When and where we live, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened — the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.
In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her –and decided to marry her.
But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?
Would she be admitted at the border?
Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?
Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?
Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?
Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?
When she boldly “uncovers the feet” of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the “family values” that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?
Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone — not just a certain percentage of the people.
In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.
And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything — not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.
Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.
Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”
Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world — help bring the days of peace and justice.
What do we learn from their story today?
In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?
What are our obligations — those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?
Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?
Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities — local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary “furlough” from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?
Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?
What can we do — what must we do — to help bring on the days of peace and justice?