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What Will I Get Out of It?
August 31, 2011
Last week I spent a long time studying the fourth chapter of Ruth, the climax to an amazing story. The bulk of chapter 4 is a description of a legal transaction between Boaz and one of his relatives as the two men decide which one of them will take upon himself the role of kinsman-redeemer. This strange transaction, which is eventually completed not with a signature but with the exchange of a sandal, offered me a glimpse into the heart of these 2 men and, from there, a glimpse into my own heart. Let me explain.
You remember the context, I’m sure. Naomi has been left without a husband and without an heir and, Ruth, her daughter-in-law, has asked their relative Boaz if he will become a kinsman-redeemer. If he accepts, he will take all that belongs to Naomi and he will marry Ruth; the first child born to them will not be considered his child, but the child of Naomi and her now-dead husband, Elimelech. This child will not carry on Boaz’s name and family line, but Elimelech’s. Though it is a significant commitment and a significant sacrifice, Boaz is willing. Before he can do this, though, he must see if this other relative, who is more closely related to Naomi, will accept the role.
For that reason Boaz calls this man into a formal legal proceeding. He is a little bit crafty, first telling this man only that Naomi is seeking to sell all the land that belonged to Elimelech. He asks if this man will be willing to buy the land. At least for now he doesn’t mention anything about Ruth.
From a social perspective it makes a lot of sense to act as a kinsman-redeemer. There is great honor in being a redeemer and carrying out that kind of familial duty. It is probably be like being labeled a philanthropist today—not a bad title to carry around.
Financially it makes even more sense. In Israelite culture land was not actually bought and sold as we understand it. Instead, a person bought and sold the use of the land. Then, when a year of Jubilee came around, something that happened every 50 years, the land would be restored to the original owner. But as it happens, Naomi has no heir. When the year of Jubilee comes about, there will be no heir to hand the land to. This means that whoever redeems Naomi will have this land added to his family’s holdings forever. The only ongoing burden from all of this will be providing for Naomi until she dies.
This relative does the math and understands that this is a no-brainer. He declares his intention to be Naomi’s redeemer. All that remains is to speak a few words and set all of this in stone. But then Boaz tells him that there will be one more component to this transaction.
In verse 5 Boaz says, “OK, great. You redeem it, but there is one more thing you need to know. When you redeem this land, and when you redeem Naomi, you’re also going to acquire Ruth, that Moabite woman. Not only that, but you will need to marry her and try to have a baby by her so that child can inherit Elimelech’s land.” This is not a transaction meant for personal enrichment, but one that is meant to serve others.
Suddenly that risk-free transaction isn’t looking quite so good. Suddenly there is all kinds of added risk and responsibility. That land that might have been his forever was only going to be his for a short time—as long as it took for him to raise up an heir for Elimelech. Not only that, but he will have to marry a Moabite woman. Instead of helping him climb the social ladder, this might take him down a few rungs. This has gone from a transaction that will increase honor and wealth to a transaction that will cost honor and wealth. And here is his moment of truth. He has to decide what is most important to him and what his priorities are. Sadly, it seems like he barely has to think at all.
He quickly changes his tune and says that he cannot perform this duty. Not that he will not, but that he cannot. He believes that redeeming this land has the potential to ruin the inheritance he wants his own children to have. He will invest in the land, only to lose it. He will have to provide for Naomi and Ruth when he doesn’t really care for them. He will have to raise up children for Ruth and that will incur all kinds of expense. This is too much for him, so he says to Boaz, “You do it! You take the expense. You do the work. I don’t want it. I can’t do it.”
The text doesn’t comment on his inability or unwillingness, but it doesn’t really need to, does it? What more is there to say? His words have shown his heart. He has shown his loyalty to himself, to stuff, to money, to what is temporary and fleeting.
What I found particularly interesting here is that he says, “I cannot do it.” He does the math and believes that fulfilling this duty or performing an act of great kindness will somehow have negative implications on his life and marriage and family. Let’s be clear—it is no small thing to have to take on Naomi and Ruth and to have a child that will essentially be another man’s; it is a big responsibility with very real costs. But when it comes right down to it, this man is not trusting the Lord. He is short-sighted. He is not trusting that God’s blessings will by far outweigh any expenses and complications he may encounter along the way. His math is done with no view to eternity, with no view to God’s economy, with no view to other people.
The story deliberately draws the contrast between Boaz and this other relative, asking us to consider the difference between them. And what a difference it is. Boaz is driven by love to act in generosity, to bear any cost and to count it all joy. This other relative wants only what is best for him, only what fits his own plans, only what will lead to his own comfort and enrichment.
And as I got to this point in the story I had to ask myself whether I am willing to do hard things, costly things, things that might look like they will ruin all of my plans, in order to serve the Lord. Am I willing to gut my retirement savings in order to care for a friend or family member who needs my help? Or am I only willing to give up what I’ve saved if I receive some tangible gain from it? Is my basic decision-making criteria, What will I get out of it?
I was quickly convicted that there are too many areas in life in which my acts of charity or my acts of kindness are charitable and kind primarily toward me. I’ll serve you if it somehow serves me. I’ll give to you if I receive some tangible reward in the end. But if my serving or my giving interferes with my big plans, if it gets in the way of what I really want, that’s where I object, that’s where I pull back, that’s where I say, “I cannot do it. It’s impossible. It’s ridiculous to even ask.” At too many times and in too many ways, I am like this anonymous relative, this man whose actions earned him no named place in this story, this man who is here to serve as a contrast with Boaz—Boaz whose actions point us to Christ, whose love is evidence of a transformed heart and transformed affections.