The book of Ruth begins with a famine in the town of Bethlehem in Judah. A woman named Naomi and her husband and two sons become economic refugees, fleeing to Moab to make a better life for themselves. Two Moabite women marry Naomi’s sons. Unfortunately, the sons die along with Naomi’s husband, so Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth find themselves once again fleeing — now economic refugees in Judah.
This is where the story gets interesting. Naomi is too old to work, and Ruth can’t find work because of her nationality. (Moabites in Judah were sort of like Mexicans in Texas.) However, there was a work-to-welfare program Ruth could take advantage of. Foreigners in Judah were allowed to go through the fields after the harvest, and collect any leftovers. There was a man named Boaz who was kind and honorable, and intentionally left some of the harvest for the poor and hungry. He also didn’t allow his workers to harass the people gleaning in the fields, not even beautiful Moabite women who all Judeans thought were sexually promiscuous.
Of course, its hard to live on welfare, and Naomi wanted to make a better life for herself and her daughter-in-law. Knowing Judean culture, Naomi had an idea how Ruth could marry the wealthy Boaz. She told Ruth to go to the place where the men threshed the wheat. After the harvest, the men partied. So, when Boaz was full of food and wine and had gone to sleep, Ruth was to sneak in, uncover his feet, and lie down next to him. (For this story to make any sense at all, you have to know that “feet” is a common euphemism in biblical Hebrew. Feet aren’t feet in this story.) When Boaz awoke, he would make assumptions about what happened after he drank too much, and being a kind and honorable man he would put a ring on it.
So, that’s what Ruth does. That’s what Boaz does. And they live happily ever after.
One of the lessons of this tale is that refugees become our families. When Naomi and her boys move to Moab, they join with Moabite families through marriage. When Ruth and Naomi move to Judah, they become part of Boaz’s family. The point is emphasized in the final verse of Ruth, when we’re told Ruth and Boaz’s son Obed was King David’s grandfather. While it’s tempting to think of immigrants only in terms of what economic benefits they can offer right now (and economic refugees rarely present an economic benefit in this equation), we never know who their grandchildren might be. This is certainly true in the Southwest Conference, where the Governor of New Mexico is the granddaughter of a migrant farm worker.
In our current political environment — when folks talk about “anchor babies” and immigrants on welfare — its also important to notice the ways in which Ruth needed the Judean culture of hospitality to survive. The biblical law that created the welfare system in Judah specifically names widows, orphans, and immigrants as people who need its benefits. This wasn’t a flaw in the system, but a feature. The same is true in our country. Sometimes economic refugees need a helping hand. And even if they’re an economic drain at first, they’re still our future family.
Finally, for Christians, the story of Ruth reminds us of God’s love that knows no borders. That’s because she’s named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew. Whatever you think about the economics of welcoming refugees, or the ways immigrants sometimes have to use our own prejudices to get ahead (for example, Moabite women and “feet”), the importance of welcoming the stranger can’t be overemphasized. Literally, according to Matthew, without Ruth there would be no Jesus — and that’s the ultimate story of love beyond borders.