READ the passage
Reading the passage, the one thing we can’t miss is this thing which is called ‘gleaning’. Our modern understanding of the term is that it is ‘the process of gathering together information from various sources, often with some difficulty’ (Oxford English Dictionary). This is not the meaning of the word in this passage. The archaic meaning is the one we must understand: ‘gathering leftover grain after a harvest’. It is an agricultural term and its use in the Bible has its origins in the law of Moses:
- Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God”.
- Leviticus 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
- Deuteronomy 24:19-21 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow”.
In an agrarian society where there was no social care system, people without income were destitute. The law of Moses, in giving this instruction, provides one way in which the poor were provided for without the gleanings, they would not have enough to eat. In fact, harvesting TOO completely is frowned on. Leviticus 22 says don’t harvest to the edge of the field, Deuteronomy forbids what we might describe as ‘double harvesting’ (going back over a previously harvested area). Why? Because such complete harvesting leaves nothing for the poor to glean.
Gleaning does at least two things:
- It provides a source of food for poor people to access.
- It combats the headlong rush into selfishness by reminding the people about the plight of others.
A couple of things strike me about this practice:
Firstly: Today, we no longer live in an agrarian society. We have some hangovers (Harvest festivals/Harvest homes and so on), but the huge bulk of people living in 21st century Britain don’t work the land. Very few farming families have actually survived the march of the modern age, and most of those no longer own the land themselves any more, but are are merely farming land owned by multi-national businesses. They don’t have the permission to leave parts of the harvest in the fields and allow the poor to glean. Even if farmers are family owned and run farms, margins are so low, they sometimes can’t even afford to eat their own produce! Gleaning in the Biblical sense simply is not a thing in our culture any more.
We DO have schemes in place to allow the poor to access unwanted and leftover foodstuffs. The most obvious being Food banks. They are a relatively new phenomenon, or at least their visibility in the consciousness of society at large has increased in recent years. But the concept is the same, leaving something you don’t need so that people without income (or sufficient income) DO have something to survive on. In the Sovereign shopping centre there is a free community fridge – unwanted food displayed and people can go in and get some. ‘Olio’ is another mechanism for getting unwanted food for free (though this particular thing is more about not putting food into landfill than feeding the poor). Many Food banks also stock clothing for people who can’t afford to pop down to Marks and Spencer. When I was a child, most of my clothes were either ‘pass-me-downs’ from cousins or my brother (sometimes third or fourth-hand), or they came from one of the many jumble sales held regularly. Remember Jumble sales?—You would go into a room and donated clothes and bric-a-brac piled high on trestle tables and sold at ridiculously low prices (I remember buying a WW2 RAF greatcoat for £3 at one jumble sale in the 1970s. Wish I’d kept it!). People give what they don’t need so that others can benefit. We don’t see so many jumble sales nowadays because our culture sees value in second-hand (should I call them ‘pre-loved’) possessions and people want to wring every morsel of value from them. We now have outlets like like Easy, Vinted, De-pop, Shpock, Facebook market place, car boot sales, People don’t ‘donate’ like they used to. But one thing which marks out God’s people is whether and how they provide for the poor in their midst.
Secondly: The practice of gleaning is one where the poor are provided for. But it strikes me that it is only subsistence on the leftovers. Both the Old Testament provisions and our culture’s attitude do the bare minimum. We give our leftovers, we give the stuff we don’t need any more. We might buy extra food in the shops, but only if we have surplus to do so. If we don’t, our provision for the poor is the first thing to give. The same, by and large, is true of charitable giving. What we give charitably comes from our excess. It is our last action, not our first thought.
But the thing which stands out about the first believers in the description of the first church in Jerusalem is that they weren’t like that. They didn’t give out of their leftovers, they gave out of their abundance. Luke clearly says this of them: ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need’ (Acts 4:32-35).
I believe that God would call us not to simply give out of the ‘extra’ that we have. The way of the church should be to give the FIRST, not the last portion. God deserves our first allegiance, and our support of one another should be our first thought, not our last.
