Sad to say, but our culture has become so superficial and jaded that hardly an eyebrow was raised a few years back when some shameless network genius combined greed, romance, sexuality and instant gratification in a television show entitled, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? The implication was, marriage has ceased to be an end in itself; it is now a means. Marriage is no longer God’s vehicle for spiritual, physical and emotional fulfillment, rather, it is now an instrument for getting rich. Though prosperous celebrities discard failed marriages like they do last year’s fashion, the surface assumption retains appeal: marry a rich spouse and you will reap instant happiness. But I want to put two different questions to you this morning: what truly makes for a successful relationship? What are the themes of a love that lasts? I think the answers to those questions are found in a Biblical book whose theme is “The Romancing of Ruth.”
This story highlights the first characteristic of long-lasting loves, whether they are marriages or friendships: the quality of resilience. Even the marriage vows couples exchange at the altar acknowledge that any lasting relationship demands an attitude of ceaseless mutual resilience: we promise to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and to love and cherish each other in all circumstances until death parts us. Not even death could quash Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi has lost both of her sons, including Ruth’s husband, and she has nothing to offer Ruth but complete destitution – even so, Ruth clings to her and accompanies her back to Bethlehem, though she knows she will be a stranger in a strange land, without prospects or protection. But she is resilient. Once in Bethlehem, rather than wallow in her grief and sorrow, rather than focus on her broken heart and her uprootedness, she draws upon a resilient spirit and gains Naomi’s permission to go into Boaz’s fields and gather something for them to eat. And she holds to hope: “Maybe I will find favor in someone’s sight.” Ruth’s conduct can be an inspiration to many whose hearts have been broken by a failed love or had their trust betrayed by an inconstant partner. Rather than cower in the shadows, she finds the resilient strength to put herself back out in the public eye. Part of anyone’s finding a successful relationship involves finding the strength to put oneself back out in the public eye. The “romancing of Ruth” began with her willingness to be resilient, and any enduring successful relationship requires tapping resources of resilience time and again.
The second feature of the romancing of Ruth is the fact she and Boaz quickly developed a mutual respect. When Ruth went out into the field to reap the remnants of the harvest, she quickly caught Boaz’s eye. I suspect that is exactly what she intended. And Boaz was not slow to discover the identity of the new girl in town – just as the first time I laid eyes on Melissa, I waited until the professor called roll on the first day of class and I wrote her name down. Boaz quickly learned that this young woman was the daughter-in-law who had left home and hearth to come to a strange place in support of Naomi, and he quickly called Ruth over to him and said, “Now look, don’t stray from my field, but stay close to my other female relatives and to my employees, whom I have charged with the responsibility of looking after you. And when you are tired or thirsty go rest by my well.” Ruth cannot help but fall to her face in gratitude and say, “Sir, why would be so kind to a penniless stranger like me?” Boaz answers, “Because I am awed by your kindness and fidelity toward Naomi, and such generosity and courage must be rewarded.” Ruth cannot help but respond, “Your kindness toward me is as profoundly appreciated as it is profoundly unwarranted.” Yes, reading through the lines, Ruth and Boaz are flirting. But they are also expressing a mutual respect for each other. And that mutual respect leads to the romancing of Ruth.
Unfortunately our culture has a fatal misconception about romance. It tends to equate romance with the early excitement of infatuation, the thrill of a relationship’s first flowering. That’s like equating the preface of story with its whole plot. Where our culture thinks romance ends is actually where it begins. The truth is, to have a successful and lasting relationship requires a commitment to romance, but romance of a sophisticated and enduring kind. Romance should be defined as what happens when two people go through life believing that their lover’s life, welfare, and happiness is their most important goal in life. When two people live thinking that their lover’s happiness is more important to them than their own happiness, the result is a matrix of enduring joy, creative tension and excitement. Boaz does all within his power to make Ruth’s life fruitful, providing her with protection, providing her with a way to feed Naomi and herself, and providing the structure she needs for a fruitful and happy life. Ruth risks her reputation to find Boaz in his harvest house and lies down at his feet as a way of saying in a vulnerable but eloquent way, I love you and will always seek to be your helpmate. The element of romance must always characterize our relationships, for the great sin in all relationships is the sin of taking each other for granted. Fairy tales present romance as something achieved through struggle – and the fairy tales are right – but the struggle for romance is against not dragons or castles, but against the numbing grind of routine that threatens to obscure the poetry of love. There must always be something about our beloved that quickens our pulse and puts a twinkle in our eye and brings a smile to our lips in a way that nobody on earth can do. Whether you are twenty-eight or eighty-eight, you ought to see an eternal quickening beauty in your lover that nobody else can see. If we live with the attitude that our lover’s happiness is our life’s great goal, then we create an atmosphere of excitement and electricity that can last the whole of our lives. God gives us romance not for a season, but for a lifetime.
