The Real Housewives of Bethlehem
Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I’ve bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. And also Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, I’ve bought to be my wife, to preserve the dead man’s name for his inheritance so that the name of the dead man might not be cut off from his brothers or from the gate of his hometown—today you are witnesses.”
Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord grant that the woman who is coming into your household be like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you be fertile in Ephrathah and may you preserve a name in Bethlehem. And may your household be like the household of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the children that the Lord will give you from this young woman.”
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife.
He was intimate with her, the Lord let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi, “May the Lord be blessed, who today hasn’t left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She’s better for you than seven sons.” Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They called his name Obed. He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather.
[summarize the Book of Ruth in the format of a pitch for a new reality show: The Real Housewives of Bethlehem)
I had a great line in a sermon a few weeks ago (I say that with all due humility). I said, “Leviticus is the place where New Year’s Resolutions with respect to the Bible go to die.” It’s true. It is a book filled with regulations, laws, and rules. It’s nearly impossible to read. But without Leviticus, the Book of Ruth doesn’t exist; it’s the most approachable vision for what God had in mind for the covenant community of the Isrealites. This is what a levitical economy and society looks like: protections for widows, orphans, and immigrants. Take a break from farming the land every seven years to allow the land to produce its bounty on its own- literally give the earth a sabbath year every seven years. Restore ancestral property to its original owners every fifty year, and eliminate all debt held by individuals. This makes generational poverty impossible. Allow freedom of movement across borders, so that people can safely settle where there are adequate resources- and it’s safe for their children. Survival is not dependent on the generosity of the wealthy, who can withdraw their support at any time. Protections for the most vulnerable are built in. compare the plight of Naomi and Ruth to immigrants and refugees today; not just those coming to America, but around the world: people fleeing war, climate change, drought, famine, unsafe living conditions, lack of adequate jobs and resources.
The United Methodist Social Principles speak directly to many of the issues dealt with in the Book of Ruth- overcoming significant obstacles to achieve a sense of belonging and well being for all.
In spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, the majority of persons in the world live in poverty. In order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world.
As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich. To begin to alleviate poverty, we support such policies as: adequate income maintenance, quality education, decent housing, job training, meaningful employment opportunities, adequate medical and hospital care, humanization and radical revisions of welfare programs, work for peace in conflict areas and efforts to protect creation’s integrity. Since low wages are often a cause of poverty, employers should pay their employees a wage that does not require them to depend upon government subsidies such as food stamps or welfare for their livelihood.
Because we recognize that the long-term reduction of poverty must move beyond services to and employment for the poor, which can be taken away, we emphasize measures that build and maintain the wealth of poor people, including asset-building strategies such as individual development savings accounts, micro-enterprise development programs, programs enabling home ownership, and financial management training and counseling. Poverty most often has systemic causes, and therefore we do not hold poor people morally responsible for their economic state.
For centuries people have moved across borders in search of work. In our global world this is still a relevant and increasing form of immigration. Improved wages, better working conditions, and jobs available are reasons for immigration due to work opportunities. Workers from other countries are in many societies an important resource to fill the society’s need of workers. But foreign workers too often meet exploitation, absence of protecting laws, and unreasonable wages and working conditions. We call upon governments and all employers to ensure for foreign workers the same economic, educational, and social benefits enjoyed by other citizens.
Rights of Immigrants
We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.
These are not meant to be a utopian, unobtainable fantasy of an idealized society. Allowing people to find a home, resources, and well being, in a new place with a different culture and practices is an act of hospitality. It also affirms their human dignity and their identity as children of God. The culture of Ruth and Naomi, Moabite and Israelite, was highly centered in community, and so there were able to at least survive. American culture, on the other hand, is highly individualistic- dangerously so. Sociologist Philip Slater said this in the article “The Pursuit of Loneliness”:
Three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture:
The desire for community- the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.
The desire for engagement- the wish to come directly to grips with one’s social and physical environment.
The desire for dependence- the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
Each of these desires is subordinate to its opposite in the American character. …Americans have voluntarily created, and voluntarily maintain, a society that increasingly frustrates and aggravates these secondary yearingins to the point that they threaten to become primary. Groups that in any way personify this threat have always been feared in an exaggerated way, and always will be until Americans are able to recognize and accept those needs within themselves. This is why the quality of life in America is so unsatisfying. Since our economy is built on inflated vanity, rather than being grounded in the real material needs of the people, it must eventually collapse, when these illusions can no longer be maintained.
For this reason, it is highly unlikely our Real Housewives of Bethlehem pitch is likely to move forward. It has all the makings of a great reality series- romance, struggle, characters trying to work the system, cultural conflict, prejudice.. But there is no clear winner. No one person will receive a rose for outmaneuvering everyone else. No one person will receive $10 million for humiliating themselves the most. If this show was made, Orpah would challenge Ruth to some kind of battle for Boaz’ affections, and the winner likely would have had to take on Naomi in the championship round! But no. In the Book of Ruth, there is no clear winner at the cost of everyone else’s misfortune or manipulation.
- Naomi wins restoration
- Ruth wins character and devotion
- Orpah wins community, family, and rootedness in her culture
- Boaz wins a bride and a son
- Obed wins a kingly grandson
- The women of Bethlehem win the right to name the child
- The society wins because protections are in place, ensuring the most vulnerable are welcomed and provided for- everybody wins
Today is the first Sunday of Lent. We are walking through the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The Book of Ruth is often thought of as a love story- a sort of romance novel in the middle of all these history books like Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. The love on display in the book, however, is not romantic- it is possible Ruth and Boaz do love one another, but marriage in biblical times was much more a financial transaction than anything else. No, the love on display is in connectedness: the love of neighbors, mothers in law, and immigrants. The love of culture, even among differences. It’s agape love, the love of God, which is not romantic love- it’s grace, unmerited favor. It’s the love embodied by Jesus, who said, “No one has greater love than this, to give one’s life for one’s friends.” The Beloved Community. Love wins.
“Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”