‘Naomi’s Nameless Relative’ – Ruth 4:1-8 – June 30th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 1 through 8.

Boaz went to the gate of the town and sat down there. Soon the family redeemer Boaz had spoken about came by. Boaz called him by name and said, “Come over here and sit down.” So he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took 10 men of the town’s elders and said, “Sit here.” And they sat down. He said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has returned from the land of Moab, is selling a piece of land that belonged to our brother Elimelech. I thought I should inform you: Buy it back in the presence of those seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you want to redeem it, do so. But if you do not want to redeem it, tell me so that I will know, because there isn’t anyone other than you to redeem it, and I am next after you.”

“I want to redeem it,” he answered.

Then Boaz said, “On the day you acquire the land from Naomi, you must also marry Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased man, to perpetuate the man’s name on his property.”

The redeemer replied, “I can’t redeem it myself, or I will ruin my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption, because I can’t redeem it.”

At an earlier period in Israel, a man removed his sandal and gave it to the other party in order to make any matter legally binding concerning the right of redemption or the exchange of property. This was the method of legally binding a transaction in Israel.

So the redeemer removed his sandal and said to Boaz, “Buy back the property yourself.”

Let’s pray.

*

So, our passage this morning starts off with a nameless guy, a relative of Naomi that Boaz talks to, who thinks he’s going to get a good deal on a plot of land. Exciting stuff.

Depending on your translation, this passage can be a little bit confusing. The Hebrew Scholars tell me that the grammar is a bit ambiguous here, and so it could be translated in one of two ways.

In the translation we just read from, Boaz says “On the day you buy this land, you also have to marry Ruth,” but it can also be translated as Boaz saying, “On the day you acquire that land, I will acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased man, to perpetuate the man’s name.” Given what we know about the family-redeemer laws, and given what we’ve seen in the Ruth story up to this point, that’s probably the best way to read verse 5.

Boaz is giving the man fair warning that Boaz will be marrying Ruth around the same time that man takes advantage of the sweet deal he’s going to get on some defaulted-on land.

If you’ve been here the last several weeks, we’ve tried to gradually explain the laws at work that this story is built upon, and one of those laws is the family-redeemer law. I will not dive nearly as deeply into it as I did last week, but I’ll give a quick recap:

As an Israelite, if you were obedient to God’s law, you would see yourself as obligated to buy back any land that a family member of yours loses after going through hard times or going bankrupt, or whatever, and you’d be obligated to buy your family member out of debt-slavery if they lost everything and had to indenture themselves, and if your family member died and left a wife without any adult kids who could care for her, you were obligated to marry her, lodge her on your property, see to it that she’s well fed and taken care of, and – if she so desires – you are responsible for providing an heir for her.

In Ruth and Naomi’s situation, almost all of those would apply. Naomi’s husband dragged them out of the promised land during a famine and took them into a pagan land, and while they were in Moab, his title to the land in Israel lapsed and he didn’t do anything about it, so it’s someone else’s land now.

Now that Elimelech is dead, both of Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons are dead, only Ruth and Naomi are left, and they’ve returned to the promised land because the famine is over, but they’ve got a problem, because the land that used to belong to Naomi and her family belongs to someone else, so they’re homeless.

In a situation like this, some family member is responsible for buying back that land so that Naomi and Ruth can live on it. But there’s a catch, because our story takes place during what you would call the Bronze Age, or right afterwards,  and throughout essentially the whole world in the Bronze Age, women could not own property.

That means that Boaz, or the nameless family member in this passage, could buy back the land and allow Naomi and Ruth to live on it, but Naomi and Ruth couldn’t own it. It would be “charity.” But it would be temporary. Once Naomi passed away, the land would permanently belong to whichever family member redeemed it, since the whole family line of Elimelech would have died out.

That’s a sweet deal for that nameless family member. But as “family-redeemer,” either he or Boaz were responsible for providing Naomi or Ruth with a male heir who could inherit the land once Naomi passed away. That complicates things for this nameless family member.

