment of the law, and it is in this specific context that the redemption theme would need to be preached. Further, in terms of the whole sweep of redemptive history, it could be argued that it is through redemption (as patterned in Israel's experience and the OT laws) that God achieves his ultimate aim of including all the nations of the world in his family. Thus covenant (Genesis 12:3), redemption (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 25) and inclusion of pagans (Genesis 38; Ruth 4; Matthew 1) are all tightly linked - redemption is God's way of being faithful to his covenant promises.
All of these avenues seem to have a lot of potential for a rich biblical theology but I'm afraid that I just didn't know how on earth to do this in a sermon in a way that didn't become a lecture, kept the congregation with me and kept us following the flow of the narrative in Ruth! It is these approaches to redemption that I would argue we need to go for if we're going to preach it from Ruth. So I hope it's clear that I'm not against it completely; rather, I'm trying to argue for ways of doing it that are in line with the text and biblical theology, and not primarily our predictable frameworks.
Thirdly, the decisive factor that helped me to avoid the above tricky issues with a clear conscience was simply that the NT makes other far stronger connections to Ruth than the redemption motif. The very content of Ruth 4 is literally bound to the New Testament so that I think there is one main discernable thread running from Genesis through Ruth into the rest of the Bible and it is this thread which the NT itself makes much of. This simply led me to the conclusion that the redemption material in Ruth 4 serves a bigger picture and that actually we often neglect this bigger picture because we go for the seemingly readily available link to Christ via redemption. It's easier to preach redemption than the bigger picture of genealogical lists.
This brings us then to the main issue for biblical theology in Ruth 4. The driving idea of my sermon was that in chapter 4 we see a pagan woman being included into Israel's family and that this inclusion leads to the provision of Israel's great king David and beyond that great David's greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
A number of features in the text make this clear. Twice in chapter 4 we are told that Ruth is a Moabitess (vv.5, 10) and we have been told this often throughout the book. We should remember this when the elders talk about ‘this woman who is coming into [Boaz's] home' (v.11). Here is a pagan woman being included in an Israelite family; but not just one Israelite family but actually into Israel - this is made clear from the allusions to Rachel, Leah and Perez and Tamar. The elders pray that pagan Ruth will be like Israel's two founding mothers, Rachel and Leah, and the emphasis seems to be on being like them in producing numerous offspring. Similarly with Tamar and Judah - a pagan woman bears a child to an Israelite man that leads to the growth of a large and famous family within Israel. We have here development in the biblical theology of the blessing of the nations in the promises to Abraham - here is God blessing the nations by including them in his family and, not just that, but actually using pagans as key instruments in the growth and expansion of that family. This is an OT example of what becomes a full and complete reality in the NT with the work of Christ - Gentile inclusion in the household of God such as we see in Ephesians 2:11-22. This was to be a key NT text in my treatment of Ruth 4:11-12.
In 4:12 it is significant that the issues of a Gentile woman producing a large family cluster around the family line of Judah, the royal line as we know from Genesis 49:9-10. We are thus given a hint that there could be more to Boaz and Ruth's family than meets the eye ... and any suspicions we may have are realised at the end of the story: the birth of Obed will lead to the birth of King David. There is lots of debate about the purpose of Ruth with most scholars agreeing that Ruth seems to have been written to in some way legitimate Davidic rule, perhaps by showing how divine providence guided his rise to power. There are many other subtle takes on this issue and it is an important one as the purpose of the book should shape the purpose of the sermon - it could be another example of a very rich biblical theology to move from Ruth to David in the Bible's plot-line and to look at his rule in the light of Ruth.
I have to confess that I more or less skipped David in the flow of redemptive history and used the end of Ruth to forge links with Matthew 1. Some of this was simply to do with space and time; there is only so much you can do in a sermon! My aim was to show how even if Ruth was written to show God's providential ordering that led to David, the full story is how God was working to provide the true King. The details of Matthew 1's genealogy provide strong links with Ruth (Mt 1:5-6) and also with the theme of inclusion introduced in Ruth 4:11-12. This can be seen in the four pagan women listed in the genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba). It seems that Matthew wants to bring to a climax what Ruth hints at: the inclusion of pagans in the royal line and hence God's family, with the added extra that three of these women weren't simply pagans but were pagans known for their sexual misadventures. Thus the inclusion motif of Ruth is now widened even more to show that what the gospel offers is the addition to God's family of immoral outsiders. This, then, is the main biblical theology that I think is operative in Ruth 4.
