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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Welcoming the Immigrant—Ruth 2:1-23 (John Allen)

The United States is engaged in a public conversation about what our responsibility is to the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are arriving at our southern border. In the story of Ruth we encounter principles of radical hospitality that reshape the debate.

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. 2 And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.” She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” 3 So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.

4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 5 Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” 6 The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.” 8 Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “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. 12 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!” 13 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.” 14 At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied. 19 Her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.” 21 Then Ruth the Moabite said, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.” 23 So she stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; and she lived with her mother-in-law.

At every turn in this text we are reminded that Ruth is a foreigner. She is introduced as Ruth the Moabite by the narrator, and then again as “a young Moabite woman, the one who returned with Naomi from the territory of Moab” (2:6). The author does not want us to miss this simple fact: Ruth is an immigrant and everyone knows it.

The scene is set with Ruth the Moabite gleaning, walking in a field gathering up what is left behind by the harvesters. It is hard to imagine that many in our food system today would tolerate such behavior. Some grocery stores even lock their dumpsters to prevent people from gleaning what they might otherwise purchase inside. But in ancient Bethlehem, it was considered a basic act of human decency to provide circumstances that offer the poor and immigrants a meaningful chance at survival. The law is clear: “when you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and do not gather up every remaining bit of your harvest… Leave those items for the poor and the immigrant” (Leviticus 19: 9-10).

Boaz goes beyond the requirements of the law for Ruth the Moabite, the foreigner journeying in his land. Boaz is moved by a sense of the sacrifice that she has made to come to his land, how she “left behind [her] father and, [her] mother, and the land of [her] birth and came to a people [she] had not known before” (2:11). He sees that her journey has come at great cost, and so he extends hospitality beyond what is demanded by law.

The United States is engaged in a public conversation about what our responsibility is to the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who are arriving at our southern border. These children have, in many cases, been sent by their parents, leaving the land of their birth to come to a land that they do not know, in search of safety from violence and an opportunity to glean from our abundance enough to survive.

Many have advocated that this country has no responsibility for these migrants. Biblically speaking, their position is off the ethical map. In the story of Ruth, as throughout the Hebrew Bible, allowing immigrants to glean is an unquestionable and basic ethical requirement. In the story of Ruth however, Boaz earns God’s superlative praise by extending hospitality and resources that exceed the most basic requirement.

As people of faith we are certainly required to extend basic material support to migrants who journey in our land. Feeding, clothing, and sheltering vulnerable children who come across our border alone is as clear an ethical mandate today as it was to allow gleaning in the ancient world. Let’s also imagine how we might add Boaz’s more enthusiastic hospitality to the range of political options. Rather than housing children in humane conditions until they can be safely deported, we could work to unite them with family in the United States. We could provide education and supportive services. We could learn to expect that newcomers will offer new richness to this society rather than fear only that they will become a burden.

This requires a remapping of the debate. We cannot argue over whether or not basic humanity requires us to care for immigrants. Instead we must bring all our faithful imagination to bear to find a way to extend the sort of extraordinary hospitality that is universally praised by God and emphasized in our sacred story.

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