GET CONNECTED with our CHURCH FAMILY … responding to human need

Who Is My Neighbor?

Sunday, September 29, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Ruth 2:1-13, 17-23

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We have been living in a highly anxious society for a while now.  With the possibility of presidential impeachment now on the table, it seems likely that things are going to get even more anxious, all around.  These are the times that have been given to us, and I believe that these are times for which the church has a particular contribution to make.  There will surely be disagreements about how to do this, but it seems to me that loving God, loving neighbor, and loving the enemy – all of which are commandments from our Lord Jesus – provide a north star for us to follow.  The way that we have articulated that here at Lewinsville is that we “love and serve God by responding to human need,” in lots of different ways.  As we are trying to discern what God is calling us to do in any given situation, we keep loving and serving God by responding to human need.  Over and over and over.  This will make us different.  In a highly anxious society that neglects, avoids, and attacks the poor and those who are different from us, discerning and responding to human need as our mode of serving God will bear witness to a different way of being in the world.  We will be ambassadors for this different way of living.

When we look at our lives and at our society through the lens of the book of Ruth, what “Dr. Ruth” teaches us is that God’s transformation of our circumstance is possible, but that it will require courage and risk, and that transformation will involve unlikely neighbors.  God’s transformation is possible, but it will require courage and risk, and it will involve unlikely neighbors.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth and Naomi’s circumstance is one of vulnerability and need.  They have returned to Bethlehem from Moab, but they are desperate.  Ruth the Moabite takes the initiative in verse 2 and says, “Let me go and glean, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.”  The verb ‘glean’ is repeated 12 times in chapter 2, and this word is a clear indication that Ruth and Naomi are vulnerable.  Torah law required farmers to leave some of the harvest behind so that the poor and the immigrant might glean from them and not go hungry.  Gleaning was an activity for the very poor.

The text goes to considerable length to remind us that Ruth is not only poor, she is different.  She is a Moabite, which is to say, she is a foreigner, she is a widow, and she is poor.  She is exceedingly vulnerable.  And she acts with great courage.

God’s transformation is possible, but it will require courage and risk, and it will involve unlikely neighbors.

When Boaz, who is described as “a prominent rich man,” comes to the field in verse 4, he notices her.  This is a moment of some dramatic tension, because when he says, “To whom does this young woman belong?”  we do not know how he says it.  We do not know whether he is glad to see a new worker in his field, or whether he is upset. When he learns that she is the Moabite who came back with Naomi, this could cut a couple of ways.  On the one hand, as Annamarie mentioned last week, Deuteronomy 23:3 says that “no Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  Moabites are excluded from the covenant community; they were on the Israelite no-fly list.  It would have been understandable for Boaz, a man of substance, to have this Moabite removed from his land.  But on the other hand, Ruth’s devotion to Naomi has earned her a positive reputation in the community.  And as our other text from Deuteronomy 10 this morning argues, the immigrant, the one who is different from you, is not a burden to get rid of, but is a neighbor who has a claim on you.

Boaz has a decision to make.  He must decide whether to treat Ruth as a neighbor or as someone to avoid.  Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners Community here in DC, has written that “the test of who your neighbor is will be shown by how you treat someone who is different from you.”[1] This year, our youth group is doing an extended series entitled “love your neighbor,” in which they will be getting to know different groups of neighbors.  They will be visiting our Jewish neighbors at Temple Rodef Shalom, as well as our Muslim neighbors at McLean Islamic Center.  We may expect their work to yield lots of fruit.

 As it turns out, Boaz extends hospitality to Ruth.  He does not reject her or eject her from his field, but welcomes her and gives her a place among his people.  Ruth ends up gleaning in the field, and gathering an ephah of barley, which would have been quite a large amount of grain.  When she returns to Naomi, Naomi is astonished and exclaims, “Where did you glean today?”  When she learns that the man with whom Ruth worked was Boaz, Naomi says, “He is one of our nearest kin.”  The word translated ‘nearest kin’ may also be translated ‘redeemer.’  Israelite law provided for the next of kin to redeem, or rescue, a family member who had fallen into financial difficulty.

The tide of redemption and transformation has begun to turn for Ruth and Naomi.  They began the chapter in desperation and vulnerability.  By the end of the chapter, the wheels of transformation have begun to move in their lives.  But those wheels did not move on their own.  The wheels of transformation moved because of Ruth’s courage and initiative, and Boaz’s willingness to reach out across ethnic, religious, and socio-economic lines.  Transformation is possible, but it will require courage and risk, and will involve unlikely neighbors.

What is the transformation that you wish to see?  What is the transformation that you believe God wants to see in the world and in your life?   What acts of courage and risk will that transformation require from you? And who are the unlikely neighbors with whom you may need to work? Who are the “Moabite enemies” with whom you may be called to partner? Who are the vulnerable ones in need who may be waiting for you to notice them? Who is your neighbor?

[1] Jim Wallis, “Who Is My Neighbor?” in Sojourners, November 2019, Vol. 48, No. 10, p. 24.