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Help! I Need Somebody!” Week 3 — The “Reputation Defender” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Covered Naomi’s plan and Ruth’s brilliant execution of it from Ruth 3;
  • Trusting in the interpretation of Sandy Richter, treated that encounter as Ruth’s proposal to Boaz;
  • Recognized that a life in which “image is everything” is hollow indeed;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  When your motivation is the kingdom, your reputation will take care of itself.

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If you’re like me, you’ve seen those ads for Reputation Defender companies. They specialize in online defense – if your business, your organization, or even your person starts to get slammed on the internet (bad reviews on Yelp, that kind of thing), the Reputation Defender leaps to the rescue, scrubs the negative reviews, and preserves your reputational dignity.

And that kind of company is right up my alley because as some of you know and all of you will learn, my reputation, what people think of me, has an outsize importance in my life. Perhaps it goes with the pastoral territory. I think of the young pastor, had a 5 year old son and 3 year old daughter and he’s home with kids while his wife is out at some sort of porcelain doll event. But he gets distracted, and in that moment when he is on the front porch, he hears the phone ring (back in days of land lines). He’s kind of proud to hear his 5 year old answer with much maturity: Hello. Then his pride turns to horror when he hears his son say, “No, mama is not here. She’s out making a baby. Dad’s right here though. Do you want to talk to him?” Yep, he needed some reputation protection real fast. I’m so much that way: what people think, how I appear, what’s my image … all that stuff is way important to me. And I bet I’m not the only one here for whom that is true.

Well, as we continue our excavation into this masterful novella called Ruth – except it’s a novella in which the stuff really happened, so maybe it’s a short documentary – there’s a pivotal moment in the story where EVERYONE’S reputation is at stake. By everyone, I mean Ruth, the title character, Boaz, the would-be hero, and Naomi, the shadowy, tragic figure at the center of all the action. All of them have a moment of reputational reckoning. Here’s what’s going in Ruth: it’s about 1200 BC and Ruth is a YOUNG WIDOW and his helping care for her MIL Naomi who is an OLD WIDOW. And Ruth is from the area and people called Moab, meaning she is a Moabitess, which means that in the minds of the ancient Jews her ancestry.com is rooted in incest. I kid you not. So she has returned to Bethlehem which is Naomi’s home but not hers … Naomi is the insider (but not really cool) and Ruth is invisible. And in the culture of that day, these two very vulnerable widows need the welcome and security of a bet av – a male-led family compound (like the Kennedy compound except no beach, pool, or tennis court). And all the action in Ruth takes place during a time called “The Judges” which is code for anarchy & lunacy.

Now: Naomi knows her situation with DIL Ruth is especially precarious in these lawless times because Ruth needs a husband for stability and they BOTH need a bet av for security. And according to ancient custom, that husband and his bet av needs to come from the family of Naomi & her late husband Elimelech, which introduces an ICK factor for us but made sense to them. And Boaz fits that bill.

So look at the plan Naomi comes up with in 3:1-5:

One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home[a] for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”  “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered.

Now: on the one hand I love this because Naomi OWNS her situation. She doesn’t play victim, doesn’t say poor me! & act as if there is nothing she can do. So I love that initiative. But on the other hand, THIS IS A TERRIBLE PLAN! Go down there, Ruth, by yourself, in the middle of the night, in an era before #MeToo, to a place full of men who’ve likely had a little too much to drink, and at the Threshing Floor (a place known in ancient times as where prostitution happened!) and do SOMETHING about uncovering our Sugar Daddy’s feet. Got it? It’s highly suggestive if not downright seductive – yet another example of how great & how raw the bible is when you actually read it.

So look at 3:7-9a:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked.

Woah. You KNOW he’s got to wonder, “What I did do last night? There’s a Lynrd Skynrd song here somewhere.” It’s so sketchy … there’s a reason that THIS scene rarely makes it unedited into your illustrated children’s bibles. And then Ruth’s answer is the pivot point:

“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer[b] of our family.”

