Texts: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-40
[No audio today, just a working draft.]
This last week there was an interesting Twitter exchange involving Elon Musk, which is to say that this last week was an ordinary week. This particular exchange began when the head of the UN World Food Program said that 42 million people are currently at risk of starving. He went on to challenge some of the world’s most wealthy people, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, saying that a one-time donation of $6 billion would stave off this disaster. Musk responded, via Twitter, saying that if the World Food Program could show him that $6 billion could solve world hunger, he would give it immediately.
Astute observers noticed that even $6 billion would not “solve” world hunger permanently. What it would do, in addition to what various agencies are already doing, is make a significant difference in the short run. World hunger is too complex a thing to be ‘solved’ by a one-time donation, even one comprised of billions of dollars.
But here is the astounding thing. At the point of that Twitter exchange, according to the CBC, $6 billion represented only 2% of Musk’s wealth. For only 2% of the wealth of one individual the starvation of 42 million people could be averted. How is it possible that we are at a point where this is both a fact and it has not already been done? What possible happiness does +/- 2% add to the life of one wealthy individual that is not outweighed by the lives of 42 million?
The very wealthy in our world have the resources to care for millions of other people, to provide the most basic of necessities—food. What the very wealthy lack is the willingness. We might even say that what they lack is love for these others. They have the resources, but they lack the care. They have the properly ordered investments, but not the properly ordered affections.
Last week we observed the Naomi, the biblical character, was forced to leave her homeland because of the risk of starvation. She and her family were displaced. Then Naomi’s husband died. Then her sons died. One of her daughters-in-law left her as well. Naomi set out to return to her homeland with Ruth, her second daughter-in-law. They went, as do all displaced people, with a gritty hope for security and a viable future.
We were picking on Elon Musk just a bit ago. The reality is that the potential for extreme concentration of wealth is a very old problem. The same concern lies at the heart of the land ethic in the legal and historical books of the Hebrew Bible. And it forms the legal background for this passage from the book of Ruth.
A few verses from the book of Leviticus show what I mean. Remember that Leviticus contains the law that guided the community life of ancient Israel. It’s a sort of community owner’s manual. These verses are from chapter 25, where God is speaking to the people through Moses:
“The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. If, however, there is no one to redeem it for them but later on they prosper and acquire sufficient means to redeem it themselves, they are to determine the value for the years since they sold it and refund the balance to the one to whom they sold it; they can then go back to their own property. But if they do not acquire the means to repay, what was sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee. It will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.”
The ancient Hebrews were herders and farmers, so having farmland was essential. As we heard, the law included two statutes to prevent the centralization of wealth. First, the sale of land outside the family was not entirely permanent. You, or a relative (one of your kin), could always buy it back. That is, the land could be redeemed.
Second, every 50 years the land was automatically returned to the family that owned it and debts were cancelled. These two statutes were part of the basic economic structure of the ancient Hebrew society. They were intended to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and to ensure that most people had the means to provide for themselves
Our reading from Ruth relates to the first of these statutes: the provision for a member of one’s kinfolk to buy back land—that is, to redeem it. All the talk about ‘redemption’ in the Bible and in the Christian spiritual tradition goes back to this concept.
Indeed, even the descriptions of God’s saving the ancient Israelites is called “redemption.” In Exodus 6 we read that God said to the Israelites, who had become the possession of the Egyptians, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will make you my people, and I will be your God.” That is, they would be bought back.
Ruth and Naomi arrived in Naomi’s homeland, with Ruth now being the foreigner. All that they had were kinship ties and title to an old piece of property.
The passage that we read earlier recounted how Ruth approached Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi; how Boaz and Ruth were married and then how God blessed them with a son named Obed, who became the grandfather of king David.
What our reading skipped over was the technical, legal wrangling worked out by Boaz so that he could marry Ruth. Marrying Ruth came with the requirement of buying the property owned by Naomi’s late husband.
Someone who was a closer relation to Naomi than Boaz had the right of first refusal. This relative was interested farmland but not a wife, so he turned the option down. The official sign of this forfeiture was exchanging a sandal with Boaz. [I wish this was still the case: you buy a house, and you exchange a shoe with the former owner.]
So, we should observe that the other relative had a legitimate claim to the property of Naomi’s late husband. He also had the financial resources to redeem it. What he lacked was the will. We might even say that what he lacked was care for Ruth. To this other relative, the well-being of Ruth and Naomi was a burden to be avoided. But Boaz was different. Not only did he have the family connection and the financial resources, but he also had the desire for relationship.
What does all this mean for us? Where do we find God’s grace in this refugee story?
I think two things present themselves in this regard. First, the story of Ruth should remind us of how deeply concerns about poverty and vulnerability are woven into the Bible. Remember that the story of Naomi and Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. It predates all the stuff about prophets and kings. And even here we see how part of God’s mission is to set up a people/a society in such a way that everyone in the community has the means to sustain themselves.
Boaz and his crew weren’t just allowing Ruth to glean because they were nice. It was the law (Lev. 19, 23; Deut. 24). Naomi’s relatives were invited to buy the land of her husband, so that land couldn’t be bought up the by richest person. It was the law.
This concern for the vulnerable runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament. Mary’s song tells us that through Jesus, God will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry. The rich will go away empty. They already have enough. In the book of Acts we read that a key practice of the early church was providing mutual assistance. Those that had more would share with those that had less. It wasn’t the law of the land, they didn’t control that, but it was the expectation of the Christian community.
So, yes, concerns about poverty and vulnerability are woven tightly into the fabric of the Bible.
Second, as I noted earlier, this law of redemption is one of the ways that early Christian’s understood the life and ministry of Jesus. In the book of Luke, right after Mary’s song, there is a prophetic oracle given by a priest named Zechariah. He describes God’s work as “redemption.” In Jesus’ own prophetic sermon in Luke 21 he talks about the “redemption” of his people being at hand. And in the book of Hebrews, the universal impact of Jesus’ life and ministry is attributed to his being our relative—our kin.
This has long been seen as one of the layers of meaning in the story of Ruth. We are like Ruth. We are on a journey through life. We are outsiders. We are not people of the covenant by birth. Death and selfishness have a claim on us. We are their victims and their enablers. There is little we can do to exit the negative cycle they perpetuate.
Death and selfishness do not love us. They would feed themselves upon our lives. Except that Jesus is our Boaz. Jesus is our redeeming kin. Through Jesus God liberates us to freedom, to flourishing and to love.
To encounter Jesus is to encounter one who not only has the resources to break the fearful claims of death and selfishness, but also the willingness, the willingness grounded in love, the willingness, the deep desire, to set us free, to give us a future. We worship a God who is willing to redeem us—to buy us back—even though it is costly.