Fried green tomatoes were the house specialty at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Alabama during the 1930s. Evelyn is suffering through the growing pains of a midlife crisis when she and her husband come across the quaint Depression-era ghost of a town called Whistle Stop. Their destination is a nearby retirement home where Evelyn quite by chance meets octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode.
Evelyn is unhappy with herself and dissatisfied with her marriage. Sensing Evelyn's depression, Mrs.. Threadgoode decides to lift her spirits by reminiscing about two Depression-era women whose friendship gave meaning and purpose to their lives.
Mrs. Threadgoode, a former resident of Whistle Stop, relates the captivating story of two women and the bonds of friendship that transformed their lives. These two women, Ruth and Idgy, were as different as night and day, but they developed an unusual trust through the injustices life had dealt them. Business partners in the Whistle Stop Cafe, they also face together the personal challenges of problems such as domestic violence, small-town racism, and even murder followed by a trial.
Mrs. Threadgoode's elucidation of the Whistle Stop story becomes redemptive for Evelyn, giving her the strength she needs to regain control of her life and overcome her depression. Through regular visits, these two women of different generations form a lasting bond of friendship.
Coincidentally, the Whistle Stop partner named Ruth, finding herself in trouble, and sends Idgie a verse from scripture, "Whither thou goest, I will go." You may recognize these words as those that were spoken by our Ruth of scripture to her mother-in-law, Naomi, after these two women of long ago also experience devastating losses.
In today's Old Testament reading, Ruth and Naomi have a similar bond that spans a generation. Ruth is a Moabite, a descendant of Abraham's nephew Lot, while Naomi is an Israelite from the line of Abraham and Sarah. While Naomi's family is sojourning in the land of Moab to escape famine and to eke out a living, her sons marry Moabite women, one of whom is Ruth. After Naomi's husband and sons die, Ruth makes a radical commitment to stand by Naomi through thick and thin.
At that moment, Ruth takes a leap of faith against all common sense, choosing an unknown future. She casts her lot with a poverty-stricken older widow who needs her and whom she cares about, deciding from her heart to do what she believes is right. Giving up everything in life that is familiar to her, Ruth makes her painstaking way from Moab back with Naomi to her hometown of Bethlehem. Ruth sacrifices for another who is in need of her love, without regard for the loss of her own well-being. Ruth's persistent care and concern enable Naomi to lay aside her bitter feelings and to take charge of her life again after the devastating loss of her husband and sons.
An older widow like Naomi, in a foreign country, had no future at all. By returning to her own people, she could at least hope for some charity. But without a male heir, she was essentially defenseless and powerless, even within her own society.
As an older widow, Naomi's social situation is precarious enough, but as a young widow with no prospects of marriage before her, Ruth faces a future of ostracism. Living in a foreign land with Naomi will further limit her chances for marriage. Choosing to remain with Naomi and electing to share her faith represent a grand and extravagant act of love and commitment on Ruth's part.
Ruth knows how the people of Israel feel about Moabites, and that probably no one in her new land will even recognize her as a person. They may think to themselves, "Ruth is a really nice person, but what about the law concerning Moabites?"
To protect widows, the Israelites developed levirate marriages. According to Jewish law when a husband died without offspring, his brother could be called upon to marry the widow and father a son who would assume the family name of his dead brother. The brother-in-law, even if already married, was obliged to accept the widow as his wife. In this way, family lines could continue and widows would have a place in society. A "kinsman-redeemer" rescued the widow.
Jewish custom provided for the poor by protecting their rights to gather grain in a field after the hired workers had passed through. The edges of the field were to be left for the poor to reap (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22). Widows who were alone could survive only by gleaning or begging. Gleaning is the practice of gathering what has been dropped in the fields or left on the vines after a harvest. In addition, gleaners were also allowed to harvest what was left standing in the corners of the field. Hebrew law also said that landowners could not clean up their own fields, vineyards, or orchards so that widows, orphans, and resident aliens would be able to find enough to eat. Even immigrants were provided for! It did not matter whether they were illegal immigrants. All were welcome, including the Moabites.
Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem at the time of the barley harvest, so Ruth begins gleaning immediately. Her work ethic impresses others in the field as she goes about the backbreaking chore of picking up all the barley that has been spilled onto the ground. Is it a coincidence that she chooses Boaz's land? Aware of Ruth's predicament, Boaz reaches out to her, making sure that she is safe and has plenty to eat and take home to Naomi. His actions are above and beyond his legal duty to a widow. When she arrives home, Naomi is excited and pleased to hear that Ruth has been gleaning in Boaz's field.
