This is an adaptation of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on December 1st 2013.
Goodness, but the Bible has some boring parts. Armies invading and smiting and being smote (big screen carnage, to be sure, but does it have to happen so repetitively?); the New Testament has some wonderful passages in the letters, but there’s a few that are just a little tortuous, let’s be honest; then there’s begetting. That’s the old-fashioned word for ‘father of’ or ‘fathered’ that litters those seemingly endless genealogies in the Old Testament. Let’s be open about this; when we do one of those Bible-in-a-year things, we skip through those bits, don’t we?
That doesn’t make it any less inspired, though. I’m one of those people who likes to watch a movie all the way through – and that means the entirety of the closing credits. Boring? Maybe. But … I like to hear the music, reflect on the film in my own space, and if I’d contributed to a film I’d damn sure want my name to be seen by people. So I like to honour that. Unless it’s been a long film and I drank too much coffee beforehand (let the reader understand). Genealogies are the credit scenes of the Bible, scrolling before us the often unpronounceable names of the souls who filled the years of God’s great salvation plan with their work, love, loss, life and death. Not just that; because these are God-inspired genealogies, the divine is well and truly in the details. Take the genealogy at the end of the Old Testament book of Ruth, for instance.
It comes at the end of a delightful and delightfully short 4 chapter story of the divine in the desperately ordinary in. It’s a book about a woman (Naomi) and her daughter-in-law (Ruth) who are at the mercy of famine and bereavement and the laws of the day. Naomi’s husband and her two sons-in-law had both died as they sought escape from a famine in a foreign land. The two daughters-in-law were foreigners, not one of the people of God. One had stayed behind; the other (Ruth) pledged to stay with Naomi until death parted them. Desperate, they trudge to Bethlehem with only arcane laws which expected male relatives to treat women like Naomi and Ruth with some small measure of dignity to fall back on. They were vulnerable, and they knew it. (Read all 4 chapters now – it won’t take you long and it’s a lovely little story.)
All of which makes the events of chapter 4 all the more remarkable. Boaz, a distant relative about whom we read in chapters 2 & 3 going way beyond the letter of the law to ensure Ruth and Naomi have more than enough and have it with dignity, enters into a bizarre legal dance with a slightly less distant relative. The unnamed one (remember he’s not named, that’ll become important) wants the field. When he discovers the field comes with a legal obligation to marry Ruth and continue her family name through marrying him. That’s how it worked. Family names were vital in this society – hence the emphasis on firstborn sons and genealogies. Marrying Ruth will mean his name is lost, and Ruth’s continues. So he backs out – his name is too important. Not so for Boaz. He signs away his legacy, his right to continue his family name and goes way out on a limb to protect and provide for Naomi and Ruth, of whom he was barely aware a few days ago.
Do you see the irony? The one who seeks to keep his name loses it – he’s unnamed. Boaz gives up his rights to his name – and his is the name we read of thousands of years later. This means much. For a start it gives the lie to the often quoted idea that the Bible rides roughshod over the rights of women. Sure it can be and has been understood that way; but understood rightly, as here, what we have is an example of a man giving up his rights to ensure a woman takes her place in the grand scheme of things. Society’s stability is preserved, but the locus of power is shifted from grasping to giving.
What we also see here is the economy of God at work again, so typically against the grain. We say plan to succeed and you’ll go down in history. God says – give up everything you dream of, and it will be well with you. Such is God’s work through Boaz here, and such were the words of Jesus also:
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Mark 8:35-7, The Message)
It’s little wonder Jesus said these words. Such an attitude was in His blood, in His DNA. Skip to the end of Ruth 4 and you get an excerpt from a genealogy. It’s a short leap from Boaz to Kind David, a man after God’s own heart. This is expanded on in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. Who is in the son of God’s (human) family tree? Great heroes of the faith like Abraham, yes (who laughed in God’s face) and David (an adulterer and a murderer). Boaz who signed away his right to a legacy. And women! How radical this was. Women in a family tree … and such women! Women like Rahab, a prostitute from a pagan city, insignificant little Ruth and Mary, pregnant before marriage.
Terrible heritage, bad stock. No wonder little Jesus, born in gossip, would grow up to be suspected, lied about, spat upon, abandoned and left to die a criminal’s death. That’s what you get in a family like that.
And here’s the thing. That’s the family Christians are adopted into. In Christ we’re adopted into God’s family. That family of liars and adulterers and murderers. Who’d choose a family like that?
Advent, these 4 weeks preparing for Christmas, is a time of hope. It tells us that God keeps His promises; He promised a Messiah and He sent one. He has promised that Messiah will return, and because that Messiah has kept His promises before we have a good basis for hope. No good basis for pride, or moral superiority, or judgement, or lecturing others on the need to change. No. Look at our family before we dare do that. We have dodgy DNA. Which means we’re in no place to judge, but we can be sure we’re accepted despite everything. Even the judging.
Which is good news indeed.