Dr. Steve Lindsley
Ruth 2: (selected verses)
Last week, you recall, we looked at the beginnings of the wonderful story of Ruth. How a young Moabite woman chose to stay with her Israelite mother-in-law when the law of the land – and the mother-in-law – both gave her permission to begin a new life elsewhere. We talked about how it was possible, and perhaps even likely, that as much as Naomi needed Ruth, Ruth also needed Naomi; because the truth was no different back then than it is today; that we all need each other and thanks be to God for that.
Our scripture today takes us into the next chapter of the story. Ruth’s decision to remain with her mother-in-law does not come without a host of ramifications that were simply part and parcel of life in a heavily patriarchal world. She would not be able to follow suit with other young women in raising a family and being fully supported by a husband in the process. She would have to make it on her own – some way, somehow.
So she decides to set out and do something she can do – harvest grain in the fields. An honest day’s work. And by chance she finds herself in the fields of a man named Boaz, an Israelite who by chance happens to be related to Naomi. And by chance, Boaz happens to be around that day and notices her; and by chance a servant of Boaz knows Ruth’s back story and shares it with his master. Boaz takes an interest in this stranger; an interest that seems to grow with each passing minute, from admiration for what she did for Naomi, to inviting her to join the other harvesters at his table for lunch, to giving her the best fields to glean from. Her first day on the job turns out to be a pretty productive day.
Back home that evening, Naomi is amazed by the amount of grain her daughter-in-law has harvested and even more amazed by the kindness of this man to her; a man who had no reason to be kind to begin with. It is a welcome change of fortune for a woman who has been through tragedy three times over: Ruth now has a place and purpose in the world outside of her relationship with Naomi and will be able to work in safety for a good man who obviously cares for her.
And if we were to read on into the next two chapters, we’d find that the relationship between Ruth and Boaz would continue to grow and that the two would eventually marry and have a son, Obed, who would become the grandfather of the great King David. We would also encounter at the story’s ending perhaps the perfect image to be left with – that of a proud and exceedingly grateful grandmother holding her newborn grandson in her arms.
I mean, honestly, it sounds like a Hallmark movie, doesn’t it? I saw an article online not too long ago that made the claim that every Hallmark movie follows one of only twelve storylines. To be honest, I didn’t think it was that many. Point is, these movies are as predictable as their storylines are recycled but we love them anyway, because it’s so nice to experience something that makes us feel good; where all wrongs are made right and love wins.
The story of Ruth and Boaz is not a Hallmark movie but we’d be forgiven if we mistakened it for one. Still, it’s when we look deeper that we see there’s more going on than readily meets the eye. This is a love story for certain – but it is more than that. This is a story about people putting good out into the world and getting it back – but it’s more than that. One might even say that this is a story about karma – but it’s more than that.
This story at its heart is about, believe it or not, a word. A single word in Hebrew that we find in this passage and roughly 250 other times in our Old Testament. It is a word easily overlooked because it is defined in so many different ways, making it hard to pin down. It’s also overlooked because it is, as one scholar aptly describes it, “the untranslatable defining the inexpressible.” The word I’m talking about is hesed – in English, h-e-s-e-d. Hesed.
In our passage today, hesed is translated as “loving-kindness” and is given voice by Ruth as she reacts to Boaz and all he has done for her: letting her glean in his fields, letting her drink his water, offering protection – and all the while she being a foreigner and stranger. Oh sir, Ruth exclaims, You’ve treated me like one of your own. I don’t deserve it. I don’t even belong here. Such grace, such loving-kindness.
It’s not a real word – loving-kindness – but it’s the best we’ve got. There is literally no perfect way to translate hesed. If you would, turn to the back of your bulletin – and for those online, feel free to open the bulletin at our Watch Worship page. You’ll see what’s called a “wordle” – it’s basically word art. This is a visual depiction of all the various ways that hesed has been translated in the Bible. Take a moment and look at it. There’s a lot going on there, isn’t it. All of that captured in a single Hebrew word.
And it’s not just about the translation either – and apologizes in advance for getting a little “word-nerdy” here. But one scholar has done some work on what he calls the “linguistic gravity” of hesed – that is, the tendency of the word to draw other words to itself, in the same that the earth’s gravity keeps the moon orbiting around it. According to his studies there are eight words that are most frequently paired with hesed: those are truth, mercy, covenant, justice, faithfulness, goodness, favor, and righteousness. That’s some good company to keep, don’t you think?
