Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

Q.  Do you know a prayer I can say before studying the gospel of John?

I think it’s an excellent idea to pray for understanding before reading and studying the Bible.  Paul explained to the Corinthians that “the things that come from the Spirit of God . . . are discerned only through the Spirit.”  These include the Bible as the word of God, so it is always wise to pray for discernment and illumination from the Holy Spirit before approaching the Scriptures.

One model prayer is found in the Bible itself, in Psalm 119:  “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (“Law” here is torah, or the “instruction” found in God’s word.)  When I was a pastor, I used to pray this prayer every week just before I started studying the passage that would serve as the text for my sermon.

I had not thought of saying a special prayer for a particular book of the Bible.  But that’s another excellent idea.  There are many passages in the gospel of John that could be turned into prayers for understanding that book.

For example, the prologue to John says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”  This refers to Jesus, the incarnate word of God.  But it could also apply to the written word of God, so you could pray something like this:  “Dear God, as I read and study this book, may the true light give light to my mind and heart.”

To give another example, later in the gospel Jesus says, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  You could turn that into a prayer and say, “Lord Jesus, whose words are spirit and life, may they be spirit and life to me as I read and study them now.”

But maybe the best part of the gospel of John to turn into a prayer would be the purpose statement at its end.  Most books of the Bible include a purpose statement somewhere, and the one for this book is:  “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” You could pray, “Dear God, as I read all these things that have been written about Jesus, may I come to understand and believe more and more that he is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing, may I have life in his name.”

God bless you as you read and study the gospel of John!

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Really?

Q.  Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  Are we supposed to take him literally?

It’s often claimed that when Jesus said this, he was engaging in “hyperbole” or intentional overstatement (exaggeration, if you will), a device that rabbis often used in his time.  We do see Jesus employing hyperbole in other instances, for example, when he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  If that is the case here, then Jesus would be saying, “Okay, I don’t literally mean for you to go all the way and pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, just try to keep them under better control.”

But I wonder whether we shouldn’t take him a bit more literally.  The key is in the word “if.”  I think Jesus might be calling the bluff of people who say, “I just can’t help it, my body responds automatically and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  For example—“I just had to look at that pornography, it came up when I was searching for something else (really, really), and once my eye locked onto it, I just couldn’t look away.”

What if a person who made that claim took Jesus literally?  They’d have to admit that even if this truly were the case, they could still keep from sinning by plucking out their eyes—if they really wanted not to sin.  But taking Jesus literally actually would force them to admit, “All right, it’s not my eye that’s causing me to sin, it’s my heart, which needs to change.”

Similarly for a person who said something like, “I just had to take that money, it was left right there on the table with no one watching it, and before I knew it my hand had scooped it up.” If that really were the case, the person could still keep from sinning by cutting off the offending hand—but of course the hand is not to blame, and taking Jesus literally forces us to admit this.

So perhaps this is not just an overstatement or exaggeration that we are supposed to dial back a few degrees, but an astute and literal observation designed to make us look at our hearts and wills rather than blaming our bodies for the wrong things we do—since, as Jesus observes, we actually could do something about our eyes or hands if they really were responsible.

“Give everything you have to the poor”–wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Q. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”  If we as his followers actually did that, wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Your question illustrates the value of an important principle of biblical interpretation: “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  In other words, just because a character in a biblical narrative—even Jesus—says or does something, that doesn’t necessarily set an example or precedent that everyone who wants to follow Jesus has to imitate.  Instead, we need to see what (if anything) the narrative itself says explicitly about whether the statement or action is meant to be imitated, what more implicit indications there may be about this in the immediate context, and how this particular passage compares with others in the Bible.

In this case, we may observe that Jesus doesn’t tell everyone he meets to give everything they have to the poor.  In fact, only a little bit after the incident in the gospel of Luke where Jesus meets this “rich young ruler,” he meets another rich, but corrupt, man named Zacchaeus.  Convicted by Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance of the need to change his life, Zacchaeus announces, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus doesn’t respond, “Only half?  Cough up the rest, you slacker, if you really want to follow me!”  Instead he declares, “Today salvation has come to this house”—in other words, Zacchaeus has shown true signs of repentance and devotion.

Elsewhere in the Bible people are told to make good use of their wealth, administering it wisely and generously, rather than simply giving it all away at once.  Regarding the wealthy members of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, for example, Paul told Timothy, after warning strongly against the love of money: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  Note that this is another way to have “treasure in heaven”!