I should add that a key part of sustained romance and successful relationships is a keen attention to the rhythms of daily life. The very fact Ruth knew to go to Boaz’s threshing floor that night and essentially offer Boaz a bold marriage proposal is because her mother-in-law Naomi was acutely attuned to the rhythms of her culture. She knew that this was the night Boaz would be in the threshing house winnowing wheat. She knew that this was the night when his exhausting work would cause him to sleep on the floor of the threshing house, absolutely weary and maybe even a little tipsy from a late night meal and an adult beverage. She knew exactly how to advise Ruth how to romance Boaz and be romanced in return. Likewise, if we are to create successful relationships in our own life, we must be attuned to our beloved’s rhythms of life, even as they are attentive to ours. When a husband who has spent his day having complex arguments with all manner of querulous people comes home to a wife who has spent her day teaching unruly children at school, each arrives with different expectations. One is hungry for adult conversation; the other has had all the adult conversations he can stomach. Two sets of clashing expectations are about to intersect, and there is sure to be conflict . . . unless this couple is sensitive enough to sense the rhythms of each other’s day. The wife knows that it would be best to give her husband an uninterrupted half hour to unwind by watching ESPN’s Sports Center. The husband knows that at the end of that half-hour he needs to cut the television off and give his wife his undivided attention so as to let her share the intricacies and challenges of her day. Sensitivity to the rhythms of life and relationships allows us over time to know and respect our potentially-clashing needs and how to mesh them.
Making a successful relationship endure also requires restructuring from time to time. The only reason Ruth and Boaz were able to create a lasting love is because Ruth was willing to restructure her entire life. When Naomi orders Ruth to go back to her own people and end their relationship, Ruth expresses a willingness to restructure everything about her existence: “Entreat me not to leave you; or to return from following you; for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. And where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.” Since Melissa is in the kitchen cooking your lunch today, I can tell you about our first big fight. And since she’s not here to defend herself I can tell you it was all her fault. No, actually it was mine. After we married, the seminary no longer regarded her as a person in her own right but as my spouse, and she could only go to the seminary infirmary if I had my fee card validated, which meant getting a sticker on my card. So she said, “Go get your fee car validated.” It was a perfectly reasonable request, one of those things that I needed to do. But she wasn’t sick, and it was easy to put her request low on my list of priorities. “You got that fee card validated yet?” she asked a few days later. “No, but I will get it done soon.” A week or so later she asked again, “You got that fee card validated?” “No, but I’ll get it done.” But I didn’t. Too busy. Finally, after procrastinating a couple of weeks, I got the fee card validated. Took me maybe fifteen minutes. But by then I was so resentful over being nagged about the fee card that I wasn’t going to volunteer any information. One night came the inevitable question: “You got that fee card validated?” “Yessss! But I was so mad at you for nagging me that I wasn’t going to tell you I got it validated!” An amazing revelation hit us both in that moment. Our love was not going to be enough. We loved each other deeply. But love wasn’t going to be enough. We had been arrogating to ourselves certain privileges, and delegating certain responsibilities without much real communication. So we restructured. I started cooking supper so that when Melissa came home from work we could sit down at our little ice chest which served as our dining room table, and we could eat and talk. That simple act of restructuring made an enormous difference in our communication and in the vibrancy of our relationship.
Of course, in love, as in everything else, nothing is ever easy. Boaz’s accepting Ruth’s marriage proposal was, on one level, as simple as covering her with his blanket. They were now engaged. But there were many complicating factors, and navigating those complexities to marry Ruth meant that Boaz would have to show considerable resolve. Indeed, the complexities seemed so great that Ruth was not sure Boaz could surmount them, but Naomi knew her kinsman: Relax, dear, she said, he is a man of enormous resolve who won’t let the matter rest until he addresses every issue — today. Legally, Boaz was almost next in line to marry Ruth, but almost wasn’t good enough. Another relative was nearer in kin to Naomi than he was. So Boaz went to him and said, “Hey, Naomi wants to sell a piece of her land, and legally you are first in line to buy it. But just so you know, if you buy the land, the young widow comes with it.” “No thanks,“ said the man, “I don’t need those kind of problems.” Then Boaz knew, by his act of creative resolve, he had won his bride. When two people resolve that nothing will be more important in their lives than their beloved’s welfare, that relationship is going to thrive.
There is a final aspect to Boaz’s and Ruth’s relationship that deserves attention, its impact upon the entire community. I always tell couples as they are about to marry that their union is not just the joining together two people. Rather it is the union of two networks of family and friends, the conjoining of the vast histories that have helped shape and define the couple. Certainly that is true in Ruth’s and Boaz’s case. Look at what the elders of the city said to Boaz when he announces his engagement: May the Lord make Ruth “like Rachel and Leah who built up the house of Israel.” They pronounced blessing upon Boaz: May this marriage make you “renowned in Bethlehem.” In other words, they saw this blooming love between Boaz and Ruth as replenishing not only their individual lives, but also replenishing the entire community. That is precisely what a successful relationship is intended to do, replenish our souls individually, but also enhance the lives of all families involved and replenish the entire community. The Spirit of Christ seeks to be our constant companion throughout our successful relationships, romantic or otherwise. The Spirit of Christ intends to nourish our souls throughout the long spiritual journey of life, and one of the ways Christ’s Spirit does this is through a sustained relationship. It really does matter when two people are able to say in earnest to each other, “Your God will be my God.” It really does matter when two people mutually open their lives to God’s replenishing nurture and seek in response to replenish and nurture others.
Of course, the union of Ruth and Boaz indeed brought renown to Bethlehem. Their love produced a son named Obed, who in turn fathered Jesse who in turn fathered David, who in turn fathered the royal line that produced our messianic hope. So, too, may your relationships replenish your lives and the life of this community of faith and the larger community as well. May we be able to say to our beloved: “Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die.” It isn’t a formula for marrying a millionaire. But it is a formula for finding a treasure that is much richer.