Yesterday’s message …
- Hinged on a subtle yet unmistakable pattern in Ruth 4;
- Pointed out Ruth’s mic drop ending of 4:17 … the Moabitess is in the lineage of King David. Really, Ruth begins in anarchy and ends in monarchy;
- Suggested that “town gates” in ancient Israel served as both Shopping Mall and County Courthouse;
- Landed at a bottom line inspired by Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix: Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see that we are a supporting character in someone else’s.
So we’ve spent the last three weeks in what is quite possibly the loveliest story in Scripture, the book of Ruth. A fact-based novella, a Netflix mini-documentary, a brilliantly told tale with a mic drop ending that has implications not just for Ruth but for the way the biblical library works. And throughout, it’s had three main characters: Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi. The rich insider (50), the sultry outsider (30), and the hollow matriarch (60). Those are the names in lights, the ones we remember (say them!), the main characters in the story.
We’re sort of drawn to main characters aren’t we? It’s why you remember Kate Winslet & Leo DiCaprio way more than the guys on the submarine interviewing an “older” Kate; it’s why you remember Tom Hanks as Capn Phillips more than the pirates; it’s why a lot of you would rather be Bruce S than in the E Street Band, Tom Petty than being “just” a Heartbreaker, Tony Orland rather than Dawn or even Beyonce as opposed to simply one of Destiny’s Children. It’s even why you know CMC or Teddy B but not really the enormous guard who blocks for him. When we see those names in lights, we’re like WHOA. Those on the sidelines, in the background, behind the scenes, the SUPPORT STAFF? Not so much.
So: how do these three Names In Lights people finish this story? When we last left them, Ruth – a young widow – HAD PROPOSED MARRIAGE to Boaz in the middle of the night, on a threshing floor, surrounded by a group of hungover field hands. Do not “go and do thou likewise!” And with this proposal, because of how family law & property worked in ancient times, Ruth secures NAOMI’S security and her future. But here’s another deal: in the odd way that ancient culture worked – another case of the bible describing something without PRESCRIBING it – there is a family requirement to keep the “name” of any deceased male alive and going. That’s why you’ve heard the strange-to-us practice of brothers marrying widows – ick to us, normal to them – and the purpose is to have another male child that will keep the dead brother’s name alive.
Well, Ruth’s late husband, Mahlon, doesn’t have a brother. And Boaz is in his family but he is not technically the closest kin. That title belongs to another man, a man whose name we never learn as I will show. Boaz can’t follow through on Ruth’s proposal until he gives the CLOSER RELATIVE the first right of refusal. So look what happens the morning after – not the morning after THAT, silly! The morning after the proposal! – in 4:1:
Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate and sat down there just as the guardian-redeemer[a] he had mentioned came along. Boaz said, “Come over here, my friend, and sit down.” So he went over and sat down.
In ancient towns & villages (and Bethlehem is more a village) the town gates were a combination of Shopping Mall & County Courthouse. As far as civil govt & econ activity, THIS WAS IT. Where business was DONE. Think of the community gathered around as the collective Notary Public.
Notice also as Boaz speaks to that nearer relative he calls him “my friend.” The word more literally means “So & So” – a deliberate not naming. So we’ll call him So & So from here on, ok? Now check 4:2:
2 Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so.
Boaz makes very sure the sidelines are full, the gallery is packed (masks? Doubt it.) Again, these village elders and witnesses add legitimacy; a collective Notary Public to whatever decision is fixin’ to go down. Look at 4:3-4:
3 Then he said to the guardian-redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelek. 4 I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, do so. But if you[b] will not, tell me, so I will know. For no one has the right to do it except you, and I am next in line.”
“Yo So & So, she’s back, there’s some land in her late husband’s family that can be re-purchased and YOU next in line. How bout it?” I love So & So’s answer in 4c:
“I will redeem it,” he said.
I’ll do it! Inside he was probably like, “This adds to my stature, to my bottom line, my name is gonna be in the spotlight in this town! Future’s so bright I gotta wear shades!” He’s at the center of the gate, the center of the action, the center of his own story.
Then Boaz “Columbo’s” him. One little thing!
5 Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the[c] dead man’s widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property.”
On the day you take the property, you’re going to have to add on to your bet av. The implication is that there will be extra mouths to feed and if Ruth marries and has children and those kids need braces or skinny jeans or college tuition, that’s all on So & So’s dime. So there is instantaneous reconsideration in 4:6:
6 At this, the guardian-redeemer said, “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”
“Uh, no. I’m kinda busy here and can’t put something else on my plate. I’m a bit wrapped up in my story and can’t be living someone else’s.” Which, OF COURSE, is exactly what Boaz wanted AND WHAT HE SUSPECTED and it’s likely why he called him the dismissive “So & So” in the first place.
So look next at 4:7-10:
7 (Now in earlier times in Israel, for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other. This was the method of legalizing transactions in Israel.)
8 So the guardian-redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself.” And he removed his sandal.
9 Then Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have bought from Naomi all the property of Elimelek, Kilion and Mahlon. 10 I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown. Today you are witnesses!”
Again, do NOT feel any obligation to do thou likewise. But DO notice something the author is very purposeful about: those witnesses. They’re all over the story. They’re essential to the transaction. They advance the narrative. The author of Ruth, with all that repetition is saying, NOTICE THEM! THEY’RE IMPORTANT TO WHAT I’M SAYING! More of the same in 4:11-12:
11 Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. 12 Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”
A-ha! The sideline crew, the backstage cast, the supporting characters come to the fore and give voice to a remarkable God-promise. Maybe you’ve been part of a crowd like that, almost a “Greek chorus” and not an actor on the main stage, but you sure were there when history was made.
