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Published Date: January 31, 2004

Published Date: January 31, 2004

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Recognition, Rewards, and Renewal in the Book of Ruth

God has given me a vision for the kind of things he wants to do in the lives of his people, specifically in the lives of women—powerful and priceless things that people have not yet understood fully. I share not just out of gratitude but also out of weakness. I share not as somebody who has all the answers.

Since 1999, I have undergone intense struggles I never anticipated in my Christian life. Before then, everything in my life was moving smoothly. I did not know I was experiencing a calm before the storm. I did not know God was preparing me for a massive upheaval in my life. During the up-heaval, I cried out to the Lord because my faith was so severely tested.

Strangely, on the surface everything looked fine and nobody would have believed I was going through the things I was going through. To most people, it appeared as though everything was going according to plan. I was being blessed left, right and center, but deep down inside God was stirring things up inside me—things I did not even know were there. It was very scary. I did not even know where I could go for support. As the wife of a Christian minister I found it very lonely. I asked the Lord to touch people to intercede on my behalf.

For many of us, it is not culturally acceptable to be vulnerable, especially if you are in a position of leadership. As a minister’s wife, I felt pressure to appear perfect and have everything under control, but I thank God for a few mature friends who knew how to offer support and pray. Moreover, God answered my prayer. In October 2000, a woman from my church told me she had been praying for me for five minutes every day for six weeks. I was so gratified to hear that. Because of this difficult time in my life, I identify with the story of Naomi and Ruth, who both endured severe upheaval.

Over time, I have realized Ruth illustrates how God deals with us as individuals. He pursues us passionately and lovingly as individuals, and he calls us to partner with him personally. It is an individual call because we are all very special and unique people. Ruth is a story that points to the gospel in a very unique way for each person.

The book of Ruth is set in troubled times. The book of Judges sheds light on its socio-political context. In those days there was no king in Israel, and people did as they pleased. People chose how they would worship, what they would worship, whom they would worship, and when they would worship. Women were particularly vulnerable socially and economically. The only safety net women had was through marriage and the birth of sons. The climate in many African cultures, and specifically in Nigerian cultures, is very similar. If you are not married, you don’t have status, you are not very important. That trend has crept into the church. People are thought to be living an unfulfilled life if they are not married. There is something wrong with you if you are not married. You need to be prayed for, counseled, and sometimes a couple of demons might need to be cast out too—just in case. In Ruth’s days, as in many societies today, women were regarded as objects to be acquired and discarded at will. Just like today, Ruth’s world was a problem-rid den world. But I think one of the central messages of this book is that God can and does work out his purposes in the midst of a troubled world, especially for those who respond to his call.

The book of Ruth is a story of a search, a two-way search. In the first five verses of chapter 1, we find out that the search started with physical hunger. Elimelech and his family left Israel driven by their own hunger. To cope with famine, they moved in search of food. They had a legitimate need— hunger—so they went to Moab to rebuild their lives.

In the same way, we have hungers. Very often our hunger cannot be seen. Unfortunately hunger often leads us to leave the Promised Land, and move away from the very place where our hunger can be satisfied. Sometimes our hunger drives us to satisfy our needs in the wrong places. In my life for instance, I have had a deep hunger for a healthy relationship with a father figure. This need arose from the dysfunctional relationship I had with my own father. I thought I was a very tough little girl because I was not going to let people rule my life or make me dependent on them. But the Lord made me realize that I was a very hungry person because of my dysfunctional relationship with my father, which left a deep void in my life. It took me a long time to realize I had gone to the wrong places in different ways to satisfy that hunger.

Unfortunately, when Elimelech and his family sought the cessation of their hunger outside the Lord, they exchanged one level of deprivation for another. So Naomi found herself with no husband and no sons. In that culture, that was the greatest tragedy that could befall a woman. All of Naomi’s safety props and identity props were taken away. She had no more identity. She had no more status. She and her husband had gone in search of food; they had gone in search of fulfillment, of making a decent living, and she ended up with nothing. Sometimes we look for things in the wrong places, and we lose ourselves. We lose our ability to live authentic Christian lives out of a true center. And we may begin to feel that God does not care or that he is against us. Naomi returned empty and defeated to Judah telling the women, “Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. The hand of the Lord has gone against me.”