What in the world is that? Check 2:12:

12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

 

“Cover” and “wings” and “spread” is the same word family, the same idea. On the one hand, Ruth is brilliantly using Boaz’s words against him: Remember, big guy, when we met and you prayed God’s protective covering over me? Well, here’s a chance for you to be the answer to your own prayer! You prayed those words, now do those words.

But on the second level there something more stunning happening here. You ready? In the Ancient Near Eastern culture for a man to “cover” woman in this way meant marriage. Ready? Ruth is proposing! THE GIRL is popping the question. On the Threshing Floor, in the middle of the night, with his foot uncovered! Now: may I offer an observation as someone who loves The Beautiful Marriage Movement? As someone who is all hip on the new trend of taking photos of engagement moments? (Riley & Taylor pics)? Well, I have never, not once, not a single time seen it done this way, on the threshing floor with a tipsy guy and an forward girl. This is a bad idea! Do NOT “go and do thou likewise”! But they did it.

And think of how their reputations hang in the balance. Boaz could – maybe SHOULD – reject. Ruth would be done. Or Boaz could have taken advantage of her sexually in that highly compromised position. Or Ruth could have seduced him and guilted him into marriage. Or shotgunned him into it. And yet with all they could have done, as their reputations were in the air, neither did. Instead, take a look at 3:10-13:

10 “The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. 12 Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. 13 Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”

 

The “first kindness” there was when Ruth would not abandon her MIL Naomi when both were widowed, but instead accompanied her out of Moab into Bethlehem.

This second kindness, Boaz says, is choosing ME over all the young bucks with whom you’ve been working in the fields. I’m older, I may represent stability but I sure don’t represent romance. Or hotness. Yet you’ve pursued a marriage that will stabilize Naomi when she comes into my bet av. Then at the end of 3:14 he says this:

14 So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”

I imagine him looking over his field hands and saying with all kinds of authority: “You like your job? You like food on your table? Good. NOT A WORD about this woman here. Don’t even think about it.” Finally, in 3:15, he gives her some barley (again), which is apparently a THING. We give roses; they give barley:

15 He also said, “Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her. Then he[c] went back to town.

This particular scene concludes in 3:16-18:

16 When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “How did it go, my daughter?”

Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her 17 and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

18 Then Naomi said, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”

Oh marvelous and purposeful. Naomi who has come home “empty” is now “filled.” Life has turned around and God has used this admittedly bizarre plan to protect and preserve her in every way.

But at every point these three characters propelled this strange plan & it is as if something larger was guiding them. Their focus was not on the urgent but the ultimate; not on the immediate but on the eternal; not on doing what was easy but what was right. And the linkage of 2:12 and 3:10 – READ – seals it.  See, it’s God-soaked and God-centered from the very beginning. And look how Boaz describes here in 3:11: a woman of noble character. At one level it’s hilarious: a woman who goes along to a sorta drunken party of all men and lies down at the feet of a Sugar Daddy is … a Proverbs 31 woman! Yet it’s not sordid at all; the narrator escalates the sexual tension, puts them in a compromising position ALL TO HIGHLIGHT THEIR RESTRAINT! The power of restraint at the center of the universe! How can I put them in a compromising position to show they won’t?

And the results? Their reputations are not only intact, they are enhanced! The three of them have a higher calling; their reps are so secure we’re still talking about them 3100 years later! Here it is: When your MOTIVATION is the kingdom your REPUTATION will take care of itself. Think about it. Ruth and Boaz … their legacy could be so scandalous and yet it’s anything but. Wait til you see next week what role they play in Jesus! The compromising position only highlights how they didn’t compromise. They weren’t obsessed with appearances, not full of calculations, they look at the kingdom and look what happened.

See, when you’re all about your reputation – I know this from experience! – life is about you. You become your own master. Your own … king. Because you’ve got to control everything. But you’re a terrible king. That job is taken already. There’s such a longing out there these days for justice and peace – all the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. Yet people want it without surrender to the King himself, king Jesus and that ain’t happening. I really want you to pivot, to turn, your focus from protecting your name to declaring his and watch out everything falls into place.  When your MOTIVATION is the kingdom your REPUTATION will take care of itself.

