I used to think the book of Ruth was a love story. First there is the love Ruth shows Naomi:
"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" Ruth 1:16-17
This display of devotion rivals the sentiments of most romantic poems (the good ones at least). And then there is the love between Boaz and Ruth, wrapping it up nicely and providing a colorful backstory for some essential branches in King David's family tree. But calling the book of Ruth a love story or dramatized genealogy runs the risk of evading a crucial issue of our time. At its heart the book of Ruth is a story of immigration.
We don't know the reasons for Ruth's decision to throw her lot in with Naomi. No one is surprised by Naomi's choice to go back to her homeland, or by Orpah's choice to go back to her family after her husband dies. But Ruth's decision to leave the security of her family and homeland to pursue an unpromising future with a fellow widow could only be called foolishness or faith. She is commonly referred to as Ruth the Moabite, which leads us to think her nationality would have been an issue. She takes to gleaning in the fields as a way of ensuring she can feed herself and her mother-in-law. She's earning no wage for her labor; at most she hopes to glean enough grains for a meal. She catches the attention of Boaz, who learns of her story (at least part of it) from the labor overseer. Thankfully for her, she chose the right field to glean from.
Boaz assures her that she will find protection in his field, safe from the rebuke she presumably would have received from the other field workers or overseers. He also gives her permission to drink from the water they have drawn. She asks what she, a foreigner, has done to earn such favor. Boaz responds:
'All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!' Then she said, 'May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.' (2:9, 15-16)
Rather than see her as a foreigner and respond in a way which protects his economic interests and preserves the rights of the locals, Boaz extols Ruth's character. He hears her story and sees her sacrifice and devotion ahead of whatever hindrance her nationality or ethnicity may have presented. Even though the Torah teaches that the poor and foreigners should be allowed to glean in the fields (Leviticus 19:9-10), this does not mean there is universal acceptance of this (especially when Moabites are involved). There are other stories in scripture where anti-Moabite prejudice is allowed (Genesis 19, Numbers 25, Ezra 9). Boaz doesn't seem to have anything to gain by extending this hospitality to Ruth, but his care for her in spite of the conflicting social custom signifies a deep regard for the vulnerable that offers us a witness worth considering as we reflect on immigration today.
The attitude toward immigrants in the US often ranges from indifference to hostility. A welcome acceptance appears to be rare. Regardless of their story or character, it is more likely that we would welcome them in our fields than our communities. The story of Ruth reminds us that social customs may conflict with our understanding and practice of hospitality. No, God doesn't explicitly tell Boaz to consider Ruth, but God uses the unfolding events and kindness of Boaz to show us how redemption and care of neighbors can work. Knowing someone's story makes a difference. Rather than see her as merely a Moabite, Boaz sees Ruth as a person of faith and character, with dignity. Her story can help us explore our own hospitality, and the extent to which we acknowledge its boundaries and our acceptance of social norms.
For more on the importance of examining perceptions of immigrants and welcoming the stranger, see two great articles by Carmelo Santos and Bishop Wayne N. Miller (Metro Chicago synod) in the December issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.