What are you hungry for? Where do you go to meet your hunger? Sometimes we go to very legitimate places, get good jobs, and seek relationships. These are not bad in themselves except when we are looking for them outside of God’s plan for us. But the good news is that our hunger points are also hope posts. They are posts that the Lord can use to teach us something. He has something that he wants to do at the very point of our hunger. My hunger for a father figure was a hope post where the Lord wanted to show me he would provide the intimacy I sought through unwholesome relationships and empty fantasies. I realize more and more that only God can fully and truly satiate the deepest longings of my heart.

In verses 6 and 7 of Ruth, we see that Naomi decided it was time to leave Moab because she heard that the Lord had been good to his people in the land of promise her family had left behind. Perhaps in this, we see that God is also searching. We are not the only ones searching; God is too. In the story of Ruth and Naomi, we see God searching for two unknown, ordinary women to whom he could reveal his love and give a place in human history. He is still searching with passion and persistence and often he is searching for what is hidden from view—the real you. Not the person that other people see, but the very real you. A person even you may not recognize.

The amazing thing is that God was able to reach through layers of restrictive cultures and traditions. He was able to reach out to Naomi and Ruth, two women who were living outside of the Promised Land, away from God’s chosen people. There are several striking similarities here between many patriarchal cultures today and that of Naomi and Ruth. Women were not valued outside their associations with men. They were seen as instruments to be used for men’s needs and purposes. God stripped away at those layers of culture and tradition. It was quite threatening, not only for Naomi and Ruth but also to the social order.

God used the fact that Naomi’s identity and security props were gone to position her and Ruth where he wanted them to be for his eternal kingdom purposes. God permitted her husband to decide to leave her culture and family behind and settle in a new land. Those who have left one neighborhood for another or one land for another know how unnerving that can be, how destabilizing that can be, especially when the choices are placed in someone else’s hands. The difficulty of that was compounded with the fact that God allowed Naomi’s husband to die, the greatest source of esteem and worth in a woman’s life at that time.

God also allowed Naomi to be stripped of a vital “insurance policy” that she could hold on to, the security of having sons. If you are from an African culture you will understand that without sons in a patriarchal society, a woman is nothing, she has nothing. For instance in some parts of my country, women do not inherit anything from their fathers. They do not even inherit from their husbands when their husbands die. Their husband’s property goes to brothers and uncles—anybody else except the wives. This is true to this day. Without her husband and without a son, Naomi was as good as dead. She could have committed suicide, and it would not have meant a thing, because she was already dead with the death of her husband and sons. She had nothing else to live for—that is why she asked to be called Mara. She was not exaggerating; she was not stretching the point.

In Nigeria today there are many women, widows especially, who have labored and built up a family and a home, but once their husband dies they lose everything. Sometimes even their children are taken away from them. In parts of Nigeria, the only security a woman has in her home is the birth of sons, because her daughters have no place in their father’s home. Even in contemporary society women and their work are often undervalued. They frequently work without recognition and reward. Therefore, for women in particular, a critical question arises: what is the source of your self-esteem? What props in your life may prevent God from getting to the real you?

The Lord will prepare his people who are willing to suffer and embrace their pain in order to discover who they really are. It is an ongoing process. We never will arrive. We can never say I have been a Christian for so many years and so I’ve arrived. And so, Naomi and Ruth embark on the journey back to Judea. From verses 8 to 20 we see that return journey, and we see a ray of hope, because God is doing some good things for his people. I hope you can hear God telling you that he can and will do good things for you in your life, in your circumstance, no matter what struggles you are going through.

As I was going through the book of Ruth, one of the things the Lord reminded me of is that the battle to affirm women for service in the church is not just an ordinary battle, it involves spiritual warfare. In Genesis 3:14, the Lord told the devil he would put enmity between the devil and the woman. There is no word of God that is said lightly or for no reason. A Jewish man referring to the Holocaust once said, “It is very difficult to sit in the palm of God’s hand,” and that is where women are sitting, in the palm of God’s hand. It is an awesome place to be.

