The Spirit of the Law

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Most Christians have read the biblical story of Ruth a dozen times. For many of us, it stands out as one of the most compelling narratives in the Old Testament. Some dismiss Ruth as a simple love story. But in her new book, The Gospel of Ruth, author Carolyn James compellingly challenges that narrow view.

James writes that Ruth’s “loyalty to Yahweh prompts her to challenge the religious status quo and lead others into a whole new realm of allegiance to Yahweh that carries early hints of the teaching of Jesus.” Ms. James goes so far as to say that Ruth herself “embodies the utter difference the gospel makes in us and in our relationships with others, generations before Jesus was born.” Carolyn James hammers this theme home through every facet of Ruth’s life.

Here’s just one example. You may remember how Ruth goes one day to glean in the fields of Boaz. The ancient welfare system of Israel dictated that Israelites were to leave the corners of their land and the edges of their field un-harvested for widows, orphans and aliens. While many people in the days of the judges had long since abandoned keeping this aspect of the law, Boaz had not.

Now Ruth has sworn herself to care for her mother-in-law, and so she goes to Boaz’s field and does something bold: She asks Boaz’s foreman if she can glean behind the harvesters as they worked.

When informed by his foreman what Ruth was doing, Boaz certainly could have kicked Ruth off of his land. Instead, he talks to Ruth and allows her to gather grain with his own servant girls.

As James writes, “Sometimes newcomers have a way of showing us we’ve settled into a narrow, precise obedience-a tidy conformity to the law-that falls far short of what God really intends.”

James goes on to show us that Jesus, another outsider to the religious establishment, did exactly the same. “The Sermon on the Mount,” she writes, “knocked down the walls that religious living had constructed around God’s law and pointed to a way of living that goes beyond the letter of the law to the spirit.” While the letter of the law in Ruth’s day simply permitted the poor to glean, the spirit of the law was that the poor and the vulnerable should have enough to eat.

“God meant for landowners like Boaz to wrestle with such basic questions as, How big is a corner? How wide is an edge? . . . How much will I leave behind for the poor?” writes James.

Into the midst of tight-fisted legalism, Boaz explodes on stage and gives Ruth permission not only to glean among the workers, but he offers her the protection of his field hands and the privilege of drinking from his wells. He also blesses her in God’s name. Boaz will take this generosity even further in the chapters that come. In this, he foreshadows Christ, who would give himself in the ultimate display of lavish generosity.

How far will our generosity extend today-you and me? Are we content to hang on to the letter of the law or are we willing to follow Christ’s example? Perhaps, we’ve grown content in writing a check that is exactly 10 percent of our income and dutifully putting it in the offering plate as it passes each week. Meanwhile, we’ve shut our eyes completely to the needs of modern-day Ruths.

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  • Warren Jewell

    Okay – I couldn’t resist. I ordered Ms. James book – as well, Mike Timmis’ Between Two Worlds, which I have read and find powerfully Catholic.

    Who doesn’t love Ruth, and her devotion to God and His People? Ancestor to King David and King of kings, our Lord Jesus has been her reward for her enduring love. I atill dissolve into deeply touched tears at Ruth’s words to Naomi:

    Ruth said, “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; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17)

    In that is more than Gospel – it is wholly testamental to devoted love.