Sermon Shape and Structure
I found this a very difficult passage to preach on, simply because it contains a lot of legal and genealogical material and because the true significance of the narrative is located in the bigger plot-line of Scripture. The challenge was to engage fully with the narrative and yet not let it swamp the biblical theology, and vice versa. (I have a feeling the biblical theology took over the sermon a bit so that my engagement with Ruth 4 itself could well be found wanting).
The text of Ruth 4 lends itself to a break at v.12, after Boaz has arranged the legal matters at the town gates and the elders have commented on it. So I structured my sermon around 2 main scenes: vv.1-12 (at the civil courts) and vv.13-22 (in the maternity ward). It is also possible to break the text at v.18 and treat the genealogy separately.
As I wrestled with the text I settled on two main teaching points to go with each scene. I wanted to use these to express the fact that something happens in the text to these particular characters but which at the same time has ramifications for the rest of Israel and the world:
1. God includes Ruth - and so expands his family with pagans (vv.1-12)
2. God redeems Naomi - and so provides a king (vv.13-22)
My aim was to let these two points structure how I preached. I started with showing the first part of the teaching point, directing the congregation to the text and showing what God did for Ruth/Naomi, walking through the details in as lively a way as possible. Then, in each point, the aim was to build from here to show the second part of each teaching point, using the text to make wider connections with the rest of redemptive history and the rest of Scripture. In the first point I made the deliberate choice to use ‘pagan' instead of Gentile as it is a more striking term and to use ‘family' instead of ‘house' as in 4:11. This is an attempt to already interpret the passage in the teaching point.
However, before I started the sermon I actually took a minute to raise the issue of application with the congregation. I found application the hardest bit of this sermon because it is not a passage that tells us what to do in exact terms, as the second half of a lot of Paul's epistles do for instance. So I thought it might be good to actually alert the congregation to this and to tell them at the outset what we were aiming at in the sermon:
"We're about to hear God's word to us in Ruth chapter 4. And very often when we come to the sermon we want to know, at the end of the day, what the cash value of it will be: we ask ourselves ‘what does all of this mean to me?' And some parts of the Bible give us very practical applications, don't they? They say to us, ‘Look, when you go home from church today, stop doing that and start doing this instead'. Other parts of the Bible don't do that, they don't spell out everyday issues like that - rather, they tell us what we should be and even how we should feel. And the part of the Bible we're coming to this morning is exactly like that - Ruth 4 is in our Bibles to teach us to be grateful, to be amazed at what God has done for us and it's there to make us feel joyful as we see God's grace to us in Christ. So let's pray now that God's Word will have that effect as we listen to it:'
As this was the last sermon in the series I chose for an introduction something I have often heard used in other sermons as a way of establishing the extremely stark contrast between how the book opens and how it closes:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way" ...
Famous words from "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens, and they're famous words that could be said of the book of Ruth that we're looking at this morning. Ruth opens with the worst of times and it ends with the best of times. Do you remember the very first verse that opens the book -"in the days when the judges ruled" - it's shorthand for saying this story is set in the days when things couldn't get any worse for Israel - in the days when the judges ruled there were violent invasions, apostate religion, anarchy and tribal civil war. And Ruth opens with famine and funerals. The age of foolishness, the season of darkness, the winter of despair.
But Ruth ends with the best of times - after opening with three funerals it ends with a wedding. It opens with death and ends with a birth, emptiness and bitterness replaced with fullness and joy. Ruth ends with a family in Israel who have everything before them. And it really is the spring of hope - baby Obed is not just another Israelite boy but is part of a family-tree that points forward to even better times - look at v.17: READ. Ruth opens with the time when there was no king and everyone did what was right in his own eyes, but Ruth finishes pointing us forward to Israel's most famous King. It was the worst of times ... and now it is the best of times.
And what we're going to look at this morning in Ruth ch. 4 is how God brings about the best of times, how he reverses the terrible plight of Ruth and Naomi. And as we look at the chapter there are two main things happening which I've put on your handouts - firstly, God includes Ruth in his family and secondly, God provides Naomi with a redeemer, someone who can buy her out of her terrible situation.
