If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth, chapter 2, verses 19 through 22.
Then her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you gather barley today, and where did you work? May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”
Ruth told her mother-in-law about the men she had worked with and said, “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz.”
20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, who has not forsaken his kindness to the living or the dead.” Naomi continued, “The man is a close relative. He is one of our family redeemers.”
21 Ruth the Moabitess said, “He also told me, ‘Stay with my young men until they have finished all of my harvest.’”
22 So Naomi said to her daughter-in-law Ruth, “My daughter, it is good for you to work with his female servants, so that nothing will happen to you in another field.” 23 Ruth stayed close to Boaz’s female servants and gathered grain until the barley and the wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
This is the Word of the Lord.
“There is a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.” That’s something Nicholas Cage says in the film National Treasure. It’s unrelated to the sermon, but I probably have your attention now.
There’s a common myth that says that “The Old Testament is about ‘God’s wrath’ – that it’s about God’s impossible demands – but that the New Testament is about ‘God’s grace’,” God’s kindness.
But right here, throughout the book of Ruth, dead in the middle of the Old Testament, we see Boaz imaging God’s kindness by obeying God’s commands.
So in today’s passage, Ruth gets back from harvesting in Boaz’s field, and she tells Naomi about the “supernatural kindness” that he’s shown her. Naomi’s eyes light up, and she says, “Boaz is a close relative. He is one of our family redeemers.” Depending on which translation you have, it might say “Boaz is one of our ‘kinsman redeemers’.” To understand what a “kinsman-redeemer” is, you have to understand a little bit about the way the world worked during the “Bronze Age,” when the Book of Ruth probably takes place.
If you’ve got your Bible handy, you can look at Leviticus chapter 25, if you want to. What we’ll see in Leviticus chapter 25 is that a kinsman redeemer was someone who was responsible for rescuing their family members from oppression. If you were a kinsman redeemer, you were openly rejecting the mindset that Cain took against his brother; you were saying “I am My Brother’s Keeper,” and “I want you to hold me to that.”
So you would become a kinsman redeemer if your family member went into extreme debt and lost their property. As kinsman redeemer, you were responsible for buying back the property that your family member defaulted on.
Or, sometimes, your family member didn’t just default on the land they lived on. Sometimes they defaulted on their own body. That means exactly what you think it means: If you went so deeply into debt that there was no version of this where you were going to pay your debts off by any traditional means, you could become a “debt slave.” This bears absolutely no resemblance to the kind of slavery practiced in the United States up until the Civil War; a debt slave was like an “indentured servant.” That’s still not a good thing. Indentured servitude is not a good thing.
But that was the point. You could pay off your debt if it loomed too large to ever pay off the old-fashioned way by becoming a debt slave to the person you were indebted to and working your way out of it. According to Leviticus chapter 25, it should never come to this, but if it does, you should be able to count on your family members to do whatever was necessary within the realm of decency and legality to buy you back out of debt slavery and restore you to the land that you defaulted on.
That’s the “shallow end” of the kinsman-redeemer law.
As we move into the deeper end, we see in Deuteronomy chapter 25 that as a kinsman redeemer, you were responsible for marrying the widow of your deceased family member if necessary. Like I said before, this is the Bronze Age culture, women were sub-human in the eyes of nearly every tribe and every government. The law that God gave to Moses very much transformed women from property into people, but there are limitations to how much you can change a person, how much you can change a culture, in a short time.
So just because God had given this law to the Israelites that transformed them even while it accommodated their weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that every Israelite’s going to do a 180 overnight and start to see people the way that God sees them, and so on and so forth.
And so there are “checks and balances” built into God’s law, one of which, in Deuteronomy chapter 25, is the fact that when your family member passed away, and his widow was without any resources to provide for herself, you were required to marry her and provide her with all of the benefits that your own wife would be entitled to.
That means that your dead brother’s wife is entitled to a portion of your land. Your dead brother’s wife is entitled to a room in your house. She’s entitled to however much of your food it’ll take to keep her reasonably sustained. And, if your dead brother never produced an heir who could eventually inherit his property, your brother’s wife was entitled to your services to provide an heir.
What we see in the situation of Boaz is that Boaz is the kinsman redeemer for Naomi’s family. When Elimelech decided to pack up his family and leave the promised land during the famine, somewhere during that period the land that used to be theirs stopped belonging to them. They defaulted on the land in their absence, so when Naomi and Ruth come back from Moab after the famine, Naomi’s home belongs to somebody else, they have no legal right to occupy it. So they’re homeless and in danger of starvation if they don’t find a food source quickly.