Do we do that? Really? Do you? Do I? Perhaps we would do well to stop and do a stock check of our weekly lives and ask God to show us where we’re giving the dregs and the leftovers to one another and to God. Perhaps we would all live much more fulfilled and satisfied lives if, rather than the leftovers, we offered each other and God the ‘first-fruits’.
Before I go on, I want to make a diversion into a Bible interpretation issue. This is an ASIDE, but it is an important one.
It is triggered by more than one of the commentaries making statements about the motivation of Boaz for how he acted towards Ruth in this passage. One commentator writes, ‘Boaz was so moved by Ruth’s situation that he took steps to go beyond the requirements of the law to provide for her’. This is a written account of the actions of a man 3,000 years ago. There is NO WAY we can gauge what his emotions were unless the text tells us.
We do it with each other! The number of times I have had my motivations questioned by people is astounding. As a rule, when we make judgements about other people and their motivations for doing things, it says far more about us than it does about them!
This happens quite commonly in all sorts of contexts. In any descriptive account of events, be they an eyewitness account of a real event, a recollection of events from the war, or a parable or other form of fabricated tale, human beings have a great capacity for placing themselves into the positions of the characters described. This is partly because every human being has two things: empathy and imagination. This is partly why the parables of Jesus resonate through the ages, they jump out of the pages of the gospel and speak to us. Today.
BUT. We must be careful that we don’t impose how we would feel/what we would think if we were the person in a biblical account onto the text—our sense of what we would do or feel if we were ‘in his/her shoes’ might give us an insight into a situation, and we might even be right. But we must be careful not to read more into any text than is actually there—unless we acknowledge that is what we are doing.
A ‘for example’ : Luke 15, the parable of the prodigal son describes the father at home. It describes that ‘he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). What was the father feeling BEFORE this moment? Many (and I mean many) preachers weave and build a story around the father, what he was doing and how he was feeling before he saw his son a long way off. They describe him anxiously scanning the horizon for any sign the son is coming home and such like. But what was he thinking? Nothing. He is a character in a story invented by Jesus. He is not a real human being! The ‘compassion’ the father feels in v20 is described by Jesus to give context to that moment. Had the parable been a true account, would the father have done and felt what the preachers describe. Quite possibly, but such descriptions are not and should not be on a par with what the Bible actually says about him.
As we look further into this account of Ruth, we will see a ‘love story’ develop. The temptation will be to do exactly that, to attribute emotions and motivations to actions which are taken. Let’s resist that temptation and look at what the account actually teaches us.
Things Get Worse.
For Ruth and Naomi, despite coming back to Judaea for a better life, they didn’t get one. They were reduced to gleaning. I wonder if they thought that going back to Bethlehem would be an improvement on life in Moab? Bearing in mind what I said earlier, our answer to that question is ‘we have no way of knowing’! In Bethlehem, Naomi might be home, but she’s not safe. At least she’s not safe from hunger and poverty. Neither is Ruth. One of the things we can learn from this is that sometimes when we take action to alleviate a problem, things may well get worse!
There is an account in the Gospels of a synagogue ruler which also speaks to this. His life is on the edge, his daughter’s life hangs in the balance. I’m talking about Jairus, and the account of his interaction with Jesus can be found in Matthew 9, Mark 5 and Luke 8. Jairus comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter who is on the brink of death. Jesus agrees to go, and then He is touched by a woman with bleeding. He stops and makes a fuss. For Jairus, the delay is fatal: His daughter dies. There is no longer any hope, from the hope of going to Jesus, his life falls apart, all he has is the despair of a dead daughter. Don’t bother the teacher – don’t bother Jesus, He can’t help you any more.
How often is it that we are told come to Jesus and everything will be hunky dory? – so often the truth is that even if we do come to Jesus thing not only don’t get any better – they actually get worse! This happened for Jairus and it can so often happen to us. This is not just a question of first belief, but also when we come to him and allow him to deal with our sin as Christians. I know for some of you this is your experience – you try to deal with something, pray about it, come to Jesus, and things don’t get better – they get worse!
