Dr. Chris White March 16, 2014
Being the fan of literature that I am, my ears always perk up when I encounter the Bible book we call Ruth. It is a great bit of storytelling, both in the conflict and the resolution. In fact, it serves God’s people so well because it is a story of conflict. There are real losses and needs and problems in Ruth. And while we already know that God brings them through these needs, the method of God’s care for Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, reveals a window on God’s peace in us. So, let’s unpack this book as an equation for experiencing God’s peace.
The first chapter in a story of a person enjoying God’s peace is need.
Join me at Ruth 1:1-5. Relocating for the sake of escaping a famine was not uncommon in the ancient world, and to Moab went this family. Keep in mind they are outside their homeland, strangers among Moabites. In time the husband and married sons would die leaving three widows. Sticking together is not the answer, for they are three widows in a time that offered little to widows. What will soon transpire is Naomi’s call for the daughters-in-law to return to their fathers where they would find security. It makes perfect sense to send them home. What does not make perfect sense is Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi (1:16-17). So into Bethlehem walks Naomi with a Moabite girl (1:19-21). We should note that this pair is vulnerable. Naomi seems to lack any male relative to care for her, but to return home with a Moabite girl is even trickier. Ruth would have been seen as a second-class citizen, ripe for abuse, and, by some, deemed unfit for marriage. Later in the book you’ll find her picking up scraps missed by harvesters in the barley fields; it was the sign of deepest poverty.
The hardest part of our story, no matter how truly it leads to God’s peace, is being in need. We do not like being in need. But most of what we know about God at the deepest, heart level of faith we learned from being in need. Like the writer of Psalm 124, we have our stories: If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, they would have swallowed us alive; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away (2-5). We may daydream about a day when all the tensions and needs and crises are gone, but all the good stories of God’s peace begin with tension, need, and crisis. And all the good stories of God’s peace blossom when those pressures lead someone to say, “I need help.” This surely goes against the grain. But God’s peace begins to enter our lives when we confess, like the psalmist, that we face the prospect of being swallowed, engulfed, and swept away. Sometimes we are in need because we stand outside the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ. We are living on human strength, trying to please God simply on human merit, and living unreconciled to God. If we live unforgiven, we live apart from God’s peace. That is a place of need. On the other hand, sometimes we are not in need because of sin or sloth; we are in need because we are human and limited in vision and resource. If you are looking for God’s peace, remember that peace begins here: I need help.
The second chapter in a story of peace is predictable: a helper. A distant relative of Naomi’s is the major mover in the story. Chapter 2:1 calls him a man of standing, meaning he held resources. And resources are what we need in this story. He is also called a kinsman-redeemer, a man whose family ties to her former husband may allow him to claim her as family. The story turns in 2:5-9. In the greater arc of the story, Ruth’s kindness to Naomi and hard work in the fields gets the attention of Boaz. She is certainly helping her cause by her good reputation. But she is humble enough to know she needs a helper. And this helper is one who wants to give help where help is deserved. If you know the story, you know that Ruth goes so far in chapter 3 to offer herself to him as a wife. With Boaz’s move to make her his wife, we find the fullest answer to Naomi and Ruth’s needs. They who came to Bethlehem empty are now full. They that had such need and lived with such vulnerability are finding help.
Now, a story of God’s peace in a person’s life logically requires that God come into the story at some point. In this story, He moves through the care and resources of Boaz. A helper in God’s hands is God’s help. It is rare to enjoy what Moses did in God’s appearance or like the disciples of Jesus did, as John explains in the opening verse of 1 John: That which is from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched. God’s help so often comes in the form of a helper, a truly limited human playing an outsized role in someone’s life. And behind it is the will and help of God. Boaz is more than a kinsman-redeemer for Ruth. He is a benefactor, one who confers a benefit. What he has is what she needs, and he shares it. In God’s good will he is not asked to do what he cannot do. It is common work in his eyes to make room for her in his fields and reward her for faithfulness to Naomi, but for Naomi and Ruth he is more. He is her benefactor, her helper. And God is behind the benefit.
Some bit of God’s peace is waiting for us as we recognize the people through whom He cares for us. If we can make a turn and see that some people are clear benefactors for us, Boaz in modern skin, we are one step closer to sensing His care and enjoying His peace. It’s not just gratitude for help from God, it’s recognizing the helpers as God’s help. The letter from Paul to Philemon is one of the more remarkable stories in the Scriptures, as it recounts the work of Paul to intervene on behalf of the escaped slave, Onesimus. Paul lays his friendship with Philemon, Onesimus’ owner, on the block and calls for forgiveness of the sin of escape and the hope for Onesimus’ release to freedom. He is a benefactor to Onesimus, just as Barnabaus had been a benefactor to him when he was newly converted and the fear of the early church.
Remember, your story already has a long list of people who played outsized roles in God’s will for you. Their presence and influence kept you fed, healthy, and on a good path. Yes, you had needs, but He had His people. Yes, you had great needs, but He had His great people. It is common for God’s people to ask for help, and it should be just as common for God’s people to ask God for a benefactor, someone whose benefits help you. There is everything wrong with wanting someone to seize and solve all your struggles, but there is nothing wrong with seeking God for the people who can help with the struggles. They may be only a phone call, a request, and a Yes away.
My list of mystical encounters with God is short, but my list of common, flesh and blood benefactors is long. They were and are God’s help. Many of you in the room have been God’s help for me. And that is what I would expect, because that is what I prayed for and still pray for. The peace awaiting all of us in bringing our Ruth vulnerabilities to one another is that God is lurking in the Boaz’s among us. There are answers. And in these answers we should see a God who is awake and aware of your needs. That is a place of peace.