Well, check out the next scene in 4:13:
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife.
All the details it leaves out! How did Ruth say yes to the dress? What colors did the bridesmaids wear? How was the caterer? Did the DJ get people to shut up and dance with me? All that is offstage. As, thankfully, is 4:13b:
When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.
Just the facts, please. And I happen to think another reinforcement of what DIDN’T happen on the threshing floor, before they were married, but only in the bridal chambers, once they were one in God’s eyes. Just sayin.
But there’s another interesting twist, again involving a supporting cast in 4:14:
14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!
“The women” … they take over. They advance the story.
They declare the true value of Ruth (4:15, READ) and then after seeing the little baby in Naomi’s arms in 4:16 (READ), they have the audacity of this in 4:17:
17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed.
Now: did they literally give the boy his name? Maybe, maybe not. But we do not that these nameless “women,” mere bystanders, are given the essential role of celebrating that baby, dedicating him, preparing him for his role in God’s much, much bigger story.
And then, you can NOT imagine the level of mic-drop-ness in 4:17c:
He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
David! Remember when and how Ruth begins? In the time of the judges when there was no king, where there was only anarchy, when it was lawlessness. Portland! So, in terms of the arc of the WHOLE BIBLE, these characters (R, B, N) live lives of honor and integrity and the result is that the Moabitess, the outsider is in the line of the ONE KING WHO WILL UNIFY ALL THIS ANARCHY. The book that begins in anarchy will end with monarchy No one hearing the story read for the first time in that day would have expected THAT conclusion. EVERYONE’S breath would have been taken away. This little story leads to that big thing?! The author is a literary genius.
Genius for another reason as well. He is so purposeful in mentioning the Witnesses & then the Women. He goes to great lengths to highlight the UN-highlighted. To spotlight the supporting cast. The story doesn’t get propelled without the legal witnesses or the audacious women. And contrast that with “So & So”!!! Remember him? So wrapped up in his deal that he misses out on being in the family line of King David! Which as we know leads ultimately to the Messiah, King Jesus! All that leads to this, inspired by something I read once: Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story we don’t see how we’re the supporting character in someone else’s. Yep. Some of us are so self-absorbed, so adept at bringing the conversation back to us that we fail to see the honor and dignity of being a supporting player in someone else’s. The reason some of us can’t get out of our own way is that our own way is the only way we care about. Let this author’s subtle brilliance rid you of that. REF
And isn’t it interesting that we never learn SO & SO’s name while the women get to NAME Obed? Not by accident!! It’s all so much like famed conductor Leonard Bernstein who when asked what instrument & role was the hardest to fill in a great symphony answered simply: “Second fiddle. Everyone wants the first chair, but without the second there’s no harmony.” Either internally or externally, no there’s not. Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story we don’t see how we’re the supporting character in someone else’s.
Or maybe it’s like this photo of an ant hill: (AV TALL one from Africa). How does that happen? A lot of insignificant creatures got together and made something of significance. Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story we don’t see how we’re the supporting character in someone else’s.
Or even what Dale Carnegie said: You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years of trying to get them interested in you. Bam. Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story we don’t see how we’re the supporting character in someone else’s.
Now: if you know me at all, you’ll notice a certain irony in this message. I’m the one who when we got some uplighting at our house, one of MY BEST FRIENDS IN THE CHURCH – a friend, not an enemy! – remarked, “What’s the matter? You don’t get enough of the spotlight at church and now you have to have it at home, too?” Guilty. The bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.
So in addition to the “work on myself” that has grown my self awareness, this story and its skill really seals the deal. Success is setting other people up for success. That’s it. Not your own achievement or development but how it is that you can position other people’s achievement and development. I have come far enough to realize this will never be natural to me; it won’t be the air that I breathe. But I can name the enemy before it owns me.
What about you? Can you get out of your own way? Hear this: I am not simply affirming people who are shy and shaming those who are extroverts. I know plenty of narcissistic introverts! And plenty of unselfish lives of the party! No, this is instead an invitation to get out of your own way, to look for ways that the lives of other people – family, friend, LifeGroup – can become priority and you can join the marvelous ranks of the supporting casts. Will that be enough? Can you trust Jesus enough that he will make the supporting rather than the starring role enough, more than enough?
Ask yourself (AV):
1) How often do I bring the conversation back to me? How frustrated do I become if I’m not the center of attention?
2) Whose story needs a strong supporting role and how can I fill it?
It was kinda funny. Some of you know my son Riley is in ministry at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I was working on this message – like the one I’m delivering right now – I must have mentioned to him that I was preparing talks on Ruth. Because that day, out of the blue, he sent me a talk he’d prepared based on Ruth 2 and delivered when he was doing the same ministry at Univ. Tennessee. And as I read through it – QUICKLY! Because I had something more pressing on the other side, my OWN MESSAGE! – I realized with a shudder: “Dang, this is better than what I did when I prepped Ruth 2. His talk is better than mine.”
Hallelujah, his talk is better than mine! Reluctantly or no, God was gonna get me to this place: Some of us are so wrapped up in our own story we don’t see how we’re the supporting character in someone else’s. Will I find you there?