God Making Bad Investments

I recently heard a sermon that presented a gospel in such a way that deserved some comment. My motivation for highlighting this particular message is not to embarrass or ridicule. My intention is to point out that this message – and so many others like it – illustrates a significant departure from what makes the good news the good news. It is also the sort of teaching that is all to common today: preaching that sounds good, is very therapeutic, and may even use biblical terminology, but whose conclusions actually foster a misperception of what the gospel is all about. I am withholding the teacher’s name.

The sermon was one of a series during Lent. The teacher taught on the assigned text of Ruth 4:1–10, and brought his focus on the transaction between Boaz and the nearest kinsman-redeemer. As the story goes, Boaz went to inform the redeemer, whom the teacher refers to as “Mr. So-and-so,” of his entitlement to Naomi’s deceased husband’s property. The kinsman-redeemer agrees to take on the property and redeem it. It is at this point that Boaz informs the kinsman-redeemer that the deal includes taking on Ruth as his wife. The kinsman-redeemer balks at this idea and relinquishes his entitlement of the property and opens the door for Boaz to marry Ruth.

The point of this section of the book of Ruth, according to this teacher, is about not letting others – or even ourselves – make economic pronouncements upon us. He gets to this idea when Mr. “So-and-so” refuses to redeem the property because it entails marrying Ruth. The kinsman-redeemer, in this view, thinks that Ruth is a “bad investment.” He then relates the application to the audience, asking if they have ever felt like Ruth: “Have you been viewed as a bad investment?” Boaz, in contrast, does not view Ruth that way. Boaz sees Ruth as “worthy of value and belonging” despite being a Moabite, a foreign woman. This teacher’s understanding of the message of the book of Ruth as a whole is that God views each of us as being a good investment, worthy of love and belonging. The point of “the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus,” is to inform us that “we are not a bad investment and we are, in fact, worthy of love and belonging.” (Lest I be accused of unfairly parsing, I have included an extended quote of his conclusion below for reference and context.)

For this teacher, then, the theological message of the book is that God is like Boaz: he knows a good investment when he sees it. I agree that God’s character may be illustrated in Boaz’s actions. However, what this teacher and I observe in Boaz’s actions are in sharp disagreement. For this teacher, the motive of Boaz’ deeds is something akin to “insider trading” – he had a special ability to see a good investment where others missed it. Likewise Boaz views Ruth, despite all outward appearances, as being a good investment. She is worthy of being redeemed. Mr. “So-and-so” at the gate of the city just didn’t have the wherewithall to see it. But Boaz did. The theological implication drawn out by this teacher then is: if God is like Boaz, then this story is about God seeing potential and worth in you when other “So-and-sos” don’t see it. And that is why God sacrificed his Son: because we were worth it.

This sort of message may appeal to many audiences, especially those in need of improving their self-image. However, such a depiction of the narrative not only fuels a sinful narcissism, it undermines the Bible’s teaching on grace. This version of events misses something not only in the immediate story of Ruth but also in the Gospel itself.

The Gospel in Ruth

First, this interpretation seems to suggest that we have earned or obtained a value in and of ourselves, that we are “worth” it. However, upon closer inspection, this isn’t the message in the immediate story of Ruth. Ruth did not view herself as worthy. She responds to Boaz’s generosity in chapter 2 by pointing out the undeserved nature of it: “Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?’” (Ruth 2:10).

The key term here, contra the teacher, is not esed but ēn, “grace, favor.”[1] It is used to designate activities that are freely offered or received. Boaz is not showing kindness and grace because of Ruth’s worthiness. What Boaz sees in Ruth was not worthiness but her faithfulness to Yahweh as is evident by his response to the question she posed Boaz regarding his favor: “The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” (Ruth 2:12). This harkens back to Ruth’s theological reason for remaining with Naomi in chapter 1. Both Ruth and Orpah plan to follow Naomi back to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:10). After Naomi urges them to return “their people and their gods,” Orpah sadly turns back. But Ruth does not: “Do not urge me 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” (Ruth 1:16). This is a spectacular profession of faith; a Moabite woman is refuting her gods and professing humble allegence to Naomi’s God: Yahweh.

