the Marketplace - Case Study 2 – Ruth
Around the world
the Holy Spirit is reminding churches that “ordinary”
Christians can be influential in their marketplaces. Not necessarily
in formal ecclesiastical settings, which few people really understand
and many find unattractive, but where they are for the remaining six
days of the week. Not because they are special or talented in their
own right, not even more religious or “worthy” than
others, but because God is bigger than them and can bring about His
purposes, their differences and personal circumstances
with some heroes
The pages of the
Bible are replete with stories of men and women who orchestrated, or
were instrumental in achieving, great exploits for God. Names like
Joshua, Deborah, Samson, Gideon, David, Daniel and the Apostle Paul
spring to mind. What they went through, including their dark
periods, is recorded for our benefit, to teach us.
The trouble with
some heroes of God is that the nature of their achievements is wildly
beyond the reach of most Christians today. Learn from, them, by all
means, leverage on the lessons, but we will never share the same
cultural or historical contexts. They stand out like beacons,
declaring the power and radiance of the presence of God, but it was
for their time. Now they are gone, and it is not our task to emulate
We live in a
different era to the heroes and heroines of the Bible, with different
challenges (albeit with the same limitless God). They are like
observers at the side of our own race in life (Hebrews 11), cheering
us on as we reach for the finishing line. Some of us will be used to
undertake exploits. Others will go through experiences in which we
feel our world is falling apart. Regardless, all of us are called to
be faithful to Christ and reach the world around us with His love.
Where have all the ordinary people
Spielberg’s recent movie, Munich,
the protagonist, a Israeli Mossad (secret service) agent named Abner
who has been selected for a special task asks “why me”?
He doesn’t feel like a hero (although his father was one,
making him feel doubly depressed when friends mention it). It is the
Summer of 1972. Abner has just told his wife he has the most boring
job in the world.
Suddenly, he is
called to meet Prime Minister Golda Meir, who asks him to undertake a
major secret mission on behalf of his country, hunting down those who
organized the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Summer
Olympiad. Abner is bemused about the choice. His handler responds
that he has been picked because he is so “ordinary”: He
will do great things, but must remain anonymous. The glory will not
go to him. The circumstances are about national honour, not Abner.
“ordinary” people to do extraordinary things. His
purpose is not about them, their skills, special features,
reputation, or great talents, but using the banality of their lives,
combined with the anointing of the Holy Spirit and divine
circumstances, to achieve unique outcomes for His glory.
The story of
Ruth is an account of someone whose background was banal but was
chosen and used (by God) for a special mission. Unlike Abner, she
didn’t have to depend on her own cunning; instead, she learned
to allow God to bring about His purpose; her willingness to do so
gave her a place in history.
Background – a brief synopsis
of Ruth’s life
Ruth was one of
the Old Testament’s classic “ordinary people”.
Ethnically, she was a Moabitess; her homeland lay in what is today
part of Jordan. She was the daughter-in-law of a Jewish woman named
Naomi. Her father-in-law, husband and brother-in-law died in quick
succession, in tragic circumstances, far from home, without
“protectors”. When a famine that originally drove Naomi
and her menfolk from Israel to Moab abated Naomi decided to go home
to Bethlehem, leaving her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to return
to their villages, find new husbands and get on with life. There, at
least, they would have reasonable chances of starting over. Naomi
was determined not to burden her daughters-in-law with false guilt,
cultural baggage or mother-in-law expectations, so she released them
from all obligations and started the long journey home.
Ruth was more
dedicated to Naomi that her mother-in-law first realized. She
rejected the logic of “going home to Mum” (to familiar
people, gods, lifestyle and circumstances) and elected to migrate to
Israel with Naomi at the beginning of the barley harvest. She pled
to go with her:
me to leave you or to turn back from you. 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. May
the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death
separates you and me." (Ruth 1:17-18)
declaration took Naomi by surprise. She was prepared to turn her
back on everything, friends, family gods, security (after all, she
was still living in her own neighbourhood, even though she had made a
choice to marry outside of her religious and cultural circles), for
an uncertain future as a rank outsider in another society. There is
no evidence Ruth had ever been outside of Moab, so the decision to
leave was bound to be a traumatic one. Nevertheless, Naomi took the
hint and stopped urging her to be pragmatic and go back home to her
Bethlehem, Ruth found part-time work gleaning barley. This involved
picking up grain missed by harvesters; it was reserved for the
destitute, a bit like rag pickers on the fringes of society in
so-called Third World countries. Moses’ Law encouraged
gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10). Public welfare was unknown in the
ancient world; like people in modern Darfur (Sudan), without outside
help people simply starved to death if famine, social dislocation or
As it turned
out, Ruth found herself working in a field owned by an unmarried
land-owner named Boaz, an older man, who was a distant relative of
Naomi’s deceased husband. As a result of her attitudes and
hard work, Ruth found favour with Boaz, and with the entire village.
