Ruth 4: Redeeming and Being Redeemed
“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
Life of Pi is a novel full of fantasy, philosophy, adventure, religious exploration, and great story-telling. Author Yann Martel finally got Life of Pi published in 2001. Of course, a movie adaptation of the book is now in theaters, directed by Ang Lee. The main character/protagonist is Piscine Molitor, French for “pool.” As a boy, Piscine decides to change his name to “Pi” Patel. Pi grows up in India in Pondicherry. From an early age, Pi explores issues of spirituality, rationality, doubt, and God—all the while growing up with various animals in a zoo that his parents own. The story takes a dramatic turn when Pi’s family is involved in a shipwreck. Pi survives 227 days at sea, stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The twist is that his constant companion on the boat happens to be a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Here is one of the trailers of the movie, Life of Pi:
Life of Pi is a challenging story—one the author claims is non-fiction, even though as a reader, we wonder how that could be with all of the fantasy and surrealism. After all, the story begins with an old man in the French-speaking part of India in a fantasy town. The old man tells a novelist [who acts as narrator]: I have a story that will make you believe in God. And yet, Life of Pi does not push a particular religion, dogma, or doctrine. Instead, it closely links storytelling and religious beliefs. The book explains to the reader that on a literal level, each religion comes up with its own set of tales and fables which are used to spread the teachings and illustrate the beliefs of that particular faith. The boy Pi loves all these stories and enjoys hearing and telling them. So do I. But like Pi, I sense that sometimes we don’t listen very well to the stories themselves. We sometimes get caught up in our own agendas and motivations. We can forget that all stories can be aspects of a greater, universal story, and in this case, a greater story about love.
The Bible is indeed a big book of stories. And in fact, as we take our final look at the story of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures, we ought to remember that these stories first belonged to ancient Israelites. They were passed down from generation to generation. These stories are still told by Jews around the world. And many of these stories are shared by Muslims and Christians, Buddhists, and Bahai’s, too. Chapter four of Ruth is indeed the end—I told you it was short! Here we find Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi in what seems like a happier ending to the tale that began so horribly. Boaz, true to his word, went into town to find the younger man who could be Ruth’s next-of-kin, called her provider [redeemer]—the one who could offer land, food, and security to her. Boaz surrounded himself with elders of the city so they could witness the exchange of intentions. The young man, Boaz shared, had the option of buying Naomi’s late husband Elimelech’s land, since the young man was the next-of-kin. So the man agreed to buy the land, or in their words, redeem it.
But Boaz continued: if the man bought the land, he would also “acquire” Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Elimelech’s son, so that Elimelech’s name would remain in his land. Suddenly, the young man changed his mind. This would not be a wise financial investment, as far as he was concerned. Land, yes. Ruth, no. Apparently, the young man had caught the disease of Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners. Marrying Ruth would most certainly damage his reputation and perhaps his wealth. So he gave up his right to claim the land to Boaz. Go figure. Anyone else sense that Boaz had this all figured out from the beginning?
The custom at the time in Israel, says the story, was for a sandal to be exchanged when a transaction of redemption took place. So the young man removed his sandal and gave it to Boaz. In front of all the elders, this happened. It was official. Boaz claimed Ruth as his wife; people agreed to be witnesses. And then, this declaration about Ruth: May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel…
Indeed, Ruth and Boaz got hitched. Finally, right? And soon after, the story tells us that Ruth got pregnant. She had a son. Women of Bethlehem celebrated for Naomi, saying: Blessed be the Lord! He [the child] shall be a restorer of life to you; your daughter-in-law [Ruth], who is more to you than seven sons, loves you. Naomi took the child, named Obed, in her arms. She cared for him. All is well. The story should end there, right? But it doesn’t. The story doesn’t end with Naomi restored to life, the land [and Ruth] redeemed. The story ends with this:
Obed became the father of Jesse who was the father of David.
And then a longer list of the names of the Perez family tree. The end.
Now in every story there are symbols, histories, and perspectives to keep in mind. None of us will really embrace the story of Ruth unless we know something about redemption—a word we often hear in U.S. Christian circles as something reserved for explanations of Jesus Christ “saving” or “redeeming” people from sin. We hear redemption and head right for atonement and the cross. But that’s far too limiting and quite unfaithful to the Ruth story. And actually, not far removed from Black Friday and the shopping frenzy that will continue until December 25th, we don’t have to look hard to understand what redemption actually meant historically. Redemption is about business. It’s about buying and selling and consumerism, as we would call it today. Everyone here is familiar with gift cards, right? You may have bought some for family and friends already. What is the language we use when someone uses her gift card? Redeem. She, the consumer, redeems her gift card. He redeems his iTunes code to buy a song.
