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God’s heart, meaning the core of his desires, is to gather people into families. The Bible has words for this: adoption and redemption. There is a spiritual reality of God desiring all people to be saved, a part of his family, but there is also a practical reality. God desires his people in our families, and in our church families, to gather into family those who are without.
God’s Heart for Gathering People into Families: Ruth 4
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Ruth, chapter 4. Ruth is a brief text in the old testament, right before the much larger books of 1st and 2nd Samuel.
This is the last sermon in a series we’ve been in since the start of the year, looking at the meaning of marriage and singleness. We need to have a right view of singleness, because singleness is a gift God sees fit to give to everyone, both when you’re young and in the resurrection, at the least. And right now we’re mostly giving single people horrible advice, telling them they need to get married, telling them it will solve their loneliness, their sexual sin, improve their lives. When the reality is, singleness is a gift for you, for the community, and for the church.
And we all need to have a healthy view of marriage, because we all play a role in supporting the marriages and families among us, in raising the children, in keeping the marriages strong, in allowing those small, daily family lives to stabilize us when we need to be stabilized.
I wanted to end this series with a topic that means a great deal to me, just in my personal life experiences, but today we’re going to look at children, widows, orphans, and God’s heart for gathering people into families.
Read with me, Ruth, chapter 4, and we’re going to read the chapter. [Ruth 4] This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
Before I talk about our specific passage, I want to make some observations about the book of Ruth in general. I’ve been sticking to the New Testament somewhat intentionally, just because we just spent half a year in Isaiah, and we’re going to spend most of this year in the proverbs, but God kept bringing Ruth to my mind this week, over and over again, and I’m learning to trust him just a little to know what everyone needs to hear.
This is what I want you to realize about the book of Ruth. I want you to realize how strange, how unusual, how wonderful it is that we’re able to read and know anything about Ruth at all.
This is what started me thinking about Ruth this week: I was talking with a friend of mine, a pastor in the city, like me, but unlike me he’s a veteran. He’s been pastoring for over 40 years here, and for those 40 years, he’s been pastoring inside of public housing projects. For most of his life he pastored two churches, one in suburban New Orleans which was able to pay his salary, and one in the Fisher projects over by Adam and Meg where I used to teach school, which earned him nothing.
His goal was to raise an entire generation of children in the projects who would be healthy and whole; who would grow up loving God, loving people, well-provided for, well-educated, and well-cared for.
He told me there was a person who came for a little while when he was about 15 years into this ministry, who took part in the ministry for a couple months, and then wrote a book about it and gained fame and fortune for it. Meanwhile, my friend was here in relative obscurity doing the work, and by now I’ve probably helped exactly none of you to understand why I’m preaching out of Ruth.
I was struck this week, after that conversation and a few others, how remarkable this little book of Ruth is, because stories like this don’t usually get told or remembered. Widows in that time were a forgotten people. In genealogies, even the most renowned women aren’t usually even named, and then there’s the book of Ruth. This is a book about a widow-refugee working as a field hand who marries a farmer in ancient Israel, circa 1350BC, and her mother-in-law watches the baby for them. You didn’t miss anything, that’s the actual end of the story.
Why does this book exist? Why was it painstakingly preserved through thousands of years of the people of God for us to read today? I want you to realize the mere existence of this book reveals the heart of God over the ages for people who are small, unimportant, living in the daily struggle. To our God, the forgotten people are famous. Our God sees the people everyone else tends to ignore, and he cares for them, even if others won’t.
Just to give you some perspective, the next book I’m aware of which has, as the main characters of the text, everyday people facing everyday challenges, is a book called the Canterbury Tales, written almost 3000 years after this book of Ruth. Everything else is kings and wars, gods and philosophy.
I want you to understand this because I want you to know how much God cares about everyday people in their everyday struggles, and how much God cares about you. He cares about you. Even if your life is unremarkable, and your biggest accomplishment in it is to care for children or an aging relative, like Ruth’s mother-in-law. Even if no one really sees whatever it is you do, and no one cares, God sees you, and he cares, and God is enough.
A few things about this passage stand out to me that I want to mention. First the sandal thing stands out to me, because it’s bizarre. I think we need to go back to this. Imagine going to close on the purchase of your house, or signing the official lease, right, but instead of signing, everyone has to take off their shoes and hand them to the other person. That would be a step in a hilarious, and in my mind, the right direction.
