Boundless Love (Ruth 4)

Love is never truly blind.  In recent years, marriage has become the latest boundary between social classes—the privileged elite more likely to marry than those living in poverty.  In 2012, the New York Times reported that in addition to this, Americans tend not to marry outside of their social class, only reinforcing the growing socioeconomic rift:

College-educated Americans…are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women…who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes. (Jason DeParle, “Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do,’ in The New York Times, July 14, 2012)

Opposites—including sociological opposites—never really attract, do they?  This is why it’s a common trope in love stories and fairy tales for a rich man or a king to stoop to marrying a mere peasant.  Think Cinderella.  We love tales of overlooked women moving from rags to riches.  If we stop and think about it, it’s actually quite condescending—not to mention a little sexist.   So why would this cultural trope persist?  I’d like to think it’s because we recognize a kindness inherent to the gentlemen of these stories, men who set aside cultural limitations and bias to heroically choose the maiden.  We love thinking that love—like beauty—can’t be limited by economics and social class.

So in the story of Ruth and Boaz, we can’t help but love the way Boaz sets aside any cultural barriers that might otherwise be in place, and do whatever it takes to “redeem” Ruth—that is, to marry her by securing Elimelech’s land.  It’s a business transaction, really.  But as we observed yesterday, there’s something radically subversive about the way we see true love flourish beneath the unpolished cultural surface.   In Ruth 4, we see this transaction take place at the city gates—actually a small architectural enclave where business was regularly conducted.  Think of it as sort of an ancient version of City Hall:

Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Do you hear what’s going on here?  The “redeemer” had the right to purchase the land—but wait, Boaz notes: Ruth comes with it.  Reluctant to take on this wife, the redeemer politely passes.  Boaz is now free to purchase the land—and in “redeeming” the land, he acquires Ruth as his wife.

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, 12 and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

The text notes the cultural custom.  In a pre-modern world there were no contracts to sign.  So they would often seal the deal with some visual demonstration in the eyes of witnesses.  Commentators note that the practice would vary, but in this case the removal of Boaz’ shoe was intended to be a pledge to make good on his plans to purchase the land and marry Ruth.

13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. 17 And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The story now culminates in the ultimate purpose: to show how God—working seemingly “behind the scenes”—used these unusual circumstances to continue His mission to bring all men back to Himself.  And, ultimately, the original readers would recognize the way these events secured the lineage of King David:

18 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, 19 Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, 20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, 22 Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.

If these last verses sound familiar, it’s because you might remember the way they repeat in the opening verses of Matthew:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,] and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. (Matthew 1:2-6)

But there’s something even deeper—even more spectacular than all of that.  It’s that Jesus is the true and better Boaz, who pays the price to redeem His bride, the Church.  As Paul writes, “He has purchased us with His blood” (Colossians 1:14-24).  Jesus is the ultimate redeemer—paying the price on the cross so that we could be brought into fellowship and glorious relationship.  And here’s the most amazing part: this union was brought about through love, through mercy.  None of us are in God’s social or economic “class” in any sense of the word.  No; we are unworthy of the redemption freely offered through God’s grace alone.  But instead He came to us, He died for us, so that we might be enabled to live for Him.

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