The place of pain where Naomi found herself was back where her hunger began. The point of your need is the point where God wants to meet you, because he has something for you there. Many of us run away from our pain; we run in the opposite direction of our pain; we do everything to silence our pain. Sometimes we try to ease it. Sometimes we get noisy doing many busy wonderful things for the Lord in the ministry, but we are actually running away. Are you running away from something? What are you running away from? God is saying that the point of your hunger is the point where he will meet you. Naomi and Ruth discovered that it is not an easy road; it is a costly road. The road inward, the road back to the Promised Land, is fraught with dangers. At the outset, the prospects were very, very bleak. Naomi had no husband, no sons, no future, and no hope. She gave in to a spirit of negativism and bitterness, and she said, “Call me Mara.”

Although Ruth acknowledged that the prospects of finding another husband were bleak, especially in Israel where she was regarded as a foreigner, against all odds she chose to entrust herself under the shadow of the wings of the Lord God of Israel. We see that in Ruth 1:16 and 2:12. Ruth found that there was something in the character of God and in the promises of God that she could cling to— something that transcends the hard realities of difficult circumstances. Facing up to the hard realities of life need not imply negativism. It entails looking away from the reality of impossible circumstances unto God and saying, “Lord this is where I am, but I know you can do something here that will change it and turn it around.”

One thing that is clear in the book of Ruth is that God was able to work to bring about his meaning and purpose in Ruth and Naomi’s lives despite the barriers and limitations that were placed on them in a patriarchal society. The barriers placed on women by the church and society have given me a lot of pain over the years. I have felt a lot of rage and anger about these barriers. But recently the Lord has been telling me to remove my eyes from the barriers. He is showing me that he can work despite barriers and through barriers. God does not have problems; he has plans. I’ve been very amazed at the ways God has been using women beyond the confines of institutional limitations.

Ruth was ready to abandon herself to God. She recognized her inability to succeed on her own. Many people say that Ruth was casting her lot in with the Israelites, or with Naomi because Naomi was the mother of her husband. It seems to me that she was not casting her lot in with the Israelites as much as with the God of Israel. The God of Israel was her focus. The God of Israel was her anchor. The God of Israel was the recourse that she had when everything about her was in total upheaval, when everything about her was gloom and darkness.

I think this message is very relevant to our society today, when the world is so insecure, when nothing is sure, when there are so many barriers and prejudices that limit and inhibit. Our God is saying that if we will step back and abandon ourselves to him, he will show us a way beyond our imagination.

I do not think God is calling us to pacifism. God is calling us to a proactive faith and understanding of what he can do with people who abandon themselves to him. In the book of Ruth, we have two women, Ruth and Naomi, who have the same experience but different reactions. But God is kind and merciful; both Ruth and Naomi come to experience exactly what God is calling them to in the end.

I love chapter 2 of Ruth because it relates to a vision I had many years ago. In that vision I saw a road lined with stones—white, shining stones—and I saw a friend of mine named Chineku. She was running and jumping along this road. I did not understand the vision. When I questioned God about the meaning of the vision, he led me to read Psalm 144:12: “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars, cut for the building of a palace.” Then I heard the Lord telling me that he is preparing an army of women. He is polishing them and preparing them for work in his kingdom that only they can do. There is something that only women can do because they are women. God is polishing and preparing you through your trials and struggles, through your life experiences. Those things you think are so bothersome and confusing God is using to prepare you to do a work that only you can do. Chineku is an Igbo word meaning “God is our Spokesman” or “God speaks for me.”

The Lord was showing me through that vision that he will speak on behalf of his daughters; he will be their spokesman for the job and the task he is calling them to do. In the story of Ruth, I see Boaz—a typology of Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer—as her spokesman. The Lord speaks on behalf of his people. This is spiritual warfare; it is not going to be easy; it is not going to be something that we just walk through. God starts with a very few, but he is going to use you to spread a revival across the world. Perhaps you do not have any conception of how far and how deep it will go, but God is calling upon you to do your part, no matter how insignificant you think that part is.

The issue of spiritual warfare has implications beyond the influence of male power and the discomfort of redistributing rights and privileges. It is far deeper than that. The implication is that of satanic displacement. There are things that Satan has been able to hold in place because he has been able to hold women down in a certain place. These things will be released when women are released. If you can just touch the awesomeness of that statement, you will tremble. You will find the need to hurry and prepare yourself. More then ever before, may God prepare us.