As kinsman redeemer, Boaz is required by God’s law to buy back their land, and to marry Ruth if she wants him to. But in a time like “the time of the Judges,” Ruth and Naomi had zero reason to assume that Boaz or any of the other family members in Bethlehem could be counted on to fulfill those obligations. God’s law was no longer enforced because the people had abandoned their faithfulness to him, so if Boaz or any other family member had refused to buy back the land or to marry Ruth, Ruth and Naomi would have had absolutely no recourse. They would have been out of luck, and out of options.
And yet, Boaz images the love of God by obeying the law of God, and the most visible element of that is the way that he obeys even the “family-redeemer” law that would have cost him a fortune and would’ve stuck him with two dependents. God’s law was a refuge for people like Ruth and Naomi, because God was a refuge.
Now, throughout our time in the book of Ruth, we’ve seen a very different picture of “God’s Law” than we’ve been “programmed” to imagine. The tendency in our culture is to drive a wedge between the commands of God and the kindness of God. We see love and obedience as two “opposite ends of a pole.” You love people or you obey them.
That’s probably inevitable in the time we’re living in. If you cringed at any point throughout this series as I’ve read out the commands of God from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and so on, you’re probably not alone. Reading through the commands that God gives to us, it’s entirely natural to feel like they are invasive, or unjust, or repressive.
Today, because America is such an anti-authoritarian culture, we are indoctrinated – sometimes even in Sunday School – into seeing God’s commands as a “burden,” into seeing God’s law as a “curse” that we need to be “set free” from; and so we will read the New Testament at a strange slant, and we will tell each other that the story of the New Testament is that “God comes in Jesus Christ and gets rid of his commands,” that “He forgives us so we can do whatever we want,” that the goal of the Cross was to “Set us loose so we could have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But if you asked the Israelites coming out of Egypt, they’d have told you that there is no “life,” and there is no “liberty,” and there is no “happiness to pursue” outside of God’s good commands.
Because about 400 years before Ruth was born, something very strange happened. The God of the universe had approached a man named Moses while he was tending to his flocks, and told him to confront the leader of the “World Superpower,” the Pharaoh in Egypt, and tell him to set his slave force free.
After Pharaoh consistently refused, the God of the universe crushed Pharaoh ruthlessly, and then crushed the gods that Pharaoh served alongside, and then crushed the land of Egypt economically, brought the slave force in Egypt through the Red Sea, and then brought them into the land that he had promised to them centuries earlier. So the slave force of Egypt became a nation that God called “Israel.”
Once they arrived in the land that God had given to them, he gave them something else: Reading through those first five books of the Bible, we see God giving Israel a very short list of commands, then a slightly longer list of commands, then a considerably longer list of commands, and so on and so forth. By the end of the book of Deuteronomy, there’s a little over 600 commands that we know about.
Because we live in such an anti-authoritarian culture, the notion that the God of the universe would give us more than 600 commands might seem kind of extreme, or stifling, or overwhelming, but try to put yourself into the Israelites’ shoes.
Imagine that, before you were a nation, you were literally “the slave force” of a different nation. You, and your parents, and their parents were born into slave labor, and you existed purely as a means of keeping the economy productive so that other people could enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Imagine that every couple years, just as you’re getting used to the abject misery of your existence, they would raise their quota on how many bricks you’re responsible for building, and if you complained about it, they’d take away some of your tools and resources so it was twice as hard to make half as many.
Imagine every time your birth rate got out of control they’d send some guards to your houses, and when they left you’d have half as many kids as you used to have. Imagine that was your existence.
Now imagine that the God of the universe steps out of the shadows and declares his loyalty to you rather than Egypt. Imagine that the only God who actually exists shows up and tells you that he’s batting in your corner, that he’s going to spring you out of slavery, and that if Egypt resists his plan to set you free, he will grind them down to the bone just like they did to you and your children.
Imagine that he brings you out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. Then he turns you into a nation. You’d have a different perspective than we’re inclined to have today.
613 laws, all of which require you to treat your fellow man with dignity, to take care of your countrymen and make sure they never fall into abject poverty, to prevent the powerful from taking advantage of the weak, to prevent husbands from taking advantage of their wives, to prevent the young from taking advantage of the elderly, to prevent the government from taking advantage of the people – you would see that as a good thing, not a bad thing. You would see all 613 of those laws as a blessing, not as a curse.
An unpleasant blessing, but a blessing. Cough syrup is rarely enjoyable, but neither is bronchitis, and if you have bronchitis, some unpleasant cough syrup may be a good remedy. From what I am told, chemotherapy is excruciating. So is cancer. And if you have aggressive cancer, an unpleasant round of chemotherapy might be a good remedy. It’s painful. Sometimes even torturous. It makes your life more difficult. But it is a gift, not a curse. Sin is slavery. But God’s commands are freedom.
