Sunday 29 November 2020

Ruth for today

When Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi for twenty-three years until 2013, died earlier this month, Radio 4 re-broadcast the last talk he had given for it, which I find also to be the last thing on his personal website. 

It was Mental Health Awareness Week and he made a link with the story of Naomi, the almost unrecognisable impoverished and distraught widow returning to her Bethlehem home.  Woven though the book Ruth, he said, is the Hebrew word hessed, a word meaning more than simple kindness

Tyndale, he pointed out, invented the English form loving-kindness to translate it.  It is a sort of committed covenant-kindness.  It is what transformed Naomi’s well-being.  It could be expressed in the necessary peer-support and community-support of the bereaved, depressed and mentally ill-at-ease. 

I wonder how far it was his awareness of mental health issues which gave him a fresh perspective on Ruth, or how far his detailed knowledge of Ruth enabled him to give us a fresh perspective on Mental Health Awareness Week? 

In February 2017, I touched on those teaching Christian Theology at Birmingham University in the 1980s: 

Neither John Hull’s blindness nor Frances Young’s son’s disability were simply ‘raw material’ for ‘theological reflection’ but rather the realities integral to their lives, the lenses through which they read scripture, the questions with which they interrogated tradition, the filter through which they sifted other Christians' explorations and experience. 

Later that year, in November, I was intrigued by the ideas of ‘framing’ a picture and of ‘curating’ an exhibition as partial images for preaching: 

What is 'brought out' of both our rapidly changed culture and our faith stories when they are exhibited next to one another? 

Either way, I spoke of local mental health support networks in our on-line worship this morning, and then explored other possible connections in the following parts of Ruth

Ruth is only able to glean because (in accordance with repeated injunction in Deuteronomy and Leviticus) those harvesting did not gather absolutely everything from the fields, aware of those who would need to scavenge behind them: the poor, the alien (Ruth was a Moabite), the orphaned and the widow.  I have noticed this many times before. 

I didn’t indulge myself in pointing out the way these categories are those not protected by the parallels trio of market forces, Government protection and ordering, and family-community networks.  Nor did I canter again around the links to the monastic vows of poverty, obedience, and commitment to relationship within the vowed community alone. 

I did (despite my November 2017 warning to myself that an habitual choice of a favourite frame which perhaps unconsciously will only ever bring out a strictly limited selection of colours or features) identify asset stripping and marking the documentation of asylum seekers with ‘no recourse to public funds’ as obvious parallels, and mention how attention to fair trade, Food Banks and overseas aid each might represent a church or village’s alternative understanding. 

Boaz is only able to operate as the re-deemer of the situation (the family or community elder facing a situation which has gone awry and making adjustments to property and relationships as if they were the ones which were already in place) because a better qualified potential re-deemer said it would be too costly for him to do so.  I hadn’t noticed that before. 

I wondered whether genuinely putting-things-right (declaring right-eousness) would always be costly.  I wondered whether placing this next to the personal and business costs of lockdown is the place where current experience and Ruth illuminate each other now.  

Finally, of course, Naomi’s loss of relationship and future is re-deemed by Boaz and Ruth’s child Obed being put into her arms as her own, although actually the child of a distant relative of her husband’s and of her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law.  Obed is to be grandfather of David, among whose descendants was expected to be the ultimate re-deemer.  

For a Christian Advent Sunday, this hope which points forward to events in Bethlehem, the town of David, because he was of the house and line of David. But jumping straight to that simple point might be to short-change ourselves if it isn’t to then exoplore how a very Ruth-shaped the story goes on to be.