She worked long hours, was honest, didn’t make excuses, didn’t
pursue the young, marriageable men (Ruth 3:10), showed moral strength
and did all she could for Naomi.
actions did not go unnoticed. In due course she married Boaz and
they had a son. One of their great-grandchildren was King David.
Jesus Christ was in her line of direct descendants. According to
scholars, the author of the book of Ruth was the Prophet Samuel, a
deeply conservative Jewish theologian who anointed David King over
Israel. Knowing that David’s family line came (in part) from
Moabite stock must have given him cause to reflect on the plans of
God that didn’t make sense but reflected His higher purpose.
This was compounded by the fact that Boaz also came from a mixed line
(his mother Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who had been spared in
the sacking of Jericho for helping Israelite soldiers who had entered
the city to spy on its defences; she became known as a woman of
faith, cf Hebrews 11:31). God’s ways are higher than ours.
The characteristics of Ruth
Ruth was an
ordinary woman, but she changed history. Let’s look at her
life a bit more closely.
For a start, she
was a female in a proud, strongly patriarchal society. She came from
an ethnic minority that was despised by most practicing Jews (the
ancestors of Moab were born from an incestuous relationship between
Abraham’s nephew Lot and one of his daughters, cf Genesis
19:31-38). She had the “wrong” genes in a matrilineal
society, where any children born to her could not be accepted as part
of the Jewish community (legally this would take several
generations.). As a non-Jew, she was outside of “the promise”,
or covenant, between God and His People. She would always be
regarded as an outsider. She had already been through one marriage,
so she was regarded as “second hand” in a society where
men valued the pedigree and purity of their wives. She entered
Israel as an economic refugee and had no obvious job skills or
support mechanisms. She came from a family background that
worshipped idols, and had to fit into a monotheistic society. In
summary, she started out behind the rest of the pack. If anyone was
going to have to change, it was Ruth.
across for her willingness to cross the cultural divide, find God and
serve others amid adversity. Her story is told affectionately around
the world, long after rulers and potentates of her era were obscured
by the hand of history.
must have been excruciating; and she did it while grieving the loss
of her husband. When Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem she was
beyond the preferred age of marriage. She had no status. She didn’t
have the required “street smarts” and had to rely on
Naomi to teach her how to cope.
So, why was Ruth
used by God? As an expatriate working in a marketplace that was
“closed” in many ways, how did she make a difference and
end up with a book in the Bible bearing her name.
First, she saw
beyond her great trials and losses and acknowledged God. Abandoning
the idolatry of her birth family, she told Naomi, “Your God
will be my God”. This is telling, because many people, in such
circumstances, would have blamed God instead, asserting that, if He
was powerful and “fair”, He would not have allowed such
calamities to strike a family committed to Him.
Maybe it was
something in her mother-in-law’s life that commended faith in
God. If you read Judges and Ruth contextually you will realise that
the period concerned went down in history as a time of spiritual
darkness and political anarchy in Israel. The Book of Judges
describes a divided people who had largely marginalized God, forsaken
the Law, perverted true worship by substituting other deities and
lost sight of morality and character. In the midst of this, Ruth
(somewhat ironically, given that she was a foreigner) stands out as
one woman who managed to live a godly life. That must have taken
Second, she was
willing to listen to the voices of experience, as she complied with
Naomi regarding her new life in Bethlehem, and the social mores of
women in her adopted culture. She was prepared to humble herself, to
suffer personal ignominy and the rejection of others if such was the
will of God. She was willing to start again at the bottom, even as a
gleaner, working long hours beside other people in need, if that was
what it took.
Third, she was
prepared to make hard decisions and go beyond her comfort zone, even
in her nascent relationship with the people of Jerusalem and with
Boaz. She knew she was different and that many would have regarded
her with aloofness or suspicion. After all, the people of Moab were
regarded as a heathen people. They had been enemies of Israel.
Moses specifically excluded Moabites from “the assembly of the
Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). They were virtual “untouchables”.
Ruth ran the risk of dragging Naomi down with her. Instead of
giving into despair, she sought God’s favour.
Fourth, she had
a positive attitude. When Naomi changed her own name to Mara,
meaning “bitterness”, and sat at home feeling that life
had been hard to her, Ruth refused to give in to negativity. She
didn’t vocalize whatever anger or helplessness she may have
felt. When others were becoming weary and giving up, she continued
to labour under the hot sun, only taking short rests in the middle of
the day to recover her strength. What many of us would have taken as
a basis for resigning to the “unfairness and hardships”
of life, Ruth turned to opportunities to serve those less well off,
starting with her mother-in-law.
became known, and accepted, in the wider community as a woman of
integrity, a hard and honest worker with noble character, and morally
upright. Her conduct was closely observed. She became known as a
“virtuous woman” (Ruth 3:11), a trait lauded by her
great-great grandson Solomon as eminently preferable to external
beauty any day (Proverbs 31:30).