Because what that means is that this family member can pour all of his blood, sweat, and tears into this plot of land, he can tend to it, he can fill it with hired workers, he can sacrifice his resources, and his time, and his energy making this land productive again, but as soon as the heir that he provides to Ruth becomes an adult man, that land will revert to Ruth’s heir.

Ruth’s heir would “inherit the land out from under him,” and all of his energy would be to the benefit of Ruth’s family, not his own. This man buckles when he recognizes that either he or Boaz is going to have to marry Ruth and provide her an heir to perpetuate the name of Elimelech on the property. The demands that go into being a family redeemer were simply too much for him.  

Which makes sense. It’s easy to want to do good when it benefits you. When doing good means “getting a good deal on a plot of land that will increase your family’s capital,” it’s not difficult to answer the call. But it’s very difficult to do good when it disadvantages you. When there is no tangible reward for doing good, most of us opt out. Right? Most of us have been programmed by our history and our culture to follow up any charge to do good with some variation of “What’s in it for me?”

It reminds me of an English class I had my senior year of high school, we were reading through some of the works of a philosopher named Ayn Rand, and she just, kind of, messed up half the folks in that class.

Because Rand’s whole philosophy is built around the idea that there is no such thing as genuine kindness. That there is no such thing as genuine empathy. There is no such thing as altruism. There is no loving your neighbor as yourself.

According to Rand, God is not love, because there is no God, and there is no love, and anytime someone asks you to “love your neighbor,” you should ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and whatever they answer, you should respond by insisting that you have no neighbors, that the folks who live on either side of you are related to you by proximity and nothing else, that there is no thread that binds us to each other, that there is no right or wrong outside of your individual rights to be left alone.

And so, by the end of that week in class when we were reading Ayn Rand, half the people in the class were parroting her, saying that “There’s really no such thing as doing good for its own sake.” That there’s really no such thing as “obeying the good Lord because he’s the good Lord,” that there’s no such thing as “loving your neighbor because they are your neighbor,” that there’s no such thing as “being faithful to God’s good commands because they are his commands,” and because they are good.

Ayn Rand convinced half the folks I went to English class with that everyone ultimately does what they do in order to benefit themselves. That if you help your neighbor, you’re only actually helping your neighbor because you know that’s going to pay off in the long run. That if you obey God’s commands, you can’t possibly be doing it because you love the Lord, you’re actually doing it because you want some kind of rewards in heaven and you want to avoid some kind of punishments in hell.

But listen, I don’t know how to tell you this, but if you obey God purely in order to avoid punishment, you’re not obeying God; if you obey God purely to stay out of trouble – if the reason you obey the commands of God is because you’re scared of fire, and you’re very scared of eternal fire – you’re not serving the Lord, you’re serving you. You’re not worshipping the Lord, you’re worshipping you. Your “devotion to God” is not devotion to God, it’s devotion to your desire not to get hurt, not to be punished.

If that’s your mindset, in all likelihood, the person who occupies “the throne of your heart” is not the Lord. You obey him because you’re not currently strong enough to dethrone him. But if you were, he’d be history. You know what I’m talking about?

But the only God who actually exists doesn’t call us to obey him simply because we’re afraid of being punished. He calls us to obey because obedience to God’s commands is good, because God’s commands are good, because they are the commands of a good God, because a good God is worthy of our worship. 

But this nameless family member passes along the opportunity to redeem the land, even at the deep discount it’s going for from the bank foreclosure sale, and transfers his privileges and responsibilities as family redeemer to Boaz in the sight of everybody at the gate because doing good will not benefit him; taking up the charge of imaging the God who is love by loving his neighbors practically and sacrificially is too much for him, because he won’t benefit from it in return, so he declines to do so. But that is not what God calls us to.

In Titus chapter 3, Paul tells us that “Those who have trusted in God” must “be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good,” not in some back-door attempt to corner God into rewarding us, but, quote, “in order to provide for urgent needs and not live fruitless lives.”

