(Ruth 4 and Luke 4: 16-19)
During the summer months we’re following a short sermon series entitled ‘Names of God – Glimpses of His Character’. The Bible provides a whole range of names for God; each name, title or label revealing a different view of the nature and character of God. As we begin to understand the meaning of his names and to see him more clearly, we discover what God can do in our lives and what we, made in his image, might be called to do in response to this. Today we are thinking about God the Redeemer and Saviour.
So, how long have you lived in your present home? Moya and I bought our house in 1985; before that, we had a house in Eastleigh. My parents had owned their final home for about 43 years, before I sold it, after my mother died. Do you think of your home as something permanent in your life, as something of value, to use as you (and your landlord, if you have one) see fit and to keep or to sell as you (or the landlord) choose?
In ancient Israel, at the time of the Judges and before the Kings, which is when today’s scripture story of Ruth is set, property was thought of not as being owned by individuals but as belonging to God and, by God’s will, coming under the stewardship of families, who can farm the land and use or sell what they grow; the land can’t be bought and sold as we understand those terms today and would be handed down to the eldest son on the death of the male head of the family, but rights in the land might be transferred in some circumstances.
In the relatively poor agricultural environment of the near Middle East at that time, the people and the land were mutually dependent. If the area of land became diminished in some way it might not then be able to support the feeding of the people; if the number of people reduced, they might not be able to work the land to its full production. There were customary laws to deal with such critical situations.
For example, an independent man working on his land might become forced by circumstance into debt and have to sell himself to pay that debt, giving up his right to the proceeds from working the land. Alternatively, a man might die, through disease, war, accident, or a moment of uncontrolled madness, without having fathered a family to succeed him, causing the family land to lapse into unproductivity. In these cases the law provided that there should lie a burden of responsibility upon the nearest male next-of-kin to keep the land within the family by paying off the debt and by taking over the working of the land himself. This man was known as the Kinsman-Redeemer; he had a duty to redeem the land for the family.
In the story of Ruth, the man Elimelech was forced off his land in Bethlehem by famine and the family moved to the country of Moab; then, although Elimelech does provide a family before he dies, both of his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who had taken Moabite wives, also then die, so that Elimelech’s widow, Naomi, and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are left without the security of any male protection. Naomi is fearful and somewhat bitter at their misfortune.
The famine in Judah ends and Naomi decides to return to her family home in Bethlehem. Orpah returns to her Moabite family, but Ruth is determined to remain steadfastly loyal and faithful to Naomi, to her family and to her God. So, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem together and Naomi plans to find the necessary Kinsman-Redeemer to buy back her family’s rights in their land, which has been in a sort of limbo since Elimelech surrendered it or leased it to whoever made a loan to him at the time of the famine.
As often it may happen, God provides. Naomi knows Boaz, who is a close relative but not close enough to act as Kinsman-Redeemer, and arranges for Ruth to follow the workers on Boaz’s land, to glean for grain to provide food. Boaz, however, is aware of the identity of that closer relative, though it is not revealed to us in the story, he being simply referred to as Mr So-and-so, and, having taken a shine to Ruth, schemes to persuade him to give up his rights and duties in respect of redeeming Elimelech’s land in favour of Boaz, who is next in line as Kinsman-Redeemer.
For, although Mr So-and-so is happy at first to acquire Elimelech’s land to add to his own holding; when he learns that he will, by this transaction, also acquire the widow of Elimelech’s son Mahlon, that is, Ruth, and have to marry her and father a son through her to continue Elimelech’s and Mahlon’s family line, a son who will then inherit the land, rather than it passing to his own existing family, Mr So-and-so is not so keen on the idea, which will be costly to him and will not add anything of value to his own close family. He willingly concedes right of redemption to the, as yet, unmarried Boaz, who is prepared to accept the cost of this duty and who has arranged for this conversation to be witnessed by the necessary ten city elders, together with the curious custom of handing over a sandal, which makes the deal legally binding.
The sealing of the deal is followed by a remarkable blessing from the people, who express the hope that Ruth, her future now secured, will follow the example of Rachel and Leah, who (together with their slave girls) provided Jacob with their twelve sons who founded the twelve tribes of Israel, in producing a noteworthy family. And so, the story has a happy ending; Elimelech’s family inheritance is saved, and Boaz and Ruth marry and have a son, Obed, who will in turn go on to have a son, Jesse, the future father of the great future king, David; a truly noteworthy family indeed.
Also worthy of note is the words spoken by the women of Bethlehem to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”
It is, of course, God who has, all along, been at work here. The story is a lovely folk tale of ordinary people’s ordinary lives, of family values and social care, steadfast loyalty, faithfulness, commitment, trust, love, personal sacrifice, providence, redemption, restoration, blessing and salvation, both amongst Jews and, sometimes, between Jews and Gentiles. But the people only display these qualities because they, being made in his image, are reflecting what is, and always has been, part of the very essence of God himself.
Time and again, throughout the entire bible we read stories which, on close examination, express and reveal this truth, showing how stories about ordinary people’s lives relate to God’s wider and greater purposes. The story of Ruth itself has references and allusions to passages relating to the duty of redemption in the books of Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and there are other references to the person of the Redeemer in the books of Exodus, Chronicles, Samuel, Nehemiah, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Hosea, Micah and Zechariah.
The people of Israel took the figure of the Kinsman-Redeemer, and his actions as a restorer, as an image for God. The Kinsman-Redeemer’s responsibility was to accept an obligation to care for members of his wider family by putting his time, energy and resources into rebuilding the lives of those family members whenever that became necessary. That was what God did for Israel, treating the Israelites as family members and, even when they thoroughly deserved to be in the desperate circumstances in which they found themselves, graciously and lovingly putting his time, energy and resources into rebuilding their lives whenever that became necessary.
These images appear most often in the book of Isaiah, in the context of the exile, when Israel most needs such restoring. And it is the person of God’s servant, the Messiah, who will bring about that redemption. It is no surprise then to find that Jesus, speaking in the synagogue in Nazareth, quotes from Isaiah in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Though there will be moments when we may not see this, or feel it, God continues his work of redemption today. Delivering good news, release, recovery, freedom and favour for those most in need; these are the actions of the true Kinsman-Redeemer, and, in quoting these words, Jesus associates himself directly with that role. For he is our Deliverer, Redeemer and Saviour; setting us free by his costly self-sacrifice to share in the abundant, fruitful, joyful and hopeful life of God’s family, taking away our bitterness, fear and pain, forgiving our sins and leading us into the warmth and security of the way of truth and love.
And how are we to respond to God’s redeeming and saving grace?
Well, humble and grateful thanks of course, expressions of praise and glory to God and a deepening of our trust in him; but more than that too. We may not have given much thought before to the idea of ourselves as having a share in the responsibility of redemption but, as Christians, we are called, both individually and collectively, as the church, to show solidarity with and to care for our brothers and sisters; not only those closest to us but all who are in need in our wider family. And how wide does that family extend? …… Worldwide is the answer. Remember the words of Jesus, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Which leaves plenty of opportunity for redeeming ahead of us; with the guidance of God, the Great Redeemer.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.