So why the difference?  The narrative makes no explicit statement that limits the instructions Jesus gave the “rich young ruler” to his case alone.  But there is an implicit statement in Matthew’s version of the incident that helps explain why Jesus spoke to him the way he did: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  In other words, having to give up his wealth was a “deal breaker” for him when it came to following Jesus.  Sensing this, and seeing how devoted he was otherwise, Jesus challenged him to let go of the one thing that was holding him back from joining wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God.

Wealth does not pose the same obstacle for everyone, and that is why Jesus’ words here should not be universalized.  However, there is still a universal quality about them, because in any given person’s life, there may be something that holds them back from wholehearted kingdom service, and they must be willing to part freely with it if they are to “follow Jesus” in the truest sense.

For example, in my work with students and other young adults over many years, I’ve seen that a romantic relationship with someone who isn’t interested in following Jesus often presents such an obstacle for a person who would otherwise make a tremendous contribution to the kingdom.  The obstacle might also be an indulgence someone doesn’t want to give up, or the approval of other people, or a comfortable life (even if not a wealthy one).

So while we might not all be called to sell everything we have and give the money away, we are all called to forsake anything that would keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Jesus and the rich young ruler. Unknown artist, Beijing, 1879.

What not to expect from the sermons in your church

Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited haven’t gone very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

In my first post in response to this question, I described what I thought was reasonable and fair for a person to expect from the sermons in their local church: that they be original (not pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color), biblical (based on a passage carefully worked through), coherent, and challenging.  Now let me share some thoughts about what a person shouldn’t necessarily expect from the sermons in their church, in the hopes that this will help you be more open to some particular churches near you than you might be otherwise.

Let me begin with a story.  When I was no more than a few months into my first solo pastorate after seminary and graduate school, a longtime member asked to meet with me.  She took a few minutes to describe how she listened to Charles Stanley on television on Sunday mornings before coming to our service, and then she got right to the point:  “I wish you would preach more like Charles Stanley.”  (I thought to myself, “I wish I could preach more like Charles Stanley!”)

But an interesting thing happened after that.  Several months later, I was speaking with this same woman again, and she admitted, “For some reason, I now enjoy listening to your sermons just as much as to Charles Stanley’s, and I get just as much out of them.”  I knew that the reason wasn’t that in those few months I had somehow caught up in preaching ability with this naturally gifted speaker who has years of experience before a national television audience.  There was a different reason, which I’d like to explain by way of an analogy.

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it’s “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”  But there’s another definition that I find just as meaningful:  “A sacrament is the community bearing witness to God’s work in an individual life.”

When you commit yourself to following Christ, for example, you don’t baptize yourself.  You share your testimony of faith with the leaders and members of your local church, and when they are convinced that your commitment is genuine, they will baptize you.  If you feel called to the ministry, you don’t ordain yourself.  You make the case that you are called before the leaders of your church and of the other churches it is in fellowship with, and likely after a period of testing and training, they will ordain you.  Similarly you don’t perform your own wedding, or eat the Lord’s Supper all by yourself.  In all these sacramental instances the community of Jesus’ followers is bearing witness to God’s work in individual lives.

A sermon can be thought of as a “counter-clockwise sacrament,” that is, an instance when things flow in the other direction:  A sermon is an individual bearing witness to God’s work in the life of a community.  When preparing a sermon, or a series of sermons, the pastor considers carefully what God has been doing in the life of the community (discerned by walking as a shepherd among the people and sharing their journeys of faith), and then chooses a biblical passage or book that will speak to that activity, encouraging the people in the progress that has already been made and challenging them to press on further.

I think the woman who was such a big fan of Charles Stanley came to appreciate my sermons just as much as his not because they were delivered with equal polish and eloquence, but because she sensed that they were speaking to and about the life of faith we were all living together in our church.  She saw her own journey depicted and addressed in my sermons, and she felt right at home in them.

I think this is what you can and should reasonably expect from the sermons in your local church.  But you will need to become part of its ongoing shared life before you will hear your own story being told in the sermons.  Perhaps there’s a church you’ve visited whose people and programs you really like, but you’re just not so sure about the sermons.  Well, an awful lot of local church sermons will suffer by comparison with the Tim Keller podcasts you’ve been listening to at home.  Let’s face it, there aren’t too many Tim Kellers or Charles Stanleys out there, and it’s not fair or reasonable to expect any given local church pastor to preach and teach at that same level.  The purpose of preaching is not to give the parishioners a Bible school education from the pulpit—there are other times and places to get that kind of instruction.

