All the way towards the end of the book of Ruth, there’s an unnamed character. We’ve been on a names kick, recently, so I thought you might like that. He’s anonymous, and he’s also much like you and me.
Here’s the short version of his story: a great opportunity presented itself, and he said no.
Here’s a somewhat longer version: he had a comfortable life, and then he was faced with a choice. He could keep his usual way of doing things, or he could step into something new.
The unnamed man said no. But when it comes to adventurous living, the path of discipleship is learning how to say yes.
Many of you know that over the summer, I travelled to be with my sister Kimberly during the time when her second daughter was born. And by “with Kimberly,” I mostly mean that I hung out with my fabulous five-year-old chaos monster niece, Alice.
One of the highlights of our time together was visiting churches. I’ve used this material in sermons before, so some of you know that absent a regular church experience or an aunt who is interested in correcting adorable mistakes, Alice refers to communion as the Cracker Snack.
We first met the Cracker Snack at a Metropolitan Community Church, part of a denomination founded in 1968 as explicitly welcoming of LGBT Christians. At that church, communion was introduced as a meal to which everyone was invited.
We participate in this meal to remind ourselves that in the Jesus Community, we are all invited to the table.
You are welcome. You are welcome. You are welcome. Jesus is throwing a party with an open invitation. Everyone is welcome.
That’s a pretty easy concept to break down for a five-year-old. We eat this snack because God invites everyone to the party, and it helps teach us to make sure that everyone is included.
We had a brief discussion about how we could ask people to sit with us at lunch if they didn’t have any friends, and Alice saw the connection between everyone being invited forward for a snack and remembering to be kind all week long.
I asked her if she wanted to go up and get communion, then, and she said nah. She was pretty focused on a drawing she was working on. Or maybe she was being a good Quaker and focusing on the internal experience of inclusivity.
But the stranger sitting next to us said, “Are you sure? I’m going to go get some, and you’re welcome to come too.” That invitation must have sounded better, because she gave an enthusiastic yes and started squirrelling away her paper and crayons and getting ready to go forward.
On the way home from church, though, she started digging into the hard theological questions relating to communion.
It wasn’t whether we should think of communion as a sacrament (as a means of grace in which God is present) or as an ordinance (as a command of Christ that we follow as disciples). It wasn’t whether or not Jesus was transubstantially present in the Cracker Snack, or consubstantially present, or present in the gathered community.
No. Alice’s question dug deeper than that. She wasn’t getting caught up in the theological ephemera that seems so important to so many church folks.
Alice just wanted to know whether or not Ethan was invited to the table.
I don’t remember Ethan’s name, actually. I just went to a list of popular boys names and picked one without any weird associations for me. Could have been Liam or Harrison or Blake.
Point was, though: Ethan was a bully, in her preschool. Alice was about to start kindergarten, and she knew that Ethan wouldn’t be in her class but would be at the same school.
To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what Ethan did. I just know that he hurt other kids on purpose.
Maybe that seems like a small thing, on the global moral scale. Syria is back in the news, for terrible and terrifying reasons. I’m not going to go through a laundry list of everything else that’s terrible in the news, because you know it. What could Ethan have done that could compete with that?
I think that’s a wrong way of looking at it, though. Ethan was doing the moral injury that he was capable of doing. He loomed large on Alice’s moral landscape. Every day she went to preschool, she had to prepare to be kind in the face of meanness and to stand up for those who needed help.
Maybe that seems like small beans to you, but I don’t think it is. Children have a very real experience of the moral scoreboard. They test out models of justice and peacemaking in their communities.
They want to be good and to know the good, and they also want to get what they want, and they experience the tension between loving others and taking care of themselves in the same way that adults do. It may be on a smaller scale, but the drama of good and evil is still quite real.
Alice wanted to know if Ethan was part of that great invitation to the Cracker Snack. Was Ethan, who pushed people on the playground, going to be part of the party? Do we really have to invite everyone?
It’s not just a reasonable question. It’s a question that dives further into our understanding of communion than most of the questions adults ask about whether or how Jesus is really present or whether it should be leavened bread or tortillas or whether we should drink from individual cups or a common cup or from the unmediated divine presence.
More important than all of that: are those who are mean to us invited to the party? Don’t pretend like you don’t know the Ethans in your life, the folks who have hurt you, the folks you can’t imagine inviting to the party.
It’s not a childish theological question. Whether or not Ethan is invited to the party gets to the heart of what it means to be people of God, because that question of whether or not those people can be invited in is always central when humans get together to build communities.
I want to explore this question with you, but first I have to give you a thumbnail sketch of the book of Ruth.
So. You can think of the book of Deuteronomy as the high school graduation speech for the children of Israel, after they were done wandering in the wilderness. In it, Moses told them who they were and how they had gotten to this place, and who they were going to need to be in order to cross over the Jordan River and conquer the Promised Land.
