Saturday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ruth 2:1-3, 8-11; 4:13-17

Our second and final reading from Ruth describes the outcome of the goodness and loyalty of this widowed and childless outsider to Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law. There is a combination of pure coincidence and God’s over-riding Providence in the unfolding of the story. God is ultimately behind everything that happens to us.

First we are told that in Bethlehem Naomi had a kinsman, called Boaz, who was related to her deceased husband, Elimelech. And he was well off. ‘Boaz’ probably means “in him is strength”. Boaz is included in both genealogies of Jesus (Matt 1:5; Luke 3:32).

One day, Ruth asked Naomi for permission to go and glean ears of corn in the footsteps of a man who would allow her to do so. As a foreigner and a young woman on her own, she could be quite vulnerable in the harvest fields. Nevertheless, she is willing to take the risk in order to provide for her mother-in-law, who has no other resources. Later, Naomi will return the favour by putting Ruth cleverly in the way of her future husband (see Ruth 3:1). Naomi gave her blessing for Ruth’s request.

According to the Law, the poor had this right, but its exercise depended on the goodwill of the owner of the property. The law of Moses instructed landowners to leave what the harvesters missed so that the poor, the alien, the widow and the orphan could glean for their needs. Gleaning was a work which was normally done by women. It was also a way for the landless poor to pick up any grain that got left behind (recall that the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples because they were picking heads of wheat…it was not because they were stealing, but because they were doing it on a Sabbath).

So Ruth set out to glean in the fields behind the reapers. As chance would have it, she was led to a piece of land belonging to a man called Boaz, who was of the same clan as Emilech, Naomi’s late husband. It looked like chance, but divine providence was also at work.

At this point, adding some omitted verses will bring a fuller understanding of today’s passage. Apparently by chance, Boaz himself arrived just then and greeted the reapers. And, seeing Ruth, he asked a servant to whom this woman belonged. In the east every woman ‘belonged’ to someone, father, husband, brother, master. He is told that she is the Moabitess woman who came back from Moab with Naomi. She had asked for permission to glean what the reapers left behind, and the servant says that she has been working non-stop from dawn till now.

In today’s reading, Boaz speaks to Ruth and tells her to continue gleaning in his field and not to go anywhere else. She is to stay close to Boaz’s other work women and to work close behind them. Boaz’s men have been forbidden to molest her in any way. It was customary for the men to cut the grain and for the servant girls to go behind them to bind the grain into sheaves. Then Ruth could glean what they had left behind. Furthermore, Boaz tells her that, if she is thirsty, she can get water from the pitchers the servants have prepared. Ruth then falls prostrate before Boaz and says:

Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?

She is surprised at his kindness. In the eyes of many, perhaps most, Ruth would be the lowest of the low – an unknown person, a foreigner and a widow. But Boaz tells her that he knows her story, how good she has been to her mother-in-law since her own husband’s death, and how she has left her own parents and her native land to come and live among a people of whom she previously knew nothing. Ruth’s commitment to care for her desolate mother-in-law remains the centre of attention throughout the book.

We now move to the end of Ruth’s story and also of the book. The conclusion of the story balances the introduction (1:1-5).

  1. In the Hebrew both have the same number of words;
  2. both compress much into a short space;
  3. both focus on Naomi;
  4. the introduction emphasised Naomi’s emptiness, and the conclusion portrays her fullness.

Boaz has now decided to make Ruth his wife. In doing so, he is also honouring the memory of his kinsman, Emilech. By marrying his kinsman’s widow he ensures that Emilech’s line will continue through him. And, when Boaz came together as man and wife, Yahweh was instrumental in their having a son.

And the women said to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.

The baby son is seen as a redeemer for Naomi, who now knows that she will be cared for in her old age. Even in our own day, this may be a major concern for parents who do not have social welfare to take care of them in their old age. It may be felt that only a son can do it; a daughter will be lost by marrying into another family.

Since seven was considered a number of completeness, to have seven sons was the epitome of all family blessings in Israel (‘…more to you than seven sons…’). Ruth’s selfless devotion to Naomi receives its supreme accolade in this statement. There could be no higher praise.

Then Naomi took the child, held him to her breast and it was she who looked after him. Such an action was understood as an adoption ritual, also used by other peoples in the ancient Near East. The barrenness and emptiness of Naomi is at an end. The son is almost as much hers as it is Ruth’s.

In fact, because Ruth is an outsider, the child is spoken of as the grandson of Naomi. Naomi is the child’s legal mother just as Elimelech is his legal father. Through Ruth, the aged Naomi, who can no longer bear children, obtains an heir in place of her son, Mahlon. And it was the women of the neighbourhood who gave the child its name – Obed. ‘Obed’ means ‘servant’, i.e. servant of Yahweh. He will be the father of Jesse, who in turn will be the father of David.

The dutifulness of Ruth and Boaz thus makes Naomi the ancestress of King David. But there is another point of universal interest: it is a foreigner, Ruth, who is also the ancestress of David and through him of Christ. The gospel will call attention to this. In fact, in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew will mention Boaz and Ruth as ancestors but not Naomi.

Through Ruth’s ‘alien’ blood, the House of David is linked to peoples outside that of Israel. Jesus will be the King of the new Israel, which will embrace peoples of all kinds. His Gospel will be for “all nations”.

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