I have this habit of writing out scripture passages on little pieces of paper, and I put them in a box. Every now and again I pick a verse. A few days ago the Lord led me to pick a verse and it said, “Mary hurried to prepare herself.” I think part of the message the Lord has for women of this time is “hurry and prepare yourself” because something is about to give and God is going to use you. This is not the time for self-doubt and fear. It is certainly not the time for dilly-dallying and busying ourselves with mundane affairs. It is a time to take up arms in a way that we have not taken them up before. But the good thing about this warfare is that it is not a call to militancy and rebellion, but it is a time to partner with God in a way that will bring down strongholds so that men and women will be set free to be all that God intends.

The role of Boaz as a pre-figure of Christ, the Kinsman Redeemer, begins to unfold in chapter 2. In this chapter, we also see that with the support and encouragement of Boaz, Ruth is equipped and enabled to partner and participate in the Lord’s vineyard. God is trying to enable and empower his women to participate and partner with him in his vineyard. Verse 1 tells us that Boaz was a man of standing, and that is really important because in verse 13 we are told that Ruth is a woman of no standing. This contrast is mirrored regularly in the society in which we live. It is a world of dualisms, a world of haves and have nots, the privileged and the under-privileged, the rich and the poor.

Boaz was a man of standing on several fronts. We know he had political status as an elder because he sat at the city gates. Women were not allowed near the city gates. He had economic status as a wealthy landowner and an employer of labor. Ruth, on the other hand, is a woman of no standing. She does not even have the standing of a servant. As a female Moabite, she was at the bottom of Jewish society. As a widow, she had no security.

Yet Boaz, as a kinsman redeemer, takes notice of Ruth. It is a beautiful portrait of the way God notices you. God notices the work you do; God notices you on every front, in every place you serve. He does not measure what you do but how you do it. Earlier in the story we saw the way Ruth took refuge in the God of Israel. She looked at what was available, and she decided to go and glean. This was Israel’s way of providing for the destitute; they were permitted to go into the fields and glean after the workers. Ruth looked at her options and did the work that was available to her, without pride or scorn.

Ruth reminds me of some women I have come across recently in Nigeria in the course of my doctoral research. I have been astounded because despite the apparent hopelessness and imprisonment of many of these African women, they have done unimaginable things. I met one woman who realized there were not many ministry opportunities for her in the church. She knew she had gifts, and she started teaching the domestic servants of the women who came to church. After several months one of the women asked her, “What are you teaching those girls? They are marvelous at home. They have stopped being stubborn.” This woman kept receiving positive feedback, and many of the women began to send their house girls to the service, just because of what she was teaching them. As the people in the church began to notice her ministry, she was given more opportunities to teach. Now she is a lay leader in the Anglican Church.

In my research, I also met many women and women’s groups who are active in missions support. Seventy percent of mission work around the world is funded, supported, and carried out by women. Very often, these women are content to do all the drudgery work. They carry their “mobile pulpits” and go to the places where there are prostitutes and drug addicts, and they are bringing people to Christ. They are doing a great work for the Lord. Just like Ruth, they are doing the work before them, providing an oasis of service in the Lord’s vineyard with amazing results. I think we also can learn from this: do whatever work our hands find to do, and do it for the Lord.

The actions of Boaz exemplified what Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer, does on our behalf. Boaz called Ruth to belong in his vineyard. He called her unto himself, the lord of the harvest, to participate. But he also called her to walk alongside in fellowship with God’s people. There are no lone rangers in God’s vineyard. God calls us to work in partnership and in fellowship with him as well as other brethren, women and men alike. There is such beauty in this because we need each other. We are weak, and we need to reach across cultures, across races, across genders. We need each other because God designed us in such a way that together we are strong.