Ruth knows that she must find a man "in whose sight I may find favor." In other words, she must find someone who will marry her and thus provide both her and Naomi with a living. Naomi knows exactly who Boaz is and what the law requires. She makes sure that the entire village is aware of the sacrifices Ruth has made for her. That is how Boaz happens to be so well informed when he finds Ruth gleaning in his fields.
Ruth has gradually begun to occupy the place in Naomi's heart once consumed by a husband and sons. Naomi begins plotting to insure Ruth's future by playing matchmaker. While Naomi's involvement in Ruth's love life might be regarded as an unwelcome intrusion in our culture, it was customary for parents in the ancient world to arrange marriages for their children. To our way of thinking, Naomi's scheme seems a bit strange or presumptuous. But, Naomi's advice seems to indicate her deep respect both for Boaz and for his position as potential kinsman-redeemer. She devises a plan for Ruth to meet with Boaz, who is extremely pleased that such a woman as Ruth would choose an older man like himself to marry.
Boaz decides to make sure his marriage to Ruth cannot be contested or misunderstood. He gathers the town elders in order to confront another relative, who is an even closer kinsman, with this opportunity and his duty. There is property involved, which will come back to Naomi if Ruth produces a male heir.
Had Ruth stayed in Moab, another kinsman could have bought the land in question and kept it for his own. But Ruth is in Bethlehem, and her firstborn son will be considered heir to the landof Ruth's first husband. This was too much trouble for that kinsman, so he said to Boaz, "Be my guest and marry Ruth." Boaz is elated with the opportunity to marry such a faithful person, and loves Ruth for herself, not for her property.
As scripture explains to us the tradition of the kinsman-redeemer, it points us ahead to another Redeemer who is to come. This Redeemer will buy more than one widow and her property back to rescue her from a destitute life. This promised Redeemer will pay the price to buy the entire human race back from the misery of sin and death.
This promised Redeemer, we are told in the book of Ruth, will come through Ruth and Boaz. Through the kinsman-redeemer Boaz, Ruth becomes the mother of Obed, the grandmother of Jesse, and the great-grandmother of King David, the most renowned monarch in Israel's history. Ruth, not only a foreigner but also a Moabite, becomes a foremother of Jesus, our Savior, and the Redeemer of the entire world. Our God is a loving God toward ALL people, even those who are not believers.
Hope is renewed for Naomi, for Israel, and all of creation because of a baby born in Bethlehem. Places in the heart are once again filled with love and joy.
All of humanity can also move forward into new life, becoming new creations. The peace that God gives, not as the world gives, can alleviate the stress and pain of whatever the world has dealt you. Just as Naomi begins to show signs of healing, signs of letting go of the sorrow and depression that had once consumed her life, you also can heal. You may awaken to discover that prayers you never uttered have already been answered.
The portrayal of Boaz as Ruth's kinsman-redeemer is an exquisite illustration of Jesus Christ, kinsman-Redeemer for the entire human race. Jesus purchased us with his own blood, providing us with the peace and security that comes from knowing we belong to him eternally. Boaz's trustworthy response to Ruth's situation foreshadows the nature of Christ's commitment to us.
The story of Naomi and Ruth stands out as a portrait of the nature of God's peace and love. Ruth is not only an object of redemption; she is also an instrument of redemption. Ruth's life foreshadows the redemption we have through Christ's suffering and death for the sins of humanity.
What does the Lord require of you? Is it to be a present-day redeemer for another? It will not be necessary for you to give your life, or even to relocate to another country. Much simpler acts of reaching out to help others in need is what the world needs now.
In Steven Spielberg's powerful film version of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple, a brutalized black woman, stumbles into the general store to buy groceries for her white mistress. She is so bruised around her eyes from the cruel treatment she received on the street that she cannot even focus her eyes on the grocery list to see what she needs to buy. Another black woman sees her dilemma and quietly interrupts her own shopping, takes the slip of paper, and quickly and methodically collects the items. The first woman experiences redemption through this act of kindness.
Years later, these two meet again. The woman who had been beaten says to the other, "That day when you filled my grocery list for me, that was the day I knew there was a God."1
1. James Bjorge, "Reflections," Exploring the Yearly Lectionary: Studies in the Series B Bible Texts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), p. 62.