For Jairus as for Ruth though, they are only in the middle of their story. They aren’t at the end of their life looking back, they are in the middle. They don’t even have our perspective. They don’t have the Bible like we do, they can’t know not to worry because it all turns out ok in the end. But for both of them it does!
So we can learn this …
- Beware and be on your guard. If you respond to God, things may well get worse before they get better! Even if you move to a new location, even if you change absolutely EVERYTHING, things may still get worse. But be encouraged, with Jesus, things WILL get better. It may not be in this life, but it will certainly impact the next!
- If things appear to go pear shaped it doesn’t mean that you have got it wrong! The teaching that life will be easy for you if you follow Christ is simply not true. The opposite is. It is FAR easier to be an atheist than to be a Christian. You decide for yourself what you do, how you live, what you approve of.
She eventually ends up in the field belonging to Boaz, and Boaz notices her there. He asks about her and
Lessons from Boaz.
Boaz’ actions. The way he views Ruth, the instructions he gives to his servants shows his character. He not only complies with the law, he does more. He ensures that there is something to glean by leaving instructions to his reapers to deliberately leave stuff. He also gives instructions to them to protect Ruth, AND he then gives an invitation to Ruth not to worry about other fields, but just glean in his.
In the narrative, Boaz is seen as a ‘type’ of Christ. I’m not going to talk about Biblical typology this morning, except to say that we can see in Boaz a foreshadowing of and pointing towards our Saviour.
Here are just a few ways from this morning’s text that we can see how he does this:
- Boaz NOTICES Ruth.
- Boaz PROVIDES for Ruth
- Boaz PROTECTS Ruth
Boaz NOTICES Ruth
One mark of the quality of someone’s character is how we notice and treat our subordinates. Every place of employment is hierarchical. Business owners, managers, supervisors and workers. A ‘career path’ is seen as working to rise through the hierarchy and getting as ‘high’ in the organisation as you can. People who don’t, either because they have no desire to, or because they have reached as high as their abilities allow, are viewed almost as failures. In many such places, the higher you get in the structure, the less likely you know who is below you. People two or three steps higher may not know your position, what you do, your name, or even that you exist at all. How those in authority treat those who are subordinate to them speaks volumes about their character.
As the owner of the land, employing people to harvest, he notices a poor person gleaning. Not just a poor person, but a poor woman (if she wasn’t poor, she wouldn’t be gleaning).
Jesus notices the unnoticed. He sees the invisible, He sees the things we don’t see. He notices the people we don’t notice.
One example is found in the beginning of John’s Gospel. One of the disciples, Nathanael, has an interaction with Jesus, and as he approaches him, Jesus remarks, “I saw you when you were sitting under the fig tree” (John 1:50).
Our society seems interested in and obsessed with the big, the important, the famous! In fact, years ago if you asked a child what they wanted to do when they get older, you would hear answers like “doctor” “train driver” and the like. Now all kinds seem to want to aspire to is being famous. But God is not interested in that stuff, He is interested in the hidden / the unnoticed / the bypassed. Those who the Bible describes as the widow and the foreigner / children / lepers / tax collectors / those collectively called “sinners”, etc etc etc. Have you ever felt like no one notices what I do? I’m hidden, unnoticed and therefore by implication I’m unimportant?
I used to think that whatever I did, there was no point, no one will notice, and no one will care. But Jesus does notice, and He does care. Jesus sees us even when we think we are alone. He sees us when we think no one else is watching!
- Hebrews 4:13 “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account”.
- Psalms 33:13-15“From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth — he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do”.
- Proverbs 5:21 “your ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all your paths”.
- Jeremiah 16:17 (God says:) “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes”.
- Jeremiah 23:23-24 “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the LORD.
- Daniel 2:22 “He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him”.
We may feel small and unimportant, but just as Boaz noticed Ruth picking up the leftovers, Just as Jesus noticed Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus notices me and you. Who we are (and what we do) matters to him.
When Boaz sees Ruth gleaning, he talks to one of the reapers: ‘who is this?’ (Ruth 2:5). He gets information about her and then he gives a number of instructions:
- To Ruth
- ‘don’t leave MY field, it will provide for you’. (Ruth 2:8).
