We are continuing our study of the book of Ruth. Last week we saw Ruth act heroically and tenaciously in her desire to provide for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. This was a potentially dangerous activity because Ruth was a women without any form of protection and a Moabite who were foreigners, pagans, and enemies of Israel. However, she receives the protection of Boaz who also provides for her above and beyond any duty and obligation in the Torah. Boaz does this despite a number of negatives - her impertinence, the fact that she was the foreign wife of an Israelite, a practice forbidden by Israelites, and a Moabite on top of that.
So the New Testament authors frequently use this term mystery to describe how we interpret some of the concepts used in the Old Testament. I have found that understanding how the New Testament uses this term mystery is very helpful in helping us understand how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. It is a difficult topic for us because the Old Testament is mostly a collection of stories of a foreign culture and a lot of times the New Testament takes these stories and interprets them in a way that is very different than how we would use them. Often it looks as though the New Testament is taking the stories out of context and forcing them to say something that they don’t say. What I want to do is take this use of mystery and apply it to this story to show how we can make more sense of how this story applies to us and make it a little more relevant. I also think it will help us be better students as we study the Old Testament.
In the Ephesians passage we read earlier, Paul uses the phrase mystery four times. We think of mystery as something difficult or impossible to understand or explain. Something like a riddle or puzzle that needs to be solve. In the Ephesians passage Paul is partly using it this way.
However for Paul, mystery has a very specific almost technical meaning that is derived from Daniel. So if you remember in the book of Daniel, at several points Daniel is asked to interpret a dream that the king has. These dreams are called a mystery and the interesting things about them is that they are understandable to some degree on their surface. However, it takes Daniel who we are told is given wisdom from God to interpret them, to give them a more specific meaning. So this is the key to a mystery. It is something that we grasp on the surface level, but later revelation from God is needed to give them a fuller, more specific meaning. That is what we see Paul doing in the Ephesians passage. The mystery is made known to Paul by revelation that comes from Christ.
What I want us to do with our text from Ruth today is see that there is a surface meaning that is readily accessible, but develops a fuller meaning as a result of the revelation of Christ.
So our passage today starts with a meal shared between Ruth and Boaz. Eating a meal together was highly symbolic in that culture. Meals were an expression of hospitality and to celebrate special occasions. They were even used as a way to cement agreements between people who made treaties to show that they were bonded together. So what Boaz does by inviting Ruth to his table is no small matter. One of the things we notice about Boaz is he is not an absentee landowner. He knows his workmen and eats alongside them. He does not use his status as a nobleman to separate himself. Here he extends this generosity to Ruth.
What I want us to notice is how many cultural taboos Boaz is breaking down by this simple act. First, Ruth is a woman. Second, she is poor. Third, she is from a foreign country. Fourth, she is from an enemy nation. By eating with her, Boaz is destroying all of those barriers and showing that his hospitality extends to her despite all of these negatives. He is showing that he is bonding himself to her and even celebrating their relationship. However, Boaz goes even further. He allows Ruth to dip her bread in the sauce. The word for sauce is something like a wine vinegar - so something akin to maybe how we might go to an Italian restaurant and dip bread in a balsamic vinegar. The grain is not simple barley but roasted, essentially it was malted barley. That would have made the barley sweeter and then the passage tells us she was given as much food as she could eat. Boaz is giving Ruth not just a meal but showing her abundance and even extravagance.
Now let us contrast this with the behavior of the Pharisees in the New Testament. The Pharisees hoped to go above and beyond the teaching of the Torah to show God the quality of their devotion. They thought that by doing this they would earn God’s favor and show that they were truly repentant hoping God would see this and return and do all the wonderful things promised to Israel like getting rid of the Romans and setting up His kingdom. The Pharisees became a private dining club since they observed a lot of laws concerning purity that had to do with dining. The result of this was the Pharisees excluded those who did not adopt their rigorous program. So when Jesus came preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom and then dined with those who did not think like the Pharisees the Pharisees were offended. Surely, this was no way for the true Messiah to do things.
However, if they had paid attention to Ruth, the Pharisees would understand that Jesus is doing exactly what His ancestor Boaz is doing. Jesus is breaking down every barrier. Like Boaz he is welcoming the poor, women, sinners, and all those excluded to His table. Yet God is always breaking down barriers. He takes a people who are slaves and takes them for His own. He gives children to the barren. When Hannah and Mary sing their song they describe God as not just powerful and not just good but as a revolutionary who reverses the world order.
We see this concept foreshadowed in the passage we read in Leviticus. The book of Leviticus starts just after the tabernacle has been built and the glory of God moves in to take residence. Leviticus is written to instruct the people how they are to live now that God Himself is dwelling in their midst. In order for the people to be able to approach God, God institutes a series of sacrifices. One of the sacrifices is called the peace offering. The neat thing about the peace offering is that when the animal is sacrificed the fat and choice parts are burned on the altar as the portion that belongs to God. One part of the sacrifice is then given to the priest and the another part is given to the offerer. The priest and the offerer then roast the meat and eat it before the presence of God. What is symbolized by the peace offering is that God and the offerer are at peace with one another, they are bonded together and they share a meal in fellowship. This is what God desires with us and the same approachability is what is communicated in both Boaz and Jesus’ actions as they share meals.
