Back in 1960, when I was about six or seven, Mom took my brother and me to see a movie called “The Story of Ruth.” It was a pretty typical, biblical-epic sort of movie that Hollywood liked to turn out in those days. It’s basically a love story about a woman in a neighboring country who falls in love with and marries a handsome, young Jewish man. Then after he’s killed for converting her from her country’s bloodthirsty idol worship—none of this is mentioned in the Bible, by the way—she moves to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, also recently widowed—that part is in the Bible. There Ruth falls in love with another handsome, young Jewish man named Boaz. The attraction is definitely mutual. After a few dramatic twists and turns in the story, they get married, and they all live happily ever after.
It’s a typical Hollywood adaptation. It does to the biblical story what our culture in general too often does. It shows us well-behaved characters and suggests that God was looking out for them precisely because they were so well-behaved. That’s what my Sunday school teachers taught me too. God favors the the well-behaved. So if your own life story doesn’t quite measure up to these movie-characters’ stories, if you aren’t among the decent and well-behaved, God probably won’t favor you. God favors the well-behaved. That’s the working theology of most American Christians.
But it’s not the working theology of the Bible. Often as not, the people God favors are not well-behaved. Often as not, God favors the misbehavers, even the downright scandalous.
Ruth is one of those scandalous misbehavers. Forget about the Hollywood romance. This is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where people do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world.
Forget about Boaz as the dashing, young man who turns Ruth’s head. We’re not told anything about his age or his looks. For all we know he may have looked like Henry VIII after all those years of gluttony caught up with him. All we know is that Boaz was well-to-do, that he was a close relative of Ruth’s first husband, and that he definitely took an interest in Ruth. We’re never told how Ruth felt about him, though she definitely liked the benefits that came with his extra attention.
Oh, one more thing we know about Boaz—he’s also a direct descendent of another widow, an infamous, misbehaving widow named Tamar. Way back in Genesis, Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. After her husband died, Judah was supposed to secure her future by having another son father children with her, only that son, Onan, died too (we won’t go into just why he died right now), and Judah decided to postpone trying the same thing with his third son (maybe he thought Tamar was bad luck). Tamar was left wondering if she had any future at all. So she decided to misbehave. She disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her own father-in-law. When her ruse was discovered, Judah at least had the decency to admit that she was more in the right than he was. The point is, if Tamar hadn’t misbehaved, if she hadn’t behaved scandalously, there would be no Boaz.
Oh, I almost forgot another “one more thing”: you wouldn’t know this from reading the book of Ruth, but Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Boaz’s very own mother was Rahab, a Canaanite former prostitute. So centuries later we learn that Boaz owes his very existence not just to one but to two misbehaving women—one who behaved like a prostitute, and another who actually was a prostitute.
As I said, the book of Ruth doesn’t mention Rahab, but it’s no accident that the book mentions Tamar several times. We’re supposed to notice that. Ruth may not have known that story, but Naomi did. She knew that, in a man’s world where widows could easily fall between the cracks, sometimes the only way to secure justice was to behave scandalously, like Tamar. She knew that the men in her family should ensure that she and Ruth have descendants, but so far nobody had volunteered to make that happen. Boaz had been generous, but even he hadn’t taken that crucial step. Like Judah, the men who should have been stepping up were dragging their feet. It was time to help things along, so Naomi came up with the plan we heard about in today’s first reading.
Following Naomi’s instructions, Ruth goes to the threshing floor one night, where Boaz and his men are getting in the harvest. That may not sound too scandalous, so you need to know that the threshing floor was where prostitutes plied their trade. Ruth is putting her whole reputation in jeopardy just by showing up there. Ruth waits until Boaz is asleep after consuming a fair amount of wine. Then, we’re told, she sneaks up and uncovers his feet and lies down with him. Something else you need to know is that when the Bible speaks of uncovering a man’s feet, it’s not his feet that are uncovered. It’s another appendage entirely. So when Boaz wakes up, he and Ruth are in an extremely compromising position. And given how much he’s had to drink, he probably wonders if anything had happened that he doesn’t remember now. Ruth takes advantage of his uncertainty and suggests that now the only appropriate thing for him to do is to marry her, as he should have done anyway. And so he does, praising her for her initiative, and that’s how Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of none other than King David.
So this most definitely is not your typical Hollywood romance. This is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where people like Naomi and Ruth do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world.
And thank God they did!
If Tamar hadn’t behaved scandalously, if Boaz’s father hadn’t married a Canaanite woman with a scandalous occupation, there would be no Boaz. If Naomi hadn’t cooked up a scandalous plot, and if Ruth hadn’t carried it out, there would be no David.
In fact, there would be no Jesus, as Matthew’s Gospel points out. Matthew adds two more scandals to this list—David’s murderous misbehavior with Bathsheba, and most importantly, Mary’s Spirit-filled pregnancy out of wedlock. Without these scandals involving Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and finally Mary, there would be no Jesus, who, mind you, spent most of his ministry hanging out with shady, scandalous characters.
Often as not, the people God favors are not well-behaved. Often as not, God favors the misbehavers, even the downright scandalous.
Well, according to the Nicene Creed, the creed my Church recites every Sunday, God’s behavior is the most scandalous of all. The one through whom all things were made starts hanging out with the shadiest likes of us, sharing the shameful fate of an executed criminal, rising to embrace us all at our very worst. God sacrifices a godly reputation for an ungodly reputation, turning our very idea of godliness on its head. So now even the ungodliest-looking of us find a welcome we never could have predicted and certainly will never fathom.
Like the stories of Tamar, Naomi and Ruth, God’s story is an unromantic story of gritty everyday reality, where God does whatever it takes to live with us in our conflicted world. God is apt to break just about any code of decency devised in order to embrace us on our own conflicted terms and draw us into God’s all-embracing terms.
Maybe your life hasn’t been that well-behaved. Most of our lives haven’t when all the details are known. Maybe you’ve had to do whatever it takes to live in a conflicted world. Maybe you’re still having to do that.
Don’t think for a moment that you’re beyond God’s favor. Your behavior can never be more scandalous than God’s. Don’t imagine that your conflicted terms can’t be drawn into furthering God’s all-embracing terms. It’s happened before. It can happen now. It is happening now.