Having set the passage up like this I then had to briefly explain that these particular incidents for Ruth and Naomi had world-wide ramifications and I used a passing illustration about a stone dropped in a pond. I returned to this and to the ‘best of times, worst of times' at a few points throughout the sermon as foils to keep stressing my main points:
But what we're going to see is that these two things which happen to Ruth and Naomi - inclusion and redemption - are part of a bigger story. At the same time as doing something for them, on the small scale of their particular lives and struggles, God is also doing something for the whole nation of Israel and actually even for the whole world. As God includes Ruth, so he is actually expanding his family with pagans; as God redeems Naomi, so he is actually working to provide a king. God is not just working to provide the best of times for Ruth and Naomi, to reverse their misfortune - he's working to bring about the best of times for the whole world. And that means we're all affected this morning: it's as if what happens to Ruth and Naomi are like pebbles dropped in a pond - the ripples spread all the way out to the whole nation of Israel and the ripples have even reached us here at Gunnersbury and we're going to see how it affects us.
This, then, was my sermon introduction and I came now to the first of my two points. In explaining the first one, I had to work out how to negotiate all the complex legal data in vv.1-10. Although it is all part of the story the key thing is the theological interpretation of the event which comes in vv.11-12 so it was vital for the sermon not to get bogged down in the detail and to move quickly through it. Also key is noting that v.5 and v.10 unlock the incident by exposing that the real issue is the continuation of Elimelech's name. Here, although Leviticus 25 could be in the background as well with its provision for land redemption, the context of marriage seems to fit Deuteronomy 25 better and I couldn't see any way around explaining this other than directing the congregation to Deuteronomy. Here's how I tried all this:
So let's look at the first scene then in vv.1-12:
1. God includes Ruth - and so expands his family with pagans.
When ch 4 opens the big question is: will the hero get the girl? Ch 3 has set us up to hope that Boaz and Ruth will get together but it has raised a problem: what about this other bloke who stands in the way? He's there in v.1 - READ And what's happening here in ch4 is extremely foreign to us READ vv.2-4 - now this isn't exactly speed dating is it? Before Boaz can get the girl there seems to be a small matter of a plot of land and it doesn't seem to be going Boaz's way does it - this other guy knows a bargain when he sees one - ok, I'll take it he says. Now what's going on here - kinsman-redeemers, land, and never mind the fact that this other poor bloke has to hop home on one leg ‘cos Boaz has taken his shoe as well - what's going on here?
Well the key to it is in the small print of the business deal - it's a golden rule isn't it, always check the small print! And in v.5 Boaz just drops in the small print - READ and look at v.10 as well READ. You see, the whole point of what Boaz is doing here and in marrying Ruth is to carry on Elimelech's name by providing a child. This is why Naomi is in a terrible plight - Elimelech her husband is dead, her sons are all dead and no male children means no family line to safeguard the property and carry on the family name. Listen to these words from Deuteronomy: READ 25:5 If there were no male children to carry on a family name, the family would disappear from Israel's history and land might have to be sold to provide an income. Boaz's actions here are all about letting Elimelech live on in Israel by providing a son. So Boaz redeems the land, he stops it being sold off and acquires Ruth as his wife. And because Ruth is part of Naomi's family - if they have a son that son will carry on Elimelech's name in Israel.
This then brought us to the key verses of the section; here my aim was to show the significance of what has just happened in terms of both a backwards and a forwards look at redemptive history. This is where I sought to really drive home the teaching point of God including pagans and expanding his family with them.
Now this is all very interesting - if you're into small print reading: but what does it all mean? Well in vv.9-12 we get the speeches at Boaz and Ruth's engagement party - they are, the mortgage has been arranged, the contract's been signed, the champagne is out and now the speeches are going to show us that because of what Boaz has done, God is not just preserving one family line but actually expanding his worldwide family. Look at vv.11 and really this isn't just an engagement speech it's actually an engagement prayer, isn't it - let's READ-vv.11-12 and notice the inclusion language and the expansion language:
Firstly, did you see the inclusion language - v.11 "May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah" Ruth is getting married to Boaz and being included in his family. But do you remember how our passage has described Ruth on two occasions now - look back at v.5 and v.10. Do you see the phrase - Ruth the Moabitess. Ruth the pagan. Ruth the outsider, the foreigner. Ruth was from a nation that God's people tried to steer clear of - Gentiles, pagans. And the elders tell us that because of what Boaz has done, a pagan woman is now being included in Boaz's family. But Ruth is not just being included into Boaz's family but actually into the family of Israel - may the Lord make this woman like Rachel and Leah who built up the house of Israel. Rachel and Leah were Israel's founding mothers - the twelve tribes of Israel came from them, that's why they built up the house of Israel, they literally gave birth to the nation. So something incredible is happening - here is a pagan woman being compared to two of the most famous women in Israel and the prayer is that God will make this pagan woman like them.