Redeeming is about exchanging bonds, gift cards, or whatever–for money or goods. We know how this works. We also know how redemption works with debt. If you have a mortgage, someone can redeem it by paying it off. If any of us have been unfortunate enough as to experience our house being foreclosed upon, we know that it can be bought back or redeemed. So I’m trying to bring home the point that we ought to read Ruth’s story as it is, with its own lens. We should not project other things onto it, including Jesus of Nazareth or much later projections of atonement or redemption because of original sin. This actually lessens the power of the story itself. Ruth is about a widow who was poor, a foreigner, and a person who practiced another religion. Ancient Israelite law made two things clear to Ruth and Naomi: 1] Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband, had land but now that land was up for grabs, because the women could not inherit it on their own; 2] foreigners were not welcome to marry Israelites.
You can read about this in the book of Leviticus, specifically chapter 25. So basically, Naomi and Ruth had no men in their lives who were family. That meant that they were destined to live in poverty and on the outskirts of society. Unless…someone redeemed their situation. There is a Hebrew word for this type of person. It is go’el, in English, a kinsman-redeemer. The young man who was a distant relative of Naomi could have been their go-el. But he refused out of Xenophobia [see previous comment about not marrying foreigners] and out of his desire to keep land for himself. If he would have married Ruth, she would have had access to his land as well. For the young man, redemption was measure for measure. He wasn’t acting oddly because he simply followed the status quo of his time. This is essential in the story, because it helps us understand why Boaz’s action ended up being the climax in the Ruth tale. You see, Boaz had no financial reason to redeem Elimelech’s land; he had no social or religious reason to marry Ruth. His redemption was not about measure for measure, but about mercy and love.
Boaz redeemed and played the role of go’el, for a reason. He loved. It’s clear, long before Boaz calls the elders of Bethlehem together to witness the transaction that Boaz cared for Ruth greatly. He admired her even. Boaz saw how Ruth was kind, loyal, and loving to Naomi. Ruth redeemed Naomi, even without money, land, or power. Even though Obed’s birth was a blessing, the women of Bethlehem proclaimed that Ruth was more important to Naomi than seven sons! Why? Because she loved her. Ruth was go’el for Naomi when society didn’t even think it was possible. And so Boaz responded to Ruth’s character by showing her Xenophilia—a love of foreigners. He cared less for his reputation and more for Ruth as a person. He loved; he redeemed.
And so the story can lift us out of our consumerism, out of our obsession with getting as much as we can, of maintaining our reputations and not making waves out of fear. The story begins and ends with Naomi’s doubt and even anger towards God. She moves from hopelessness to restoration. She feels, at the beginning, that God hates her. Until Ruth proves her wrong.
“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
Pi is sitting down with the Canadian novelist to share a meal to begin telling his story. They prepare to eat and Pi bows his head in prayer. He closes by saying Amen.
Canadian Writer: I didn’t know Hindus say “amen.”
Pi: Catholic Hindus do.
Writer: Catholic Hindus?
Pi: We get to feel guilty before hundreds of Gods instead of just one.
Writer: But you’re a Hindu first?
Pi: None of us knows God until someone introduces us.
None of us knows God until someone introduces us.
While the writer is trying to “pin down” exactly what Pi believes, seeking some sort of explanation for these crazy stories, Pi reminds him to just listen to the story. So I say to you, just listen to the story. Ruth isn’t about a family tree, or Jesus of Nazareth, or Christmas or shopping or even sin.
The story is:
Ruth loves Naomi when she doesn’t have to; Naomi is redeemed.
Boaz notices Ruth’s love; Boaz chooses to love when he doesn’t have to; Ruth is redeemed.
People in Bethlehem see this love and they are redeemed.
Naomi thought God was absent and even against her until Ruth loved her.
Ruth thought that her gender, nationality, and religion limited her until Boaz loved her.
None of us knows God until someone introduces us.
How, like Ruth, will you be both redeemer and one who is redeemed? Remember, it’s not about “saving” someone; we don’t have the power to save people. But we can love. We can be caring and merciful when it’s not expected of us. We can go above and beyond. We can redeem relationships that are broken; prejudices that separate us; injustices that push down and hurt; hate that destroys.
Friends, so much in the next month will be about other things that seek to distract us from the great story of love. So many times, we’re tempted to read into stories our own interpretations that make us feel better, confirm what we already believe, or give us something we want. And yes, just like with Ruth, next week we’ll be talking about Bethlehem again and another baby born there. But I encourage you to let the stories surprise you, challenge what you believe, and push you to see higher, further, and differently.
For none of us knows God until someone introduces us.
No one knows love unless they see love in others.
No one finds healing unless someone offers a healing hand to them.
No one has hope until someone cares for them when all is lost.
No one finds redemption unless you or I decide to offer it to them.
I have a story that will make you believe in God.
Listen well to the love and redemption in your story. And now live it for others. Amen.