Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ruth

The Book of Ruth is a bit of an oddity, to be honest. It’s a love story, a story of family loyalty, self-sacrifice, and also a little bit of scheming. So where do you stick books like that in the Bible? And why here, interrupting what we have already described as the ‘Deuteronomic History’? The clue comes in 1:1, where we’re told that this story took place in the time of the Judges, so it might as well go in here as a pleasant diversion from the somewhat depressing story of the road of Israel into Babylonian exile.

The story is straightforward if tragic. Elimelech, trying to escape famine in Israel, migrates to Moab, taking with him Naomi his wife and his two sons, who both marry Moabite women (in clear contravention, by the way, of Moses’ previous instructions about keeping separate from the surrounding nations). The sons both die, as does their father, leaving the three women, Naomi and her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth.

Perhaps feeling that escaping the famine in Israel by going to Moab was a bit like the transition from frying pan to fine Naomi decides to go home. Her daughters-in-law set out with her, but she urges them to turn back, which Orpah does whilst Ruth refuses, in the purple passage of the book:

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. (1:16-17)

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The rest of the book concerns Ruth’s wooing and winning of Boaz, a local landowner of some standing, and a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Naomi organises things so that Ruth, whom Boaz has already noticed, lets him know in no uncertain terms that she is available to marry him. Different commentators vary in the degree to which they see any hanky-panky going on in 3:1-14, but the outcome again emphasises the honourable nature of Boaz as he realises that under the Jewish law there is another who has more right to her than he has, and who therefore must be bought out. This is quickly arranged, and the marriage goes ahead.

All very sweet, but why is this story in the Bible? The clue can be found in two places: at the very end of the book, and in Matthew 1. Boaz and Ruth have a son, whom they call Obed, who turns out to be the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king. And of course further down the line great David’s greater son, Jesus, appears. There are two women amongst all the men in the genealogy in Matthew 1: Rahab, Boaz’s mother, and Ruth. If Rahab is indeed the same Rahab who appears in Joshua 2, she is a Canaanite prostitute who shows kindness and hospitality to the spies, and therefore is saved in the destruction of Jericho. Add to her Ruth the Moabitess , and both women were foreigners, who married into Israel against the strict instructions of Moses, and yet who are honoured as ancestors both of David and Jesus.

Both women had clearly ‘converted’ to the Jewish faith, and as such were welcome. But that of itself doesn’t invalidate Moses’ instructions. We’re very keen to tell members of our youth groups not to be ‘unequally yoked’ with those who don’t share their faith, and we occasionally hear stories of those who have been eventually won to faith through relationships or marriage.  But the rest of the OT warns us that this is a very high-risk evangelistic strategy, and far more often faith is compromised or shipwrecked.

I think we also have here one outworking of God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations. Centuries before the Early Church were debating the issue in Acts 15, God showed a welcome to those who under the Law were ‘outsiders’. This doesn’t negate the ever-present danger of compromise: it just reminds us how careful but also welcoming we need to be.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.