Readings: Ruth 2:1-12, 15-20, True Christianity 126
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Today we hear about what happened to Naomi and Ruth as they settled into life in Bethlehem. Without husbands, and more specifically, without ancestral land, they had no way to support themselves other than gleaning from the fields of others, essentially collecting leftovers from the harvest. This is how Ruth meets Boaz, a wealthy landowner. Now, as we had heard a few weeks ago, the book of Leviticus stated that provision should be made for widows and foreigners, people exactly like Naomi and Ruth. And it seems that this is what Boaz had been doing and we can imagine that Ruth probably wasn’t the only one gleaning leftovers from the harvest. However, we hear in the text a particular kindness from Boaz: he instructs his workers to leave extra gleanings behind for Ruth to gather.
When Naomi hears about the connection that Ruth made with Boaz, she is happy for more than one reason. Boaz is not some random benevolent landowner. He has a connection to their family, a connection that puts him in a position of responsibility for their welfare. She calls him their “guardian-redeemer.”
This introduces another important theme in the book of Ruth: redemption. It is a theme that is explored at many levels. On one level, the term “guardian-redeemer” has specific meaning in Israelite law, one that has more to do with property and linage than with spirit or emotion. But we can also see that the book is exploring redemption in a deeper sense: how was Naomi going to be rescued from her bitterness? How might Ruth be rescued from a life of uncertainty and poverty and otherness? How might God be working for the benefit, the redemption, of the Israelite people? Scholars believe that the book of Ruth, while placed narratively in the time between the judges and the kings, was probably written in the days following the Israelites exile in Babylon, as commentary on how, and with what values, the Israelites might rebuild their nation. It was a book that spoke into the embodied redemption of beginning a society again.
So I thought today might be a good time to explore the idea of redemption in a theological sense. We are just a few weeks away from entering the liturgical season of Advent, where we will hear plenty of “redeemer” language, as we tell the story of how God reached out into the world to be incarnated as a person like you and me. In the gospel of Luke, after meeting the baby Jesus, Zechariah sings “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.” (Luke 1:68) A question we might have is: What does it mean to be redeemed? And how does a little baby born millennia ago redeem me now?
To redeem something, in basic everyday terms, means to buy, recover or exchange something (like redeeming a coupon). The word redemption starts to bring in more existential shades of meaning, defined as deliverance, rescue or atonement.
Both of these definitions start to give shape to our discussion: they reflect a situation of being or having one thing, and wanting or needing to have another. The word redemption describes the journey from the first state to the second. The term redeemer describes someone to enables that journey to occur.
In the book of Ruth, we have our two main characters mired in a state of bitterness and poverty, and the story is tracing their journey from this first state into another different state, as we will see, an objectively better one. Boaz helps them on that journey, and is called their guardian-redeemer.
Likewise, in Advent, we tell a similar story in terms of the whole of humanity. The gospel of John begins with themes of light and darkness. The world was a dark place, as were the hearts of people, and something needed to be done. Jesus, the light of the world, comes to help people on that journey of redemption.
But often times, the theology of redemption is presented in very transactional terms. A lot of traditional Christian theology pictures a God who is angry because the people of the world are so sinful, with hearts so dark that they are not listening to all the ways that God has offered redemption before. And when people transgress, according to ancient religion, there must be a consequence, there must be a price paid to God. So, some Christian theologies say, that Jesus stepped in to pay that price for us, to pay the price due to God for our sins, then and forever more. The ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate act of redeeming that will last forever.
So this is like if perhaps we decide we want to do a dine and dash. We eat a meal at a restaurant but leave without paying. So Jesus steps in to pay the bill, stopping the police from coming after us.
However, Swedenborg has a different understanding of redemption. For, as kind and selfless an act as Jesus’ atonement our sins might have been, it is undergirded by untenable assumptions. For Swedenborg, it was impossible that God should be angry and vengeful. God can only be divinely loving and wise, mourning our evil choices but never despising us, and never demanding restitution for God’s own sake, only desiring a holistic accountability anchored in our transformation. And if God is not angry and vengeful, demanding a price for our transgressions, then the whole substitutionary atonement thing fall apart. And if it does, then was Jesus’ sacrifice all about? How was Jesus redeeming us if not paying our bill?
Because what Swedenborg was seeing in his own religious circles, was people praising Jesus paying the bill, but continuing to dine and dash, because, you know, Jesus is paying the bill. And Swedenborg wondered how this could ever be what the divine wanted or intended. Where was the room, where was the imperative, for human emotional and spiritual development?