In Philippians chapter 2, he says that “God is at work in you,” molding us so that we “will” his “good pleasure” and “work” his “good pleasure.” The God who is love is at work in us so that we will what he wills, and then work what he wills.

Passages like this are why Baptists believe something my grandma and your grandma refer to as “Once Saved Always Saved.” We believe that when God saves you, you’re saved – it’s finished. There’s not a return policy – you can’t opt out of your own redemption, and God won’t opt out of redeeming you. You are eternally secure in the graciousness of Jesus Christ.

But that means something very different than what Americans tend to make it mean. The term “Once saved always saved” does not mean that if you recite some magic prayer as a nine year old, you’re “bulletproof.” It doesn’t mean that you can “get off the hook” for the things you do if you’ll just memorize some “special prayer” and recite it every time you feel bad. But based on a few thousand conversations over the last eight years or so, that seems to be one of the two assumptions that Americans tend to gravitate towards.

And Naomi’s nameless relative who passes on his responsibility as family redeemer probably believed some version of that. He knows the stories about Abraham. He remembers Genesis 15, like we talked about at the very beginning of the series, when God makes a covenant with Moses, in which God walks through the sacrificed animals instead of Moses, bringing all of the curses that come with breaking his commands onto himself instead of us. He could’ve twisted passages like that and told himself that because he was “already redeemed,” that taking up his role as “family redeemer” would’ve been unnecessary, since he’s already got his eternity settled.

But if that’s your viewpoint – if you think the fact that you’re saved once-and-for-all by God’s gracious gift means that you are “off the hook” from obeying the God who saved you, that you can do whatever you want and God can’t touch you because you “beat the system,” you said the magic incantation and now God has to let you into heaven “whether he likes it or not,” then I can assure you that you are not saved.

If you think that the “sinner’s prayer” is something that saves you from obedience, that it saves you from obeying the Lord – if you subtly think that the salvation God offers you through Jesus Christ is a means of getting the once-over on God so that he has to let you into heaven even though you’ve lived your life in whatever way you’ve wanted and kept him at arms-length, you are going to hell. I promise.

I used the “Hell” word, so we’re getting hardcore, but don’t misunderstand me: God is not “watching from on high,” waiting for you to mess up so he’ll have an excuse to “cast you out of his presence.” God is not a “harsh taskmaster.” God is not a shopkeeper tallying up your “good deeds” and your “bad deeds,” weighing whether you’ve “measured up to his standards” and rewarding you based on whether “your good outweighs your bad.” That’s the other extremely common assumption that Americans tend to gravitate towards, but you’ll have a tough time finding in the Bible.

Because the reality is that the story that we read in the Bible is the story of a God who vows to rescue us from our brokenness, no matter the cost to himself. The story that we are “grafted into” is a story in which the God of the universe comes down from heaven, takes every bit of our inadequacy, and nails it to the cross in himself. And that’s good news.

Because if God were a shopkeeper “tallying up your deeds,” it would not go well for you. Like, the world is filled with decent folks whose good deeds vastly outnumber their bad deeds. But that is not how the “scales” work. Sin is not just a collection of “things you do” that “tip your scale” in one direction or another. Sin is a cancer. Sin is a disease that multiplies. Sin is a ghost that haunts every thought of our hearts – it eats everything.

Ephesians chapter 2 tells us that in our “sin nature,” we are “dead” in relationship to God. That we “follow the course of the world.” That we “follow the prince of the power of the air,” which is one of the ways that they would refer to what today we would call “the devil,” or something along those lines. It tells us that we are “bent to the will of the flesh,” and when they say “flesh” that has nothing to do with our “bodies” and everything to do with our crooked desires – that we are “naturally wicked,” in some sense.

To the point that Acts chapter 26 says that “our eyes are closed and covered,” we are “turned towards darkness,” we are “in the power of Satan,” we need “the forgiveness of our sins,” and we need to be “sanctified” – we need our very “natures” to be fundamentally transformed into something different than they are.

