"Where does Kindness Begin?"

October 17, 1993 Message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Ruth 2:1-23
(second in a series)

Ruth and Naomi, Phillip Ratner, 1998. The Safad Bible, Israel Bible Museum.

Nobody likes being taken advantage of. The church I pastored before this one was in a location easily accessible to vagrants. They knocked upon my door fairly often. Each had a sad story to tell, and a hand outstretched. I remember one, who said he was traveling with his son from Florida to a job opportunity in Cleveland. According to him, the fellow they were riding with snuck out on them, taking their luggage. And so here they were trying to get back home. "Could you help me, Reverend?"...

Nobody likes to be taken advantage of... I guess I was just slightly suspicious of the 9am smell of liquor on his breath. We talked through his options, how much a bus ticket for two would cost. I called a local restaurant and told them to expect a man and a boy for breakfast on me. Then we went to pick up his son. The man seemed a bit reluctant... There was no boy at the bus station. "Now, where did he go," the man wondered. So I told him to find his son, go to the restaurant and come back and see me. Talking around, I discovered this man had gotten off the bus alone. So I called the restaurant and told them to just expect the man. I didn't think he'd return to my office. He didn't...He did visit the restaurant, however. I also called a few other local churches to prepare them for another pan-handler...

Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. I know I don't. Sorting out the needy from the undeserving is, at best, an imprecise science. Sometimes it seems our decisions as to who needs and who doesn't are wrong more often than right. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of, whether by a pan-handler we don't know, or by someone we know all-too-well. Where does charity begin? Where does kindness start? Some folks say that in order to receive kindness you need to show kindness. And you know, they're right, for the most part. After all, didn't Jesus say, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."? But where does mercy begin? In order to know what it is to be merciful, to give charity, to show kindness, don't you have to experience it first? Where does it begin? Where does kindness begin?

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Last week we began our series on the Old Testament book of Ruth. Here we find the story of two women who experienced a great tragedy in the loss of their husbands. It is the story of an older woman, Naomi, who had nothing to look forward to in life, and yet she kept on going, doing what had to be done. Eventually she was able to voice her bitterness and emptiness to the very One who needed to hear her complaint, her lament, ... God. In addition, this the story of her young, daughter-in-law, Ruth, who also grieved. And yet in her grief Ruth refused to turn her back upon her mother-in-law. "Where you go I will go," she vowed, "even to death and beyond." The book of Ruth is also the story of God, who heard Naomi's cry of bitterness and emptiness. The answer to her tribulation, as is often the case with God, stood beside Naomi... in the person of Ruth. Have you ever thought of yourself as God's answer to someone else's prayer?

When we left these women last week, they had arrived in Naomi's home town of Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. In this morning's scripture we find Ruth doing what needs to be done. You have to eat, otherwise you starve. The law handed down from God through Moses provided an opportunity for the less fortunate. Harvesters were supposed to leave some of the crop behind for the poor to pick up, to glean. And since Ruth is poor she goes out to do just that. Yet even in her gleaning, she takes one step beyond the law. She first asks permission. Nowhere in the law is this a requirement, that a poor person must ask permission if they go to glean a field. Gleaning was a right granted by God, perhaps something we should remember today. Ruth, though a foreigner in the land of Israel, apparently knew the law of the land, and yet she went beyond it, asking the overseer for permission.

Along comes the owner of that field, a man by the name of Boaz. He takes note of her at work, and is impressed by what he sees. He is also touched by what he has heard, for the tale of Ruth's kindness to Naomi, her strong commitment to her mother-in-law, has reached his ear. Boaz responds by going beyond the law himself. No where does it say he must provide protection to those who glean his fields. Nowhere does it say he must provide food and drink. But he does. Kindness has multiplied. And Ruth, who must herself have experienced the emptiness and bitterness of grief, she cannot believe it. Kindness has multiplied. And so she asks, "Why have I found favor in your eyes when I am a foreigner?" Why have I received your kindness, your mercy, your charity? Boaz then tells her what he has heard through the grapevine about her own kindness, her own mercy, her own charity toward Naomi. And he gives her a blessing. "May a full reward for all you have done be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." ...Sometimes the wings of God are expressed in the outstretched hands of men and women. Kindness is multiplied.