Another thing that stands out to me is the clear picture of redemption we get in this chapter. Redemption is one of those words you hear in church in phrases like, “let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” and I think most of us probably have the word in a category in our heads lumped with words like saved, born again, repented, rescued. And that’s not a bad way of thinking of redemption—God’s heart is to bring into his Church, his kingdom, all those who are lost and perishing outside the walls. God has called each and every one of us to evangelize and share the gospel in hopes of the salvation of the lost; but we have to share the gospel in word and deed, otherwise our words are empty. And we see, in our passage this morning, a clear picture of redemption in the everyday, on a level we can understand, and there’s something more for us to learn of redemption, marriage, and family here.
God’s heart is to bring people into loving, healthy families. God’s heart, meaning the center of his will, the core of his purpose, God’s heart is to bring people into loving, healthy families. So in speaking of marriage and singleness, a large part of the purpose of both gifts is creating loving, healthy families, and bringing into those families anyone who is in need of family. Family is one of the primary needs of humanity.
Ruth, at this point, is a widow in a society where widows aren’t considered able to handle labor, so not only has her husband died, but she has no real way to make a living. She’s thought to be barren after her ten-year childless marriage, and after that much time, she’s too old to be married. She’s also a refugee from a people Group Israel usually looks down upon and rejects, like the relationship between the United States and Mexico, unfortunately. She also has with her her mother-in-law, also a widow, who is too old to bear children, and in that society would be considered unable to be married, a needy person who needs looking after. Naomi, upon returning to her own people, renames herself bitterness, because she thinks herself cursed.
Ruth is at the very bottom of this society, and there is nothing she can do—no amount of work, no amount of effort, to build any kind of future for herself anywhere close to living the way people were created to live. I think because the book is named after her, and because she was in our children’s bibles, we assume Ruth is some great woman, famous perhaps, a hero of faith. But we lose something in our reading of Ruth if we don’t realize that the background of the story is the opposite, that no man has anything to gain from marrying her. Anyone who marries this woman will be looked down on for doing it, like Hosea when he married the prostitute, if you’re familiar with that story. There will be no dowry, no honor, only scandal and whispers.
Boaz, the man Ruth marries in our passage, not only sees her, acknowledges her, and speaks with her. He also feeds her when she’s hungry, and he gives her enough to feed her mom. Then he goes and speaks with the only other family member they have, the one who by God’s law should have redeemed her. He tells this man about the death of Ruth’s husband, and the man immediately realizes he stands to inherit wealth, the land that used to belong to her husband. He’s eager to take the land. But then Boaz tells him about Ruth, how she’s still alive, how she has her mother-in-law with her, and note his response.
Immediately, almost as if he’s offended at the suggestion, he changes his mind, he tells Boaz he doesn’t want the inheritance anymore. He gives his reason, my Bible says, “lest I impair my own inheritance,” but the word there for impair means to corrupt and ruin. He sees Ruth as ruining his own good name, even if they were to have children, he sees the biracial kids as a corruption of his lineage. He wants nothing to do with her.
But Boaz, knowing the heart of God for the widow, the refugee, brings them into his family, his name, his inheritance. He marries Ruth, brings her mother-in-law, Naomi, to live with them, and God gives children, as he often does in the history of salvation, to this woman who was thought to be barren. I’m sure there were those people in their town who pointed fingers and shamed their family. But, listen: God is able to take our shame and make it glorious.
The truth is, Boaz, in caring for the vulnerable, is bringing his name and reputation in line with God’s own. The truth is, through this marriage, Boaz will be the grandfather of the greatest king Israel would know apart from the Lord, himself. Eventually, they will be in the lineage of Christ, himself. The truth is, by taking part in redemption, Boaz places himself in the middle of the will of God for the world and for his family.
Boaz probably took a financial hit with this, paying Naomi the full price of the land, marrying this woman without an inheritance. I’m sure the other man, the one who refused to redeem the family, made an advantageous match eventually. Maybe won a place of honor in the synagogue, in the market. Ask yourself, which is of more value, wealth or redemption? Your answer to that question depends upon whether you are considering yourself only, or also the community around you. Can you imagine the moment when Ruth first tells Naomi she’s going to have a child? After waiting for decades, after four deaths in the family, finally new life through redemption.
Do you see why Paul picks up this language of redemption when he talks in the new testament about the salvation offered to us in Christ? We, once, were outside of the kingdom with nothing to offer our redeemer but ourselves, such as we are. And it brings him shame to be associated with us, because we sin and are broken, and have shameful histories. Our peoples have shameful histories. But he went to every pain, every trouble to bring us into his family, his name, his inheritance, his nation. We once were just like Ruth, and Christ still redeemed us.
