“Ruth: A Redemptive Story of Loving Kindness!”
Pastor Jerry Ingalls
July 23, 2017
What comes to your mind when you hear the word redemption?
If you are a regular church goer or if you attended Sunday School as a child you are probably thinking: JESUS! Yes, that’s always a safe answer in church.
But this is what I have in mind this morning: [Slide #2: picture coke bottles].
Coke bottles! Yes, now you might be thinking: What do coke bottles have to do with redemption? Let’s look at the picture. What does it say on the side of that bottle: “return for deposit.” I grew up in a small town in northern Connecticut in the 1970s & 80s. As a kid, I wanted to have some spare change for important purchases, especially when the ice cream truck came by the neighborhood. I used to look for used cans and bottles to make a few dollars, one nickel at a time. The empty bottles and useless cans were discarded by people who drank their contents. I would go through garbage cans, walk along streets, and even go door to door to ask for their redeemable cans and bottles. I would rescue each of them, then I would redeem them at the local grocery store.
Today, we recycle used bottles, cans, plastics, and papers so that they can be redeemed for future use. That which had been discarded as useless is redeemed for a future useful purpose.
Redemption is a common economic word and a daily interaction for many of us. It’s a very practical concept!
According to the dictionary, to redeem means to buy back; to win back; to free from distress or captivity by payment; to bring back to usefulness. Redemption is a reversal of a bad situation! Redemption is an important word in the Scriptures, but before it was a theological word, it was a practical one. So, in a very practical way I ask this question: How does God redeem people? How does God win people back, freeing us from distress and returning us to usefulness?
To answer this question, let’s now look at the Old Testament story of Ruth. On the way to discovering the answer, we will learn a few things about God and the people in Ruth’s story. But at the end I believe you will be surprised by the answer and how practical it is in your daily lives. We will learn how God redeems people.
As we open our Bible to the story of Ruth we will see that it is the eighth book in the Old Testament. Ruth is the book right after the book of Judges because the story of Ruth is set in this very difficult time of Israel’s history (Ruth 1:1 says, “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land”). The time of Judges was when there was no central government or military leadership. There was no king. “Everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). It was a chaotic time of external oppression and internal corruption. The people of God hated everyone outside of their own people and did not trust one another. The people of God had stopped looking to God for deliverance, but God never stopped seeing the people’s need for redemption.
Within this national cycle of rebellion (with God and one another), Ruth’s story is very specifically set within the personal needs of a widow named Naomi. The next sentences focus Ruth’s story to a specific situation. Ruth 1:3-5 describes Naomi’s plight, “Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.”
Naomi is now alone in a foreign land with two daughters-in-law to care for. She is not just in foreign territory, but in enemy territory because there is bad blood between the Israelites and the Moabites. And a widow in a patriarchal society has nowhere to turn: she has no husband and no sons to take care of her. Naomi doesn’t realize that God sees her situation and is working circumstances for her redemption. Naomi is bitter, angry, and she blames God. Listen to her lament in Ruth 1:20-21, “‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’”
Naomi’s despair causes her to feel like a discarded coke bottle: empty! Have you ever felt discarded and empty? Have you ever become bitter and angry at God because of your life circumstances?
But God in His loving kindness to Naomi has already been working circumstances for her redemption. God provides for Naomi through Ruth, but Naomi couldn’t see God’s provision at first. But God doesn’t stop there, through His providence, Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at just the right time of the year; at the beginning of the barley harvest. Furthermore, God provides through a rich and compassionate man named Boaz (Ruth 1:15-2:2).
Did you know that even when you don’t know it, God is working things together for not only your redemption, but other people’s redemption through you?
The stage is set. In doing so, we have learned about God and His providence: God not only sees the needs of these two widows, but He sets the circumstances for their redemption. But knowing this does not the answer the big question: How does God redeem people?
To find the answer to our big question we need to watch the people in Ruth’s story. Let me quickly summarize and give you the references to read on your own later.
Ruth was exceptionally loyal and faithful to Naomi. She committed herself to help Naomi until death separated them (Ruth 1:15-18).
Ruth’s loving kindness to her mother-in-law did not go unnoticed by Boaz, the “man of standing” whose fields Ruth would glean from. Boaz did not see Ruth as a discarded widow or as a despicable foreigner, he was very impressed by Ruth’s loyalty and loving kindness toward Naomi (Ruth 2:10-13).
Something very important happens next (the key to the whole story): Boaz’s loving kindness to Ruth is not lost on the once despondent Naomi. Listen to Naomi’s hope for a bright future emerging in Ruth 2:20, “‘The Lord bless him!’ Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. ‘He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’ She added, ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.’”
What Naomi refers to as a “kinsman-redeemer” is God’s provision in the Law to care for widows and orphans within an agricultural patriarchal society: The kinsman-redeemer was the closest male relative who had responsibility to marry a widow within the family and thereby protect the interests of needy members of the extended family. But, at the time of Judges, just because something was in the Law of God did not mean that the people would do that which God had provided for them as a form of protection and provision. Remember, at that time they were doing what was right to them in their own eyes, not God’s eyes.
