August 7, 2016

As a whole, this human comedy suggests a theological interpretation of feminism: women working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in them. Naomi works as a bridge between tradition and innovation. Ruth and the females of Bethlehem work as paradigms for radicality. All together they are women in culture, women against culture, and women transforming culture. What they reflect, they challenge. And that challenge is a legacy of faith to this day for all who have ears to hear the stories of women in a man’s world.
–Phyllis Trible God and The Rhetoric of Sexuality

Ruth 1:15-18
Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’

But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for
Wherever you go, I shall go,
wherever you live, I shall live.
Your people will be my people,
and your god will be my god.
Where you die, I shall die
and there I shall be buried.
Let Yahweh bring unnamable ills
on me
and worse ills, too,
if anything but death should part me from you!”

Seeing that Ruth was determined to go with her, Naomi said no more.

The Book of Ruth and Naomi Marge Piercy
When you pick up the Tanakh and read
the Book of Ruth, it is a shock
how little it resembles memory.
It’s concerned with inheritance,
lands, men’s names, how women
must wiggle and wobble to live.

Yet women have kept it dear
for the beloved elder who
cherished Ruth, more friend than
daughter. Daughters leave. Ruth
brought even the baby she made
with Boaz home as a gift.

Where you go, I will go too,
your people shall be my people,
I will be a Jew for you,
for what is yours I will love
as I love you, oh Naomi
my mother, my sister, my heart.

Show me a woman who does not dream
a double, heart’s twin, a sister
of the mind in whose ear she can whisper,
whose hair she can braid as her life
twists its pleasure and pain and shame.
Show me a woman who does not hide

in the locket of bone that deep
eye beam of fiercely gentle love
she had once from mother, daughter,
sister; once like a warm moon
that radiance aligned the tides
of her blood into potent order.

At the season of first fruits, we recall
two travellers, co-conspirators, scavengers
making do with leftovers and mill ends,
whose friendship was stronger than fear,
stronger than hunger, who walked together,
the road of shards, hands joined.

**********

Phyllis Trible wrote in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, regarding the biblical book of Ruth, that it takes “ears to hear the stories of women in a man’s world.”

Jesus said that often, “those who have ears, let them hear!”

What does that mean, “those who have ears?”

Two people can hear the same story, but those who “have ears” can hear its deeper meaning. Those who have ears can hear what is not being said as well as what is being said. Those who have ears have perspective that others because of their privilege and circumstance may lack.

I volunteer at Portland’s community radio station, KBOO. I produce my podcast there and now and then they will air it, if the particular show isn’t too religious. If you haven’t been to the station on Southeast Burnside and 8th, you ought to make a visit sometime. They will be happy to show you around. It is a volunteer-based station. There are some staff, but the programming is for the most part done by volunteers.

The station runs on donations, taking no corporate money. Here is its vision statement:

KBOO fearlessly strives to deliver powerfully just, lovingly eclectic, vibrantly provocative grassroots content while honoring our growing radical revolutionary legacy.

KBOO commits to providing an inclusive, empowering atmosphere to decolonize mass consciousness with humility and integrity, making a lasting and evolving impact on our communities.

KBOO embraces a creative climate that emphasizes fun, truth, beauty, joy, peace, love, and justice.

All programmers are required to attend an orientation. I went a couple of weeks ago. We learned about Portland’s and KBOO’s history. History, as we know, is not just history, purely objective. History is interpretation and perspective. The storytellers of history shape the history. Those with privilege have written most of the history books. The Bible was ultimately constructed by those with privilege.

We talked about privilege. There is a truism regarding privilege.

If you don’t see it, you have it.

Privilege means that one’s condition conveys status which is access to power and agency. Irrespective of personal attributes, skills, or even beliefs about oneself, privilege automatically opens doors and shuts others. Privilege constructs glass ceilings. It looks clear, but if you are not privileged you hit a ceiling. No one constructed the ceiling. No one built the edifice of privilege.

It is there, nonetheless. Sometimes it is written in to law, mostly it is reflected in unwritten and unspoken ways in which we behave. Privilege is often unconscious to those who have it, but very conscious to those who do not have it.

During one of the exercises we examined twelve categories of privilege. For each category in which we were privileged we added an orange dot to our nametags. For each category in which we were not privileged, we added a green tag.

I don’t know if I can recall all twelve but here are a few:

Male. Check. Orange dot. I think that is pretty clear-cut. If any of you guys don’t have ears to hear how being male results in privilege, I am sure there are other human beings in the room who could count the ways.

