[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
What makes for a good neighborhood? This is a question that American society has been struggling with in different ways for some time now. On one level, a response to this question might have something to do with a residential street dotted with beautiful lawns, white picket fences surrounding lovely homes, low crime rates, good real estate values, and maybe children playing in safety.
On another level, however, the neighborhood can be a metaphor for the larger society. The question of what makes for a good American society is a much more divisive issue. It has been the source of rancorous disagreement throughout the election season. On this, and any political issue, election rhetoric becomes a contest of stories, a battle between narratives. Each party works to craft a persuasive narrative that can account for the present situation and also lift up its own vision of America’s future. At the same time, the narrative must offer bleak warnings about the dangerous values and vision of the other party. In the midst of such rancor, it can be a challenge to find a gracious vision of what the good neighborhood looks like.
This week’s Old Testament lection from the second half of Ruth, however, can help us go a long way toward finding that gracious narrative. As last week’s post by Timothy Simpson pointed out, there is a lot more to the story of Ruth than usually meets the eye. It may not be typical to think of this story as embodying a vision for the good neighborhood, but the book is making some bold claims about precisely that.
The particular neighborhood in this story is that of Bethlehem, but the book is not just about events taking place in that little, dusty, backwater town. The story uses Bethlehem and its individual inhabitants—Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, the townsmen and women—to embody the values and interactions of communal life that should characterize ancient Judah as a whole.
Bethlehem’s character as a good neighborhood is tested by various problems. First of all, there is the problem of famine and food insecurity in Bethlehem in chapter 1—this is the crisis that begins the book and forced Naomi’s family to leave and go to Moab. This crisis is ironic, since Bethlehem means “house of bread”! But after the famine is resolved, further problems surface when Naomi returns, now widowed and homeless and bitterly devastated. Her situation is dire in the extreme—as a widow Naomi lacks a traditional male protector and a source of income. In ancient Judah the social safety net was the family—especially the male members of the family. So when the family is gone, the widow is vulnerable. Not only this, but Naomi appears with her daughter-in-law Ruth, who is a foreigner as well as a widow. As a Moabite, and thus a “stranger” or “alien,” Ruth would be the target of deeply held prejudices against Moabites in general and Moabite women in particular (see Genesis 19; Numbers 25; Ezra 9; Nehemiah 13).
At the beginning of the story, it looks like Bethlehem is not up to the task of dealing with the widow and the stranger. Naomi comes into town and the townswomen are not wonderfully welcoming—the whole town is stirred up; they are not sure they know her. And what about Ruth? Well, Ruth isn’t even publically acknowledged. Not by the townspeople. Not by Naomi. She is, like many homeless and immigrant people in our own communities, invisible.
But Bethlehem proves to be a good neighborhood because it is one that embodies the Sinai Covenant legislation of the Torah. The Sinai Covenant demands justice to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. This justice involves fairness in the legal system, but also demands what the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has called distributive justice, in which basic needs such as food and clothing and support are provided for the most disadvantaged. So the well-to-do landowner, Boaz, demonstrates faithfulness to the Sinai covenant by allowing the alien to glean (Deut 24:19), but he also provides additional food to Ruth and Naomi in keeping with Deut 10:18-19. Indeed, Boaz, though initially reluctant to go to great lengths, contributes to Ruth’s well-being through his simple acts of providing a safe environment and allowing her to drink the water drawn at the well. Ultimately, Boaz exercises a rather extraordinary dedication to the covenant by marrying the stranger, though it’s not clear that this is meant to be a general principle for all to follow.
Notice how this story depicts the homeless stranger—a person that might otherwise be a target of fear and suspicion. Notice that Ruth is not simply the passive recipient of what some call entitlements. Instead, Ruth contributes to the community even as she receives. Ruth works to provide food as well as companionship for Naomi, who views herself as disconnected and dislocated from all that is important. Indeed, Ruth’s actions for Naomi come at considerable risk to her own well-being. She has no guarantee that going to Bethlehem, a strange city, will benefit her. And her overtures to Boaz on the threshing floor could have ended in disaster for herself if Boaz had not accepted them.
The environment in which Ruth receives from and contributes to the community exemplifies contributive justice. Another concept that comes from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, contributive justice demands that all members of society who are able are to help create the material and non-material goods and values that a society needs. Moreover, contributive justice demands that the obstacles that would keep some from contributing to the well-being of the community be removed. The assumption here is a generous one– that most members of a good neighborhood want to contribute and dislike being dependent upon others. Boaz’s actions remove some of these obstacles for Ruth, who in turn is able to restore Naomi to vitality again. But Ruth does more than that—her contribution ultimately affects the entire nation for good as she becomes the ancestress of Israel’s most cherished king, David.
This week brings the close of a very long and exhausting election season in America. But our public discourse about the nature of the good neighborhood will continue and will have ongoing effects on the character of our life together. All the more reason to keep telling stories of justice and generosity.
Amy Merrill Willis, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her teaching and research interests include Apocalyptic Literature, Biblical Theology, and the Bible and Popular Culture. She is the author of Dissonance and the Drama of Divine Sovereignty in the Book of Daniel from Continuum Press.