The rest of the chapter recounts the further multiplication of kindness, how Boaz made sure Ruth was well fed; how he instructed his overseer to make sure she was able to glean a large amount. When Ruth returned home that evening Naomi could hardly believe what she was seeing and hearing. Amid her emptiness and bitterness kindness was multiplying. Without knowing who he was, Naomi blessed that man who took notice of Ruth. And then, when she discovered he was Boaz, a relative, she blessed the Lord. The hand of God was becoming visible to her. The same woman who, as we noticed last week, finally was able to voice her accusation against God for all the bad that had fallen upon her; This same woman we now see thanking God for his kindness which "has not forsaken the living and the dead." Kindness has multiplied, and she knows who is responsible.

At this point we leave the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz until next week. Of course, several questions remain. Like, for instance, where does kindness begin? After all, nobody likes to be taken advantage of. And, what were Ruth's ulterior motives? Did she know Boaz was wealthy and thus targeted his field, to take advantage of an elderly bachelor? What of Boaz? Today's headlines of abusive teachers and priests may make us suspicious of this man's motives. It is a fact of life that whenever kindness is multiplied, it is often mistaken for something else.

People look for signs to tell them which way the wind is blowing that they might take advantage of it. Take the crowds that followed Jesus. They witnessed a miracle when Jesus multiplied 5 loaves of barley bread and two fish. But they mistook it for something else. "When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain." (John 6:15) The crowds totally missed the miracle of a boy sharing what little he had, and it becoming enough to feed 5,000 people.

Likewise is what might we miss in the Jubilee story of Ruth. Imagine what Hollywood would do with this book. Who would play Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi in a TV Docu-drama? And what about the talk shows? Or the tabloids? Inquiring minds want to know. Unfortunately, we often see only what we want to see. We can look at Ruth and Boaz, like we view most folks - suspicious of their motives. Because nobody wants to be taken advantage of. But, contrary to our suspicions, what we witness in this story is the multication of kindness - hospitality, if you will.

Kindness was multiplied primarily because two people went beyond the letter of the law. That is what the law was made for. It's a beginning place, not a final destination. As Jesus said, he came not to throw away the law, but to fulfill it, that kindness, hospitality, (or, as this Old Testament word is often translated: "steadfast love") might be multiplied. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son..." and God's kindness was multiplied.

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Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. Would that every person who comes to glean from our fields, who comes with their hands out, be like Ruth. Word of her own kindness had reached Boaz before her arrival in his field. How could he not respond with kindness? It seems to me relatively easy to give to such people as Ruth. You know where your gift is going. You know something of the character of the person receiving the gift. Most times it just doesn't happen that way.

And yet I wonder. If we are right in assuming that God was behind the scenes, transforming Naomi's bitterness and emptiness to a blessing in the fields of Boaz, then maybe we might be on target in seeing God behind the scenes in each person who comes our way. The man who came into my office that day with liquor on his breath and a lie in his heart - was God behind the scenes working toward some sort of transformation in his life as well? The pessimist would say that the man got his handout. And that is true. But where does kindness begin? Does the situation need to be perfect in order for us to show kindness? The least I did was to make sure that man had a solid meal in his stomach. Not a great kindness, mind you. But it was one way of responding to the great kindness that God has shown me. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Where does kindness begin? I think those of us who know and love Jesus Christ, know where it begins. In terms of the human hands that are often called to serve as God's wings, where does kindness begin? Does it matter? All I know is that kindness multiplies. That much I have gleaned from the fields of the Lord.

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Next week we continue this Jubilee story of Ruth, in what could be a very troubling episode. There is great danger that everything could go wrong in a midnight encounter. Will we see the hand of God at work even when it is dark outside? Will Justice be done? Come and find out. Shall we stand and sing a Jubilee song, for all who glean from the fields of the Lord?

(hymn suggestion - "God of our Life, through all the circling years" - Hugh Kerr/Charles Purday)

Series on the book of Ruth:   message #1,   message #3,   message #4

1993 Peter L. Haynes

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