Strangers on Holy Ground: Assignment & Reflection for October 30, 2011
The Bible has differing views of strangers and these differing views will seem rather like our own issues today in many ways. How to treat migrants is part of how to be a people. Should we focus on a single way of being a people, or shall we share out some values and practices and invite the development of diverse ways of being a people together? How to treat migrants also says a lot about how we understand God. Is God only interested in single way for a single people, or is God the God of everyone with diverse ways of understanding and approaching God? If, by the time Paul shows up, we have a general agreement that God is the God of everyone, the question then turns to its second part, which is does God have different expectations of us or the same ones? I hear echoes of these concerns every time I tune into the American immigration debate, and for good reason. Part of dominant American culture (still Protestant, after all these years) is the story of a people coming to the Promised Land (and, like the Promised Land, it was already inhabited). Assimilation changes only migrants and assimilationists usually want to control the number of migrants to a small enough flow to not require the dominant culture to change. Even if you accept that – and I am an accepter of diversity and change being mutual, based on faith, history, and human nature – the United States is already past the point of having to change the dominant culture.
The Book of Ruth is a story that argues against keeping out strangers, a story that shows what is possible when chesed is a key practice in human relations. Chesed is part of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Chesed is loving-kindness, compassion, commitment in covenant (not contract). Ruth is set at the time of Judges, a time of tumult when the people are learning how to be a people again, this time not in slavery and not wandering through the desert, but living together as a nation. But Ruth was probably written during the first wave of exiles returning from Babylon. The choice of setting, if written at the end of the exile, serves as an argument then: we’ve had to learn how to go from being strangers to being a people before and we can do so again, if we stay loyal to chesed. Ruth then stands in contrast to the anti-stranger build-higher-walls-and-keep-them-out texts of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ruth invites us to a story of faithful risk, not knowing how things will turn out, and not putting our trust in walls or rulers or rules, but in trusting both God and the power of chesed.
Nobody in the Book of Ruth knows things are going to be okay. Their life experiences are that life is unsure and often sad, painful, and disappointing. The book begins in famine in the land of bread, with the death of families and future, protection and fulfillment. No point along the way is it sure that love, kindness, of fulfillment will prevail. Naomi does not know Ruth will stay. Ruth does not know if Naomi will allow her to stay with her. Orpah does not even know what will await her in her mother’s house. Naomi and Ruth do not know how they will be received. Elimelech’s debts are so high his land must be sold, which means Naomi may have to seek selling herself too, for what protections would she have? Ruth and Naomi are surviving by gleaning, which is a very unsure endeavor. The edges of fields are weedy, often less productive, where the wild animals have been foraging, and, in times of famine, filled with people who, like Naomi and Ruth, have no choice but to glean to survive. Boaz is surprised Ruth seeks to marry him – he is, apparently, not a catch to anyone else. Ruth, although she’s captured Boaz’ eye, is apparently not so sure either. The kinsman with first claim to Elimelech’s lands sets aside that claim so he does not have to marry Ruth. None of the choices are sure. None of them are easy. But, the story tells us, choosing to live in chesed leads down the path of restoration.
Each day we have choices. We have choices to be open-hearted and choices to be self-focused. We have choices about how to be a people. Shall we choose to be a people that appreciates and celebrates the gifts migrants bring, for once, we too, were strangers? Shall we choose the way of chesed?
Assignment: Read The Book of Ruth