Because according to 2nd Timothy chapter 2, we don’t even have our own best interests at heart. We chase after things we think we want but when we “follow our sin nature” and oppose the will of God we are “throwing punches at ourselves,” so to speak. We are very much “our own worst enemies.”

Paul goes on to say that we are “in the captivity of the devil” in such a way that when we are on “autopilot” we naturally “carry out his will.” And so Paul says in that passage that we must be “given repentance” in order to “recover ourselves.”

That’s why in Colossians chapter 1, Paul says that God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness” and “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” In our sin nature, we are “captive” in “the domain of darkness.” And that is not the sort of thing that we will escape just by seeing to it that our “good” outweighs our “bad.”

You can go your whole life, your good can outweigh your bad by a square mile, and you will still find yourself condemned, because you have condemned yourself. I just read from five or six passages describing our state in our sin nature, and if you still don’t think you have a problem after hearing that, then you are your problem. If you can still sleep well at night having heard what the New Testament has to say about your state outside of Christ, then what you need is to be grabbed by the collar and shaken awake.

Because that would mean that you have the same problem as Naomi’s nameless relative, here. It would mean you’ve grown so complacent, in yourself, that you have absolutely none of the terror that ought to occupy your soul in response to the gravity of your sinful nature.

We see that when Naomi’s nameless relative learns that Ruth and Naomi have returned, he flees from his responsibilities as kinsman-redeemer, however counterintuitive it may seem, because he does not recognize the depths and riches of the mercy that’s been poured out on us by the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

Naomi’s nameless relative knows fully well that salvation comes from God – and only God – but he doesn’t think that his salvation is a “salvation” at all. He thinks that his salvation consists in being “let off the hook” and “set loose to go do whatever he wants.”

So he hears that “there’s a good deal on a piece of land” that belonged to one of his relatives before her husband let it slip through his fingers after tragedy struck, and he says in his heart, “I’ll go buy up that land, because Naomi doesn’t have any heirs, so as soon as she’s dead, that land will be my family’s land instead of her family’s land.”

He saw a “low-risk, high-return” investment, as they would say, and all he needed to do was to wait for Naomi to die. And he had no issue doing exactly that, because he believed that he was saved from good works rather than saved for good works. You know what I’m talking about?

The Old and New Testaments are unanimous on the fact that you cannot be saved by your good works, but everyone who is saved is saved for good works. And if what you want is to be saved from good works, rather than saved for good works, then you just need to be honest with yourself and say You Don’t Want To Be Saved.

And you can do that. You can do what a whole lot of kids in my English class did: You can go home, you can bury yourself under a bunch of Ayn Rand books, talk yourself into believing that “you don’t owe anything to anybody,” not even the good Lord, that your life is none of God’s business – that your behavior is none of God’s business, that your relationships are none of God’s business – you can bury yourself in denial like “Naomi’s nameless relative.”

Or, you can throw yourself on the mercy of the God who “rescues us from the domain of darkness” and “transfers us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” You can dig your heels in and demand that God “respect your privacy” and leave you alone, or you can submit yourself to the Jesus who “nails our sin to the cross” in himself. You can demand to be “left in Egypt,” or you can follow God’s “Pillar of Smoke and Fire” out into the wilderness in the Exodus.

As you would expect, we would like you to do the latter thing, not the former thing. We say it almost every week, but at Mount Zion, we believe that our purpose is to “spread the gospel into every corner of our particular patch of land,” every corner Louisburg, North Carolina, every corner of the Centerville area, every corner of the Gold Sands community. And if you’re like Naomi’s nameless relative, here, and you’ve been running from mercy of the good Lord, you may very well be one of the corners that we intend to spread the gospel into.

So as we worship the Lord through song in a moment, I’m going to stand awkwardly at the front, waiting for you. I’d love to talk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of this God we meet in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.

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