And secondly, did you notice the expansion language - just as Rachel and Leah built up God's family, this is a prayer for Ruth to be like them by having lots of children to expand God's family. And look at v.12 - READ. Tamar was another pagan woman who was included in God's family and with Judah she gave birth to Perez - through Perez the tribe of Judah grew and grew to become one of the most famous and prominent tribes in Israel. So this is a prayer for Ruth to be just like that other pagan woman Tamar and give birth to a large and famous family. Do you see the emphasis - this is not just preserving one family but actually expanding God's family.
It was the worst of times, but now it is the best of times. God is not just reversing Ruth's plight, including her into a loving family ... God is actually including pagan Ruth into his Israelite family and is going to make her one of the most significant women in that family. God is expanding his family with pagans. And this was the way God had always said it would be - do you remember God's words to Abraham in Genesis 12: "I will make you into a great nation AND all people's on earth will be blessed through you" - God's Israelite family was always going to be huge and it was always meant to reach out to include all the nations on earth ... and what we're meant to see this morning is that the prayer of the elders - for God's family to grow and grow with pagans included - has been answered and God has answered it by including you and me in his family.
I now had to introduce how the story of Ruth connects with our place in redemptive history and went to Ephesians 2:11-22 to do this. I did this for two main reasons - first, the stress on Gentile inclusion is not just the key idea in this passage but is explained in relation to former Jewish privileges and second, it also includes the imagery of Gentiles being included into God's ‘household', exactly the same terminology as Ruth. Another option is to go to Galatians 3. Either way, I think we are justified in using these texts because they are the climactic point of what the book of Ruth is straining towards. Also, by this stage I have been talking for about 15 minutes and the sermon is desperate need of some application so I tried to introduce that here as well:
You can see this by turning to Ephesians 2:11-22 with me. Look at how us pagans, us Gentiles are described - READ vv.11-12. Do you see how we're described - before we were included in God's family we were: Christless, Stateless, friendless, hopeless, Godless. No birth certificate to say we belonged, no passport to get us citizenship, no membership badge - just like Ruth and Tamar we were foreigners, outside God's family.
I wonder if you remember scenes from TV over the years of all the conflicts in the Balkans ... there was a time once wasn't there where the news had constant images of refugee camps, thousands of homeless people huddled together ... or you could see some of them desperately trying to cross a border, asylum seekers looking for citizenship in another country. Well that was us wasn't it - asylum seekers, refugees, excluded from God's family. But, READ vv.13-20 (Stress inclusion and expansion images).
God includes Ruth in his family and as he does so a pebble is dropped into the flow of the bible's storyline and the ripples spread all the way out from there and reach us - because of what God did for Ruth, God's family has grown and expanded with pagans like you and me. It's as if in the Old Testament God is slowly opening the door of his family to pagans, Tamar is included, the door opens a bit more and Ruth is included and when we get to the Lord Jesus and Ephesians 2 we really do reach the best of times the door to God's family is simply thrown wide open and God's family just grows and grows with pagans being welcomed in.
And you see the application to us this morning is that whoever we are, wherever we've come from this morning there's a welcome for us in God's family. The doors are wide open. Maybe this morning you know you're not a Christian, not yet part of God's family. Well Ruth and Ephesians tell us there is no reason why you can't join - you don't have to speak a certain way, you don't have to dress a certain way, you don't have to be a particular type of person, there's nothing better about the other pagans already in God's family - we're all the same, we're all simply pagans, Gentile foreigners who've found asylum, refuge in God's family. And if we're Christians this morning - well do you notice what Ephesians tells us to do about our pagan-ness: remember it - look at vv.11-12. We sometimes think that as Christians we must forget our old lives, it's all in the past and it's not good to recall it. Well, ‘no' says Ephesians - dig out the memories every now and then, chew them over. Remember just how little you had going for you, remember what it felt like to be excluded from God and from his family.
