The Book of Ruth: Legality

Wednesday 16th June 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Midweek Service

During the last two talks I have dealt with loyalty and generosity as shown in the Book of Ruth but today I want to deal with legality. Last time I talked about the Jewish Law in the broad context of all its concerns but today I want to narrow this down.

As with laws concerning the treatment of the weak and poor, laws dealing with social conduct are our defence against the failure of love. We can try to imagine a situation in which there is no property law, no marriage law and no criminal law. We know what this looks like and it always looks like chaos out of which the powerful emerge victorious. Fundamentally, as we saw with the story of Ruth gleaning in the fields, the law is, above all else, for the poor and weak. In our story Boaz, without the Law, might simply have skipped off with Ruth but instead he went through the solemn process of dealing with the land and marriage issues in front of witnesses and then swore his oath. This is important to us because Christianity is not fundamentally the regulation of conduct in the private sphere where, to use a common phrase, we can all do what we like as long as it does not affect others. Christianity is public:  its worship and ceremonies are public; its teaching and standards are public; and its mission is public. It affirms that everything we do affects others.

The problem for today's Christians, however, is that we do not live in the time of Boaz when the Law was indivisible, applying to everyone and every institution in what we would today call a theocracy. In our society there are frequent clashes between civil and Christian law over such issues as abortion and civil marriage. There are issues where society is split in a way that it could not be when all Law came from God. There is always a great deal of room for interpretation in Judaism to the extent that the process is in some ways more fundamental than the original Biblical text, but today when we all have a say in our civil laws, there are disputes about capital punishment, assisted dying, surrogacy and gender issues. This raises the difficult issue of the extent to which we should, if we can, legislate Christian values for a multi religious, multi-cultural society and here, no matter how we resolve issues, it seems vital that while we permit others to do what we would not do, we should never be forced into doing what we find unacceptable just because the majority gain what we oppose.

This is not so far away from Boaz as it looks. Israel was a tiny nation surrounded by often hostile idolaters and one way of looking at its history is seeing how successful it was in retaining its integrity. Boaz, as we see at the end of the story, is the man from whom the Jewish monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon will come, temporarily providing peace and stability between the chaotic era of the Judges and the death of Solomon. There is something of the golden age about Boaz and his descendants, but it could not happen without respect for legality.

With the last lines of the Book of Ruth we return in an odd way to our opening discussion of dynasty. In spite of all the panic around the descendants of Abraham, it is a gentile woman who retains the dynasty of Boaz intact, leading to the birth of the great King David, an almost humorous, and certainly an ironic twist in the story but, then, the whole of the story of Ruth might be the first long short story or short novel in the Christian tradition and because of this we need to learn to read the text for what it is. At one level, this is a romance but it is surely grounded in the hard practicalities of flight by Naomi from a homeland in the face of famine, a drastic reversal of fortune in the sudden deaths of three husbands, another flight into exile this time by ruth, the imminence of poverty, the application of the law with mercy and generosity and then they all lived, the ones who were left, happily ever after but in spite of the drama of the events, it is a story for us. It lacks the heaviness of those magnificent Genesis stories where YHWH can hardly restrain himself from getting involved, booming out his threats and his promises, and it lacks the ever-ominous shadow over the history of monarchy, where, for example, the mutual love of David and Jonathan is love under constant threat. It also lacks the scary undertow of prophetic woe which inhabits the later parts of the Books of Kings and Chronicles which morph into the books of the Prophets. There are parallels with the style of Ruth in the Apocrypha but none quite so charming.

We gain our love of and respect for God from many sources and a slight romance might not, we think, be of much significance in contrast to other, weightier books, but I am inclined to think, to use a contemporary illustration, that we can learn as much about humanity from novels as we can from more serious sources such as medical textbooks, psychological theories, or warnings about our impending doom.

Much of what counts as our effort to love God and each other depends upon the social imagination, putting ourselves into to the shoes of others, asking what we would do in the same situation and examining our consciences, exercising, in other words, the gentler arts.

Finally, a word about hope. Although we might enjoy ghost stories, or dystopian novels, our favourite stories are stories about hope which we tell for our own comfort. There is nothing weak about this, it is a necessary antidote to our troubles, an optimistic response to the wicked world; but the hope that is offered in Ruth, as part of the corpus of sacred writing which informed Jesus, is the hope under-written by God's love and mercy.