Shepherdphobia and the Kingdom of God (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Psalm 23
Jeremiah 23:1-8
Luke 15:1-7

As I was preparing for this weeks sermon, I realized that I had not quite finished Ruth.  There was one strand that has been tied up.  It was actually a question Caedmon had asked that made me think about it more.  I have touched on it a bit, but the more I thought about it and struggled with it, the more I realized there was more work to be done.  We have resolved the issue of the family line with the birth of Obed.  Ruth has shown herself to be a noble woman by demonstrating her loyalty and devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi.   As a result Ruth has found rest in her home, with a husband, and a child.  Boaz has shown great kindness to Ruth and redeemed his family and now has a wife and a son.  We know the birth of this son leads to King David and eventually to Jesus Christ.  However, what becomes of Naomi?   She has suffered greatly in this story losing a husband and two sons.  We see her in the final scene, but we are giving no indication as to her thoughts.

So a good story does not necessarily tie everything.  Sometimes issues are left unresolved.  Sometimes questions are left unanswered.  Sometimes we are left wondering more about a particular character or event.  We never learn what Billy Murray whispered to Scarlett Johanssen at the end of “Lost in Translation,” is Leonardo DiCaprio dreaming or not at the end of “Inception,” what exactly was Willis talking about?  

Literature is quite fond of this device and often uses unresolved questions to make a point.  Many of you have probably read the short story “The Lady or the Tiger.”  The story goes like this - a king creates an arena for people convicted of a crime.  The accused enters the arena and before him are two doors.  Behind one door is a fierce, hungry tiger and behind the other is a woman who is deemed an appropriate match for the accused man.  If the accused man picks the door with the woman, he then marries the woman.  If he picks the other door he is eaten by the tiger.  The idea is that his guilt or innocence is proven by fate.  

Now the twist in this story is that the king has a daughter who falls in love with a handsome brave man but who is of a class too low for his daughter.  The king sends the man to the arena, but his daughter the princess actually knows what is behind each door and signals to the man which door he should pick.  The question is does the princess save the man’s life and allow him to marry another woman or does her jealousy of him marrying another woman lead her to have him choose the door with the tiger.  The story ends without telling us.  The lack of a resolution draws the reader in so the reader can examine the character and attitude of the princess to try and determine what kind of person she really is in a way that the reader would not otherwise. By using this device, the story forces the reader to a closer examination of the story.  

You can find examples of this same devise used in stories in the Bible.  One example comes from one our readings.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the prodigal son asks for his inheritance before the death of his father.  The father graciously gives it to him, but the son leaves his home wasting the inheritance on mere hedonistic, self indulgence.  As a result the son becomes broke and is forced to beg his father to take him on as a common field hand.  The father will have none of this and graciously restores his position and in his joy throws a big party for him.  However, there is another character in the story, the prodigal son has an older brother.  

The other brother resents his fathers indulgence of his younger brother who has been nothing but an insult to the family and has severely wronged their father.  The older son resents the treatment his brother is given and confronts his father.  Here is the fathers reply, “Son, you are always with me, and what is mine is yours.  It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive, he was lost, and is found.”

The story ends with the father’s response.  We are not told if the older brother accepted the father’s response.  We are not told if the older brother continued to resent his younger brother.  We are simply left with the question unanswered.  I do not think this is because the story is just not interested in answering this question, or Jesus just decided to cut off the story there.  Why introduce the character of the older brother if he is unimportant?  As I have said before, the Biblical text is pretty economical in its story telling.  There is not a lot of filler.  We don’t come across sentences that say, “The morning mist rose early on the Jordan river.”  If there is a detail included, in this case the older brother, then that detail is there for a reason.  

The parable of the prodigal son is told as a challenge to the Pharisees who were upset that Jesus was receiving sinners and eating with them.  The story is Jesus’ defense for this practice and so when the Pharisees hear this story they are supposed to see themselves cast into the role of the older brother.  Jesus leaves the story without resolution to force the Pharisees to examine themselves and their character.  How will they respond to the father’s response that celebration is fitting and what is lost is now found?  

Now let us return to Ruth and examine this story from Naomi’s point of view.  The story of Ruth begins with Naomi and her family leaving their homeland because of a famine.  Naomi’s family is from Bethlehem which means house of bread.  God had given a certain portion of the land to Naomi’s family for their inheritance.  The family has abandoned the Promised land to go to the land of their enemies, the Moabites.  

The result is that Naomi’s husband and two sons die.  In that society her worth as a woman was based on the continuation of the family line.  As her sons die childless, her family line ends.  Her life is a failure.  Ironically, she left the house of bread and comes back empty.  

Now it is unclear what Naomi thought of the decision to move to Moab.  This was a very male dominated society and it is unclear if Naomi would have played any role in this decision.  Naomi may have protested, she may have agreed, she may have had no opinion, we do not know.  However, because her husband Elimelech was the one with the authority, we must charge him with the consequences of what happened.   