The book of Ruth is set between the time when that conquest was sort of completed and the time when the nation of Israel was ruled by kings. There were judges ruling at the time, and there was a famine in the land.
In response to the famine, a man named Elimelek took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons to live in the country of Moab. While there, the sons each married Moabite wives.
All three of the men died, so that Naomi was left with her two daughters-in-law. One would love to imagine that they found ways to support themselves, but reality is more grim than that.
The news said that Naomi’s home in Bethlehem was no longer facing famine, and there was food there. Naomi prepared to return home and she asked her daughters-in-law not to return with her because there was nothing in Bethlehem for them.
Orpah was sad about this, but returned to her mother’s house. Ruth, on the other hand, clung to Naomi and refused to do anything other than travel onward toward this Israel land.
So Ruth was a Moabite, a descendent with a tainted pedigree. She wasn’t someone that an Israelite should have married in the first place. Moabites were anathema. They were the Ethans of the Israelites’ world. They were, under no circumstances, to be invited to the table.
Once in Israel, Ruth started gleaning in Boaz’s fields, which requires a note because the ancient Hebrew laws were much more compassionate than our own, when it came to providing for the indigent. Boaz and his workers could go over the field once, gathering the wheat, but what they dropped or didn’t get get the first time was to be reserved for the poor who would come pick up after the harvesters. That was the law, in God’s community. Harvesting more carefully than that was essentially stealing from the poor.
Ruth came as one of those poor harvesters and a foreigner – a Moabite – to boot, but Boaz was soon instructing his workers to leave a little extra behind so that she could find it. It’s a romance, after all. Boaz came to the town gate one morning with the clear intention of marrying Ruth.
The town gate was the place where public business was conducted, so imagine that Boaz is showing up in the City Building or the Courthouse. Ruth needs a husband and she and Boaz get along, so Boaz wants to make it official.
But it wasn’t just as simple as that. There was the law of levirate marriage to consider.
This law sought to provide for ongoing family relationships in the case of a man dying before fathering children… by requiring that the man’s brother’s or close male relative take on the role of fathering a child with the widow so that their brother’s line would be preserved.
Under this law, Boaz wasn’t the nearest redeemer. Another kinsman stood closer, whose responsibility it was to take on any land owned by Naomi’s sons and to marry Ruth in the process. If this were a romantic comedy, the anonymous man would be the last obstacle on the way to the wedding:
Boaz went up to the town gate and sat down there just as the guardian-redeemer he had mentioned came along. Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down.
Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so. Then he said to the guardian-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.”
“I will redeem it,” he said.
Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”
Why did the anonymous guy say no? He was on board when it was just the land, but not when Ruth was part of the package.
It’s not clear how this would have “endangered his estate,” and that doesn’t really matter anyway because he has a family responsibility to fulfill here. He’s supposed to step up and provide for these women.
The answer that we’re primed for, in the story, is that Ruth is a Moabite. Moab was not an ally of Israel. Moabites were banned from entering the temple. According to the law, Naomi’s sons never should have married Moabites in the first place.
Ruth, in other words, is not invited to the table. She’s an Ethan. It’s not just a petty sense of “oh, we don’t really like those folks.” It’s written right into God’s own law.
There’s a table spread for the children of God, and there are no seats for Moabites.
Presumably, anonymous guy went on home to his estate and lived a smaller but happy life. Let’s think so, anyway.
He missed out, though, because this isn’t just a cute story about Ruth and Boaz. It’s the origin story of King David. Boaz and Ruth had Obed, and Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David.
Turns out, God had a soft spot for Moabites all along. They weren’t supposed to be allowed into the temple unto the tenth generation, but David was only three generations removed and he helped lead the party.
Anonymous guy said no and kept his safe life. Boaz said yes, and got to play a part in God’s big plan of redemption. He got to be part of God’s mission. You can find him right in Matthew 1, listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
Of course, the question here isn’t so much what should the anonymous guy have done, but rather what are you going to do? That’s what got me thinking about Ethan to begin with, and specifically about the place he occupied in Alice’s question about who, exactly, we’re inviting to this table.
Alice resolved the question pretty neatly by remembering that cafeterias have multiple tables. That meant that she could have generous thoughts about wanting Ethan to be invited to lunch while still hoping that she wouldn’t have to sit at the same table.
If Boaz had stayed rooted in ancient conflicts and the way it’s always been done, he would have said that Ruth wasn’t invited. But God’s vision of redemption has always been for Ruth: not just for one family or one church or one stream of tradition, but for the whole world.
That’s the mission that we’re called to. As we move into waiting worship, look around your life and ask yourself who you could say yes to. Who could you invite in?