Out of Our Poverty
Good morning, everyone! Let’s talk about sex.
Perhaps not what you were expecting to hear from me right off the bat in the pulpit.
Well, we’re beginning with our story from Ruth, and you need a little cultural context to get the full meaning of this story.
Ruth has followed her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel after the death of Ruth’s husband, and they’ve been living from pillar to post.
They have no source of income. They cannot open a small business or draw social security.
They subsist on the gleanings from the field, which are the little bits of grain leftover from the harvest that get left behind.
They are literally living on scraps.
It’s not a sustainable situation, and they know that.
So Naomi says to Ruth: “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”
This is a euphemism. In this culture, to uncover a man’s feet while he was sleeping was to make yourself available for sex.
This is not the proper way of doing things, in case you haven’t noticed.
This was not an aboveboard courtship with polite chaperoned dates.
Naomi told Ruth to go to Boaz after Boaz had been drinking and make herself sexually available to him.
And she did it!
Ruth said to Naomi, “All that you tell me I will do.”
Ruth is taking an enormous risk.
She is making herself incredibly vulnerable to a man she has no guarantee will treat her well.
She is a foreigner, a Moabite. What chance has she of attaining marriage, financial security, and dare we say it, love?
By far the most likely outcome is that Boaz, relaxed after a few drinks, will not say no to a woman offering herself for sex, but will not give her the time of day in the morning.
Many a one night stand has played out the same way.
But Ruth takes the risk.
She wants Naomi to have food and shelter and security in her old age, so she offers herself completely, running the risk that she will be brutally exploited for no reward.
It’s terrifying when you stop to think about it.
It is an act of love and faith and generosity that is just too much to contemplate.
It’s a stupid decision, placing herself in harm’s way.
But she does it, because she has faith that her risk is for a greater good.
It’s actually pretty difficult to preach on this passage, because the last thing I want to send you home thinking is that vulnerable young women risking sexual exploitation is an admirable act of faith.
But this is an example of God working through the last and the least.
In an act of sex outside of marriage, with a foreigner who is abjectly poor and unwanted by anyone, comes the Incarnation.
Ruth and Boaz are the ancestors of David, who is the ancestor of Jesus. This is not a coincidence.
A poor woman at the bottom rung of society risking it all to the point of insanity for the greater good—we have the same phenomenon in our gospel story today.
This dynamic is happening again, and Jesus notices it. “He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”
(That’s a little ominous to read this close to the pledge campaign ingathering, isn’t it?)
He sat down and watched, and it says that many people put in large sums. He doesn’t comment on any of them.
But as soon as the widow comes, he takes notice.
Immediately he calls his disciples to teach them about it.
We have to wonder of he is reminded of his ancestor Ruth.
The key to unlocking this text lies in one little phrase.
Jesus says to his disciples about the people placing money in the treasury: “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
She out of her poverty.
Out of her poverty.
What does it mean to give out of our poverty?
Most of the time in pledge campaign season we talk about abundance, and well we should.
God has blessed us abundantly, and Jesus said he came to us so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
We don’t like to talk about poverty ever really, much less during our pledge campaign.
But Jesus notices this, and points it out, so it behooves is to spend some time with it.
“She out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
It is good to give out of abundance, and God celebrates that with us.
But giving out of our poverty. We need to think about that.
None of us in this room is in a state of literal poverty like the widow in this story, and we need to give accordingly in abject thanksgiving for that.
But every person in this room is just as poor as this widow in some area of our lives.
Where is your poverty?
Is it a poverty in one or more broken relationships in your life?
Perhaps your poverty is a poverty of hope, a poverty of the willingness to pitch-in and help and participate, a poverty of joy, a poverty of generosity, a poverty of forgiveness.
Are your poor in your ability to take risks?
Are you poor in evangelism? Are you poor in outreach?
Are you poor in prayer or Christian formation or discernment?
Are you poor in trust? In faith?
Are you poor in patience?
We are called to give out of our abundance, yes, but we are called to give also out of our poverty. We are called to be like Ruth and the gospel widow.
Giving out of our abundance requires no risk.
It is a marking out of “what we can afford,” giving it to God through the church, patting ourselves on the back in self-satisfaction, and going about our business.
Giving out of our abundance is expected, and it is indeed worthy.
But giving out of our poverty is the much more challenging discipline.
As we learn to give out of our abundance, which is a lesson that can take a lifetime, we must also open ourselves to giving out of our poverty, however that poverty is made manifest.
Why is giving out of our poverty so difficult?
Because it requires us to be completely vulnerable.
When we give out of our abundance, we give some of what we have a lot of, and we have a lot left over to enjoy however we wish.
But when we give of our poverty, we give all of what we have, and we fear that there will be nothing left of an already scarce and precious resource.
What is it like to give the last two coins you have like the widow, to give your whole self, body and soul, like Ruth?
Can you give the last two coins of your faith, the last two coins of your love, the last two coins of your understanding?
Can you give your whole self out of your poverty, the entirety of your tiny portion of wisdom, your embarrassingly small willingness to help and work, your minute and feeble generosity or ability to forgive?
If you give out of your poverty, you run two risks.
You run the risk of running out of that precious resource, and you run the risk that your gift will not be rewarded, not be noticed, not be returned.
We see both outcomes in our scriptures.
Ruth’s risk is richly rewarded with a secure marriage and children that create the line of David.
The widow’s risk? We don’t know.
Jesus neither promises nor predicts any specific or particular reward for her. She may well have died without seeing the fruits of her sacrifice.
But whether we feel rewarded for our risk or not, giving out of poverty leads ever and always and inevitably toward one thing: Incarnation.
Ruth and this widow are connected across the ages in one person, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Mary gave everything to God out of her poverty, made her body and soul completely available as a vessel of grace, and from that gift came the Word made flesh.
These women, in their insanely dangerous vulnerability, became the means of Jesus coming into the world, all in their own different ways.
I was praying the other day, sort of about these texts but also about a lot of other things, and these words came to me: “The unguarded soul is the generous soul.”
How I hate to know that I must make myself utterly undefended to risk and poverty!
But if I am undefended to risk and poverty, then too am I undefended to grace.
May it be so.
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