Naomi will eventually make the decision to return to Bethlehem because she had heard that the Lord had visited people and given them food.  There are very few places in Ruth where God is mentioned and even less where God is explicitly said to act, so this statement is significant.  God is at work in Bethlehem and Naomi is returning home to her family and friends after 10 years of exile in Moab.  Here is how she describes her situation though, “the hand of the Lord has gone against me.”  The text clearly tells us that God is at work but Naomi sees a God who is in opposition to her.  Naomi no longer sees any evidence of God’s goodness.  

When Naomi arrives at Bethlehem, she tells the women who knew her before her departure, “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty.  Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  Naomi’s name means pleasant, but she now finds her name a cruel joke.  

Now I do not want us to be harsh to Naomi.  Other characters in the Bible express deep dismay.  Job loses everything too and even though he refuses to curse God, he sees the hand of God against him.  From our vantage point, removed from this story, we should not be too quick to judge her.  She has seen everyone around her die and now has no prospects for security.  Who among us would not doubt the goodness of God?  

Chapter 1 of Ruth contains and interesting word play.   Naomi plans to return to Bethlehem.  If you will recall the Hebrew word for return is shuv.  This is the same word that is also translated repentance.  

Ruth whose names means satisfy, is anything but satisfied.  In many ways her situation mirrors Naomi.  She too has lost a husband.  She too has seen her dreams of providing children dashed and now she travels to a land she does not know to a people who will likely not accept her since she is a Moabite.  She also uses the word return which is significant since she has never been to Bethlehem.  I think the point the text is trying to make is that Naomi is returning in a physical sense, but is not returning in the more abstract sense.  Naomi has separated herself from God and any many ways is still in exile.  For her God is the enemy.  

Ruth finds redemption through Boaz in this story and in many ways we see Naomi redeemed through Ruth.  Boaz sees God at work amid Naomi and Ruth’s tragedy praying in expectation that God will repay her for her loyalty to Naomi and in expectation that God would provide a refuge for Ruth.  For Boaz and Ruth, God is on their side - God is good and will work for their benefit.  

In 4:13 the text tells us that the Lord provides Ruth with a son.  This is the second time the text attributes an action explicitly to God.  The other villagers of Bethlehem see this and their words challenge Naomi’s view, “Blessed by the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer and may his name be renowned in Israel.  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.”  

In one way we can view the story of Ruth as an argument as to whether or not God is good.  There are two testimonies that run through this book.  One is the very real tragedy that confronts these women.  We cannot ignore it or minimize it.  It is real and painful and harsh and rightly causes us to question the goodness of God.  It is true that Naomi gets a grandson at the end, but does this automatically make everything better?  

There is an interpretation of Job that is commonly given - Job loses everything, his wife and children all die, he is afflicted with illness.  In the end, Job’s fortune is restored.  He is given twice what he had before.  He has seven more sons and three daughters.  Some people look at this and conclude that everything is great and it all balances out because of the ending.  I do not that I think that is true.  If you lost your wife and kids and later had a new wife and kids would you feel like everything is great?  

The interesting is that the Bible presents God as all powerful and good and at the same time allows very real tragedy.  The tragedy is never glossed over or minimized but presented as a reality a fact of life in this world.  Sometimes the tragedy is the result of a person’s action.  Sometime’s no explanation is given.  Is Naomi complicit and the death or her children and husband fitting punishment for her decision?  Is Job complicit?  The whole book of Job seems to indicate that despite the arguments of his friend, Job is not.   

Here is a quote by no less than John Calvin.  If you know anything about Calvin, it is that he has a very high view of the sovereignty of God.  Yet even Calvin warns against this type of interpretation.  “Therefore, the interpreters who attribute all suffering indiscriminately to sin are fools- as though all were punished equally, or as though in afflicting men, God had regard only to each man’s desert!”  When Jesus is asked why a boy was born blind, was it because of his sin or his parents?  Jesus replies very emphatically and clearly, “neither.”  The Bible never makes the problem of evil easy and digestible and any attempt to make it so is bound to be false.  

Job and Ruth are far from alone in staging a debate about the goodness of God using competing viewpoints.  We find it in the Psalms, the laments of Jeremiah, and Habakkuk.  We find it expressed in Ecclesiastes.  If you recall from my earlier sermon series on Ecclesiastes I spent a lot of time setting up the tension between the passages that see life as in vain with no profit and the goodness expressed in food, drink, the pleasure of family life and work.  Do we see the vanity of the world as evidence that God is our enemy or do we see the evidence of pleasure, joy, and happiness as evidence that God is good.  