We, as God’s people today, are to fashion our families after redemption, and we’re meant to fashion our local churches toward redemption as well, both spiritual redemption, and the more practical sort of redemption we see here in Ruth. In the New Testament, over and again, the biblical authors write that the local church is meant to function as a family and redeem the vulnerable. If a church is healthy, it’s able to offer them family, a name, and an inheritance of thriving. When you do that sort of thing, there are those who are ready to point fingers at you and say you’re muddying, ruining your inheritance and your name, but really the opposite is true. Redemption, body, soul, and mind, is the heart of God.
This looks like caring for widows and orphans, only in our society we use a few more words and have a few more categories. We usually call widows “the elderly,” “the aging,” “refugees,” “trafficking survivors,” or “single moms.” We usually call orphans “foster children” or “homeless.” And we’ve created, in our society, various structures to house and care for these vulnerable people. At their best, refugee shelters, homeless shelters, foster homes, and nursing homes can be a family and provide a nurturing place for a vulnerable person. At their worst, such places prey upon widows and orphans. Churches began many of these institutions and then disengaged.
In 1975, Southern Baptists in Louisiana employed an immigration lawyer, ran four homeless shelters with full-time staff and social workers, a hospital, a church-based nursing home here in New Orleans, as well as a group foster home in Monroe. Six of those structures don’t exist anymore, and the other two are underfunded and largely forgotten. We need to reengage to show the heart of God for the vulnerable.
Some of you are hearing this and feeling guilty, wanting to do more. Ignore that guilt. Confess your own limitedness, instead, in that you will not be able to do this by yourself, and our church will not be able to do this by ourselves. Instead of guilt, ask the Spirit for conviction and guidance on your role and your part. Your role may be small, supportive. You may be the one who holds a steady job, comes to church, and tithes. Dear Lord, please bring us some people who hold steady jobs and tithe. You may be the gatherer, the one always inviting people, planning events, cooking meals, creating community. You may be the one who watches the child so mom can come and take part in shower Friday or Inward. You may be just a consistent part of a small group, loving and caring for the people in it, so we can be a real and healthy family here.
Ask yourself, are we as a church functioning as though the people in our congregation are a family? Do we love each other, spend time together, invite each other into our homes for a meal, use our gifts to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace? Do you, personally, feel loved and cared for here? Do you, personally, consider yourself to be using your gifts to serve the rest of the body? Because if not, we need you, if this is to be a family oriented toward redemption. We each do play a role in the redemptive nature of our families and church family.
Orienting our families and churches toward redemption will probably cause some people to point fingers, shake their heads. It may cost something. The only real advantage of orienting your family and church toward redemption is that redemption, body, soul, and mind is the heart of God.
In many ways, these institutions, church and family, are established by the Lord to enable redemption. The vulnerable are not difficult to find in our city. Family, here, is fractured. We live in a city of refugees, widows, grandmothers caring for children, and orphans. The functional family has become an oddity in our culture, a myth, like Bigfoot, where some people claim to have seen a healthy, functioning family at some point, but most others don’t believe it. If you try to talk about a family actually acting as a redemptive unit, people assume you’re hiding some dark secret.
This is a pendulum swing from the 1950’s, our grandparents’ generation. The mythology then was that almost every family was healthy and functioning, but as we know, many of those families were whitewashed tombs—nice-looking on the outside, but inside there was death and decay, just hidden from site, through a thin wall.
The truth is, left to ourselves, our cultural myths are reality. In our own power, our families will inevitably fracture and fall apart. They will do more damage than good to our parents, to our children, to our churches. But praise God, our families are not left to ourselves. Like Boaz in our passage, we have the word of God, and we have the Spirit of God to edify our families, to make us healthy, are able to do the work of redemption.
The book of Ruth ends with a widow caring for a young child, which reminds me of Jeremiah’s picture of Jerusalem at peace, where the old men watch the children playing in the streets. I hope, one day, to be an old man unafraid to be in my city streets, unafraid to allow my grandchildren to play in the streets here. An old man who comes to a church which welcomes and cares for me like family, which welcomes each and every person into a healthy and functioning family oriented toward redemption.
A church which preaches the redemption of the souls of those who are lost, and practices the redemption of people who are without family in this world. My invitation to you this morning is to find your part, your role in orienting our families toward redemption. Pray with me now.