Hesed plays such an important role in the story of Ruth beyond this one verse – and perhaps one way to understand its impact and influence on Ruth’s story – and on our story – is to consider some of the other instances of hesed in the faith. There is an understanding, for instance, that once hesed has been shared there is an unspoken element of mutuality and reciprocity – that you in some way violate the essence of hesed if you fail to show hesed in response to hesed. There are instances of this throughout the Old Testament, with even Jesus echoing it in his teachings: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
It’s important to remember that this reciprocity is not obligation. This isn’t getting a gift for the nice person who gave you one because you don’t want to be indebted to them or owe them anything. This is responding to hesed with hesed because it has touched your heart; because you have been genuinely moved and want to share some of that loving-kindness. You know what that’s like, don’t you? To receive a blessing, a kindness that is more than simply being kind; and before you even know it you’re doing the same yourself. That is hesed in action, and it is marvelous.
Hesed is also the ultimate bridge-builder that can mend any breach. In the book of Numbers we find this amazing story about how the Israelites are scoping out the Promised Land before entering it and find that it’s going to be more of a challenge than they initially thought. The people are discouraged by this and openly complain and muse about returning to the wilderness, even heading back to Egypt. They’ve had enough. As has God when God sees their reaction and the ungratefulness of God’s people – in fact, God is so angry at the people that God is ready to be rid of them.
And into this rather uncomfortable space steps Moses, donning his mediator hat and convincing God that it would be a mistake to follow through on that threat. Thanks to Moses, God changes God’s mind. And what is it precisely that leads God to do that? It is when Moses reminds God that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Steadfast love – guess what word that is in Hebrew? It’s hesed. Hesed is what brings both God and the people back from the brink and carries them together into their future.
Hesed can also be the turning point, as we saw in the psalm that Rebecca read earlier, although we may not have known it was hesed we were hearing. How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me? The psalm’s author, presumably David, is in the depths of despair. He is beaten, downtrodden, alone. All he knows is pain. But that changes by the psalm’s end. And what, do we wonder, is the hinge on which that changes? We look again at the text: I trusted in your steadfast love, David proclaims. I trusted in your hesed. Hesed marks for us the transition from despair to hope, from emptiness to being made whole again.
All of which has me as comfortable as one can be with a definition cautiously offered up by a scholar – a musician and poet, actually, someone who understands the depth of words: for him hesed is understood as “when the one from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.”
When the one from whom I have a right to expect nothing gives me everything.
That sounds like our story today, does it not? It’s no wonder that Ruth uses the word hesed to describe what Boaz has done for her. What he did was kind – but it was more than kind. What he did was very thoughtful – but it wasn’t just thoughtful. Some might even describe Boaz’s actions as charity, except that charity is often a one-off and usually reinforces a top-down imbalance in the relationship. But what Boaz does here, in fact, is a leveling of the relationship. He is not interested in maintaining the top-down dynamic. Nor is Ruth, for that matter. She has already demonstrated in convincing fashion that she does not see herself beholden to “the way things have always been” and has no qualms bucking the system a bit.
And all of that is why this story of Ruth and Boaz is so much more than a sweet love story tailor-made for Hallmark Channel’s next movie production. It is a story about the transformative power of hesed when we allow it to do what it so desperately wants to do as it becomes part of the connectional fabric of our lives with each other.
And I kind of dig that it’s un-definable. I like the fact that we can’t box it up, package it for distribution. I like that it’s elusiveness makes us work for it. Because a lot of good things in life are things we have to work for a little bit. They don’t come easily and that’s okay. That makes them worth all the more.
You remember that last week we talked about the fact that, more than ever, we have to be better at being both the one needed and the one needing; the helper and the one accepting help. That’s how we get through all the stuff that life is throwing at us. That’s how we embody the beloved community we are called by God to be. You remember that?
Hesed challenges us to take that to the next level. Look again at that wordle on the back of your bulletin. All of those things – every last one of them – are woven into the fabric of our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. They are there – there’s nothing we can do to create them; they are already there. All we have to do is to live into them. To choose to live by a different code from the world we live in, one where relationships can be more transactional in nature. To choose a different way of being.
Take the baptism we just celebrated and think about the promises that were made – Ronnie and Blair to sweet little Emily, Trinity’s children to Emily, and each and every one of you to the four of them. We don’t make these promises as the church because they happen to be some of the words in the liturgy of our baptism service. We make these promises because we are choosing, by the grace of God, to live into something bigger than ourselves, something hard to see on its own until we have moments of clarity – and there is perhaps no clearer moment than baptism. It is the embodiment of what hesed is all about.
Last week I challenged you to imagine a world where the church is known as a place where you can provide care and be cared for. Where you belong. This week, imagine with me what it would be like, how awesome it would be, if the church became known as a place where “the person from whom you have a right to expect nothing gives you everything.” Imagine if our church became a place where people encountered hesed and didn’t even realize that’s what it was.
I like what I’m imagining. How about you?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
 From Michael Card’s book Inexpressible: Hesed and the Mystery of Loving-Kindness, pg. 11.
 Inexpressible, pg. 5.