In this study, we'll take a closer look at the theme of grace and favour in the narrative.
(A) Invisible grace is not what sinners notice: sovereign God works in unseen ways (Ruth 1:19-2:7)
In Ruth 1: 19, Naomi finally returns to Bethlehem, and the whole town came was stirred at her return. Yet Naomi's bitter spirit is clearly visible and she even says so herself! She gives up the name Naomi (which means 'pleasant') and adopts the name Mara (which means 'bitter') instead. In her mind, "the Almighty has dealt very bitterly" with her, for she "went away full" but has returned empty (Ruth 1:20-21).
Yet, the narrator of Ruth contrasts Naomi's (perceived) doom and gloom with the setting of the story. Tucked away at the end of chapter 1 is a seemingly irrelevant detail that we could gloss over so easily -- "And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest" (Ruth 1:22). Chapter 1 and Ruth began because of a famine, and there were deaths along the way that led to Naomi's current situation. In contrast, the chapter ends with some tiny glimmers of hope!
All throughout the book of Ruth, tiny details are sprinkled and hidden like treasures, that are so easily missed or assumed. We, like Naomi, are often blind to these that appear to coincidences or accidents. Why not? As we had already seen last week, Naomi was trapped in bitterness, and that blinded her to hope or possibilities. In her despair, everything hinged on her perception and opinion of things, and she understood her life in terms of what she saw or could make sense of. This is some arrogance on her part, because she assumed that she could see everything and make sense of everything!
So what then? Does this mean that as Christians we are called to be eternal optimists? Not at all! Rather, we can be realistic because we can readily admit that we do not know how things will turn out. We know that good things happen because of God, and bad things are not outside of His control. And in fact, if God is in control, bad things are never entirely bad. Matt 13:31-32 reminds us that the Kingdom of Heaven grows like a mustard seed. The tiny mustard seed can grow into the largest tree in the forest. Are we, like Naomi, too fixated about our experience and unable to admit that we actually don't know everything? Ruth reminds us that things are not always what they seem!
In chapter 2, the narrator inserts some information about Boaz, and establishes his connection to Naomi. It seems to break the flow of the narrative, but these details are important! Though he hasn't appeared, we are told who he is -- "a worthy man from the clan of Elimelech". Once more, Ruth highlights how the Bible is written so deliberately and that details are not random!
Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Ruth comes up with a plan (Ruth 2:2). She wanted to glean in the fields. This was a provision written in the laws of Israel, where almost anyone, even the foreigners, could come and pick grain for subsistence. Ruth set out, and "she happened to" enter the fields of Boaz, the worthy man. Once more, the narrator uses this plot device of highlighting rather obvious coincidences that we are made to think twice about whether they are really coincidences at all! Indeed everything was part of God's sovereign plan -- even her plan -- and God was weaving everything together.
In verse 4, we are introduced to Boaz, and from his manner, we are also able to see his faith and spiritual state. He entered the field and greeted the reapers ("The LORD be with you", Ruth 2:4a) and elicited a response back from them ("The LORD bless you", Ruth 2:4b). We see his kind treatment of the reapers who are his employees and included the poor and marginalised of the society, and even foreigners. He was likely to be respected by the reapers, and was indeed a worthy man, a man of the Lord (Ruth 2:1).
He noticed and asked after Ruth, and Boaz's servant, who had been observing her, gave a good report back to Boaz. He told Boaz of her identity and story, and noticed how hardworking and diligent she had been that day. What an accident, that Ruth chose to work in a field that happened to belong to this worthy man of Elimelech's clan. What a coincidence that the servant was observing her, and Boaz did ask the right servant. We are meant to see that these things were too coincidental for it to all be a coincidence. Acts 17:26-28 remind us of the God who is there, who is in control and even determined the allotted time and place that we were born into, or live in. Nothing is random, or by chance. Often, we are like Naomi, blind to the barley harvest in front of us. Sometimes we are like Ruth, working hard not expecting to impress anyone, or not expecting anyone to notice. Ruth 1-2 challenges our despair, and encourages us to continue in worshipful, faithful trust, because our sovereign God works in unseen ways.
