In the early years of the last century in Portsmouth two teenagers met. One was Walter Smith. He was an imposing, handsome and athletic young man, 6'3" tall, a draughtsman in the dockyard. She was Olive Davies, the eldest of ten children, followed by 8 brothers and then at last another sister. She was 4'11". They fell in love. Some time later they got engaged. Their engagement lasted 6 years, until the time came when they could afford to get married and start a family. That true story is of the most intense concern to me. Why? Because they were my grandparents.
We're looking at the Book of Ruth through these summer weeks. At the heart of it is the story of how Ruth and Boaz came to get married. It is of the most intense concern to us as Christian believers. Why? Because they are our ancestors in the faith. In particular they were the great-grandparents of King David. And the Lord Jesus, humanly speaking, was a descendant of David. So not only are Ruth and Boaz family for us, the future of humanity hung on that marriage between Ruth and Boaz. But God was in control. And that's what we see as we read this little gem of a book.
Today we come to chapter 2. My title is 'Kindness', and my outline begins with 'The Story So Far…' and ends with 'Next Time', just as you generally get if you watch an episode in a TV series. So first of all let's catch up with what's going on, in case you weren't here last week.
The Story So Far…
This is the account of the experience of the Moabite woman Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. The Book of Ruth comes just after Judges, which is appropriate because the events narrated here took place, as the very first verse says: "In the days when the judges ruled…" – that is, way back before there was a king in Israel.
Things started OK for Ruth and Naomi, but they quickly turned very bad indeed. What we have in Ruth 1 is a picture of family catastrophe. So what went wrong? There was famine in Israel, so Elimelech and his wife Naomi went abroad, to Moab, to live. They were, it seems, prosperous economic emigrants. Naomi's husband died. Her two sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then the two sons also died. That all took about ten years. The end result is three destitute, doubly bereaved, widows. Naomi is far from home. And she is a bitter woman. Is that something you can identify with? Naomi thinks God has no compassion for her. So as she tells Ruth and Orpah to abandon her to her fate, she makes the telling remark (1:13):
"…the hand of the Lord has gone out against me."
She is sure that she can expect nothing from God, even if other people can. Life is bitter. Does this ring any bells for you? So many devastating experiences can lead us into such bitterness: hopes that we had cherished for years lie shattered around us; those we love are wrenched away by death; economic hardship grinds us down and leaves us with empty dreams of prosperity; we are debilitated by chronic sickness or depression or pain; personal betrayal stamps ruthlessly on our trust in other people. Naomi is bitter. But the other thing we see in chapter 1 is that Ruth is loyal. The situation is bleak for her as well. You can see the way her mind is working in Ruth 1.17, where she says to Naomi:
"Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried."
Ruth shows deep loyalty not just to Naomi, but to Naomi's people, and her land, and – crucially – her God.
Does life seem bitter to you? Cling to God. Are you a Christian? Then hold on. Are you not yet a believer? Then take hold of Jesus Christ now, just as Ruth, from her pagan background, took hold of the living God, and committed herself to be faithful to him, come what may. Whatever your circumstances – and this is my first main point:
1. Be Aware of God's Loving Kindness to His People
To Naomi, it's obvious that God has got it in for her. But that does indicate something else about her. Naomi has faith. Her view of God may be distorted, but her faith is real. She is clear that it is "the Almighty" who is providentially ordering all the events of her life. And she still sees God as potentially kind towards others – if not to her. So she says to Ruth and Orpah before she leaves Moab (1:8):
"May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me…"
There's that word 'kindness'. It's the same word that Naomi uses at the end of chapter 2, when things are looking up and she speaks to Ruth of…
"…the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead."
And this is a particular kind of kindness. This is not just generally being kind to everyone. This is the loving kindness that we are to show to those to whom we are bound by what we can call 'covenant relationships'. We are bound to such people because they are family. If we're married, then we are bound by our promises into such a covenant relationship with our wife or our husband. If we are believers in Jesus then we are members of the family of God and we are bound to our brothers and sisters in Christ – to other members of the church. We are to behave towards all these people with consistent love and faithfulness – with loving kindness. That's the loving kindness that we see in the Book of Ruth. Above all, that's the loving kindness with which God treats us when we come to him. We need to be aware that's what God is like.
And of course, above all we know that's what God is like because of Jesus his Son. There's even a pointer to that here in the repeated references to Bethlehem. At the end of chapter 1, three times it says, "they came to Bethlehem … they came to Bethlehem … they came to Bethlehem." And then Ruth 2.4 says:
"And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem."
Bethlehem was the city of the great shepherd King David, the great-grandson of Boaz. And a thousand years later, of course, Bethlehem was the birth place of great David's greater Son, the Lord Jesus. And as the Bible says:
"By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us…"
Be aware of God's loving kindness to his people. Then:
2. Take Refuge in the Loving Kindness of God
There is another side to Ruth's loyalty that we need to notice: having tasted the bitterness of life, she is seeking refuge. Where does she look for security and safety? First of all, she looks to Naomi's friendship. Secondly, she looks to Naomi's God. For one thing, she seeks refuge in God's Law, which made provision for the poor to glean behind the harvesters – that is, to pick up any of the crop they leave behind. And that means that Ruth also seeks refuge among God's people. She expects that they will allow her to glean, and she is right. So Ruth says to Naomi (v2):
"Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favour."