So I’d encourage you to give such a church a fair try, particularly if the sermons seem to have the potential to meet the basic expectations I outlined at the beginning of this post.  You may find before long that a “counter-clockwise sacrament” is bearing witness, every time you hear a sermon in this church, to the life you’ve come to share with those people, and you’ll feel right at home.

Help! I can’t find a church in my area where the sermons have any depth!

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Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited don’t go very deep in their preaching.  I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.

My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.

I think I can address your concerns from the “other side of the table,” so to speak, because I was a pastor myself for over twenty years.  In this post I’d like to affirm some of the things I think you can legitimately expect from the preaching at any church you attend.  In my next post I’ll describe some things that may not quite be realistic expectations, which I hope will help you recognize where you may indeed find a good church home in your new community.

•  First, I think you can and should realistically expect that the sermon will be the fruit of the pastor’s own personal engagement (in many cases wrestling!) with a biblical text that God has led them to preach on.  In other words, the sermon should be an original effort, based on diligent study, prayer, and reflection—not something pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color.  Pastors need to heed Paul’s admonition to Timothy:  “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

•  Next, I think you can also realistically expect that the sermon will have some real depth to it, both in its approach—working exegetically through a passage, explaining its natural parts sequentially in light of their original language, culture, context, and audience, and noting present-day implications—and in its content:  it will fulfill the admonition in Hebrews, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

•  I think it’s also fair for you to expect that the sermon will stick to the point and communicate a clear and consistent message.  Yes, individual observations can and should be elucidated with pertinent illustrations.  But pastors are not fulfilling their callings if their sermons are typically rambling and incoherent, frequently straying from the main point (assuming there is one) into irrelevant and superficial topics.

•  Finally, as you say, I think you can reasonably expect that the primary effect of the sermon on you will be to challenge you—to greater godliness, to more devoted service, to more effective engagement with the culture, or something along those lines.  It will give you a “growing edge” to live out in the days ahead.  The essential purpose of the sermon should not be to entertain or to indoctrinate.

I’ll follow up on these thoughts in my next post with some reflections on what we might not realize we should actually not expect from the sermons in our home church.

Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

 

“Property of Jesus” baseball cap by CafePress

Q.  I’ve heard you relate how you once went to church and when the first words out of the worship leader’s mouth were something like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” you felt like shouting back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  I have the same frustration.  My pastor often gets sidetracked into talking about sports during his sermons.  Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?

I can think of at least two good reasons to talk about sports during a worship gathering of Jesus’ followers.

For one thing, sports provides many illustrations of the perseverance and dedication that are required to live as followers of Jesus.  The Bible itself models using sports as a metaphor in this way.  In writing to the Corinthians, for example, Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”  Paul wrote similarly to Timothy, “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.”  And Psalm 19 even celebrates God’s creation by comparing the sun to “an athlete eager to run a race.”

A second legitimate use of sports, as I see it, is to “contextualize” the gospel by situating the message of worship and preaching within the milieu in which the hearers live.  When I came to pastor a church in the city where Michigan State University is located, at first I didn’t know any better than to wear my favorite yellow fleece jacket with blue jeans to informal gatherings, thus inadvertently donning the maize-and-blue colors of its arch-rival, the University of Michigan. Some people had such a hard time with this that I had to swap the yellow fleece for a green-and-white MSU sweatshirt, signaling that I was identifying with the community and its popular culture. This set people at ease, creating receptivity and an openness to my ministry.  I believe that carefully chosen verbal references to sports in worship and preaching can signal the same kind of intentional identification.

But this can easily be taken too far. We have to be careful not to use the spiritual authority behind worship and preaching to suggest, even implicitly, that God is on the side of one team and its fans and against other teams and their fans.  I like the answer a priest from Notre Dame gave when asked what God would do when Notre Dame played another Catholic school like Boston College, with the priests at both schools praying that their team would win.  “In that case,” he said, “I think the Lord would just sit back and enjoy a great football game.”  We need to convey this same sense of divine neutrality (and divine interest in a great game, as both teams strive to do their best) when we talk about sports.

