Subverting Power in Scripture: Ruth
Part of a recurring series on subversion in scripture in which I highlight how the bible repeatedly undermines our expectations about power and authority, our notions of who is “in” and who is “out.” When Jesus became a helpless child and then died at the hands of a great empire in order to conquer a much greater power and evil than any earthly empire, he upended our comfortable notions about how power works. But if we pay attention, we see these subversions of power over and over in scripture.
In this series, I’ve started by working through the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: first, Tamar, then Rahab. Today we reach Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of David, the king of Israel. Like Tamar, Ruth is rewarded for pursuing her right to have a son who will support her, although her methods are certainly less unorthodox than Tamar’s. And like Rahab, Ruth is an outsider who recognizes the power of Israel’s God and chooses to serve that God rather than those of her own community.
But where Tamar and Rahab are both motivated primarily by practical concerns for their own well-being — concerns for physical safety (Rahab) and future security (Tamar) — Ruth is motivated by her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. This devotion leads her to declare, in a passage often read at weddings, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17, NIV).
In this regard, the story of Ruth seems not particularly subversive. After all, Ruth decides to follow Naomi back to Israel after Naomi’s husband and sons (including Ruth’s husband) die, and she chooses to adopt Naomi’s home and God. We’re used to stories where that kind of love and devotion is rewarded.
But we should pay particular attention to the way that God takes the humble and the poor and raises them to a place of prominence in the story of Jesus, the story of salvation. Naomi is an ordinary woman turned refugee when famine strikes Israel and she flees her home with her husband and sons. She then falls even further in her social status as her husband dies, then her sons. She returns to her hometown in Israel with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law who refuses to leave her.
And Ruth: she’s a Moabite; nothing in the story indicates that she has any special status in her own country. Then she voluntarily gives up whatever standing she may have in her own home in order to become a foreigner in Naomi’s home, reduced to gleaning what the reapers leave behind in order to scrape up enough food to eat.
But Boaz, the owner of the field where Ruth gleans, becomes intrigued by Ruth’s beauty and her devotion to Naomi — a devotion that led her to become a poor foreigner in Israel. Even though Boaz would likely face little, if any, social censure for making Ruth’s life even more difficult, he instead respects and cares for her. Eventually, Boaz marries Ruth, provides a home for Naomi, and goes on to become, along with Ruth, an ancestor of David and, far in the future, Jesus.
If we read this story as a sort of parable, Boaz is the farmer, the landowner, the representative of God who so often appears in Jesus' teaching. Ruth — widowed, poor, foreign — is the sort of person who seems unlikely to be raised to a position of importance: not quite a prodigal son, perhaps, but still not the obvious choice for honor.
But God builds the kingdom of heaven amongst the least, the poor, the outcast. When Boaz cares for Ruth, he mirrors the care God has for the poor, the widowed, the foreigners, all those marginalized by society. And not just care that keeps them fed but invisible, the sort of care that demands gratitude while keeping people marginalized; no, this is love that elevates and brings equality.
I think that, at this particular moment in time, we white Americans have much to learn from Boaz.