Man, I love it when it breaks through. When the sense of right so overwhelms what is convenient. I’ve told some of you before of that time, another church, another time, when we contemplating buying a church van. NBD. Except that guy who comes up to me with rage on his face and says “If you use that van to pick up black children and bring them to this church, it will tear this church apart.” Now you know me: people pleaser, conflict avoider, reputation protector. But in that moment I actually said what I thought: “Then we don’t have much of a church to begin with, do we?” Whew! Liberating. We got the van; the man and his racism left the church.   When your MOTIVATION is the kingdom your REPUTATION will take care of itself.

Most of us need to be surrounded by a group of people who will encourage us along these lines. You can’t get freed from your reputation obsession, you can’t focus on the kingdom, you can’t even take any kind of public stand for what is godly and good on your own. We all need a posse, an entourage, a body of people behind us rooting us on. It’s why Groups. LifeGroups, GrowGroups, CareClasses. People who will let you know the greatest power in the universe is often the power of restraint. When you could get away with it but don’t. Sex, money, standards, all of it. So much like this woman at a school board meeting regarding a new sex ed curriculum:

 

When I arrived at the school, I saw about a dozen parents there. As we waited for  the presentation, I thumbed through page after page of instructions in the prevention of pregnancy or disease.  I found abstinence mentioned only in passing.

When the teacher arrived with the school nurse, she asked if  there were any questions. I asked why abstinence did not play a noticeable part in the material.

What happened next was shocking.  There was a great deal of laughter, and someone suggested that if I thought abstinence had any merit, I should go back to burying my head in the sand.  The teacher and the nurse said nothing as I drowned in a sea of embarrassment. My mind had gone blank, and  I could think of nothing to say.

The teacher explained to me that the job of the school was to teach “facts,” and the home was responsible for  moral training.

I sat in silence for the next 20 minutes as the course was explained. The other parents seemed to give their  unqualified support to the materials.

“Donuts, at the back,” announced the teacher during the break.  “I’d like you to put on the name tags we have prepared-they’re right by the donuts- and mingle with the other  parents. Everyone moved to the back of the room.

As I watched them affixing their name tags and shaking hands, I sat deep in thought. I was ashamed that I had  not been able to convince them to include a serious discussion of abstinence in the materials. I uttered a silent prayer for guidance.

My thoughts were interrupted by the teacher’s hand on my shoulder. “Won’t you join the others, Mrs. Layton?” The nurse smiled sweetly at me.  “The donuts are good.”

 “Thank you, no,” I replied.  

“Well, then, how about a name tag? I’m sure the others would like to meet you.”  

“Somehow I doubt that,” I replied.

“Won’t you please join them?” she coaxed.

“I’ll just wait here,” I said.

When the class was called back to order, the teacher looked around the long table and thanked everyone for  putting on name tags. She ignored me.

Then she said, “Now we’re going to give you the same lesson we’ll be giving your children. Everyone please  peel off your name tags.” I watched in silence as the tags came off.

“Now, then, on the back of one of the tags, I drew a tiny flower. Who has it, please?”

The gentleman across from me held it up.  “Here it is!”

“All right,” she said. “The flower represents disease. Do you recall with whom you shook hands?”

He pointed to a couple of people.

“Very good,” she replied. “The handshake in this case represents intimacy. So the two people you had contact with now have the disease.”

There was laughter and joking among the parents.

The teacher continued, “And whom did the two of you shake hands with?”

The point was well taken, and she explained how this lesson would show students how quickly disease is spread.

“Since we all shook hands, we all have the disease.”

_____________

“Speak now, I thought, “but be humble.”

I noted wryly the latter admonition, then rose from my chair.

I apologized for any upset I might have caused earlier, congratulated the teacher on an excellent lesson that  would impress the youth, and concluded by saying I had only one small point I wished to make.

“Not all of us were infected,” I said. “One of us … abstained.”

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