Misfortune Strikes

How can I believe that God is in control when so much of our society seems to be coming apart at the seams?  How can I believe God is in control when I can be attacked because of the color of my skin, even if I’m peacefully protesting and clearly within my constitutional rights and obeying all curfew laws?  How can I believe God is in control when my job has disappeared and when a virus is silently skulking through our population – capriciously sparing some and slaying others?  How can I think God is in control right now?  And if I do believe he is in control, what role should I play?  What can I, myself do about these world-shaking events of racism and disease?

Here the biblical book of Ruth helps.  It starts with – appropriate for our times – both personal and national disaster.  In scene one of this story, Elimelech relocates his family to Moab because of a severe famine in Bethlehem. While in Moab, Elimelech’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, take wives. Then tragedy strikes Elimelech’s home.  Not only does he die, but Naomi’s two sons die as well. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are bereft of their husbands at a time where it was quite vulnerable to be a woman. Not to mention, Naomi is a displaced foreigner in Moab.  Naomi, whose name means “pleasantness” has renamed herself Mara, which means “bitter.”

“Over and Above the Law” Generosity

But speaking of God, He is clearly at the controls. By the end of the story a great reversal occurs when the “empty” Naomi is now “full” because she gets a male grandchild. But we are getting ahead of ourselves because Chapter 2 captures a crucial scene.  In Chapter 2, we find Naomi, deeply bitter from her misfortunes, returning to Bethlehem.  Her daughter-in-law Ruth, with her, is now the one who is a foreigner. To provide for her and her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth goes looking for an opportunity to work. She “happens to find a field to glean in” that belongs to Boaz, a relative of her late father-in-law (Ruth 2:3). It looks accidental, but there is nothing accidental about it.  As Daniel Block says:

In this context, the narrator draws attention to Ruth’s chance arrival at a field of Boaz even more pointedly with the redundant phrase, “her chance chanced upon,” which in modern idiom would be rendered “by a stroke of luck”…[T[his must be recognized as one of the key statements of the book.  Now it is true that to the orthodox Israelite there was no such thing as chance….This is better interpreted…as a deliberate rhetorical device on the part of the narrator.  By excessively attributing Ruth’s good fortune to chance, he forces the reader to sit up and take notice, to ask questions concerning the significance of everything that is transpiring.  The statement is ironical; its purpose is to undermine purely rational explanations for human experiences and to refine the reader’s understanding of providence.  In reality he is screaming, “See the hand of God at work here!”  The same hand that had sent the famine (1:1) and later provided food (1:6) is the hand that had brought Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem precisely at the beginning of the harvest (1:22) and has now guided Ruth to that portion of the field belonging specifically to Boaz.[1]

Ruth’s life seemed out of control: a foreigner in an unfriendly country, reduced to menial work picking up scraps of grain around the edge of a field.  But behind the misfortune, God was at work, even in the choice of where she “randomly” chose to glean.

Upon returning from a trip, Boaz greets his reapers, “The Lord be with you.” Their response, “The Lord bless you” suggests that Boaz treated his workers well and that his workers respected him. Boaz then inquires of his foreman, “whose young woman is this?” This young woman was Ruth. The foreman goes on to identify her as the “young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab” (Ruth 2:6). The foreman also comments on her strong work ethic, “she came and has been on her feet since early morning, except that she rested a little in the shelter” (2:7). Boaz encourages Ruth to stay in his field to glean and to keep close to his young women; moreover, he tells her that he has ordered his men not to touch her. Ruth is taken aback by Boaz’s kindness and generosity.

Boaz allows Ruth and others to glean in his field according to the law (see Deuteronomy 24:19-22); however, Boaz goes well beyond “letter of the law.” Notice what he allows Ruth to do in Ruth 2:14-23. Boaz not only has Ruth “sit with his reapers at mealtime and serves her more than she can consume” [but] he instructs his young men to let her glean ​among the sheaves​, not just at the edge of the field, and​ to leave extra grain for her to gather. By going ​over and above​ what the law required, Boaz left quite a bit of money on the field and demonstrated that he was indeed a “worthy man” (Ruth 2:1). Deuteronomy 24:19­-22 reminds Boaz (and us) that we are to remember God’s generosity in saving us and to imitate His generosity when we deal with others.

Imaging God

Instead of giving a handout, Boaz allows others – including Ruth, a foreigner – to glean in his field, to work with their hands in order to provide for themselves and their families. The ​Theology of Work ​(TOW)​ ​Commentary on Ruth elaborates, “The basis of the [gleaning] law is the intention that all people are to have access to the means of production necessary to support themselves and their families.”[2] This gleaning law allowed the unemployed to work with their hands to provide for themselves. Boaz could have grain delivered to Ruth and Naomi, but something more important is going on.  Boaz allows this foreigner to work with her hands and ​image God​ by working. By allowing Ruth to work for her sustenance, Boaz allows her to preserve her dignity, to make use of her skills and abilities, to free her and Naomi from long ­term dependency, and to make both of them less vulnerable to exploitation. Contrary to popular belief, many unemployed in our culture are not looking for a handout; rather, many are looking for an opportunity to ​image God​ by working with their hands.

Using ‘Wealth’ Redemptively

Wealth is a relative term, one typically and commonly associated with money. We must recognize, however, that wealth is broader than currency.  Many in society are ‘wealthy’ by having access to institutions others do not; many in our society have access to social connections that others do not; many in our society have access to decision makers that others do not; and many in our society have power and influence that others do not. Many of us are wealthy. Relatively speaking, we are all ‘wealthy,’ and God calls those with ‘wealth’ in general and those with economic privileges, in particular, to use that wealth for the good of others. God calls us to use our ‘wealth’ redemptively, just as Boaz used his wealth, influence, and position (both as the field owner and as a “worthy man” in society) for the good of these two widows and their future descendants.

Did you get that?  Our decisions – whether to use our wealth for the common good or solely our own – have ripple effects. We can impact future generations for good or for ill. Boaz was quite generous with his privileges in general and particularly with his economic privileges. As a result, he did not enable Ruth ​by giving​ her a handout and making her dependent; rather he preserved her dignity as an image bearer of God by allowing her to work with her hands to provide for herself and her mother-­in-law, Naomi. What would it look like if we also, those who have ‘wealth,’ were to use this wealth to generously help the unemployed become gainfully employed – to work with their hands, heads and hearts to not only image God but to contribute to the flourishing of our families, communities, nation, and world?

[1] Daniel Block. Judges, Ruth New American Commentary 6 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) 653-4.

[2] https://www.theologyofwork.org/old-testament/ruth-and-work