In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The name of the man was Elimelech” (Ruth 1:2). Eli-melek. “My God is king.” But this man lived in the time of the judges, and the Book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25). This man was from Bethlehem. Beit-lechem. “House of Bread.” But he lived there while there was a famine in the land. So “God-is-my-king” lives in “House of Bread,” but there is no king and there is no bread. It gets worse. He takes his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and they go to Moab, a foreign country. There Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons, who marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth. But, parents, be careful what you name your children, because Mahlon probably comes from a word meaning “weak” or “sick,” and Chilion probably comes from a word meaning “finished” or “spent” or “failing.” So after ten years in Moab, ten childless years, ten years when the family line of Elimelech is not carried on, Mahlon and Chilion die as well. Naomi has no husband, she has no sons, she has no land, and she is in a foreign land. But. But she hears that Yahweh has visited Bethlehem and given them bread again. So she starts back, and Orpah and Ruth start with her. But she says, “Go back to your own land, to your mothers’ houses. And may Yahweh bless you for the kindness you’ve shown to me and to the dead. May Yahweh give you rest in the house of your husband.” They say, “No, we will go to your country.” But Naomi says, “Why would you go with me? I have nothing. I couldn’t give you other husbands, even if I wanted to. And the Hand of Yahweh has gone out against me. Go back.” Well, apparently Orpah sees the writing on the wall, because she kisses her mother-in-law and goes back. And Naomi says to Ruth, “Go with your sister-in-law. She’s going back to her people and her gods.” But Ruth clings to her mother-in-law, like a man who leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife; she has left behind her people, she has left behind her old gods; there is nothing for her in Moab anymore. She says, “Don’t try to get me to leave you. Where you walk, I will walk; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people are my people; your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I will be buried there.” She calls down a curse from heaven: “May Yahweh do to me, and even more, if even death is a separation between you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17). So they go back, and the people all say, “Is this Naomi, after all these years?” And she says, “Don’t call me Naomi,” which means “pleasantness,” “call me Mara,” which means “bitterness” (1:19-20). “Yahweh has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but Yahweh returned me empty” (1:21).
Well, Ruth does what any foreigner would do, what God had commanded Israel to let them do, which is gather up the leftover barley and wheat after the reapers have gone through. And somehow, she finds her way to the field of Boaz. Boaz says that he’s heard how kind she was to Naomi and her family, and he says, “May Yahweh reward your work, and give you a full reward, because you have sought refuge under the wings of Yahweh, the God of Israel” (2:12). Then, on the advice of Naomi, one night Ruth goes and lies down at the feet of Boaz down on the threshing floor. In the middle of the night, Boaz is surprised to find a strange woman in his bed, and asks her who she is. She says, “Ruth. Please spread your wings over your servant, because you are a redeemer” (3:9). A redeemer. Boaz is a relative of Elimelech, a “kinsman-redeemer.” In the Law of Israel, no land could ever be sold permanently, because it ultimately belonged to Yahweh. So if you sold some of the land God had given you, you always had the right to buy it back. And if you couldn’t buy it, but your relative could, the person had to sell it back. The land could always be redeemed for the ancestors of the original owner. So in the morning, Boaz makes everything right again when he redeems the land of Elimelech. And even though it is not part of the law, he does even more than is required, in marrying Ruth. And through Boaz, Yahweh fulfills the blessing of Naomi and gives Ruth peace in the house of her husband, as well as a child, a future. But it’s more than just the land, and more than just the marriage, and more than just the child. Boaz redeems Ruth’s entire past. Ruth is from Moab, and no Moabite could ever enter the worshiping assembly of God, because they refused to help Israel on their way from Egypt to the Land of Promise (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Moab was the son of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his oldest daughter, and so Moabites are doubly prohibited from entering Israel’s worship. But Boaz redeems all that, and Ruth becomes an Israelite.
Boaz knows something about redeeming the past. His mother was Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, who hid the spies from Israel. Her house alone was spared of all Jericho. And Rahab and Ruth are not the only ones. In Boaz, Yahweh continues His redemption of the past. There are five women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, and they are all questionable. There’s Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute in order to get Judah to do his duty toward her; there’s Rahab, who actually is a prostitute; there’s Ruth, a foreigner from Moab; there’s Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery; and then there’s Mary, a girl who is pregnant outside of regular marriage. But God is in the business of redeeming the whole sordid story, the entire past, in order to give His creation an eternal future. “I know the plans that I am planning for you, declares Yahweh, plans of wholeness and peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). And it is in that eternal plan, that He chooses Boaz, born of Rahab the prostitute, to marry Ruth from Moab, and become the great-great-grandparents of King David. And through that line, we will finally have come full circle, to fulfill the promise of Elimelech’s name: finally, One will reign from the throne of David who judges and seeks justice and is swift in righteousness (Isaiah 16:5). Finally, My God is King.
And He is your Kinsman-Redeemer. He entered our flesh and became our relative, so that He could buy back, not some land, or the inheritance of a single family, but everything. Whatever your past contains, and no doubt it is, like mine, full of sin, and death, and grief; full of following our own gods or the gods of our culture; whether you have public or private sin; Jesus Christ has redeemed it all in His own blood. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). He is the one against whom Yahweh’s hand went out in full wrath against sin, and there was only grief and death on that cross. But in the morning of the third day, everything was made right, and the Sun of Righteousness rose with healing in His wings, to spread them over His whole creation (Malachi 4:2). He has redeemed your past in order to give you a future and a hope in Him; apart from Whom, there is no future and there is no hope. But He has given you faith to follow Him, a strange and crucified God, even though it looks like everything has been taken from you. In that hope and that future, you can leave this place and you can rejoice even in your sufferings. Because, in Christ, suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-5). So it is for you. Christ has redeemed you and married you, and you have eternal rest in the House of your Husband. Though you go out with tears to sow, you will return with sheaves of joy. “The Lord my life arranges, who can His work destroy? In His good time He changes all sorrow into joy” (LSB 713:3).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/8/10