Not surprisingly, Swedenborg, scientist that he was, was interested in the systemic questions. Why were people turning away from God? And what might God do to help us not sin in the future?
Swedenborg’s spiritual experiences allowed him to see a broader view of the trajectory of humanity, within the context of our constant connection to the spirit. Heaven and hell are made up of people from this world, and they remain connected us who are still living. Which unfortunately means that the more people choose selfishness and domination as the anchor of their life, the stronger hell will be over time. Swedenborg explains that, in Jesus’ day, God needed to subdue hell for the sake of us all, and could have vanquished it by the power of the divine in seconds. But God continues to love all creatures forever, and so needed to put things in order in a way that still respected human autonomy and human life, even those who choose evil.
So God, instead of solving things from outside of the process, entered into the process that has been ordained for us, became human, became a form that could actually be tempted by hell and used our common humanity as both a model for living and a way to overcome evil and the love of power.
And so, this like instead of using explosives to clear a blocked drain by blowing the whole drain up, God became a plumber, clearing away the blockage with the appropriate tools, so allowing for the free flow of water once again, while preserving the structure of the drain.
The way the God accomplished that clearing away, also had ongoing implications for each of our spiritual journeys. By entering into the process with us, God created a connection and a closeness that continues to serve us. Think about how much harder it would be to deal with a blocked drain if we: didn’t know that plumbers were a thing, didn’t know how to reach one, didn’t think they could make it to our house because they live too far away, didn’t have access to a phone. And think about how much more secure we feel when we know we have a good and competent plumber on speed dial who will always always respond. God saved us, redeemed us, as in moved humanity from one state to another, cleared the drain for us, by entering into a deeper relationship with us, by creating a new opportunity for connection and responsiveness.
In this view, redemption is not just about transaction. Not just about our bill being paid. We human beings can suffer in a multitude of ways, both of our own creation, and completely not our own fault. And how we make the journey out of that suffering can be complicated. Our need is not always just forgiveness, sometimes our need is one of letting go, reframing, patience, evolution. And so redemption is a journey, and if God is to effect our redemption, to be our redeemer, God has to be on the journey with us, has to be responsive to what we need in the moment. Paying our bill is indeed be a good and kind thing in many a case, but is not sufficient for the totality of human spiritual development. The end goal, as we heard in our reading, is partnership with God. For that, we need more, and thankfully, God gave more.
What kind of redemption will we be be seeing in the book of Ruth? We will see Boaz taking a sustained interest, waiting to hear about what Ruth needs, dealing with that particular specificity in their culture and situation, and doing so with kindness and respect. The story understands that redemption is indeed a journey, with many moving parts, actors and beneficiaries. Redemption built on relationship, built on partnership. It’s the more complicated way, but it bears so much fruit. Thanks be to God.
Ruth 2:1-12, 15-20
1 Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side, a man of standing from the clan of Elimelek, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” Naomi said to her, “Go ahead, my daughter.” 3 So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelek. 4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The LORD be with you!” “The LORD bless you!” they answered. 5 Boaz asked the overseer of his harvesters, “Who does that young woman belong to?” 6 The overseer replied, “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” 8 So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. 9 Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” 10 At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?” 11 Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
15 As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. 16 Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her.” 17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. 18 She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough. 19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz,” she said. 20 “The LORD bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers. ”
True Christianity 126
Suffering on the cross was the final trial the Lord underwent as the greatest prophet. It was a means of glorifying his human nature, that is, of uniting that nature to his Father's divine nature. It was not redemption. There are two things for which the Lord came into the world and through which he saved people and angels: redemption, and the glorification of his human aspect. These two things are distinct from each other, but they become one in contributing to salvation.
In the preceding points we have shown what redemption was: battling the hells, gaining control over them, and then restructuring the heavens. Glorification, however, was the uniting of the Lord's human nature with the divine nature of his Father. This process occurred in successive stages and was completed by the suffering on the cross.
All of us have to do our part and move closer to God. The closer we come to God, the more God enters us, which is his part…
The union itself [between the Lord's divine and human natures] was completed by the suffering on the cross, because this suffering was the final spiritual test that the Lord went through in the world. Spiritual tests lead to a partnership [with God]. During our spiritual tests, we are apparently left completely alone, although in fact we are not alone - at those times God is most intimately present at our deepest level giving us support. Because of that inner presence, when any of us have success in a spiritual test we form a partnership with God at the deepest level. In the Lord's case, he was then united to God, his Father, at the deepest level.