So, what does all this mean for us?
Some people see
in the story of Ruth a shadow, or type, of the unconditional love of
God and the salvation we have in Christ. While there are certain
parallels that make the account relate to the redemptive
metanarrative of the Bible, if we look at the first level of the
account of Ruth we see a woman who chose to follow God and His
purpose for the unfolding of her life. Her account has lessons for
us, as we confront the spiritual darkness in our own generation; we
do well to identify and emulate them.
the marketplace is not about doing, but “being” people of
God, men and women of character and influence, living for Him, on His
terms. When the inhabitants of Bethlehem judged Ruth, and saw in her
attitudes and actions a nobility of character that outshone them all
and glorified God, she became His minister in her marketplace. There
was nothing false or contrived about her new life in Israel. It was
probably very hard. What she did, she did to survive; it reflected
you and I are under the hot spotlight of circumstances, what comes
out will be a manifestation of what we are like inside; if we are
serving Christ our deep and abiding faith in God who is “there”
with us is what will emerge.
needs less pontification about lax morals, the nihilism of young
people and the inequities of life, and more men of women who inhabit
the same space as others but live for God and believe He is
trustworthy; neighbours who are not motivated by bitterness, but
dependent on Him, believing that all our days were ordained by our
Heavenly Father, enabling us to commit everything to Jesus Christ.
Life often seems
unfair. Our plans go astray, for a host of reasons, many of which
are beyond our control. God is bigger than culture, history, the
dislocations we sometimes experience and the smallness we feel in the
face of life’s great challenges and circumstances. His will
and purpose are eternal. He can guide us through the night and the
dark clouds that form on the horizon. The Bible says (rather
graphically) that he collects our tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8),
so great is His care for us. We are never out of His sight. All our
days are foreseen by Him. He is more interested in who we are than
in what we do. He has promised to withhold from us nothing that we
need, as we walk with integrity (Psalm 84:11). He will give us
favour and grace (His “free gift”) and use us in the
areas in which we allow Him to do so. This is God’s program.
Circumstances are not dominant.
Armed with these
facts, we can face any situation, overcome anger, resentment,
bitterness and hurt and win battles. People in our marketplace, who
do not have the same resources that we have through Christ, will see
As Christians we
are able (if we take the opportunity) to benefit from the experiences
and wisdom of fellow-believers who have “been there” and
remain focused on what is important. Do you know people who need
friendship and advice; who can look at your example and be
strengthened in their own walk? Too many people in the marketplace
have been burned by bad experiences with churches and church-goers.
We can live the exception, and draw them to a closer relationship
Making the right choices
The story of
Ruth is about choices and consequences. In Ruth’s case, the
key moment was when she made the choice to commit herself to Naomi.
No doubt there were many hard times in her life, as she coped with
cultural misunderstanding, financial need, personal grief and aching
loneliness. How do you and I react when we are confronted by the
crossroads of life, when our plans go astray, when all that we have
worked for collapses and needs to be rebuilt? In the midst of her
tears, Naomi came to see that Ruth was different from all the rest.
As a result, her own attitudes slowly changed.
I am reminded of
Paul’s great statement about overcoming adversity:
thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in
Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the
knowledge of him”. (2 Corinthians 2:14)
There is a sense
here that, as we interface with our marketplace, when the squeeze is
on, the aroma that is detected can be redolent of Christ. People
need to see first hand that our relationship with God is real and
that He can give us the power and the capacity to be different.
don’t see the results of the choices we make, of the seeds we
plant. We are not given to understand the total meaning of our
lives. Ruth died without knowing she would be the ancestress of King
David and Jesus Christ. Samuel, in writing her story, had the wisdom
of hindsight. He could see how everything fitted into place, how
God’s plan worked out. But Ruth didn’t have a clue. She
lived and died without realizing the role she would play in history.
There are many results of our lives that we will never see. We need
to learn to “rest” in God; as we go through changes that
make us feel uncomfortable. We need the confidence that He sees the
bigger and longer picture and that, as we are led by Him, the
lifestyle decisions we make and the way we invest of our lives in our
individual marketplaces will result in good.
If we want those
marketplaces to change, we need to secure God’s perspective and
practice it. Drought will not quench it, nor will social
dislocation, nor relational setbacks. By gaining God’s
outlook, we will be able to face up to the heat of the day, so to
speak, and produce generational change that will glorify Him in our
family and social circles for years to come.