211107 – Bittersweet

Yr B ~ Pentecost 24 ~ Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

We pick up the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz after Ruth has been given permission and protection to glean (which means to gather up crops after the main harvesters have gone through) in Boaz’s fields. If you missed last week you can get the first part of the story in the posted sermon on our website (or watch through last week’s YouTube livestream). But here’s the quick recap. Naomi experiences famine, a move, the deaths of her husband and sons, a return to her homeland, and especially the kindness and loyalty of her daughter-in-law Ruth. Now back in Bethlehem they need to make a life for themselves, but being widowed women in that culture, they had limits on what they could do. So Ruth turns to gleaning. She’s been gleaning for two months. To continue the story we need to make a couple of assumptions.

The first is that during this time Ruth and Boaz have developed a relationship, but it has not progressed. By that I mean, she’s a widowed woman and he’s a man with no wife, but he hasn’t pursued ‘that kind’ of relationship. There’s a number of possibilities here. The best guess is that he is such an honourable man that he thinks he’s too old for Ruth so he has given her the space to perhaps catch the eye of a younger, richer man. (Boaz more or less says that later in the story.)

Another assumption we have to make is that Naomi is not content to sit back and let the fates rule her life. Security is a supremely high value for her. It was there in Ruth 1:9, and it’s here again in Ruth 3:1. As a widow Naomi has little protection, less security, and not many rights. As an older widow she probably presumes she herself is unlikely to attract another husband, so she conjures a plan to leverage what little agency she has in their culture. She looks to her daughter-in-law Ruth, and we start to squirm. The plan is very ingenious, but to our sensibilities it probably feels unseemly.

Allow me to paraphrase. Naomi tells Ruth to bathe and perfume herself, put on pretty clothes, and go to Boaz – waiting until he’s finished eating and drinking and has gone to sleep. Then, Ruth 3:3, “go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”

That’s not very subtle. We might wonder if the uncovering of feet is code for something in their culture. Not really – well, it’s simply a pretty thinly veiled reference to sex. I’m sorry if talking about sex in church makes you uncomfortable. It is what it is. Naomi and Ruth’s plan is actually a very risky and bold strategy. They’re gambling on Boaz being a stereotypical man. A pretty, young thing sneaks into your sleeping space, cozies up to you, propositions you with sex (uncovering you, lying down, ready to do what you say!) – (like I said, it’s not subtle) – well, usually that’s a pretty safe bet as to how a man might react, I’d think.

The next part of our reading jumps to them getting married – which probably suggests that the plan worked. Right? But it didn’t. Except it did! You see, Boaz is not a typical man. He is a very honourable man. A righteous man. He is flattered by Ruth’s offer, but he does not take advantage of her. In fact, he blesses her, and praises her for her loyalty and selflessness. He gives her much grain, and sends her home in the early morning under the cover of darkness in order to preserve her honour and dignity. Then Boaz gets to work.

Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband, apparently had a field, but Naomi, being a woman without standing, could not claim it. Boaz knew there was another kinsman of theirs who was more closely related and had first right to it, but apparently this guy didn’t even know about the field. It’s a bit confusing. So Boaz takes this kinsman of his to the village gate (where the elders, leaders would gather), and in front of these witnesses tells the guy about the field and encourages him to claim it. The guy’s interested and ready to say yes, and then Boaz essentially says, “Oh yeah, as part of the package you’ll also have to marry Ruth too, and look after Naomi.” Buddy decides that’s too rich for his blood (and would mess up his own kid’s inheritance), so in front of the witnesses he relinquishes his claim. That clears the way for Boaz to claim the land for Naomi, AND honourably claim Ruth for his wife. He really is an awesome guy!

Then we get back to the part we read today – where Boaz and Ruth are married and they are immediately blessed with a child. As I’ve said before, we know that God’s supposed favour has nothing to do with child-bearing, but they believed it did. So where Ruth was barren when married to Naomi’s son, with Boaz she has a child. There is a theological thread through this whole book about “seed” being a blessing – seed in the form of bread, and grain, and ultimately “seed” in baby-making (if you know what I mean). It’s the same word in Hebrew.

So we get a big ol’ Hollywood happy ending. Security for two widows, an heir for Elimelech, a son for Boaz, delight for the whole community, a line of kings begun (the baby is to be the grandfather of King David) – and most of all, a family and a purpose for Naomi. She becomes the baby’s nurse, and the gathered women wisely remark that Naomi is so blessed, especially by her daughter-in-law Ruth, who’s love and loyalty is worth more than seven sons!

Now, you might think that Naomi, the actual central figure in this book, might fall on her knees and praise God for her blessings, or make a speech, or show some emotion. But the text is silent, and so is she. Again, we need to read between the lines, but I think it might have something to do with her name, and that the book is written from a woman’s perspective so it’s grounded in a pretty earthy and real experience (even as it’s framed in good story-telling).

What I mean is, just because there’s a so-called happy ending doesn’t mean that all the other stuff that has happened in Naomi’s life magically disappears. Naomi has endured hardship after hardship. Famine, loss of husband and sons, travelling and living as a vulnerable widow, the anxiety of not having any security in your life. She has blessings, eventually, and she realizes at the end how much of a blessing her daughter-in-law Ruth has been, and I’m sure all that produced a deep breath and a hearty, joyful smile. And yet I also suspect that it was all tinged with the pain of her lived realities.

The name Naomi means ‘sweet’. Back in Ruth 1:20 she announced that she would prefer to be called Mara, which means ‘bitter’, because she felt like God was dealing bitterly with her. I would hope that with all the blessings that surrounded her by the end of the story that she could feel like she might claim her name of Naomi back again. But perhaps not just ‘Naomi’ – perhaps it needs to be modified. Perhaps ‘sweet’ isn’t exactly right, and yet Mara (bitter) isn’t exactly right either anymore. Perhaps a deeper name that she might claim would be a blend of those very real identities – Mara-Naomi – bittersweet.

Bittersweet means something that’s pleasant but tinged with sadness – a comingling of pleasure and pain. It emphasizes the sweetness, the pleasantness, the good, the blessing, but it also acknowledges the sadness, the hurt. Our escapist movies love to give us happy-ever-after endings. I think real life gives us something more like Naomi’s bittersweet ending. Blessings abound, to be sure, and yet, there’s a lingering ‘and yet’.

I’ve mentioned that in the book of Ruth that God is kind of a backseat figure. God gets blamed for the bitter, and blessed for the sweet, but I’d like to suggest that God is actually present and loving us through all of it – through the ups and downs – through the bitter and the sweet – never-endingly, unfailingly, unswervingly, loving us. Our perception of that Presence may change (like it did for Naomi), but God’s Presence never changes. Noticing and immersing in that Presence may help us dwell more often in the sweet, but it does not ever erase the realities of the bitter parts of life. The bittersweet-ness is part of what makes us human.

This whole worship service is kind of a living example of the bittersweet nature of our lives. Today we’ve had the joy of a baptism, mixed with the sombreness of our Remembrance Day honouring, and it is all held tenderly together by the sacrament of communion, renewing our strength and spirit to live deeply and openly and gratefully through the bittersweet realities of our humanity.

As people of faith we journey through all this together – leaning on one another in love, like Ruth and Naomi – praying for awareness of God’s grace, and peace, and love, and presence as we go.