Favour. There's the other great word in this chapter. Kindness. And favour. Favour means grace – loving kindness shown to those who have no right to it. God is a God of kindness and favour – of grace. He shows loving kindness to those who look to him for refuge, even though they don't deserve it and have no right to it. And the way that Ruth seeks refuge in God's Law and among God's people is a consequence of the fact that she is seeking refuge in God himself. Boaz realises this. He is Naomi's relative, and he therefore is under obligation to look out for her and her family, though Ruth doesn't know that yet. Boaz finds Ruth amongst the harvesters, and asks about her. When he has been filled in, he says to her, in verse 12:
"The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!"
As a young chick in a dangerous and threatening world crawls under the wings of its mother for security, so Ruth realised where safety lay for her. She would be OK as long as she stayed close to the Lord. In his loving kindness she could shelter and find refuge. Is life bitter for you? Then dare to hope for refuge, and to seek it. Seek it amongst God's people. Seek refuge in Jesus, your redeemer. And trust in his merciful loving kindness. The full extent of the loving kindness that Ruth finds is not immediately evident to her. Very often that is true for us, too. We don't realise just how great is the extent of all the blessings that we have in Jesus. So let's take a look at how these blessings unfold for Ruth. First of all, there is the way that she met up with Boaz. Ruth 2:3:
"So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech [her dead father-in-law]. And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem."
She "happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz"! What looks on the surface like a co-incidence is actually a God-incidence. It is he who is providentially ordering events for Ruth's good. He is at work in the details of her everyday life, just as he is at work in the details of our lives. It's just that most of the time we don't see it. Sometimes we can look back and see some of what God has been doing. Sometimes we can't. Sometimes the hard times seem unrelenting, and only beyond death will everything fall into place. Only from heaven will we be able to see clearly all the ways that God worked things out to bring us there through Jesus. So the Lord begins to bless Ruth before she even notices. And the blessing continues. She is shown kindness. Verses 8-9:
"Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn."
And Ruth exclaims:
"Why have I found favour in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?"
And not just a foreigner but a Moabite. Because of Moab's history of hostility to the Israelites, they especially – by law – were excluded from Israel. So Ruth is thrilled that she has been noticed, and shown some kindness, even though she has no right to it. That is favour. That is grace. We too have no right to belong to the people of God. But by his amazing grace God adopts us into his family and pours out his loving kindness on us when we take refuge in him through faith in Jesus his Son. And the blessings begin to pile up for Ruth. Boaz speaks tenderly to her. And Ruth responds:
"I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants."
Her daily needs were met, and she found she and Naomi had enough food and to spare. Then she realises that she has found in Boaz a close relative who will help her, and Naomi tells her that if she stays with him, she will be safe. Has it really come home to you that the place of safety for you is near Jesus?
First, be aware of the loving kindness of God. Secondly, take refuge in that loving kindness. Then finally, and thirdly…
3. Show the Same Loving Kindness to Others
Boaz not only points us to our Redeemer, he also gives us an example to follow. And remember that in the first instance this is covenant kindness – our duty of care both in our natural families and in the family of God. Boaz noticed Ruth, found out about her, talked to her and made sure that she was cared for. We need to learn awareness of new believers as they become part of the life of the church – notice them, find out about them, talk to them and make sure that they are cared for. Even if you are new yourself, you can begin to look out for others. When you can, include them in what you're doing, help to provide for their needs, help to protect them – not least by praying for them.
And we need to follow the example of Boaz and make sure that we show that same covenant loving kindness to our families – in our marriages if we're married, to our children if we have them, to our relatives. We have an obligation to them. We have a duty of care that we are to fulfil. Boaz is our pattern in this – and through Boaz via King David we're pointed to Jesus, who laid down his life because of his loving kindness towards us his people. We are to imitate him. And this habit of kindness extends also to those outside our covenant relationships – outside our family and our church – by grace. God says to us (this is Galatians 6.10):
"So then, as we have the opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith."
What then are we to learn from Ruth's first encounters with Boaz? Be aware of God's loving kindness. Take refuge in that loving kindness. And show the same loving kindness to others. But the story, of course, is just getting going in chapter 2. What's going to happen…
Come back over the next few weeks and we'll see that on Naomi's advice, and with hope of more than just a good meal, Ruth deliberately goes to Boaz and seeks refuge with him, and first he promises that he will take care of her, and then he fulfils his promise. And – spoiler alert – it's all moving towards Ruth 4.13:
"So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son."
But in reality, this loving kindness Ruth was experiencing was far greater than Ruth realised. Because, as the beginning of Matthew's Gospel points out, that child she bore turned out to be the grandfather of King David. And out of the line of David eventually Jesus came. When Ruth was going through her darkest days, that was the Lord's plan all along. Her life had eternal significance.
We see so much more of what God has done than Ruth ever did. But still we see so little of how God is unfolding everything piece by piece. He is weaving into his plan of salvation our bitter experiences too.
Consider the book of Ruth and learn to taste the favour and the loving kindness of God. Go home and read Ruth, and read it again until it becomes a part of you. It's only three pages long. Learn about the God who, out of his grace and loving kindness, redeemed Ruth. Believe in the Lord's providential ordering of your life as you seek refuge in him. Trust that he is full of loving kindness. Come what may, cling to him. Show loving kindness to others. God is not against us. He is for us. He is full of loving kindness towards us. Take refuge under his wings.
Heavenly Father, we praise and thank you for the loving kindness that you have shown to us by grace through Jesus. Teach us more and more to know your kindness, to show it to others, and to take refuge under the shadow of your wings. In Jesus' name. Amen.