In just a few weeks Angela and I will head back to N. Ireland for Christmas to spend it with my family ... but imagine us rolling up at mum and dad's home and this Christmas there's a great big wall around it, a great barrier saying "no entry" and there's no welcome, no Christmas lights, no-one to greet us - well imagine the feeling, exclusion from the family. The door's locked, no entry - kept on the outside. That's how we once were with God - and Ephesians says to us "look, don't forget that, remember that you were once heading to hell." That's healthy Christian living isn't it - remembering what we've been saved from and what God has done for us in Christ is always the source of our gratitude: remembering is part of thanking. If we ever find ourselves feeling a bit joy-less, a bit ungrateful, it's always because we've forgotten, isn't it - forgotten what God has done, forgotten how far away from God we once were. We mustn't ever forget that just like Ruth we've been changed from foreigners to family members.
That was point 1 and I had devoted quite a bit of time to it. Now it was time to look at Point 2 and here I made a deliberate choice to move extremely quickly through the first part of the point (‘God redeems Naomi) - I did want to show how this resolved the main issue in Ruth but really wanted to show what all of this led to, so I gave nearly all my time on this point to showing the ramifications of baby Obed leading to King David and beyond:
Well, please turn back to Ruth ch.4 with me and a lot more briefly we're going to look at the second scene from vv.13 to the end of the chapter: God redeems Naomi - and so provides a king. This scene takes place in the maternity ward - Boaz and Ruth are married and now the longed for son has arrived and so there we are in v.14, round the hospital bed and the women speak up - READ vv.14-17. I wonder did you notice that after all this talk about the kinsman- redeemer with one shoe and Boaz as the kinsman redeemer, the real kinsman- redeemer is really little baby Obed. Do you see that, Ruth who is worth more than seven sons, has given him birth: everything Boaz has done in buying the land and marrying Ruth has come good -little Obed is going to keep the family name safe isn't he, Elimelech will live on in Israel - that's why Obed is the real redeemer, he's the one that buys Naomi out of her plight.
This really is the best of times isn't it? But again, just like with Ruth, as God does this for Naomi so at the same time God is working on a bigger canvas. We get a hint of this back in v.12 - do you remember the elder's prayer, that Boaz's children will be like Perez who came from Judah? Well, when we read the book of Genesis we discover that Judah's line is the royal line. God had promised to give his people a king from the family of Judah ... and now here in Ruth 4 God is working to keep his promises - look at how the book ends: READ v.21b. God redeems Naomi and in so doing, provides a king - Israel's great king David.
But what we have to see this morning is that the spring of hope which arrives with Obed does not just point to king David, the best of times get even better than David - please turn back to the opening of Matthew's Gospel which Kathy read for us earlier. Matthew opens his gospel by saying "look the good times don't finish with King David - David's family line continues all the way to the greatest King of all, Jesus." READ 1:1. And then look what Matthew does in v.5, he ties the beginning of his story into the end of Ruth's story - READ vv.5-6 ... but then in the rest of ch1 Matthew tells us "that family line that ends the book of Ruth - Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David - it's not the end of the story - the good times get even better and the family line goes all the way to Jesus. He is the son of David - the promised King that would be even greater than David. Jesus is the very best times, he is the true King - and he's here because of what God did for Naomi ....
Now family trees like this are just like the small print again aren't they - we're not really interested in them, come across one in our quiet time and we skip it immediately, don't we? But if we look at this one closely there's something really incredible about it - this genealogy is all about fathers and sons, but on four occasions we are told about women. And all four of them are shady ladies - all of them are women who were outsiders to Israel, not part of God's people and some of them are even famous in the Bible for sexual immorality. Did you notice them - v.3 READ. Remember Tamar, the pagan outsider? but Tamar wasn't just a pagan, she became pregnant with Perez and Zerah by posing as a prostitute. Then v.5: READ - Do you remember Rahab, the pagan prostitute from Canaan; then there's Ruth - the pagan outsider, the foreigner and then did you notice v.6 - READ. Uriah's wife was Bathsheba and she was more than likely a Hititte like Uriah - she was a pagan who committed adultery. Four shady ladies ... and says Matthew ... they were all part of King Jesus' family tree. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus had pagans and prostitutes for his great grandmothers - there is Gentile blood in the family of the Jewish messiah.
