Formations 11.11.2018: Kindness

Ruth 2:1-3, 8-14

Stained-glass window from the National Cathedral showing Ruth, Naomi, Boaz, and Obed (photo by Tim Evanson)

This week we’ll ask how we can practice kindness. We will do so when unkindness seems inescapable, even to those who can escape it most of the time. We’ve seen in the past week eleven worshipers murdered in a synagogue. We’ve heard political leaders call migrants fleeing violence invaders and enemies ridden with disease. In this week—when can’t deny the presence of hate, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy—we’ll read a Jewish story about a migrant woman and ask how we can be kinder.

It’s a story with a lot to teach us. At least, it has a lot to teach me, mostly that kindness begins in our choices. Ruth goes out to glean food for her and Naomi. Boaz, likewise, encourages her to keep gleaning, shows her water, and offers her bread.

But the story also reminds me that kindness grows beyond our immediate relationships. Right at the beginning, when Ruth goes to Naomi with the provision for gleaning, we see it. Kindness exists in an economic policy commanded by God and observed by Israel’s farmers. Through it, the poor and the foreigner and the widow could eat from all fields, not just the charitable ones.

And yet, unkindness doesn’t disappear from the story. In verse 9, we are reminded that Ruth faced harassment. Perhaps because she was a migrant. Or because she was a woman. Most likely because she was both.

One midrash comments on Ruth’s first words—“in the days when the judges ruled” (1:1)—and wonders how the people judged their judges. So the commenter responds that a “‘poor’ [judge] is somebody who disrespects his own words” (Ruth Rabbah, Petichta). Examples are a judge who says to be fair but doesn’t act fairly. One who says to take no bribes yet takes them. And one who says not to oppress the widow and orphan but who oppresses them. Here, our story raises this concern for consistency—consistent kindness and consistent responsibility.

It’s a challenge we are all too familiar with. I suspect most have hoped to show kindness in everyday expressions and in political and economic decisions. I know I have. On one hand, it’s easy to see the callousness and hate that emerge in the most extreme examples of unkindness. Perhaps, we can even condemn them without condemning ourselves. And yet, sometimes, these feel too complicated or too distant to address.

In our local lives, similar tensions remain. Anti-Semitism and white supremacy are not new, and maybe their pervasiveness makes it hard to see them or easy to ignore them. But here, showing kindness is far reaching. It might require learning to interpret Scripture in new ways, imagining new ways to organize our neighborhoods, asking if we depict Christ in ways that honor God, choosing confrontation in quick trips to the grocery store when someone in front of us faces harassment. And yet, it is in these relationships that we can show kindness immediately. The possibilities of how we might do so are only limited by our imaginations.

For this work, which is in fact hard work, I take comfort in Boaz’s instruction: “keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped” (v. 9). He reminds me that where we pay attention in our daily lives, we encounter the larger life of our communities. And also that, when we pay attention to the harvest, we are invited into not only the work required but also the kindness promised.

Discussion

• What experiences of unkindness seem most pervasive in your community?
• How do these experiences function on political and economic levels? How do these show up in everyday choices and everyday relationships?
• In what areas of life do you focus your attention on kindness or unkindness?
• In what ways might you choose kindness in places and times when it is opposed?

Reference Shelf

Loving Kindness

It’s been a long few weeks. They’ve been weeks when the forces of unkindness have been especially pronounced. Perhaps this is too easy a way to put it. But among mail bombs, attacks on synagogues, and the movement of 5,200 troops to block the border from migrants fleeing violence.

Kindness in the face of things is what the Scripture calls for, and yet, it’s not always so easy to practice. This story of Ruth meeting Boaz offers us a kind of image of kindness, deepened to see the structural and intersectional ways that unkindness surrounds us.

We encounter this text wrestling with the unkindness, indeed the hatreds, that we’ve seen this past week in anti-Semitism and xenophobic racism.

At its core, therefore, the book of Ruth is concerned with a theology of redemptive self-definition. Redemptive self-definition works toward a fulfilled future, a future that perpetuates the true intentions of God’s covenant. The entire narrative revolves around the interactions between people who are making choices about how to be included as a member of the covenant community. Shall legal stipulations define membership into “the house of Israel”? If so, then Ruth the Moabite would be totally excluded. Who can be a legitimate member of that family? How is that legitimacy to be determined, by hesed, or by strict readings of stipulations in the Law? The book of Ruth stands firmly on the side of hesed. Radically, Ruth reaffirms the true intention of Torah identity in terms of hesed, which must always reflect God’s hesed. God’s hesed redeems incomprehensible circumstances. Redemption trumps recrimination and narrow claims of self-definition that exclude “the other.”

Even if we read the story of Ruth, we also need to hear it, to listen to it as a dramatic performance acting out the message that postexilic prophets attempted to spell out to those who claimed to be members of the covenant community. Covenant identity creates a culture of loving-kindness reflective of God’s mercy and love and is not reducible to stone-carved legalities for all time. The law must be steered toward loving redemption through hesed. The prophet in Isaiah 58 identifies the distinction:

[…]

In many ways, the book of Ruth is a “performed story” of the theology contained within this passage. The purpose of God’s Torah is not to create a cloistered community of exclusivity but to create a community based on a loving-kindness that transforms the foreigner, the widow, futility, abandonment, the land, even the enemy—through hesed. In transforming “the other,” God transforms us so that our “light breaks forth like the dawn”; our healing “springs up quickly.” As the poet in Isaiah makes clear, God protects this path to redemption front and rear!

On a profound level, the story of Ruth provides a living witness of God’s law written on human hearts and not on stone spoken about by Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 31:31; Ezek 36:26). It challenges scribal self-definitions of what it means to be God’s people and opens up to God’s intentions of a true covenant people. A redemptive definition of covenant membership is not abstract but is defined in terms of “the other.” For the story of Ruth, the theological arc of true covenantal identity always bends toward loving redemption of “the other.” On this basis, Ruth’s story beckons Jews and Christians alike to listen to it not only as a beautiful story but also as revolutionary “good news” of how to participate in God’s covenant community.

Kandy Queen-Sutherland, Ruth & Esther, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016) 37–38.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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