Naomi’s story is part of this struggle.  Here is the thing, we are left without knowing what conclusion Naomi arrives at.  The tension is not resolved.  She is praised by the community, but we never hear from Naomi.   We do not know if her experience in Bethlehem leads her to renounce her former claim that God is against her.  

The text certainly reinforces the case that God is good.  Not only is God seen explicitly in his actions of restoring bread to the people of Bethlehem and providing a son for Ruth, but the story is filled with occurrences and even coincidences that lead to the redemption of Ruth.  We are told Ruth happens to come to a field belonging to Boaz.  The word happen is used like coincidence, yet this is not a concept we typically find in the Old Testament.  The word is used to create an incongruity for the reader as if it is meant to make us wonder what is really happening.  Later Boaz waits at the gate and the redeemer who Boaz needs to relinquish his rights just so happens to come by.  

So if the text seems to be indicating that God is good and can be trusted, why do we not see a dramatic difference or change in Naomi?  Why are we left wondering if she has ever really returned?  Why despite, the dramatic testimony of the people of the town do we not hear an announcement from Naomi?

I think for the same reason we do are not told the response of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son.  Jesus left the ending ambiguous because he wanted the Pharisees to see themselves through the eyes of the older brother and to contemplate how they should respond.  In the same way Naomi’s mindset is a mystery because we are meant to see ourselves in her.  When we experience tragedy and suffering in this world will we still believe that God is good or will we see it as evidence that God is against us?

I think Ruth gives us three very practical points to help us with this question.  First, though out the book of Ruth we can see evidence of God at work.  The intervention of  God in the world is what theologians call this providence.  I have related some examples of God’s providence in this story.  Sometimes God accomplishes blessing through ordinary means - Ruth happening to glean in the field of this man Boaz.  Boaz happening to be at the gate and when the closer redeemer comes by.  God also accomplishes through miraculous means.  It is likely there is some issue involved with infertility since Ruth and her first husband Mahlon were married for ten years without children and then we are told the Lord gave her conception.  Both of these aspects of God’s providence are interwoven in Ruth.  

However, for Naomi and for us the question is do we see these in our lives?  The redemption of Naomi will depend upon her viewing these occurrences not as random events, but as examples of God working His goodness in her life.  We too need to look at our lives and examine the events that lead to the blessing and joy in our lives and see them attributed to God.  Tragedy will happen but will so will joy and we need to always look for the hand of God in this.

Second, the story of Ruth is a story that fits into a bigger picture.  Last week we saw how the story of Ruth fits into a much bigger picture because the son who will be born to her leads to the Messiah.  No less than the redemption of the world was brought about as a result of the actions of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.  See the thing about Israel that held them together more than anything else was that they saw themselves as part of a story that was going somewhere.   Their history was destined for an ending and every person could have recited that God had acted in the past to redeem them from Egypt and at some point God would return and take his special people and rescue them from all their afflictions and set the world straight.  

Abraham whose name means father of many nations was promised descendants that outnumber the stars in the sky.  He was promised a great land that would bless all the peoples of the earth.  Abraham died with one child and the only land he ever owned was a small field to bury his wife.  Here is what the book of Hebrews says about Abraham, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.  And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs to the same promise.  For he was looking toward the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who was promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.  These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seem them and greeted them from afar.”  

It was a belief that Abraham was part of God’s story that allowed him to be faithful.  I go back again tho the verse in 1 Corinthians that you are tired of hearing me quote from, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not vain.”  The suffering of Naomi and Ruth was not in vain.  All things are working together for good.  

Now as I thought of this question of what was it about Ruth that led her to return and what was it that Naomi lacked that made her return questionable, it led me to the third point of application - humility.  You see Ruth’s life is characterized by humility.  She gives up everything she holds dear - her family, her land, and her gods to return with Naomi.  Ruth acknowledges that she is a poor, widow and takes up the task of gleaning.  Her action before Boaz was also the result of a woman who was desperate and willing to take drastic actions because of her humility.  The result is that she is exalted by the
elders and the women of the town.  This is a constant theme throughout the Bible that those who humble themselves are exalted.  

We have talked about the actions of the woman who poured the expensive perfume on Jesus and washed his feet with her hair.  I noted the parallels between the expression of love of this woman that was in many ways shameful on one level and could be viewed as impertinent on a another level and the action of Ruth at the threshing floor with Boaz.  Here is what Jesus said about this woman who was unashamed to humble herself, “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”  In the same way Ruth’s acts of humility are also proclaimed.  

So the question of the sermon is does Naomi return?  What is her response to her suffering?  Really though the question is what will our response be to the tragedy and suffering that will surely effect our lives and those around us.  What the story of Ruth tells us is that our hope depends on us seeing the work of God around us in ordinary and extraordinary ways, having faith that the events of our life are not just one thing after another but part of a story that has an ending where all the bad things are undone, and that we must follow the example of Ruth and approach our lives with humility.  Those who humble themselves will be exalted.