- ‘stay close to my reapers’ (Ruth 2:8).
- Share in the drinks I provide for my reapers (Ruth 2:9).
- Eat with me (he gives Ruth bread and wine and she eats with the reapers in Ruth 2:14).
- To his reapers
- Do not touch Ruth (implied by Ruth 2:9).
- Allow Ruth to glean – do not stop her (Ruth 2:15).
- Leave extra for her (this is make her task easier) (Ruth 2:16).
Boaz PROVIDES for Ruth
Boaz provides for Ruth. Not just the minimum required by the law, but pressed down and overflowing. Leaving sheaves for her, feeding her, protecting her.
So, how is this a ‘type’ of Christ? Boaz provides for Ruth like Jesus provides for us. He invites Ruth to drink when she’s thirsty (Ruth 2:9), Jesus calls the thirsty to himself:
- Isaiah 55:1
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
- John 7:37
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.
He invites Ruth to eat with Him and gives her bread and wine. The parallel with the last supper screams at me, but we also know that Jesus also feeds us both physically and spiritually. Here are just two examples:
- Mark 8:1-9 (Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand)
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.
- Luke 9:10-17 (Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand)
On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And they did so, and had them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
Supremely, Jesus calls himself ‘the bread of life’ in John 6:35: Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Jesus satisfies every hunger and thirst and supplies our every need.
Boaz PROTECTS Ruth
Boaz didn’t just provide for Ruth’s food, he gave her protection as well. He says two things:
- (To Ruth) Restrict your gleaning to MY field. I’ve given instructions to my reapers to allow you to.
- (To the reapers) Do not touch her. Do not reproach her.
Jesus does provide for us. He also protects us.
We often think of protection in physical terms. Protection from famine, or illness, or attack. This worldview is embedded in our psyche and is seen in the attacks we have to face of ‘how can a God of love allow this or that to happen?’. The embedded belief that protection is always physical is obvious.
The witness of the Scriptures and the experience of Christians through the ages and today are clear for anyone to see. Christians are frequently attacked and persecuted and even martyred.
Jesus never promises physical protection. In fact he says physical troubles will come. That in the world we have troubles but we are to take heart because he’s overcome the world. He says ‘do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matthew 10:28).
The protection WE can rely on is not physical, it is spiritual. Here are just a few ways we can appropriate it:
- Spiritual armour (Ephesians 6:10–18) is given us to put on. Armour protects. I am not going to list and expand on everything each piece brings, but, briefly our protection comes from our adoption and use of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.
- The Peace of God. (Philippians 4:4-9). Not only do we have Jesus’ yoke which will bring us peace, Pauls tells us that when we present everything to God, His peace will guard our hearts and our minds. He actually goes on to say that God’s peace will be with us when we put what we have learned and heard about the gospel into practice.
- The indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:14-19). Our inner being will be strengthened through the Spirit, and He will give us the ability to comprehend the full extent of the love of Christ and be filled with all the fullness of God.
We are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:13–14 describes this as a ‘deposit guaranteeing our inheritance’. No matter what happens in this world, heaven is our home. We are spiritually safe. The psalmist knows this:
- Psalm 121:
*I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
Jeremiah knows it: ‘Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit’ (Jeremiah 17:8).
Paul knows it. ‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).
Want to finish with the statement of Boaz about WHY he is showing favour to Ruth:
Ruth 2:11-12, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
It screams to me of the commitment we are called to. When he challenges the rich young man to sell all he has and give the money to the poor, Jesus says this:
- Matthew’s account reports Jesus saying: ‘everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life’ (Matthew 19:29).
- and Mark records that Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mark 10:29-30).
We do NOT have a works-based faith. The only ‘work’ we have to do is described by Jesus in John 6 when he is talking to the crowds. I’ll read from John 6:28 where the crowds ask him a question: ‘Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”.’ (John 6:28-29). That is the only ‘work’ we must do.
I will leave you with this thought. Whatever we have given up for the gospel, whatever we think we have lost out on, however badly we think our lives have turned out, we can be sure that our sacrifice for the Gospel (whatever it is) will be rewarded in eternity.