Friday, June 1, 2012
Boaz and the 1%
There is a depth of truth in Ruth, which is made so much richer by the fact that the author never comes out and gives "the moral of the story," he leaves it up to us find God at work in His many different and surprising ways.
The book is called "Ruth," and the story is mostly about Ruth, but as I prepared for yesterday's sermon, I was struck by Boaz, and particularly how he compares with our current caricatures of the wealthy elite in our world. Now, while I readily admit that I'm importing modern terminology into this bit of theology, the questions of God, wealth, power, and how to properly align the three are as old as our walk with God.
Boaz bursts on to the scene in chapter 2, and his first words, spoken to the men and women working in his field, are "the Lord be with you." They respond with a hearty "the Lord bless you!" There is a picture of harmony, painted with so few words, of God, man, and circumstances. You see happy workers, a respectful "boss," and most importantly, an honored God. Sadly, we can't seem to find this kind of harmony in our modern conversation about economics and politics.
Our national conversation about the wealthy goes something like this: "they are all rich fat cats who swindled their way to the top and are beating us 99% folks down!" On the other side of the argument, we hear those who say, "He worked hard to get where he is, and you are just jealous!" "God has made Him wealthy because of his goodness and obedience."
Certainly there is a great deal of truth to the sentiment that there is a wealthy elite in our nation, and in the Western world. They are unquestionably using their money to buy influence which allows them to "game" the system in their favor. I don't question the protest motives of the "Occupy" folks at all. What I do reject is the artificial division of 1% and 99%.
First of all, all wealthy people aren't evil. All of them aren't gaming the system. The unspoken idea that God hates the 1% is just as bad a misrepresentation of God as any other statement that tries to identify a particular group that God supposedly "hates." With due respect to those who are trying to affect change through protest, we need to stop demonizing with broad brushes if our goal is to truly lift up rather than tear down.
Second, the idea that the rest of us can be lumped together into one group, the 99%, is a total absurdity. Ruth's situation as a poor widow was very much different than the plight of the man working the fields in front of here in the same way the plight of a man making 60 thousand dollars a year is very much different from that of a man making 60 dollars a year. I think we have allowed this rather silly narrative to continue because it allows most people to blame "the rich" for abusing "the poor" while ignoring any notion that WE have a responsibility to the poor as well!
And just in case you aren't going to rush off and read the story of Ruth, I have to also point out how determined, industrious, and faithful she is! She isn't waiting around to be helped, she is out doing anything she can. I know that it isn't always a popular thing to say, but some of the 99% could, frankly, use a kick in the hind parts!
Back to Boaz. We see a man who recognizes that he has been blessed by God, and who uses those gifts to be a blessing. We are never told how Boaz came to be wealthy and powerful - the author doesn't seem to think that detail is important. What we are shown is a man who goes beyond his culture's minimum standard of generosity to try and care for poor Rachel and her mother-in-law Naomi.
Now, I know some of you are thinking, "well yeah, we know how this story ends, so of course Boaz was generous to Ruth, he thought she was a certified hottie." While that certainly turns out to be true, the fact is Boaz doesn't have to be kind to Ruth to marry her. Heck, he doesn't even have to marry her! He doesn't have to give her or Naomi anything. Ruth is a widow - not just a widow, but a Moabitess and a widow. If Boaz wanted her, he could have simply taken her. She was powerless and he is the very definition of powerful. Boaz, in the very image of God (painted beautifully in Kierkegaard's "King and the Maiden") realizes that love can't be coerced. It can't be forced. Love can't be imparted from a position of authority. Love, in order to be real, must be allowed to flourish of its own volition. What do love and economics have in common? I would hope everything!
Boaz exists in a culture that, at the very least, honors the poor, the stranger, and the outcast enough to create a system of gleaning. It’s that culture that is part of the very nature of a man like Boaz, who then exceeds those minimum standards of generosity in order to show kindness to Ruth. I think our culture was, once upon a time, imbued with the idea that we all owed a responsibility to one another. Unfortunately, it seems excess and greed have replaced responsibility and generosity in our national DNA. If we want real structural change, we have to find our way back to a national conversation that recognizes none of us makes it on our own. Nobody gets rich on their own. Nobody chooses to be poor. Nobody.
What I hope we can learn from the story of Ruth and Boaz is that the real debate about God, money, and power exists on a realm that is higher than our current discourse. If we want to get serious about creating a more just society, we all need to back away from our placards and political hackery and pick up our copies of Ruth. There we will find that God loves the gifted and the giver, the poor industrious widow and the wealthy landowner.
Maybe, if we look hard enough, we can even find ourselves.
Jason Blanton is the pastor of Grace Crossing in Charlotte. This article originally appeared on his blog, http://jasonblanton.blogspot.com/.