The key thing with all of this biblical theology is to really try and drive home Matthew's intention with it and to show how this intensifies the pagan inclusion we've already seen in Ruth. My main point here was to say that if we've already seen that God includes outsiders, what Matthew shows us is that God includes outsiders irrespective of what they've done:
And I think Matthew has two lessons for us from these 4 shady ladies: firstly notice how this great family line goes all the way back to Abraham. And remember what I said earlier - God had promised Abraham that every nation on earth would be blessed through him, all the pagan Gentile nations could be included in God's family. Surely Matthew wants us to see this happening right before our eyes - Jesus fulfils this great promise to Abraham because pagans are already part of his family tree. This King really does include pagans, they really can be part of his family.
And secondly, Matthew wants us to know that this is no ordinary king - look on to v.21 with me: READ. You see, maybe we gasp at the truth that the Lord Jesus Christ had prostitute grandmothers - it's just not the right stock is it? But Matthew wants us to know that Tamar's grandson, Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba's grandson is no ordinary child - this King is going to be able to save his people from their sins. That's why he's come and this family tree shows us just how closely the King identifies himself with our fallen and broken world.
And so the application for us this morning is that God's family is not just open to us no matter who we are or where we're from - it's also open to us no matter what we've done. Jesus doesn't just includes pagans in his family; he includes prostitutes - sinners, men and women who get it wrong and mess up in really massive ways: Tamar poses as a prostitute, tricking and deceiving Judah, Bathsheba sleeps with the King, the man who was meant to be the nation's model of how to live ... and none of it stops God from expanding his family until eventually King Jesus arrives and throws wide the doors of his family and says "you can come - I know all about you, I know what you're really like ... but I have come to save my people from their sins, there's room for you in God's family."
Well, a few weeks ago Lewis said that Ruth is a Christmas book - and that's true isn't it? As God redeems Naomi, a pebble is dropped into the flow of the Bible's storyline and from that birth of a son comes King David's greater Son, the Lord Jesus and it's that birth we celebrate at Christmas. Now if you're not a Christian here this morning Ruth and Matthew are gently showing you the Christmas message - God has provided a King who includes anybody and everybody no matter what they've done. There is nothing you have done of which this king cannot forgive you and the doors to his family are wide open. This King really does offer the best of times - inclusion, membership, forgiveness, family. Many of us here this morning are Christians and Christmas rolls round year in, year out and we know the story so well. This year let's take time to remember that God has provided a king who saves his people from their sin - we need that, don't we? We know our own hearts, we're all shady characters deep down and we need to reflect on that, we need to take time to be grateful that God has provided a Saviour King. Maybe we've known crushing sin in our own lives that still haunts us - this King includes sinners in his family. Or maybe others in our family, or around us - we see the effects of sin in their lives - let's make sure our hearts are soft and compassionate to them, no-one is beyond the pale of God's family.
Brothers and sisters we have so much to be grateful for: God has expanded his family with pagans, with you and me; and God has provided a king who welcomes outsiders no matter what we've done. Everybody's welcome.
Books & Commentaries
Alexander, D., The Servant King (IVP, 1998)
A simple little book that looks concisely at the part Ruth plays in the OT development of the messianic line. Suggests redemption as a key biblical theology theme.
Dempster, Stephen G., Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (NSBT: Apollos, 2003)
I only got my hands on this book days before the sermon so wasn't really able to digest it properly, but it has a really useful little section on Ruth with clear insight into its Davidic significance.
Dumbrell, W., The Faith of Israel (Apollos 2002, 2nd edition)
This is a great book which is often tantalisingly too brief as Dumbrell clearly has a great grasp of biblical theology and you just want to see lots more of his working out! He has a couple of great sentences which really pointed the way to unlocking the whole.
Gow, Murray D., The Book of Ruth: Its Structure, Theme and Purpose (Apollos, 1992)
This book is the most detailed evangelical treatment of Ruth that I came across, and in some ways it was too detailed to really make good use of for a one-off sermon. It would be very helpful if you're planning a series on Ruth and has some good material on the book's theology.
