That Old-Time Religion
Book of Ruth
December 9, 2018 – First Congregational Church of Meredith
I love hymns, old ones and new ones. One of my favorite golden oldies is called, “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.” Do you know it? It goes like this:
Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. It’s good enough for me.
It was good for our fathers. It was good for our mothers. It was good for our brothers. And it’s good enough for me.
Makes me love everybody. Makes me love everybody. Makes me love everybody. And it’s good enough for me.
Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. It’s good enough for me.
Old-Time Religion. That hymn is really the essence of our scripture text today, which is the book of Ruth. And I need to set the stage a little for that story.
I have been preaching for the past few weeks about the period in which the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. What we don’t usually read about is what happened after the exile was over. You see, fifty years after the exile began, a new king, Cyrus of Persia, defeated the Babylonians, and he told the people of Israel they could leave Babylon. After fifty years in captivity, they could go home at last. Go back to Jerusalem, to try to rebuild a nation and a temple and a faith in a land that had once been home but had since been taken over by foreigners. What must that have been like – to march across the great desert with old folks who remembered Solomon’s great temple and youngsters who had never known any home but Babylon?
But Jerusalem wasn’t what it had been when they left, of course. It had been physically destroyed in the war that led to their captivity in the first place. The city itself, and Solomon’s temple, had been laid waste. They say that when the people got back to Jerusalem and the old timers saw the temple in ruins, they just sat down on the ground and cried. Starting over after devastation is a terrible task. It requires a special kind of gumption that not everyone has, and rebuilding what was lost means keeping a clear eye on what was central in the former times.
One more thing was really different from before the exile. Other people had moved in to what the Israelites still thought of as their territory. It’s not like the neighboring people had just left the land empty, after all, waiting for the people of Israel to return one day. No, they did what any people would do. They expanded into the ruined area and set up their own homes and shops and farms. They married the few Israelites who were left after that last battle. So, for the Israelites, rebuilding the city and the nation and their faith would mean finding a way to deal with more than the ruined temple. It would also mean finding a way to deal with all those foreigners who had moved into Jerusalem, and with the gods they worshiped.
The man who led the rebuilding of the nation’s faith was named Ezra. Ezra spent a lot of his energy making rules to re-establish the old-time religion – the worship of Yahweh as he believed it had been practiced before the exile. What was central to him about the former times was the purity of worshipping only Yahweh, so first and foremost on his list was rooting out the influences of the foreign people and their gods who had taken over Jerusalem during the exile. One of Ezra’s rules was that there could be no intermarriage between people of Israel and foreigners. He even went so far as to break up existing families, sending tearful wives and children off to the border without their husbands and fathers, so that there would be no trace left of the pagan religions that had contaminated the land while the people of Israel were in Babylon. For Ezra, practicing the old-time religion meant getting rid of foreigners and their corrupting influences.
While this was going on, someone – we don’t know who – remembered an old, old story and decided to write it down. It was a story from long before the exile, before there were bad kings who let the land be captured and destroyed, before there were even good kings who built the kingdom of Israel and the temple. It was a story from the time when judges ruled the land, and that story has become the Book of Ruth. It’s a good tale, so I want to just tell it to you this morning….
In the days when judges ruled the land, there was a famine, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, a country that had long been the enemy of Israel. The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife was Naomi. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons, who took Moabite wives (actually the Hebrew word means that they STOLE Moabite wives). The name of one wife was Orpah, and the name of the other was Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, Naomi’s two sons also died, so that she was left without her two sons or her husband.
Then Naomi heard that the famine back in Judah was over and there was plenty to eat there, so she started to return to Judah, and her daughters-in-law were going with her. But Naomi thought better of this and said, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi insisted and so Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her homeland. But Ruth clung to Naomi, saying,
‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried.’ What amazing loyalty from a woman who had been stolen from her own family to begin with!
When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So, the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.
It happened that they arrived in Bethlehem just at the beginning of the barley harvest. And Ruth said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.’
The problem, you see, was how Naomi and Ruth would survive. Elimelech had owned some land in Bethlehem, but they didn’t have husbands to support them. They didn’t have jobs. They were poor and in danger of starving, even in a land that was no longer in famine. So, Ruth turned to gleaning, which is the practice of allowing poor people to come along behind reapers and pick up grain that has fallen by the wayside. Gleaners get the meager leftovers of the harvest, probably just enough to keep starvation away for now, but not nearly enough for the winter. And for a woman alone, gleaning is dangerous work, because she has no protection from the sexual advances of the men who are gathering the harvest for the land owner. Gleaning is for desperate people.
So, Ruth gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to a man named Boaz. Boaz was a prominent farmer who was a kinsman of Naomi’s husband Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, ‘To whom does this young woman belong?’ The servant answered, ‘She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi. She asked to glean behind the reapers.’
Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field, but keep close to my young women. I have ordered the young men not to bother you.’ Then she fell with her face to the ground and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ But Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of her husband has been told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’
When she went back to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, ‘Let her glean even among the standing sheaves. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles and leave them for her to glean.’
So, Ruth gleaned in the field until evening, and she gleaned about a bushel of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Naomi said to her, ‘Where did you glean today?’ And Ruth said, ‘The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.’ Then Naomi said, ‘Blessed be! This man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’
After the barley harvest was finished, Naomi said to Ruth, ‘My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Boaz is winnowing the barley tonight at the threshing-floor. Now wash and anoint yourself and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to him until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, go and lie down there, and he will tell you what to do.’
So, Ruth went down to the threshing floor and did just as Naomi had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk (and drunk a little more), and he was in a “contented” mood, he fell asleep at the end of the heap of grain. Then Ruth came quietly and lay down beside him. At midnight Boaz rolled over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, ‘Who are you?’ And she answered, ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ He said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord…. You have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, do not be afraid; … for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.’
Now, under Jewish law, if a husband died, his next-of-kin was obliged to marry the widow. This is called Levirate marriage, and it was a system designed to ensure that the family name did not die out and that the weakest people in society would be cared for by someone. But Boaz was not actually the nearest relative. There was another man who had both the right and the responsibility to marry Ruth. So, Boaz went to the city gate to find this man and make him a business proposition. Boaz said, ‘Come over, friend; sit down here.’ Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city and said, ‘Sit down here.’ He then said to the next-of-kin, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So, I thought I would tell you of it and say: If you will buy it, buy it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you. So, the other man said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ At this the next-of-kin said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take the right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’
Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to his sons. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, to be my wife’
So, Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, she bore a son. They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
And that is the story of Ruth, a story that someone thought the people of Israel needed to remember as they rebuilt their temple and their nation after the exile. Ruth was an impoverished woman, a widow, and by Ezra’s standards she was an illegal alien. But Ruth was also the mother of Obed, the grandmother of Jesse, and the great-grandmother of the great King David. The whole history of the people of Israel depended on her, and preserving their own name and lineage depended on including this outsider. The author of the book of Ruth wanted the people of Israel to remember that no one is a throw-away in God’s eyes.
According to Ezra, the old-time religion meant kicking people like Ruth out of the country, tearing them away from the relationships they had built in the hardest of times and from the families they had borne. But the author of Ruth says, “You’ve got it all wrong, Ezra! Don’t you remember? Not so long ago, WE were strangers ourselves! And some of our most honored ancestors were from countries we had learned to hate! The old-time religion isn’t about rules and purity. It is about radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, the hallmark of God’s own love for us.”
Give me that old-time religion. Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion. It’s good enough for me. Amen