While I’ve been doing more cooking than teaching lately (I’m running the kitchen at YWAM TV until Michael and I leave for Kyiv), one of the opportunities I’ve had to exercise my teaching muscles has been through helping to write a Bible study correspondence course. The course is intended to provide a way for people who do not have access to Bible teaching/training, to study through the Bible. I can’t tell you how humbling it is to consider that the people who will be working through this course face persecution for their faith, a shortage of Biblical teaching, and/or limitations on their travel, making it virtually impossible for them to attend something like an SBS (School of Biblical Studies). This course is very much a work in progress. It is a collaborative effort, with people writing, editing, and translating, from all over the world.
As I worked on the curriculum for the book of Ruth this month, the major theme that stood out from the book was God’s care for the outcast. Ruth was born in Moab. She married a man – Mahlon – who had sojourned to Moab from Bethlehem in Judah. Within ten years of living in Moab, Mahlon and his brother die, leaving Ruth (and her sister-in-law) widowed. Mahlon’s father had died previously, so Mahlon’s mother, Naomi, was not only a widow by this point, but childless. As Naomi prepares to head back to Bethlehem after the death of her sons, she encourages her daughters-in-law to stay put in their homeland. Ruth digs in her heels (figuratively!) and tells her mother-in-law,
“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Ruth and Naomi’s story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The days of the judges were dark days of rebellion against God, followed by crying out to Him when He allowed enemy nations to rise up against them, God’s merciful rescue, and then inevitable repeated rebellion against Him. You would expect a story set in this bleak time to be, itself, bleak. But Ruth is just the opposite – it is a hope-filled story of God providing for and redeeming a childless old widow, and the inclusion of a Moabite woman in the people of God.
The book of Ruth is not the first place we see God’s heart for the outcast. The Law is full of instructions to provide for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. In Deuteronomy 10:18-19, for example, we read that God
“executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:9-10 mandates that
“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.”
During the time of the judges the Law was not followed. Pursuing God gave way to pursuit of idols, and prospects were grim for Ruth and Naomi, as they journeyed back to Bethlehem. In God’s great providence, however, He led them to Boaz, a generous, kind man who not only obeyed the Law by allowing Ruth – sojourner and widow – to glean from his field, but by following the heart of the Law, and going above and beyond what was written to extend kindness to her.
In the dark days of the judges, it would have been easy for Boaz to say “no.” After all, how many of his neighbors would have allowed Ruth to glean from their fields? Bethlehem had faced years of famine before the year of plenty that drew Ruth and Naomi to Judah after the death of Mahlon; what was to stop Boaz from holding on to every ephah of barley he grew? It would surely be understandable to be a bit tight-fisted after years of poverty. To top it all off, Ruth was a Moabite. She was a stranger to Bethlehem, and though she had been married to a Hebrew man, for the majority of her life she had worshiped a foreign god; why follow instructions from the Lord regarding a woman who wasn’t even born into His people?
Through Boaz we see God’s heart for the outcast. We see God provide food, family, and a place in the lineage of Christ (see Matthew 1), for a widow from Moab. The book of Ruth demands the question, “As followers of God, what is our response to the outcast?” It asks, “Who is the sojourner in our world today, and how is God calling us to give food and clothing and to execute justice for the least and the lost?” Ruth committed to following Naomi’s God before she left Moab, but perhaps it was in Boaz’s fields where she really came to know the character of God, as demonstrated through a man who acted generously and kindly towards her, despite her origin and status. It was hardly convenient for Boaz to care for Ruth as he did, and there was an element of risk involved, but when is loving care convenient or risk-free? How is God calling us to take risks to love our neighbors? How is He asking us to open our hearts and our “fields” so we can be His hands and feet, and demonstrate His love for the outcast?
Ruth is incredibly relevant for our time, as you may sense I’m not so subtly alluding to, but it is relevant for all times. It is relevant for this age of tension in which we find ourselves, an age when there will always be an outcast to care for. How will we care for the outcasts of today?