Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. Paul's Church in Atlanta, GA
A story like Ruth and Naomiâs could probably only be made into a movie if it carried an X rating. We miss a lot of the innuendo in translation, but basically, Naomi is out to procure a husband for her widowed daughter-in-law. Thatâs the only way either one of them is going to survive economically. She says to Ruth, âlook, thereâs Boaz, time to jump the broom with him â and heâs OK, heâs not a complete foreigner. âGo get gussied up, then get yourself over to the barnyard, and hang around â be visible, show yourself off. Donât talk to him until after dinner, but find out where he sleeps.â Actually, Naomi says, âdonât make yourself known to him until after dinner.â The word to know has the same meaning as âand Adam knew his wife and she conceived and bore a child.â
Naomi goes on, âwell, when you know where heâs going to sleep, get yourself over there, uncover his feetâ (feet are a euphemism here), and theyâre not feet for making a descent, but feet for making descendants! âLie down, and heâll tell you what to do.â Iâm sorry, but this is way too racy for children.
Naomi is a very canny widow. She knows that the two of them arenât going to survive if they donât have a male family member â a wage earner or a farmer â and they arenât going to get one without Ruthâs cooperation. Julia Dinsmore would call this an example of âthe survival skills of the poor.â Dinsmore wrote a powerful book titled, My Name is Child of God, Not âThose People.â Itâs about the gifts of the poor, particularly their creativity.
We tend to judge this story from a very different economic location â one that has the luxury of at least some choice about what kind of work weâll take or who weâll marry or not marry. And if we read further in this story of creative survival, we discover that God is at work in the midst of it, for Ruth becomes great-grandmother to David, the hoped-for savior of
This story continues, through all the centuries since, with more Naomis and Ruths, desperately looking for hope.
Iâve just finished reading Edward Ballâs, Slaves in the Family, about black and white descendants of the Ball family who started the big slave plantations outside
Thatâs really what Jesus is getting at in his jabs at the scribes and his commentary about giving at the temple. Those scribes who âdevour widowsâ housesâ are exploiting the lack of freedom widows have to make economic decisions. The widows of Jesusâ day had just as wretched a social position as Ruth and Naomi. They werenât going to make it economically without a wage earner in the family. In Jesusâ day, there were basically no jobs or economic possibilities for poor women without male relatives â except âthe oldest profession.â
The scribes of Jesusâ day were interpreters of the law or the Torah. They were more like what rabbis became in the years after Jesus â interpreters of scripture for daily life. Jesus is criticizing these scribes for their self-interest, because theyâre getting rich off those poor widows. Their legal deals and interpretations just keep squeezing those widows.
Thatâs probably also what lies behind Jesusâ comments about the widow and her two coins. He notes the difference between the rich folk who put in lots of money and the widow who gives her last two pennies. In order to be a good Jew in Jesusâ day, you had to make an offering at the
On Friday, I visited Emmaus House and met with the urban interns. These three young women have just graduated from college. One is African-American, one Asian-American, and one Anglo. Theyâre spending a year working with some of todayâs equivalents of Ruth and Naomi and poor widows. They are working with other young women without much hope or economic freedom of choice, young women who are being trafficked or groomed for exploitation. The urban interns are supported and encouraged by older women and men who are trying to change a system that seduces poor young women into relationships for profit â not their own profit, but the profit of others, who are todayâs equivalent of slave holders and devourers of widowsâ houses.
All of the sin in these stories is really about removing creative possibility from others, denying them their God-given ability to make choices, to exercise their free will. That is what is most essential about being created in the image of God â sharing in Godâs own creativity. Ruth and Naomi didnât have much ability to choose another way because their society limited them to specific roles. Jesusâ female ancestors were similarly limited. The widow of the gospel is kept poor by a religious and political system of exploitation. The same was true of the Ball family â and the white side was nearly as constrained by the system of slavery as the black side. Fear of loss and poverty motivated the slave-owners, and fear of death and destruction and further degradation kept most of the slaves in the system. Many young people today are being raised in a system that says that they have value only for the ways in which they can be used â by tricks on the corner or athletic teams or the military.
The freedom we have in Christ is about hope. Jesusâ way insists that all Godâs people are created for dignity, and each one has meaning and value from being made in the image of God. No one is a commodity to be bought and sold.
You and I share Jesusâ work of confronting the scribes who diminish dignity and steal hope. Opportunities for redemption are all around us, in the young and the old. God is at work even in the worst of despair nothingness. Our job is to help give birth to hope, and help it keep growing into full and abundant life.
Let there be no more days when hope unborn has died. Lift every voice. Sing hope. Bring hope. Birth hope. Be hope.