Boaz told Ruth to stay with his women and work alongside them. This is what God is calling us to do: to work alongside those he has given us to partner with in the ministry. Not only did Boaz call Ruth in verses 8 and 9 to belong to him and work with his people, he also created space for her in his vineyard. Regardless of whether we are male or female, God also crafts a space specifically suited for the expression of our gifts, abilities, and needs. God knows what we need and how we can be fulfilled. It is not just about God wanting our service; but in the context of our service, he also meets our needs and fulfills our potential. For women this is truly a message of hope and encouragement. God speaks on our behalf to those who would oppose us. Christ our Kinsman-Redeemer—Chineku, our spokesman—calls us to belong and to serve, and he speaks on our behalf against those who would oppose us. In so doing, we have a choice between fighting for our rights as women through a combative spirit or by trusting ourselves to the Lord and his purposes. It is the Lord’s work. It is the Lord’s vineyard, and it is the Lord who will empower with wisdom and strategy to fight and win. It is the Lord who will create the space for us.

My instincts are to fight. I am the kind of person who tends to lash out, but I’ve learned from Christians for Biblical Equality that this is a warfare that will be carried out in the absence of aggression. There is no combative-ness—only a great deal of grace and goodwill to those who do not share our opinion and to those who hurt us. I see that this grace permeates all CBE publications and pronouncements. It has ministered deeply to my soul. This is the spirit of the warfare that we will conduct, and it is that spirit that will lead us to victory.

The Lord our spokesman often invites us, as Boaz invited Ruth, to uncharted territory. Sometimes he is going to call us out of the comfortable places where we have been serving and take us to places we did not think we would ever be able to serve. God is calling us to enlarge our coast, just as Boaz told the young man not to rebuke Ruth even if she left off gleaning and went directly to the sheaves (2:15). God is calling women to go beyond the traditional boundaries. God has the right as the Lord of the harvest to call women into non-traditional places. He is doing so, and he will continue to do so in ever increasing measure.

Imagine how the men to whom Boaz spoke felt. They must have wondered what was so special about Ruth. There is a temptation facing all those in positions of power and privilege: the temptation to keep those anchors tightly protected from outside invasion. Perhaps it was the same temptation the disciples felt when they looked at Jesus and wondered why he was talking to the Samaritan woman. In Nigeria, one major challenge is for educated elite women to be able to build bridges across the divide of class and to work with rural and urban poor women. We all try to preserve the privileges we have built up for ourselves as a society. But Christ calls us today to be willing to step across those divides. We need to bridge the gap between gender and people groups so that we can work holistically, comprehensively, and powerfully in the Lord’s harvest.

The Lord is the supreme commissioner and spokesman for the women who work in the church. The Lord of the harvest has the right to commission any worker for any task according to his will. As it says in 1 Corinthians 12:11, the Spirit distributes gifts according to his will. What can you do in your society, in your church to address the exclusion of minorities and underprivileged people? What has been your response to the limitations around you? What has been your motivation for wanting to serve? Are you willing to look inward and ask why, and find out where God wants you to enlarge his coast?

There are two points I want to make about chapter 3 of the book of Ruth. From a modern perspective perhaps chapter 3, where Ruth proposes to Boaz, seems like some sort of a love story. But it is much more than that because Boaz says in verse 10, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” It would have been understandable for Ruth to have wanted to marry a younger man, but Ruth submitted to an overriding purpose.

The point I want to make here will counter American notions about love, where it seems as though romance and the right to enjoy your marriage, your spouse, and your home is valued beyond duty and commitment. I have discovered through the joys and pains in my own marriage that, contrary to popular belief, a good marriage is not really about how much I can enjoy my marriage. There is an overriding purpose in what God wants to accomplish. I think this is the message that God wants to convey to a needy and dying world.

I am not saying by any means that God does not want us to enjoy our marriages, but I am saying that we have elevated our feelings about our marriages so much that when things are not working out, it is very easy for us to opt out. Instead, maybe God wants something very different and is asking us to trust in his overriding purposes that extend beyond our abili-ty and right to enjoy our relationships and marriages. Ultimately, in focusing on God, rather than our feelings or our partners, we discover a richer and fuller experience of life.

God’s eternal purposes are built into the bothersome and bewildering details of our lives. Sometimes it takes a spirit of persistence and perseverance to discover that. The good thing is that when we go God’s way we often find that the oasis we were looking for has been there all along. Sometimes we have to go in the opposite direction of where our instincts are taking us.