What is it about Boaz that allows him to show such grace to this woman? To answer this question I want to go back to the passage from Deuteronomy concerning the laws for gleaning. “When you reap your harvest in your field a 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.” Verse 22 gives the rationale for this practice, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” So the reason given for taking care of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan is because in some way Israel could identify with them since they were once slaves.
Now here is what everyone reading this book in ancient Israel would know that you don’t know. Does anyone here know who was Boaz’s mother? It was Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho. You see I think the reason Boaz was able to show such hesed was the same reason Israel was supposed to show hesed - it was because they could identify with being a foreigner, with being without resources and without hope.
The incarnation is the ultimate example of this identification - God comes in the form of man in order to identify and experience what we experience. Hebrews tells us we have a great high priest because he is able to sympathize with us. This is why hesed is able to go beyond duty or obligation and why it is real and causes us to fall to our face and bow to the ground just as Ruth does to Boaz.
It is what Christ did for us and what we must do as the church, if we are to be a light to this world - identify with the other. If we are to be effective we must not separate ourselves from the world and see our ourselves as somehow superior. Remember it is Christ who though he in the form of God, did not could equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. This is the power of the incarnation and if we embrace it it can be the power of the church as well. Those who are first shall be last. The greatest in my kingdom will be a servant to all.
How we will do this? The same way the Israelites were told to do it and the same way Boaz did it - by identifying with the other. Throughout this story, Boaz has not used his wealth and status as a way to separate himself. He is not an absentee landlord, but one who visits his workmen and knows them. He eats with them and when he comes across a foreign, possibly pagan widow, rather than marginalize her he identifies with her because his mother was not so different.
When Ruth returns to Naomi and describes to her Boaz’ actions and the meal they shared, Naomi tells Ruth that Boaz is a relative of hers and is a redeemer. In Hebrew the word for redeemer is go’el. Go’el is a technical, legal term. It refers to a near relative who is charged with certain responsibilities for the economic well being of the people under his care.
According to the Torah a go’el had some specific responsibilities. First, the go’el must buy back any hereditary property that had passed outside of the clan. As we discussed last week, specific property was given by God to specific families and the family was charged with administering that land. The land belonged to God but the family was charged with managing that land. Provisions were made in the law to prevent the land from passing outside the family. If you remember the story of Naboth. Naboth owned a particularly nice vineyard that King Ahab wanted. King Ahab asked to buy the land from Naboth but Naboth refused. The reason Naboth gives for his refusal is because it would be wrong to give away the inheritance God had given to his family. It was the responsibility of the go’el to make sure the land always remained with the family.
Now let me explain how this works with the concept of mystery. What I want us to see is how the revelation of Christ shows us how Jesus acts as a go’el and fulfills these duties to a greater degree than the Old Testament writers would have envisioned. In the Old Testament the land was important because it was the people of God’s inheritance. This is why it could not pass out of their hands and why it was important for the go’el to redeem the land if it had been sold to an outsider because the owner may have fallen into debt. When Jesus comes He redefines the whole concept of the inheritance. No longer is our inheritance the land. The land was important because it was where God dwelled. However, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection the glory of God was no longer confined to the temple and to the land of Israel. The presence of God and the inheritance was now something that belonged to every believer.
So if you remember when the Samaritan woman at the well asks Jesus if God is to be worshipped on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans worshipped God or Jerusalem. Jesus answers, “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” The nature of the inheritance had been expanded and broadened. No longer was it Israel but the whole world. All authority would be granted to Jesus on heaven and earth. This is the point Jesus is making when he says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy but lay up your treasure in heaven.” Our inheritance is the kingdom of God which Jesus has purchased for us. Jesus had come as the go’el and bought our inheritance at the cost of His own life. This is the mystery - in the Old Testament the land was the inheritance and the go’el redeems it, but this is a mere foreshadowing of the bigger picture in which Jesus the more perfect go’el redeems for His people the true inheritance.
Second, the go’el must purchase the freedom of any member of the clan who had sold themselves in slavery usually because of debts. In the book of John, Jesus says that all those who practice sin are enslaved to sin. Our sin has led us to slavery and just like those in ancient Israel our only hope lies with our go’el , our kinsman redeemer who pays the price and purchases us from slavery. Jesus says that He came to give His life as a ransom for many. Like Boaz He is not an absentee landowner. He identifies with His people serving rather than being served. Like Boaz He breaks down the barriers and takes the poor and the marginalized and eats with them. The go’el was a weird ancient custom at home in a clan based society. However, it is a powerful picture and we see Jesus takes this picture and transforms it into a story of the greatest redemption of all - the salvation of humankind.
As His followers we must understand that we are a people who were in need of redemption and have been redeemed. Rather than trying to earn God’s approval by distancing ourselves as the Pharisees did, we must work at breaking down the barriers that separate us from others. We must extend grace like Boaz in a way that is abundant and extravagant. We will do this the way Israel was commanded to do in Leviticus - by remembering that they were once slaves in a land that was not theres. It was what Boaz did and what Jesus did - not distancing ourselves from others but identifying ourselves with others. This is the mystery that Christ reveals to us. The Church must not be served but must serve and to extend the ransom offered by the ultimate go’el, the Redeemer who came to give His own life as a ransom for many.