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Your Future Is Through the “Other”

Sunday, October 13, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Romans 8:26-30; Ruth 4:13-17

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This morning we are finishing up our 3-part sermon series on “Relating to the Other: Lessons from Dr. Ruth.”  In the last several weeks, we have seen how the book of Ruth depicts people reaching across social boundaries, economic boundaries, religious boundaries – not to attack or demean those on the other side of the line – but to embrace and build up.  Many scholars think that the book of Ruth may well have been written during what is called the “post-exilic period” of Israel’s history, when there were voices within the Jewish community that were urging the exclusion of those who were different and separation from them, as a way of strengthening the identity of Israel.  Intermarriage with foreigners was one of the hot-button issues at this time.  This purifying impulse is reflected most strongly in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

How were they to relate to outsiders?  Who were the true Jews?  We can hear echoes of this debate in our current society over “who are the true Americans?”  What does it mean to be a true American?

The book of Ruth offers a counter view to this impulse to purify the faith community by moving against those who are different.  Ruth, we may recall, is a Moabite, one of the enemy peoples of Israel.  Deuteronomy 23:3 actually prohibits those who are Moabite from entering the Israelite assembly.  From the perspective of the Jewish community, Ruth is “the other.”  And yet Ruth the Moabite is shown to be faithful, loyal, courageous, and willing to take risks in the face of poverty and potential hostility.  In our text today, Boaz – one of the pillars of the Jewish community – marries Ruth the Moabite.  So “the other” is not only brought into the assembly – in violation of a Torah commandment – she is brought into the Jewish family.

Boaz and Ruth represent a paradigm of relating to and embracing the one who is different from you, the one who is “the other.”  Which, of course, asks us to ponder who the “other” is for us.  When you think of who is different from you, who comes to mind?  What kinds of people come to mind?  Ruth represents the other who is socioeconomically different from us, for Ruth is not only from another culture, she is among the poor, who were part of a subsistence economy and must glean from someone else’s harvest to gather food to eat.  But she also represents the other who is our enemy, someone whom we have learned to despise.  For the Moabites were not just people who were different; they were hated.  We may imagine that associating with – much less marrying – a Moabite could have exposed you to a lot of gossip and murmuring and ostracism.  But Boaz does it anyway.

Up until chapter 4, the book of Ruth has encouraged a posture of embrace towards the other, towards the one who is different, over against the voices of those like Ezra and Nehemiah who want to avoid and exclude the other.

Our text today takes all of that, and cranks the dials up to 11, taking it to another level, to insist that not only should we be open to the other, but that our future actually depends on it.  Up until chapter 4, Ruth has been offering an ethic towards the other.  In verse 17, we learn about God’s providence through the other.  “A son has been born to Naomi,” the women said.  They named the son Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

And with that name, this little story of Ruth moves well past a simple morality play of how to relate to the Other.  We learn that Boaz the pillar of the town and Ruth the Moabite are the great-grandparents of King David, the one around whom Israel’s greatest hopes will gather.  King David is one of the 2 biggest theological figures in the Hebrew Scriptures (Moses being the other), the one to whom God made the unconditional royal promise of faithfulness, the one who would be the greatest king Israel had known (Ezek. 34:23-24), the one with whom Israel was endlessly fascinated, the king whose praise was central to the psalms (Psalm 89:3), the king from whose line the Messiah was expected (Isa. 11:1), the one of whom Jesus would be said to be “Son of David” (Mark 10:47).  When Ruth 4:17 lets us in on the future that would come from the embrace of Boaz and Ruth the Moabite, you can practically hear the gasps of delight coming from the audience.  “Ah!  King David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite!”  Israel’s future did not come from some purified, disinfected, sanitized ancestral line.  Israel’s great king, Israel’s future came about because Boaz reached out to Ruth, the Moabite, reached out to the “other” who was different.

At a very deep level, this is why Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies.  Loving your enemy – which is literally what Boaz does with Ruth in our story – is about forming your soul by getting connected to that which is very different from you.  It is akin to embracing and integrating the human shadow in psychological work. Our society is hell-bent on avoiding and demonizing and attacking the other.  We can see this in the easy scorn which we lay upon immigrants; we can see this in the way we treat those of a different political party as enemies to be demonized rather than as neighbors to be engaged; we can see this in the way that white nationalism is experiencing a resurgence in our time, in the United States and other countries.  But demonizing and avoiding those who are different from us is no path to the future; it is a way of fear and despair.

Friends of Christ, your future does not lie in circling the wagons, in huddling with those who look like you, think like you, speak like you, and trying to stay safe. Your future, like that of Boaz, lies in your relationship to the Other.  The Other, the one who is different from you, holds gifts for you that you cannot imagine right now.  It may not be easy, it may not be comfortable, but it will lead to a deepening of our souls.  When we connect to someone from a different racial or socio-economic group than us, our lives will become richer and deeper and more fruitful.  When we become connected across party lines with someone who thinks and votes differently than us, when we see them as human beings who have high hopes and profound fears, who walk around with beautiful dreams and tremendous flaws, our lives open up to a different kind of future. May God continue to guide, prod, and direct us as we walk this path together.  To God and to God alone be the glory, Amen.