White. Check. Orange dot. Persons of color receive a green dot. This is a case of privilege often unconscious by those who are white because often there is a lack of interaction between white people and people of color.

If you are middle class and higher you get an orange dot. A rule of thumb for that dividing line between middle class and below. If you pay less than half your income on rent, you are privileged.

Heterosexuals get an orange dot. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender individuals get a green dot. Pretty obvious.

If you are Christian, you get an orange dot. Anything else including another faith tradition or none is a green dot.

If you are between the ages of 25 and 45, you get an orange dot.

If English is your first language, orange dot.

If you were born in the United States, orange dot.

If your body type is close to the ideal you get an orange dot. That is if you don’t wear clothing that requires Extra Large or Extra Small, you are privileged in our society.

If you have a disability you get a green dot. Those without a disability have privilege.

Those are some. At the end of the exercise, my nametag was mostly orange. I am privileged in almost every category that we can name. All that means is that I have the luxury to go through life and not have to think about it. That is I don’t have to think about it for my survival. Those who are not privileged do not have that luxury.

I wasn’t the only one. There were others with mostly orange tags. There were some with plenty of green dots as well.

What happens in these sorts of exercises is that those with a lot of privilege tend to be defensive or take it personally and feel guilty or otherwise put out. They have to be reminded that privilege does not mean fault. They also need reminding that feeling bad isn’t helpful. Say it. Get it out. Get over it.

In fact those with privilege as they develop “ears to hear” that is, as they develop consciousness about privilege and about their own privilege can offer important contributions to the “Beloved Community” as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. phrased it.

If our privilege has given us access to a level of influence and power, then that influence and power can be used to help raise consciousness about privilege. That influence and power can provide a vehicle for another’s voice,and ultimately be used to change laws, structures, and attitudes.

Of course, there is complexity to all of it. We may be privileged in some areas and not in others. We are always needing to become more aware, more conscious of the way privilege functions to elevate some and marginalize others.

An advantage to not having privilege is perspective.   If you have a disability, you don’t have to learn about the privilege associated with being able-bodied. You know it. You have “ears to hear” so to speak. You have perspective.

When we know about various aspects of life in which we are privileged and those in which we are not, we can better gauge when we need to listen and when we should speak. If we are privileged in certain ways, we need to do more listening to those who have perspective. If we have perspective because of our lack of privilege, then that perspective needs to be heard.

Back to the question, “what does it mean, ‘those who have ears?’”

It means that those who have perspective have ears to hear within a story or a history or a news event or a community gathering or a civic meeting, how what is being said or not said bolsters up the already powerful and privileged.

To use an illustration from KBOO. KBOO recently constructed another production studio. It is nice and needed as more people take advantage of producing audio there. But there is a problem. It wasn’t known until after the fact. It has a problem that even this highly conscious group didn’t recognize in time. It would have been recognized had someone with this perspective been on the planning for its construction.

The door to the studio is too narrow to allow access for a wheel chair.

When the old room was remodeled for the studio, the door wasn’t widened. There was no ill intent. No one decided to consciously keep people with wheel chairs out of the studio. No one thought about it. We weren’t conscious about our ableist privilege.

If you don’t see privilege, you got it.

The lesson that is always needing to be learned is to gather diverse perspectives as we engage in decision-making that affects everyone.

So what does this have to do with the Book of Ruth?

The Book of Ruth is a short story. It is a story in a patriarchal Bible in which women are agents. Here is the plot.

A man named Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, leave Judea for Moab because of economic circumstances. They have two sons. The two sons marry. The wives of the two sons are Ruth and Orpah.

Some time passes. Elimelech and both sons die. Naomi the Jew, and Orpah and Ruth, the Moabites now make up the family. Naomi realizes she needs to go back to her homeland in order to survive. In a patriarchal culture, it is dangerous to be a woman alone.

Her daughters-in-law want to go with her. She tells them to stay and find husbands. Orpah agrees to stay in Moab. Ruth, however, clings to Naomi and says what we might hear at weddings:

Wherever you go, I shall go,
wherever you live, I shall live.
Your people will be my people,
and your god will be my god.
Where you die, I shall die
and there I shall be buried.

So Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s ancestral home. The women of the city greet Naomi and Naomi tells them she is to be called, Mara, which means bitter, because YHWH has treated her bitterly.

We learn that Naomi has a relative named Boaz, a rich man. By coincidence (or divine providence) Ruth goes out to glean in a field and the field happens to belong to Boaz. He notices her, speaks with her, promises that she can glean and that she won’t be harassed.

