Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading Between the Lines

What’s not to love about the book of Ruth? It has something for everyone:
  • Feminists: A book of the Bible named after a woman! A plucky woman who survives against the odds, a heroine who shows some initiative! (After all, she’s the one who makes the marriage proposal.) 
  • Those who are sentimental: “Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge…” shows up at a wedding now and then. Those for whom romance novels are a guilty pleasure: You can almost picture the cover – female protagonist who’s been flirting with the strong male lead for chapter after chapter, shows up at the threshing floor just when he’s done working for the day. Whatever do you suppose will happen? 
  • Even if romance isn’t your thing, it’s a well-told story. The conflict rises almost immediately, with a famine, and a journey in search of a more hopeful future, and then, unexpected death. There are plot twists and suspense in the middle. And it claims a happy ending when Ruth and Boaz finally get together. 
  • There’s even something for the mothers-in-law: Naomi beaming over the new grandson in her arms. And for the more financially-minded: a real-estate transaction (Chapter 4 – look it up). 
So many reasons to appreciate the book of Ruth. But this week, it kept rubbing up against current events in a very disturbing way. Which, if you think about it, is scripture’s job. Sometimes we open up this book, and it speaks a word of comfort and hope; sometimes it indicts us. This book is filled with stories of less-than-perfect humans trying to make sense of less-than-ideal circumstances – and often, blaming it all on God rather than owning up to their own junk. We can learn something there. Sometimes, in these sacred stories, God shows us our own shadow side, the individual and communal realities we’d rather hide from. 

This particular book of the Bible is only four chapters – not too long to tackle in one sitting (even if you have to squeeze it in between loads of laundry). So, the first read was a quick one. And then at lunch I flipped open my web browser to catch up on the news – more than a little politics in this election season. When I went back to the Bible study, I started noticing things that I hadn’t noticed before. 

Ruth and Orpah and Naomi were part of a culture in which unattached women have next to no hope of a future. A nation in which, if you happened to be female, you we supposed to be under a man’s care – a father, or a husband, or failing that, your dead husband's brother.  When these women were suddenly widowed, they became socially and economically vulnerable. (“Economically vulnerable” being polite talk for barely surviving, on the edges, undesirable, unwanted.)  Naomi grew bitter, because a woman on her own in such a world was in for trouble. There was not a respectable place in the workforce for women, not a way to earn a living, not a way to support a family. Bare subsistence was the goal. 

A woman without a man to protect her was left to scrape up what she could at the edges of society. Ruth is every woman who went gleaning in the fields, rescued just slightly stale out-of-date bread from the store dumpster, collected meager tips at an all-night diner, and is even now working three part time jobs to try to avoid foreclosure.   Ruth's problems still exist.  Women’s participation in the workforce has been declining during the recession - a result of job loss, lower wages, and the high cost of child care and elder care (a burden which still falls disproportionately on women). Stay home to raise your children, and you’re a “welfare queen,” go to work (if you can get it) and you not only spend a huge proportion of your pay on child care, you’re labeled a neglectful parent. 

There’s no way to win, when you’re on the margins. We have been there in the Bible, in history, in our lifetimes. Truly, dependency, work without dignity, exhausting oneself while falling further behind, is not economic justice, not the life that God dreams for God’s people. 

The gleaners aren’t the only model of a Biblical woman from Ruth’s time. Alternatively, there were other images of single, independent, capable women: witches, prostitutes. There are those who paint such images of single, independent women now; politicians and elected officials and broadcasters and religious leaders attempting to marginalize and silence women who speak up publicly. During the Salem witch trials, being a single, opinionated and mouthy older woman could get you killed. In our own time, when Sandra Fluke, a law student, was put on a witness list to offer congressional testimony, she was excluded. A panel comprised entirely of men heard testimony entirely from men, about women’s bodies. When she spoke up anyway, for parity in health care, for reproductive justice, she was publicly labeled a slut. 

Truly, this is not the life that God dreams for God’s people. Not in the Bible. Not today. 

