Summary: A sermon on levirate marriage, and the significance of the marriage of Ruth and Boaz in the saving history of our God.
Sermon for 23 Pentecost Yr B, 12/11/2006
Based on Ruth 3:1-5 & 4:13-17
By Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Loyalty, Lovingkindness, Mercy, and Redemption”
Today’s first lesson from Ruth reminds me a bit of the song in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, “matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.” Although our lesson today is only part of the bigger story of Naomi and Ruth; nonetheless we still have enough of the story to see that Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth plays the role of matchmaker and plans out the marriage of Ruth. She justifies her actions by saying “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” In reality, she is also concerned about her own security as a widow, living in a man’s world. In the patriarchal society of biblical times, women were very dependent upon men for their survival. And so, Naomi, fearing her future and the future of Ruth comes up with a plan to marry Ruth off. Naomi’s plan for Ruth to visit Boaz at night on the threshing floor, after he had finished eating and drinking; and Ruth, smelling of perfume and dressed to the nines, was at best an ambiguous plan, and, at worst, by today’s standards, one that was sexually risky.
In order to better understand and appreciate this story, two things shall be helpful for us. Firstly, we shall take a look at the biblical concept of levirate marriage. Secondly, I believe there are four key themes woven intricately into the story, namely: loyalty, lovingkindness, mercy and redemption.
Firstly, then, levirate marriage. According to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, it was a brother’s duty to marry his deceased brother’s wife. He and his deceased brother’s widow were to give birth to a first-born son. This son would be named after the deceased husband to perpetuate his name and family line. This son would also receive the deceased husband’s inheritance. Also, in terms of property law, according to Leviticus 25:25, we read: “If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold.” These laws of levirate marriage thus were determined by the men of Israelite society, although the women were beneficiaries of such laws, but only insofar as they had some kind of family connection with male relatives. Women without any male family members to ensure their security, were most likely destined to live in poverty. Women without any children were also destined to live without honour in the community, for childbearing was regarded as a blessing. Such seems to be the situation of Naomi and Ruth. Their future security was virtually non-existent without some male family relative. At that time, there was no public social safety net. Rather, offspring ensured one’s security and honour in old age, as it does even to this day in several poor nations.
This brings us to our second point, the four key themes of the story. Nowhere in this story are we told that Naomi’s male relatives were brothers of her deceased husband. The two most eligible next of kin males were Boaz and someone else who is not even named in the story. Thus, in my understanding of the story, there is a great deal of loyalty, lovingkindness, mercy and redemption displayed on the part of Boaz. Actually, he goes above and beyond the requirements of levirate marriage law when he agrees to marry Ruth—since he was not a brother of Naomi’s or Ruth’s deceased husbands, hence there was no legal obligation. Furthermore, his loyalty, lovingkindness, and mercy are shown because he agrees to marry Ruth, a non-Jew, a Gentile, which, in the eyes of some, may have been a very risky thing; for some believed that God did not look kindly upon or bless Israelites who married Gentiles.
As the story unfolds, we also learn of the loyalty, lovingkindness, mercy and redemption of Ruth. Ruth, throughout the story remains tenaciously loyal to her mother-in-law Naomi. She had left her homeland willingly; she had traveled back to Judah with Naomi. She also became a follower of and believer in the LORD God. She had cared for and supported Naomi in every way possible. Her words spoken to Naomi in response to the latter’s marriage plan was: “All that you tell me I will do.” All of these things underscore the loyalty, lovingkindness, and mercy of Ruth. This reminds me of another story of loyalty, lovingkindness, mercy and redemption.
Walking Across Egypt is about a widow, Mattie Rigsby (played by Ellen Burstyn), who, moved by her pastor’s message to care for “the least of these,” reaches out to a sixteen-year-old boy, Wesley Benfield (played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas), whose parents abandoned him as a baby and who is serving time in a correctional center for stealing a car.