Just like today, God has made great provision for his will to be done in the world, but His people don’t always do what His Word says. God’s people are still in the business of doing what is right in their own eyes. The consequences are tangible and visible in our families, churches, and communities.
In Ruth 3, Ruth follows Naomi’s wisdom and presents herself to Boaz inviting him to show them the loving kindness of protecting and providing for their future. She does so in a way that could be perceived as scandalous, but once again, Ruth’s reputation goes before her when she approaches Boaz unawares. Boaz experiences Ruth’s invitation as her extending to him the greatest gift of loving kindness she could have offered, herself, and he promises to reciprocate her practical act of loving kindness which will redeem both her and Naomi (Ruth 3:9-13).
In Ruth’s story, practical acts of loving kindness beget more of the same. In Ruth 4, Boaz faithfully keeps his promise and by the end of that day, the whole community has witnessed God’s covenant love to redeem Naomi. Boaz redeems two discarded women because of the practical acts of loving kindness of an ordinary everyday woman named Ruth. The community of God not only witnesses it, but they bless Boaz and Ruth’s marriage and future children (Ruth 4:11-12).
Here is the surprising answer to the big question: How does God redeem people?
God redeems people through people’s practical acts of loving kindness to one another. God rescues people back to Himself by people loving people. Never underestimate the ripple effect of a simple practical act of lovingkindness! God takes people who once thought of themselves as a discarded empty bottle and shows them they still have worth. How? By having a person show loving kindness to them. God’s redemption is put on display by ordinary people loving people in practical ways.
By the end of Ruth’s story, she goes from an unloved, unwanted outsider to a beloved, celebrated insider; all because of her loving kindness to Naomi and Boaz. And Naomi goes from being a woman who saw herself as cursed by God to being a woman called blessed of God. She was once insecure about her future and now was secure in her future. Naomi was redeemed through Ruth’s loving kindness to her and Boaz’s act of loving kindness to Ruth. God restored her family line and gave her a son. Listen to Ruth 4:13-17, “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’ 16 Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.’ And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.”
For us today, God still redeems people through our practical acts of loving kindness toward other people.
Allow me to give you one realistic example that can be modified for not just a workplace, but for a school or club, even for a family, because this is an everyday opportunity: You are at work and a new group of employees is hired. It is good to see the business doing well and it is nice to have some fresh blood around. Most of the new employees fit in immediately, but there is a middle-aged man who does not seem to fit. There is something about him that makes him feel like an outsider. Is it how he looks? Is it his accent? Is it some different habits that seem to stand out? After a few weeks, you notice that he is becoming more and more isolated and then the break room conversations start. Gossip begins. Looks linger. When he walks in the break room, conversations abruptly halt, and the awkwardness is tangible. You watch as he sits down at a table with some of his coworkers from the same department, but they stand up and walk away to another table. Oh no. Not again. You watch as his shoulders slump and the confusion goes over his face. Why do they do this? Not again! You go and sit with Isaac and start up a conversation. You apologize for your coworkers’ xenophobia and exclusive tendencies. As you get to know Isaac, you find a man rich with stories and life. A family man, a good person, a competent employee, an outsider who just wants to be a part of his new community and take care of his family. Your practical acts of loving kindness are received and a friendship grows. As people watch you over time and see how your families get along so well at the annual company Christmas party, you notice others coming over to apologize to him and introduce themselves. You smile as you watch Isaac beam with acceptance and hope for his future at this company and as a member of the community.
If Ruth is the heroin of the story, then Boaz is the hero. Ruth 4:18-22 shows how Boaz goes from being a kinsman-redeemer to one family to a part of the eternal royal blood line that would bless all families of the earth. Boaz is the great grandfather of King David through whose blood line Jesus Christ, the kinsman-redeemer of all humanity would come!
For us today, God still redeems people through our practical acts of loving kindness toward other people.
As you leave this place today, remember this picture [Slide #9: picture of coke bottles]. People are more valuable than a tossed away coke bottle. People are worth more to God than you can imagine.
There are people in our schools, neighborhoods, apartment buildings, factories and workplaces, who feel empty like a discarded coke bottle. Young and old. Rich and poor. Employed and Unemployed. There are single mothers and widows who need practical helps. There are non-traditional families and blended families who need love and open hearts. There are singles who desire family and to be welcomed in; to be included. There are elderly and sick people who need visits and care; to know they haven’t been thrown discarded. God is calling you today to take a step of obedience to be a part of His plan of redemption: Go show loving kindness in a practical way![Slide #10: picture of recycling] And the people in our community are more valuable than tossed away plastic containers, glass bottles, and cans. People are not garbage to God; they are redeemable! No matter the tragic situations of their lives, God rescues people for future use.
There are people who don’t feel welcomed by us, some are courageously sitting here anyways and some are not. Some have given up on churches in New Castle all together and are leaving town for church or not going to church at all. They have been told they are sitting in your seat. They have been walked by without a glance or they have been stared at too much. They have been talked about instead of talked to. There are people who feel excluded by us, who feel like they are an outsider. God is calling you today to take a step of obedience to be a part of His plan of redemption: Go show loving kindness in a practical way![Slide #11: #forHenry] How is God going to redeem the people in our communities?
Through you and me showing loving kindness one person at a time, in word and deed.