In a culture such as Ruth’s, a woman has limited assets at her disposal: her wits, her body, her relationships. All of them are necessary for survival. There is no shame in it – there should be no shame in it – but it should not be necessary. And so Ruth heard Naomi’s wisdom: Gotta get a man. Gotta make a baby. Gotta survive. She risked everything she had left to her in her quest for survival when she went down to the threshing floor late in the evening. A certain kind of woman was known to hang out on the threshing floor, around the men, at the harvest time. This is not news. When she goes into a place where “good girls” don’t go, perhaps you think, “she deserves what she gets.” 

Women were not expected to have control over their own bodies. We have been there in the Bible, in history, in our lifetimes.  We live with Ruth in a world where rich men can crack jokes about cheap contraception being “aspirin between the knees” while avowedly pro-life candidates can demand their pregnant lovers get an abortion. Ruth is every woman who has ever walked quickly home, wondering whether she should have worn a longer skirt and shorter heels, hoping that no one will get the wrong idea, hoping that no one will come lurching out of the next alleyway…and she is also every woman who has decided that her body was her best ticket out of poverty …and every woman who has let a man touch her because she felt she had no other option, and worried about her reputation all the while. 

This is not justice. Surely, this is not what God dreams for God’s children. 

The Bible does not have a direct pronouncement on most of the critical issues that face us in 2012, an index you can flip to in the back to find, "Obamacare - see page 170.   Romneycare - page 102.  "   No such luck.  We need to search for the truth around and behind and between the words on a very thin page. We have to look at the bigger story than the gotcha phrases and convenient excerpts. It means we need to know the Biblical story of God always redeeming God’s people, always leaning simultaneously toward justice and mercy, always leaning toward freedom. Immerse yourself in that story. 

So, re-acquaint yourself with the story.  And then be very suspicious when the system tilts in favor of those who have plenty of power already: when city councils feel free to decriminalize domestic violence, for budgetary reasons… when politicians contort themselves around twisted definitions of “forcible” and “legitimate” rape, as if there were any distinction… and candidates state that pregnancies that result from assault are a “gift from God.” 

Don’t insult God like that! The only part God had in that sexual assault was in not abandoning you while it was happening or after. God did not make you pregnant – that was your rapist. And your rapist is most definitely not God. Never try to pretty up human sin and evil by claiming God meant for it to happen. It’s another assault on someone who has already been violated. The life of a woman who has been assaulted is not any less precious than the life that may be growing inside her. 

God will always work to bring something out of even the deepest terror. But an undesired pregnancy is not the only way that the power of life can conquer death. God is bigger than that.

Truly, this is not what God dreams for her girl children, for her men children. Not in the Bible, not today. 

Be very suspicious anytime you hear those with a surplus of power and influence talking about people as if they were inanimate objects. And be suspicious when political parties conveniently find “women’s issues” and “family values” important every two or every four years.  Ask yourself, always, “is this the life that God dreams for God’s children?” 

Because last time I checked, God lavishes love on those around the edges. On the poor, on migrants, on the economically and socially and sexually vulnerable. On those who have been wounded and held back by the stupidity and arrogance and self-seeking of their fellow humans. My Bible tells me that when God came to live among us, filthy shepherds came to worship. In the person of Jesus, God loved the children and said “do not turn them away” -- so why are we contemplating cutting funds that help them and their families? God chose to hang out with the prostitutes and tax collectors, and counted among his best friends two apparently single women and a likely widow. It was the women who wept for him, who stayed until the bitter end, and showed up first for the new beginning. 

The witness that Jesus lived among us was of wholeness and healing and redeeming and including. In Jesus, God looked broken people in the eyes and reminded them that they were human beings too. 

So look, with the eyes of Jesus, at your Bible, and at your newspaper, and your television and your computer screen. Look between the lines of the stories for the people Jesus would see. People like Ruth and her mother-in-law. See how they are treated. And ask yourself, “Is this the life God dreams for God’s children?” 


A sermon on the book of Ruth, preached at McFarland UCC on October 28, 2012.