Hubbard, Robert L., The Book of Ruth (NICOT, Eerdmans: 1988)
Tremper Longman III calls this commentary one of the finest in the NICOT series in his OT Commentary Survey. It was actually the only commentary I used and it is outstanding. It is extremely detailed but also written with an eye to the big picture and with some real theological nuggets. I lifted one or two phrases straight from the commentary for my sermon script, not something which most commentaries lend themselves to! Essential help.
Ryken, Philip G., The Message of Salvation (IVP, 2001)
This volume in the BST Themes series uses Ruth as the primary text for the discussion of redemption. I think this is a slightly odd thing to do hermeneutically and means the discussion isn't grounded in the clearest biblical-theological approach to redemption. It offers some helpful insights into Ruth but I felt quite a bit of it was making the text fit a pre-determined framework.
Webb, Barry J., Five Festal Garments (NSBT, Apollos 2000)
By far the most helpful thing in print on the biblical theology of Ruth and was formative in my understanding of the text. I don't think he makes enough of the inclusion material and genealogy in chapter 4 but his main aim is to draw out the theme of kindness as being Ruth's key theological motif. Some great pointers too for reading a narrative sensitively and traces a good line through the book. Essential help.
Webb, Barry J. & Hohne, David, Famine and Fortune (Matthias Media, 1996)
This simple Matthias Press study guide was interesting in that it showed some of Webb's earlier thoughts on Ruth which seem to be different from Five Festal Garments. If you're going to preach the redemption theme this has a helpful brief outline of how that could work, with David as Ruth's goal in providing redemption of the land. I got the phrase ‘shady ladies' from this study guide!
Wright, C. J. H., Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (Marshall Pickering, 1992)
This is a great book which I used to understand Matthew's genealogy: Wright starts his book with an extended discussion of how Matthew 1 provides a window onto the entire story of the Old Testament.
New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (IVP): This has two helpful articles on ‘Ruth' and on ‘Redemption': the former again said virtually nothing about redemption and is a very condensed version of Gow's book (above) and the latter did refer to the kinsman redeemer material in Ruth and had some very helpful pointers to rich ways of potentially preaching redemption from Ruth.
New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Paternoster): This has a useful article on ‘The Theology of Ruth'.
Harold Fish, ‘Ruth and the Structure of Covenant History', Vetus Testamentum 32 (1982), 425-437
Barbara Green, ‘The Plot of the Biblical Story of Ruth', Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23 (1982), 55-68
David M. Gunn, ‘A Son is born to Naomi!: Literary Allusions and Interpretation in the Book of Ruth', JSOT 40 (1988), 99-108
Willem St. Prinsloo, ‘The Theology of the Book of Ruth', VT 30 (1980), 330-341
Eugene H. Merrill, ‘The Book of Ruth: Narration and Shared Themes', Bibliotheca Sacra 142:566 (April 1985), 130-139 This was a very useful article. Merrill specifically raises the issue of how to preach the narrative and although he doesn't say too much on that in the end, the biblical theology he points to is very rich and constructive.
Recommended website: www.two-age.org - go to ‘recommended works' where they offer an extremely comprehensive bibliography on every book of the Bible.
Andrew Jones, ‘It's a Family Affair - Ruth 4', St Helen's Bishopsgate, London, 1999This was the best sermon I came across and it unlocked the first 11 verses of chapter 4 for me. I borrowed his ‘small print' phrasing for 4:5 and he offered a really good way of moving quickly through the first section of the chapter. Opens with a brilliant illustration about Wales and he used this as the key idea for the sermon. Referred to redemption more than I did.
Melvin Tinker, ‘Praise and Promise - Ruth 4', St John Newland, Hull, 2001 (< A good sermon which goes down the redemption line. I disagreed with the overall decisions about the way to use the redemption motif.
John Piper, ‘Ruth: The Best is Yet to Come - Ruth 4', 1984 I feel that Piper is sometimes a bit like Lloyd Jones in his preaching - brilliant to listen to or read and impossible to imitate in his method! I think he slightly overdoes the usual ‘glory' refrain in this sermon but it is structured around the big picture of redemptive history in really helpful ways.
Stuart Jones, ‘The Redeemer of Ruth - 4:1-22' In places this biblical theology sermon tried to condense huge aspects of redemptive history into the sermon in ways that made it quite complicated to the detriment of more obvious aspects. Some of the connections made with the rest of Scripture are quite suggestive but could well leave a congregation feeling that there is no way they would ever see that in the text themselves.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature