Ruth – third woman of Advent – 13 December 2021
A very famous picture this week – so pay careful attention to what you see.
Three migrant women are gleaning a field after a harvest, collecting stray stalks of wheat to feed themselves and/or their families. They are on the edge in every way; in society, in the economy, in the field. They are vulnerable to abuses of many kinds, and so gleaning together would bring some safety, displayed though their sense of community. Note though that this is difficult and backbreaking work.
In the background of the picture the harvest continues, the local men and women working together, viewed by a farmer or overseer. An ordered village can be seen, where those participating and benefitting from the harvest live. There is no sense that the woman in the picture will have such a safe place to sleep.
We consider this picture today as we reflect on the life of Ruth, a migrant labourer who is listed in Matthew’s Gospel as an ancestor of Jesus. Ruth had been depicted in art many times, but often in ways that displayed her piety. This is not a pious picture, but rather is one that shows reveals the marginality of migrant women, and so their vulnerability. Ruth embraced this life to provide for her mother-in-law, Naomi. She catches the eye of the landowner Boaz, and responds by approaching him to look for marriage and sexual intimacy, to provide Naomi with offspring after the loss of her sons (Mahlon and Chilion). Marriage and the birth of a son follow, the location of these events is Bethlehem.
The picture is ‘The Gleaners’, by Jean-Francois Millet (1857), a painting very poorly received by the middle and upper classes when it was first displayed. Both the content and the size of the picture were offensive – the content because it depicted the poor, the size because its large dimensions were those reserved for religious paintings. There is of course an irony in this.
Time for a different kind of harvest.
Sated with bread and beer
Boaz and his men sleep deeply
on the fragrant hay.
The floor doesn’t creak.
When Boaz wakes, his eyes
gleam with unshed tears.
He is no longer young, maybe
forty; his face is lined
as Mahlon’s never became.
Who are you? he asks
and I hear an echoing question:
who is it? what is it? who speaks?
Spread your wings over me, I reply
and his cloak billows high.
Now he clasps my foreign hand
and kisses the tips of my fingers
now skin glides against skin
and the seed of salvation grows in me
the outsider, the forbidden
we move from lack to fullness
we sweeten our own story
and as my belly swells I pray
that the day come speedily and soon
when we won’t need to distinguish
Israel from Moab
the sun’s radiance from the moon’s
Boaz’s square fingers
from my smaller olive hands
amen, amen, selah.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
There is something holy in the way
she bends to the ground
and lifts each stalk like a child.
Her hair sweeps the soil,
trapping chaff in its curls.
How her fingers pierce the fields
like rays of light! I believe
she would glean here forever.
Even at sundown,
as the harvesters slump
beneath the sheaves on their backs
she steps lightly to our meal
of roasted grain. She sighs deeply
with each bite, as if the barley
were part of her body,
finally reunited with its home
of sweet earth and sunlight,
ready to smolder and burst into the sky.