Summary: God takes us, sinners one and all – spiritual waifs, to be honest – and he “marries” himself to us. He redeems us from the estrangement sin has caused in our lives. He takes us under his wings; he covers us with his cloak. And we are restored.
One of the characters in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong is Victoria, a seventeen-year-old girl who is four months pregnant. When her boyfriend finds out about her condition, he breaks up with her. And when her mother finds out, she kicks her out of the house and says to her, “You got yourself into this mess, and you can get yourself out of it.” It is low point in the story, and your heart aches for young Victoria. She has been abandoned by the very people that should be surrounding her with their support.
That’s where the McPheron brothers come in. The author describes them as a pair of “crotchety” old cattle-farming bachelors who know more about cows than they do teenage girls. When they are asked to take her into their care, they have to think about it. I mean, who wouldn’t? Right? The author says, “They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.” Then, before you know it, you see them rushing around shopping for cribs, stocking up on diapers and baby clothes, essentially winning the love of this hapless young girl, and watching over her with a tender – even if somewhat clumsy – tenacity, covering her with their protective resolve that no harm shall befall her, taking her under their wing, so to speak.
Seventeen-year-old Victoria reminds me of Ruth, who may not have been much more than seventeen herself. Here she was a widow, living as a stranger in the land, taking care of her mother-in-law Naomi, who is also widowed and bitter about it. Bitter about that and the fact that her now deceased husband had sold off the family’s land, had taken them into a foreign country, and then died on her, leaving her without anything. And not only that, but both her sons had died as well. And when she decided to come back home to Bethlehem, all she could say was, “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).
What we saw last week – remember: we were in chapter 2 of Ruth – and what we saw was Ruth going into the barley field to gather up any scraps that the harvesters might leave behind. And, as it turned out, she met Boaz, the wealthy landowner to whom the field belonged, and he had been kind to her, sending her home with almost more grain than she could carry.
When Ruth told Naomi about the generosity of Boaz, Naomi had a sudden change of heart about God. Before this, she had accused him of dealing harshly with her (1:21), but now she praised the Lord, “whose kindness,” she said, “has not forsaken the living or the dead” (2:20).
This is a key understanding in the book of Ruth. No matter what the circumstances, God’s grace is yet on the move. No matter how contrary it seems to appearances, God’s providence is at work behind the scenes. James Lowell’s great hymn reminds us: “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong. Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong, yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
In other words, even though we may not notice it at first, we come to see the hand of God in everything. We see it when the unlikely McPheron brothers intervene on young Victoria’s behalf. We see it when Boaz intervenes on young Ruth’s behalf. And we see it when Christ intervenes on our behalf.
Naomi is beginning to get the picture, too. With the words of praise for God fresh on her lips, Naomi tells Ruth something about Boaz – something that can be explained only by taking into account the providence of God. She says to Ruth, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin” (2:20).
This is an important detail, because it brings to light one of the wonderful provisions of God for his people in the Law of Moses. It is called the law of the kinsman-redeemer. Keep in mind what Naomi said to Ruth: that Boaz was “a relative…, one of our nearest kin.” So what? you say. Here’s the deal: It was part of God’s gracious covenant provision in ancient Israel that there would be certain protective measures in place for his people. If a family had to sell its land to pay off debts, or if a person had to indenture himself to square things up with his creditors, or even if a man died without an heir, it was the responsibility of the next of kin to be a redeemer – that is, to buy back the land, or secure the freedom of his kinsman, or to marry the widow of the deceased relative.