That’s why all throughout the Old Testament, you read things that say, “Your law is a gift,” “Your commands are sweet,” “Your requirements are just and good and right” and “I take joy in them.”
There’s a vastly-overused quote by C.S. Lewis, and I’m gonna contribute to its overuse, here – that “God cannot give us a happiness or peace outside of himself, because it doesn’t exist, because there is no such thing.” That’s a paraphrase of what Moses says in Deuteronomy chapter 30. When God gives the law to Israel on Mount Sinai, that was an expression of God’s good grace towards his people.
The story of the Bible begins with God creating the universe, and then leading a slave revolt. And God’s good commands are part of the slave revolt. And there are very few better examples of how this plays out than the book of Ruth. Ruth is the story of how a pagan woman from a cruel and unjust pagan nation flees to Israel for refuge from her suffering and is swept up in the wings of the God who leads the slave revolt.
All of this ought to be very good news. The only God who actually exists is the God leading the slave revolt. That should be “good news of great joy” for every single one of us, but what we’re going to learn as we move into Galatians in a few weeks is that, historically, it hasn’t been.
Historically, the fact that God is the “ringleader” in a slave revolt – that his good commands are part and parcel of the slave revolt in itself, that obeying God is freedom, that rejecting his good laws means returning to slavery – that’s been bad news for us, not good news, to the point that in one of the most famously terrifying passages of scripture, Paul quotes a bunch of Psalms, and stitches them together into a big, long, terrifying poem in Romans chapter 3 that says, quote:
“There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God, all have turned away, all alike have become useless, there is no one who does what is good, not even one. Our throats are an open grave, we deceive with our tongues, Viper’s venom is under our lips. Our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Our feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and wretchedness are in our paths, and the path of peace we have not known. There is no fear of God before our eyes.”
So Paul was fun at parties. But his point is pretty straightforward. Consistently, we’ve refused to image the love of God by obeying the law of God; consistently, we’ve devoted ourselves to maintaining the slavery brought about by our Fall in the Garden; consistently, we’ve aligned ourselves against God’s mission to “liberate us from our shackles,” to “reconcile us to himself,” to make right everything that we made wrong.
As we cross into the New Testament, what changes is not that Jesus “does away with the law, and then tells us to go do whatever we want” as long as we pray before our meals and pledge allegiance to the flag, or something-or-other. What changes is that as we cross from the Old Testament into the New Testament, we see that God has dealt with the fact that we are determined to stay slaves; God has dealt with the fact that we are determined to “go back to Egypt,” that we are determined to be exactly like the pagan nations that God rescued us from, that we are determined to become our own captors, to become our own “Pharaohs” – that we have never once submitted ourselves to the great freedom that God gives us.
We see that God has dealt with the fact that “No one is righteous, not even one,” that we have all fled from “the path of peace” instead of running towards it; that God has rescued us from our slavery fully, freely, and forever in Jesus Christ.
That’s why Jesus tells us in Matthew that he “did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” God never abandoned his good commands for us, he rescued us by punishing our disobedience in himself in the cross, and by raising us up with him in the resurrection.
God’s law is the slave revolt, and God doesn’t abandon his slave revolt – he finishes it, he completes it, he brings it all the way to the cross, purchasing our freedom from every slavery to which we’ve subjected ourselves, and a day is coming, when Jesus returns and “renews the heavens and the Earth,” like we read about at the end of Revelation, in which the freedom that God purchased for us in the cross will be the reality that we’re swimming in.
Because rather than simply crushing us like he crushed Egypt, like he crushed Pharaoh, rather than simply driving us out like he drove out the unjust nations spread throughout Canaan when he brought Israel to the Promised Land, God allowed us to crush him on the cross.
God allowed us to “drive him out” on the cross, he allowed us to “destroy” him with the destruction that belongs to anyone who stands in the way of the slave revolt he’s leading. Jesus takes our rebellion against God’s good law onto himself in the cross so that we can be forgiven, and he raises us up with him so that we can be healed. Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery, and he will bring us across the Jordan into his Promised Land.
And we would like for you to come with us. If you are visiting, or if you’ve been here for quite some time, and you’ve never submitted yourself to Jesus Christ to be rescued from you sin and brought out of Egypt in the slave revolt he’s leading, I’ll be standing at the front while we worship the Lord through song, and you’re welcome to come to the front and meet with me. I’d love to walk you through the process of repenting of your sin, and throwing yourself on the mercy of the Jesus we’ve been talking about this morning.