Glean What You Can to Nourish Life
2nd in the series Ruth: A Handbook for Christians
As the first chapter of the story of Naomi’s restoration came to a close last week, she and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, from the land of Moab, arrive in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, as you may remember, means House of Bread, and the famine which had caused Naomi to flee with her family, husband and sons, to Moab has come to end; the House of Bread, again, has bread. So Naomi returns home, embittered. Ruth is with her, steadfastly at Naomi’s side.
But to what is she returning? How will she sustain her life? Sure, she’s back where she came from, but without a man to husband her and without sons to work for the bread she will need to eat so she can stay alive. Remember, she’s not living in our time, but hers, as hard as that is for us to hear, and without a husband and sons, she’s vulnerable, without the resources she needs to thrive. How will she make it, she who, in the first chapter, had all that woman of her time counts on to flourish in life taken from her?
Naomi, a woman without a husband or sons, returns home in the company of Ruth, a husbandless immigrant, a stranger in a town whose name means House of Bread. Well, at least the House of Bread has bread again.
You may remember, too, how last week I mentioned what a preacher once told me about what to look for in a text when searching for good news. She said to look for the verbs. The verbs of a story will tell you where to find your life, she said. Let’s look at the story we have before us today and find the verb in which we may find our life.
Glean appears in this chapter of our story 12 times. It is all over the place. In Ruth’s voice. In the voice of the harvesters. In Boaz’s voice. Glean. Glean. Glean. Let’s look at that verb this morning.
Glean means to gather slowly and laboriously or to collect by hand what’s left the ground. Gleaning belongs to the category of slow production, belongs a the category of action which is as far from a mechanized combine harvester as you can get. When you glean you have to get out in the world and stoop between the rows on your knees. There’s no guarantee, either, that for all your labor, your stooping and gathering, you’ll get enough to sustain yourself or anyone else who is relying on you.
As we read in today’s part of the story, Ruth gets out there in the world, follows the hired hands through the fields to pick up what they miss, gleaning what she can so she can bring some nourishment to Naomi. This isn’t going to the grocery story to buy a gallon of milk. This is scooping up grain off the ground that’s fallen off the sheafs of grain gathered by others. This is working for leftovers. Grain by grain.
Ruth is fortunate. She finds a field to glean in which belongs to someone to whom she has a kinship tie through her late husband. The field belongs to a man named Boaz. We will talk more about him next week. Suffice it to say that Boaz is a mensch; he is a person of integrity and honor. Being a husbandless immigrant, Ruth would not have gone out into the fields to glean without an awareness of the danger she would face. Living just outside the margins of kinship ties which would protect her, she is subject to harassment—or worse—out there in the fields alone. Boaz, himself, recognizes the danger she is in, too, and takes steps to protect her, even as he make sure she has something to eat and people with whom to belong.
Ruth is fortunate, too, because her reputation precedes her. In a small town, people know your business almost as soon as you do. The good news of Ruth’s steadfast love for her mother-in-law got around. Boaz is impressed. By end of this chapter, when Naomi reveals to Ruth Boaz’s kinship connection to them and that Boaz might just be the person to do right by them (she calls Boaz one their redeemers), we get the sense Boaz might be the source of more good news. As a close relative, Boaz can be called on to reclaim what Naomi and Ruth lost when their husbands died, namely, a future in which they can flourish and thrive. And, as we will see by the end of the month and the end of this story, that future will arrive when Ruth gives birth to a child by Boaz, a child which will be put in Naomi’s arms and called her own. But there’s more that has to happen before we get there.
Ruth takes what she has gleaned, threshes it, separating the grain from the chaff, and brings it home to Naomi, along with the leftovers from her lunch of roasted grain, which she shares. Now, both women are satisfied; the memory of the famine of bread is gone. But another famine still dogs them. Ruth is still husbandless, and Naomi is still sonless.
Well, as I said last week, nice story, but what does this have to do with us in the world we are living in? The answer is there in the verb, glean.
You see, we are called through our discipleship to Jesus, the Christ, to make nourishing the Naomi’s of the world our goal. We are called to answer this question: where do we go to find nourishment for the vulnerable people of our community? Gleaning is a good way to think about how to answer this question.
First, we can get out there in the world and follow where others have gone and found success in nourishing the lives of others. We can read books. We can read first hand accounts on blogs and websites. We can pay attention not only to what they have done, but what they have missed. We can crowdsource through social media and reach out to a wider audience than just those we know.
Second, we can pick up bits of wisdom from the stories we hear both in the lives of those who struggle to thrive and in the stories of those who find their meaning in helping them. We have to engage with people on the ground and listen to them deeply. We have to hear their frustrations, fears, and joys. Listening takes time. It’s not like driving a combine. This is in the category of slow production.
Third, we have to build relationships with those we find in the fields we are gleaning. We have to be open to reaching out to those we find beside us in the labor which to which Christ calls us.
I invite you this week to name someone whose life you can nourish in some way, whether it is nourishing their body or nourishing their minds or nourishing their spirit. Name that person. Gather what you can from the pros who have done it before you started, gather up wisdom from the stories you hear, and build relationships with those who labor beside you.