At the crossroads of redemption


In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

So ends the book of Judges, the book of history during whose era Ruth’s story is set. The books to come make it clear that to have a king is a dangerous thing, for kings will take your sons to fill their armies and your daughters to fill their harems, will take your land as their own to fill their banquet tables and your money as their own to fund their wars. So you would think that *not* having a king would be a good thing - and indeed in some ways Scripture is very much about not having a king. But it is also very clear that without a vision, the people perish. Without any sort of guidance, with no moral leadership, when everyone does just exactly what they want, what comes to the surface is not utopia but destruction. 

It’s a world we can recognize, a world created by systemic abuse of human free will. This is the world into which Ruth enters, looking for redemption.

Now redemption in Ruth doesn’t yet have the kind of spiritualized connotation that it does in our day. Redemption in Ruth is a bit murky, historically - there’s a lot scholars debate about what’s described in today’s reading and especially in the description of some of the economic logistics we left out today, a lot of detail that doesn’t quite fit together - but the gist of the matter is that redemption in Ruth’s world is a very practical matter. 

Redemption, in Ruth, is not a matter of avoiding wrath in an afterlife that is uncertain and doesn’t really play much role in Jewish thought to begin with. Redemption, in Ruth, is a matter of ensuring that the redeemed has their basic needs met. In much of our translation the word go’el is translated as next-of-kin, which it is; and in others it is translated as one-with-the-right-to-redeem, which is also correct. Because the role of the next of kin is to ensure that the widowed and the orphaned and the down and out get taken care of. This is where Boaz and the unnamed nearer go’el part ways - when the right to redeem is the right to have more land, the other go’el is down, but only Boaz is interested in ensuring Ruth and Naomi’s protection. So Boaz, in the end, holds the relationship of redemption.

Redemption, in Ruth, is linked with well-being, and sustenance. And redemption in this sense can feel incomplete and unsatisfying. There is nothing to tell us that Boaz protected all the young women in his fields from being harassed, or that because Boaz redeemed Ruth the Moabite, the historically bitter relationship between Israel and Moab was no longer embittered and the people were reconciled. There is nothing to tell us what the ongoing relationship between Boaz and Ruth was like as husband and wife. There is nothing to suggest that because redemption occurred, the world was perfected. This is not that kind of redemption.

But neither is it unrelated. Redemption in Ruth is still related to the redemption of the world. It is the same word Job uses to say “I know that my redeemer lives”. It relies on the same chesed as the redemption of the world that only God can complete. Chesed is translated throughout Ruth and throughout Scripture in many ways: loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, kindness, righteousness, justly faithful, steadfast loving-kindness. Chesed is one of those words that is impossible to translate properly, because it means all these things at once. Chesed is the quality that most characterizes God, and it is the quality most praised and most prized among God’s people.

Chesed is what we have lacked in the news headlines from this week, and too often. There is no chesed when our country participates in the violent colonization of Central America, creates a refugee crisis there, and then responds with further violence against those who seek asylum in our country. Chesed is what is absent in attempts by our government to erase trans identities. Chesed is what is missing when police shoot another black man in St. Louis, this time asleep in his car when the police approached. There was no chesed when white Christian supremacists shoot black people in the grocery store or Jewish people in synagogue.

In 2011 an anonymous writer coined the term “stochastic terrorism”: the use of mass communication to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In other words, as a friend put it today, you heat up the waters and stir the pot, knowing full well that sooner or later a lone wolf will pop up and do the deed. The fact that it will happen is as predictable as the fact that a heated pot of water will eventually boil. But the exact time and place of each incident will remain as random as the appearance of the first bubbles in the boiling pot.” There is a lot of power in this sort of stirring.

But I want to suggest tonight that this is a power that does not belong to terror alone. 

This sort of stirring, this sort of bubbling, this is also how hope and courage and chesed operate. This is also how the Holy Spirit operates: stirring the pot, heating the waters, lighting a fire beneath us.

And as I read Mark in the light of Ruth tonight, I wonder: What if this is where we locate the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? This notion of unforgivable blasphemy doesn’t come up elsewhere in Scripture and isn’t explained here, so we should be very leery of anyone who claims to know exactly what this mysterious sin is. The whole rest of Scripture suggests that there is nothing that cannot be repented of, nothing God cannot reconcile with us. And I do not have any special secret knowledge that others do not have. But I do wonder, tonight: is this the crossroads between chesed and blasphemy? What if blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is located not in the refusal in that moment to believe Jesus about who he was, but in the refusal to be in relationship with him as they encountered him? What if the blasphemy is not because they said specifically that *Jesus* had an evil spirit, but because they looked at a human being made in God’s image being authentically who God made him to be and called it evil?

What if the unforgivable sin is the sin of othering, the sin of cutting ourselves off from one another, of looking at the person who is different from us and saying of them “He has an unclean spirit” as a way of pushing away what they have to say? What if it’s unforgivable not because God has from afar placed it in a different theoretical category, but because it prevents us from reconciliation with God and one another, which is to say, from entering into the reign of God? That is, what if the only thing that can keep us from redemption is insisting that our redemption has to come at someone else’s expense? 

The witness of Scripture and history suggest that it is not God who struggles with redemption, but us. Redemption, the full and unbounded expression of chesed, is what God is known for. It’s what God does. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. And yet, God asks for our consent, our participation, our willingness to be redeemed and to participate in redeeming one another.

There is no one clear path redemption takes, carefully lined, on which it is easy to stay. This is not how redemption works - it is not that neat and contained. There is only the prayer, day after day, that the Holy Spirit will stir us up, help us to see those who have been sent to journey with us, move us to chesed for them, and will finally, when the day comes, usher our strange little groups wholesale into the kingdom. As Hebrews puts it, “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day of his return drawing near.” Let us not tire of working for the day when all people can hear, from God and from one another, “Welcome home. You are safe now. Rest.” 

Elizabeth Scriven