I had a dream many years ago. In that dream I saw a staircase—it was a two-way staircase. One of the stairs was going upward, the other was going down. I kept on trying to go up the stairs, but a man was pointing downward telling me, “No come this way. This is the way.” I did not want to go down. I wanted to go up. I thought that was the way to success. When I woke up from that dream, the Lord said to me, “The way up is the way down.” I did not understand until years later that the stairs going up represented the way of the world. Pursuing those things that we think will really satisfy us will not necessarily bring us the fulfillment for which we yearn. Sometimes the way the world rejects is actually the way the Lord is calling us to go. The Lord may be calling you to a place that looks repugnant and repulsive, but God is saying that if we follow him, he will take us where we wanted to be and even higher.

In Ruth 4 everybody gains. This is the beauty of the Gospel story. The beauty of the story of your search is that it is the story of divine exchange and a story of divine love. In verses 1-11, we find out that there is exchange on the physical level. This mirrors the exchange between Christ, our Kinsman-Redeemer, and us; it also happens on a spiritual level. When we respond to God’s call, he gives us divine life in exchange for death and decay. In the case of Boaz and Ruth, Boaz ran the risk of jeopardizing his own name, and his own esteem—just as Christ suffered the loss of heavenly glory, privilege, and status by taking up human life and laying it down for us. Ruth’s primary kinsman would not marry Ruth because it would jeopardize his own estate. But Christ was willing to jeopardize everything so that each one of us could have a divine exchange, a place with Christ in the richness of his glory.

On the other hand, what did Ruth have to offer? You may think that Ruth had nothing to offer to Boaz, but the Bible tells us in Ruth 4:11 that the elders prayed “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel.” Through this I think the Lord shows us how women are builders in his house. Not just on the practical physical level through the call to motherhood, which is a divine calling; God also calls women to mother the church of Christ, birthing children into God’s kingdom. God calls men and women into spiritual parenting, building the church of God. As men and women work together alongside one another, we are called to serve as mothers and fathers in the kingdom, building the kingdom of God through discipling, mentoring, friendship; whatever God calls us to do. God is calling us to partner with him; there is something we have to offer to God, something that God values. God values our partnership much more than we realize. He recognizes our work just as Ruth and Naomi gained recognition as builders of the house of God.

God is the true assessor of our work and value, not society, not even the church. God values us far beyond whatever the world and even the church do. Remember the widow’s mite, and how Jesus said the woman had put into the offering box more than the men and all their riches. The Lord wants us to give what we can, and he is the one who assesses. In chapter 4, we also see that Naomi finds rest and renewal in her old age. Furthermore, contrary to the fear of losing his estate, Boaz was rewarded with a place of prominence in the genealogy of Christ.

The message is very clear here: In Christ’s vineyard, there is room, recognition, rewards, renewal, and rest for all—in every circumstance and through all the stations and seasons of life. These are not just for the young or for the old, for black or white, for men or women, but for all. The call is for all. The rewards are for all. The recognition is for all. The rest is for all. All that is required of us is that we trust him with our situation and step aside to allow him to step in.

I believe the Lord is speaking to certain people who are hurting—hurting because they have been absorbed oppression, even on an unconscious level. The Lord is saying, “I recognize you.” Some of us have felt the need to apologize for who we are. Women feel they need to apologize for being called to be teachers and preachers. I have also come across men who feel the need to apologize for being men because their gender aligns them with the “oppressor class.” But the Lord does not ask us to apologize for who we are but to have the courage to embrace what he is calling us to do. This is the hour that God is calling women and men to step out of the confines of gender stereotyping to embrace new and better ways of working in his vineyard. My prayer is that the Lord will impress deeply in your heart those things that he is calling you to do. But more importantly, I hope he impresses you with a sense of belonging to him first and foremost, and a sense that you are highly valuable to him. God values your partnership. He will sift your motives each step of the way. He will sift your motives even if you serve a glass of water. God will sift your motives because God is interested in who you are more than in what you can do. God is interested in what motivates you and in bringing out the best in you, even more than the things you are able to accomplish. And this is the beauty of the Gospel story pre-figured in the book of Ruth. God searches through the pains and pangs of human existence to bring worth and wealth to our lives.