I think the greatest danger is to imply that being a fan of a certain team is somehow a legitimate defining aspect of a person’s identity.  The spiritual authority behind worship and preaching can convey this message as well, if the local sports team is absorbed as part of the faith community’s identity.  Sometimes I’ll watch a game show on which the players are asked to say three or four defining things about themselves.  Very often they’ll say what kind of work they do, mention their spouses and children, and then say, “I’m also a big fan of such-and-such a team.”  I believe that unless a person is actively involved in promoting a team’s efforts in some practical manner, it’s a dangerous illusion for them to allow their fandom to become a defining aspect of their identity, when they really have nothing to do with how the team (or their favorite NASCAR driver, etc.) performs.  It’s perhaps even more dangerous for a community of Jesus’ followers to let this happen, because then they’re allowing an idol to share the place of honor that belongs to Jesus alone.

This is what I felt happened in the worship service you heard me describe attending.  It was actually Palm Sunday, when we would expect the worship leader to call out something like “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” and have the people respond, “Hosanna in the highest!” to Jesus.  Instead, the worship leader extolled the recent success of a favorite sports team.  I really was tempted to shout back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?”  But that would have been disruptive and disrespectful of the spiritual authority of the worship leader, so I didn’t shout anything back.  But I thank you for your question, which has given me the opportunity to share these reflections.  Sports is one of the greatest idols of contemporary American culture and we need to be very discerning about its presence and influence.

Does the “sovereignty of God” mean that God is responsible for everything that happens?

Q.  I recently heard it said that the “sovereignty of God” means that nothing ever really happens by chance; rather, God is responsible for everything that happens.  What do you think of that?

The notion of “sovereignty” has to do with freedom to act.  We speak of a nation as being “sovereign” if it can conduct its own affairs without being restricted by outside powers.

Consequently in the Bible the “sovereignty of God” usually refers to God’s rule over all the kingdoms of the world, as expressed, for example, in the statement repeated several times in the book of Daniel, “The Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”

In Christian theology, this idea is applied more broadly to God’s unrestricted freedom to act to accomplish His purposes.  For example, in his book The Attributes of God, A.W. Pink explains, “Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases.”

Personally I have no problem with this.  (In fact, I find it very reassuring!)  I would be careful, however, of extending the idea, as you heard done, to claim that because God can do anything He wishes, then God is responsible for everything that happens.

One website I came across in writing this post claims, for example, that “the sovereignty of God is the biblical teaching that all things are under God’s rule and control, and that nothing happens without His direction or permission.”  I agree with the first half of that statement, but not the second, which I don’t feel follows necessarily from the first.

Why not? For one thing, there would be a serious moral problem with God being responsible for the many evil and tragic things that happen all around us.  It would be very difficult to reconcile that with the Bible’s portrayal of God as good, loving, and just.

But there’s also a logical problem.  Just because God is an agent with unlimited freedom and power to act, that doesn’t mean that God is the only free moral agent in existence.  Humans and other spiritual beings, I believe, also have at least some freedom to act, so that what we encounter in our lives may be the result of their activity.  I think that God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes—that’s one important way I see God exercising His sovereignty to bring about His desired ends.  This gives us hope that even in the troubles and tragedies of this life, God can be at work for our good and for the ultimate advancement of His kingdom.

Beyond this, some of what we encounter in life may be simple chance.  I think God has built enough freedom into the world that this can be the case.  The Bible seems to talk about this at times.  There’s this famous statement in Ecclesiastes:

The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

And Jesus himself invoked the concept of chance in his parable of the Good Samaritan:  “Now by chance a priest was going down that road . . .”

However, the way to make the case that the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean that nothing happens by chance isn’t by collecting individual statements like this from throughout the Bible.  Rather, as I said before, we may simply observe that just because God acts with unrestricted freedom, that doesn’t mean that God is the only moral actor in existence, and that God may have built so much freedom into the creation (as a reflection of His own attribute?) that things really can now happen “by chance.”

I picture God out there saying, “Let’s see what happens next.  I’m sure I can do something great with it.”

Is it realistic for James to expect us to consider our trials “pure joy”?

Q.  The book of James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Isn’t that an unrealistically high standard to expect us to meet?  I mean, does anybody really feel nothing but joy when they go through trials?