Ruth tells Naomi what happened and tells him the man’s name is Boaz. Naomi is delighted blessing YHWH for the change in fortune. Ruth continues to glean with the women of Boaz and live with her mother-in-law.

Some time passes. Naomi comes up with a scheme. Because it is winnowing time on the threshing floor, Ruth will have a chance to seduce Boaz. Naomi tells Ruth that after Boaz has had enough food and drink and fades off to sleep that she should go an “uncover his feet” and lie down. “Uncover his feet” is a euphemism. Enough said. We are keeping it all PG.

Boaz wakes up in the middle of the night, and there is this woman. After they exchange pleasantries, Ruth comes out and asks for what she wants. As male nearest of kin, Boaz is obligated to take Ruth as a wife.

It all looks good. Boaz is impressed that Ruth chose him rather than a younger man. But there is a plot twist. There is another man closer in kin to Naomi than he. This guy gets first chance. Boaz says, he will let him know. If this other guy wants Ruth, then good, if not then Boaz will marry her.

So Boaz meets with the men of the city outside the gate. The relative is there and Boaz addresses him among a number of witnesses and says that Naomi wants to sell her field. Apparently, she has her husband’s property. The relative can buy it if he wants. The twist is that Ruth comes with the deal and of course, any children would belong to Elimelech’s house and would inherit the land.

That is too complicated for the relative and he declines and Boaz thus marries Ruth.
This is a man’s world. Men own the property which include women. The men are making these deals. They make their statements to the Lord who has blessed Boaz and who will make a name for himself.

But we know, of course, the actors are really the women, Ruth and Naomi, and divine providence working through them. Ruth has a son and presents him to Naomi, her grandchild. For the men at the gate, he is the offspring of Elimelech, but the other women of Bethlehem do not speak of it this way. It is similar to a Greek chorus. This is what the story really means for those who have ears to hear. The women say to Naomi:

“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

Then the women name the child, Obed. The narrator tells us that Obed is the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The story of Ruth and Naomi is a story of survival in the midst of patriarchy. We have a person without privilege on two crucial levels, a woman and a foreigner in Ruth’s case, who is also a widow. Naomi, who has lost a husband and two sons, faces despair. How are they going to make it?

How might we hear this story? I will mention some of the complications and not elaborate. We have the storyteller, anonymous. What is this person’s perspective? Is this a woman’s story or a man’s story? How did this story get in the Bible and why? How did it slip by the patriarchal canonization process? Was it made male enough to slip through? Perhaps all the guy talk at the gate helped. The conclusion of the story details the ancestry of Boaz, all male and his offspring, male down to David. Maybe that is how it got in. Patriarchy made it about Boaz.

But those with ears to hear, with perspective, hear that the agents are Ruth and Naomi. It is their story and yet even it cannot be told without the patriarchal framing.

Then we as inheritors of this story are also influenced by our own patriarchal traditions through a long line of privileged male teachers and preachers, like me. How the story should be interpreted? How it should not be interpreted?

Then, of course, there is YHWH. YHWH never acts or speaks. People speak about YHWH. Naomi, and Ruth, Boaz, the men at the gate, and the women of Bethlehem. They all talk about God doing this and that. But we only know what God does through those who talk about God.

Who do we trust to speak about God? Is it the men at the gate who refer to Ruth as simply the woman and make it all about God blessing Boaz and his house? Patriarchy now. Patriarchy tomorrow. Patriarchy forever.

Or do we trust the women of Bethlehem who tell Naomi that the Lord has blessed her and has restored her life and that her daughter-in-law is more to her than seven sons, a symbol perhaps for the ideal of patriarchy?

I want to say the Bible is a complicated book. It empowers and it disempowers. It is a book of privilege and a book when heard with ears that hear, challenges its own patriarchy.

Naomi’s story and Ruth’s story are in the Bible. They are not model women as seen by patriarchy’s model of model women. Ruth and Naomi are their own agents. Their story, in the words of Marge Piercy, is about how women must “wiggle and wobble to live.”

But how the women claim for themselves, God, the Divine Name and activity among them is also a key to their survival and their hope. They see God at work not through the trappings and structures of patriarchy and inheritance and sons and property, but through the divine machinations that challenge and upset those structures even while existing within them.

It is as if the storyteller is saying with a wink:

Let the men think it is about them. It makes them feel like men.

But we know to whom the song of the women of Bethlehem is directed. It is directed toward that Spirit of life that enlivens the courageous hearts of these women who through their mutual loyalty and devotion, make a world for themselves and their descendants.

A Spirit available to all of us who have ears to hear.

Amen.