(B) Visible favor is a form of grace: God’s kindness expressed in manifold, practical ways (Ruth 2:8-20)
Ruth 2:8-20 also shows us a more visible, tangible expression of God's sovereignty and grace, mediated to Ruth and Naomi through the kindness of Boaz. He addresses her as "daughter" (v.8a), a term of endearment and welcomes her, a foreign Moabite, to the community. In verses 8b-9, he makes a fourfold suggestion and showers her with kindness upon kindness:
- He tells her to choose his field to work in ("Don’t go to another one and leave this one but keep close to my young women", Ruth 2:8b)
- He gives her the freedom to go ahead and earn from the fruit of this land ("let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping", Ruth 2:9)
- He guarantees her safety ("have I not charged the young men not to touch you?", Ruth 2:9)
- He allows her to take the free benefits of his provision ("go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn', Ruth 2:9b)
Upon hearing this, Ruth responds with great surprise, falling on her face and bowing to the ground. She was surprised that she was noticed and found favour in his eyes, despite being a foreigner (Ruth 2:10). Ruth was clearly aware of her status and identity, and felt a sense of shock and unworthiness at being showered such unmerited kindness. Boaz explained that he knew about the kindness she showed to Naomi, and now he hoped that God will show her greater kindness (Ruth 2:11-12). This was a man that interpreted life through his faith, and saw life through the kindness of God. To this worthy man from the clan of Elimelech, his provisions and protection of Ruth were mere echoes of the greater kindness of his God. In fact, he shows his kindness in two practical ways (Ruth 2:14-18):
- Invites her to have his own cooked food and wine till satisfaction (Ruth 2:14)
- Extra-provision through secretly arranging for her to get what she did not labor for, the leftover grain (c.f. Deut 24:19). Ruth was blessed abundantly, she was able to bring back 22 litres for Naomi (Ruth 2:17)!
Naomi sees all that Ruth brought back, and heard her account of the day's event (Ruth 2: 19). Through it all, Naomi saw the Lord's kindness!
Boaz and Naomi teach us many lessons here. Boaz also reminds us to pause and really consider the kindness of God. For us, it is so easy to fixate on the recipient (i.e. us) of God's kindness, and also the channel through which He displays His kindness (i.e. people around us etc). But verses like Jas 1:17 and Matt 5:45 point us back to the source of kindness! Let us pause and consider the truth and fact that all good and perfect gifts are from God. Do we realise that these include thing like having a place to live in, having running water and electricity, the opportunity to have an education? Do we also realise that it extends to things like having a loving family, having friends around us, the privilege of studying the Bible openly and also in community? The things are blessings in our lives are not our due, and when we realise that, and when we begin to see our lives in light of Jas 1:17, perhaps it will change our lives and get us more excited about God!
Not only that, do we realise that His kindness was not merely in the provision of good things for our lives. He was not content with dispensing and orchestrating events from afar. He gave us the greatest treasure -- His own Son, so that we might know Him (c.f. Titus 3:4-7). This is a God who acted so generously, not in response to the goodness that we have not, and certainly not because we were worthy people. He acted purely because of His own lovingkindness, and goodness appeared to save us and bring us back to Himself. When we see that there is no shadow of turning with this God of kindness, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, how can it not cause us to worship Him from whom all blessings flow? And as recipients of His kindness, it frees us to extend the same kindness to those around us! Boaz shows us what it means to love not only in words, but also in deeds. How can we learn from his example today? Like Naomi and Ruth, we often live normal lives with normal plans and a regular pattern. But for the Christian, there is nothing ordinary about life, is there? Our mundane daily life is actually full of God's invisible grace through visible favour. How is He working in your life, today?