Let me say first that I think you’ve correctly understood James’s meaning when he says we should consider it pasan charan when we encounter trials.  I think that “pure joy” or “all joy,” as many versions translate the phrase, should be taken in the sense of “nothing but joy,” as in the NRSV and NET Bibles.  (Mounce’s translation has “sheer joy,” with the same meaning.)   Some other translations say things like “consider it a great joy” or “an occasion for joy,” but as I see it, that’s taking something off a statement that’s pretty unqualified.

So is it also unrealistic, and not true to the experience of even the most mature and committed followers of Jesus, for James to expect this?  No, because he isn’t saying that we should feel or experience “nothing but joy” simply on account of our trials.   He gives an explanation of what we should be so joyful about:  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

In other words, we can be joyful in an unqualified and unrestricted way, even in our trials, because we recognize that God is going to be at work in our lives through them to bring us to maturity—to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” as Paul puts it in Ephesians.  We can rejoice because our trials are not thwarting God’s purposes, but actually advancing them, if we respond to them in faith with perseverance.

I might also add that the “joy” envisioned here is not so much a feeling as a reckoning, a decision to look at things in a certain way so that we concentrate on their value rather than on their cost.

And so I think it is realistic for James to ask us to choose to view our trials in this way and consequently to cultivate the qualities of faith and perseverance that will allow these trials to be avenues for God’s continuing work in bringing us to maturity.  And when we see Christ’s character taking deep root in our lives—well, that does bring nothing but joy!

Would the original recipients of the book of James have read it through out loud?

Q.  In our small group we’re using your guide to biblical wisdom literature to PEJstudy the book of James.  We have a question about the first session for the book [Session 21 in the guide], in which you have us read all the way through James out loud.  Is this really what the early communities of Jesus’ followers who were sent the book would have done when they received it?  As you say, “it’s not really a letter at all” and “it doesn’t develop like one.”  So would these communities have treated it like the other actual letters they received, which we know they read out loud in their gatherings?

Of course I can’t say for certain what these early communities would have done, but I believe that they would have read the book of James out loud in one of their worship gatherings, just as they would have done for a normal letter, even though, as I explain, James is actually “a collection of sayings and observations about life, written in the same stream of wisdom teaching that flows through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.”

I suspect these communities would have done this in order to give everyone an overview of what was in the letter, so that they could later return to particular parts of it when questions or issues arose that specific teachings addressed.

I try to highlight the character of the book as a collection of wisdom sayings and teachings (which I say are probably “summaries of, or excerpts from, messages that James gave in the synagogues of Palestine”) by instructing groups like yours, when they do this read-through, to “have people take turns reading the individual teachings that make up the book.” (I explain how to recognize them.)  By hearing these various sections read by different voices, group members are enabled and encouraged to see them as distinct teachings that nevertheless, when taken as a whole, present a coherent view of what it means in practical terms to live as a person of “faith” (James’s equivalent of the “fear of the Lord” in Proverbs).

It sounds as if your group is off to a great start, and I’m sure you’ll be getting a lot out of the rich and profound wisdom of the book of James!

Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field?

Q. Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field? and the workers were told by Boaz to leave her be? Were women not safe from rape in those days? Hard to understand.

Unfortunately, women were still in danger of rape even within the ancient Israelite theocracy, and particularly at the time when the book of Ruth is set, “in the days when the judges ruled,” when, according to the book of Judges, “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”

That is why Boaz, who is introduced from the start as a godly man, takes special measures to protect Ruth, who would otherwise be at great risk as a defenseless foreigner.  He tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s field (where the owner or foreman might not be godly) and even to stay in the part of his own field where his female servants are working.  He also says, for everyone to hear, that he has warned all the men not to lay a hand on her.  As a “man of standing,” Boaz has the power to enforce this order of protection.

Similarly, when Ruth returns home and tells the story of her day, Naomi observes ominously, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”  (The Hebrew is more explicit: “and they will not molest you in another field.”)

We see here the great courage and faith of Ruth, who was willing to do the only thing she could to support herself and her mother-in-law:  go out and ask if she could glean in someone’s field, even though this meant exposing herself to the danger of potential rape.

We also see that the godly character of Boaz led him to take active measures to protect women like Ruth from sexual abuse and exploitation.  In this way Boaz provides a biblical model for all men today who aspire to lead a godly life:  they, too, should protect women from sexual abuse and exploitation, and not participate in anything that degrades or exploits them, such as on-line pornography, actual prostitution, or anything similar.

“Ruth Gleaning,” James Tissot, 1896

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