I agree that God’s graciousness and favor is pictured through Boaz toward Ruth. However, it is decidedly not because of Ruth’s worthiness, but because of her humble trust in Yahweh, under whose wings she sought refuge (cf. Psalm 57:1). This trust in Yahweh is, or course, reflected in her kindness and deeds to her mother-in-law. Nevertheless, it is Ruth’s faith in Yahweh that is the point in the text. So a more accurate picture is that the LORD God pours out his grace and favor on people who are a bad investment because they know they are a bad investment and turn to him in faith and trust anyway. God showering grace on “bad investments,” ironically, is in far greater alignment with the spirit and purpose of Lent than the message given by this teacher during a Lenten sermon.

Grace in the New Testament: A Really Bad Investment

Secondly, it is helpful at this point to briefly extend our discussion of this into the New Testament. This teacher’s presentation of the nature of God heavily tends toward an affirmation of self-righteousness. It is difficult not to see this as his main point (cf. his conclusion below). He is claiming that God “is willing, sacrifically, self-deny, give us everything, even at great cost to himself,” precisely because “he’s a God that sees you, not as a bad investment, but of worthy of belonging.” How is this good news to those who really can’t be convinced they are a good investment? I have in my congregation many whose life has been hard as a direct result of their own sin. They are past this sort of superficial, self-help, therapeutic narrative. They have been beaten down by life that comes as a result of their own decisions, their own failings, and their own sin. Frankly, the “Jesus died for you because you are worth it” message rings hollow. They know they are not.

Thankfully, this preacher’s depiction here is flatly at odds with the nature of the grace of God in the New Testament. There we regularly see assertions that we are not worthy in and of ourselves to merit God’s favor. The passages where this is evident are far too numerous to mention, but I will settle on one: Romans 5. Paul begins this chapter by pointing out that believers have “been justified by faith” and consequently have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). Paul continues with this profound statement: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8).

The teacher flatly claims that the reason Jesus came to live, die, and rise again was because we are worthy of it. Paul thinks otherwise. In fact, Paul’s whole argument in this section is based on the ridiculousness of dying for someone not worthy of it. It is rare to die in place of a righteous person or even to do so for a good person. But to die for unrighteous, ungodly and willfully rebellious people – sinners – is preposterous. However, that is precisely what Christ has done. In other words, Christ died for really, really bad investments. And it was this priceless purchase of a really bad investment, Christ dying in place of sinners, that Paul declares a demonstration of God’s love.

This, quite frankly, is a much fuller depiction of grace: Christ died for you because you weren’t worthy of it. Paul goes on to say that Christ went to the cross to save from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9), and that God, in Christ, reconciled his “enemies” (v. 10). It is tragically misleading to present the gospel as “Christ died because you are worth it.” The good news is that we can be saved by grace through faith despite not being worthy of it, despite being foreigners and enemies of God. This is a better, truer message: while we were still sinners – and not because we are worthy – Christ died for us. And it is to that message that we, borrowing language from Ruth, should say to Jesus, “Why have I found favor [grace] in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” Or enemy? Or sinner?

**********

Here is the fuller quotation for context:
“[Ruth speaking to Naomi] You, Naomi, are not a bad investment. You are worthy of belonging. And now at the city gate, Ruth is declared by Boaz worthy of hesed [the Hebrew word for covenant love and faithfulness]. That Boaz looks at Ruth and says, ‘You’re not a bad investment. You are worthy of love and belonging.’ As we journey through this Lenten season together, there is this reality that some of the most difficult work of the introspection that Lent calls us to is being able to identify these false narratives as being false narratives. Separating the false narratives from the true narrative about who we are. The reality is, is that every writer of the biblical text is seeking to answer one primary, particular question, and that is ‘Who is God?’ And the picture that we are offered here, as we are in so many other places in the text, is that the answer to ‘Who is God?’ is this: He is a God of hesed. He’s a God that sees you, not as a bad investment, but of worthy of belonging. He is willing, sacrifically, self-deny, give us everything, even at great cost to himself. Just as Boaz is doing with Ruth. Just as Ruth did with Naomi. This story is just waves of hesed crashing over us, that points to this more ultimate reality that our true story, because of who God is, because of the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus, our true story is that we are not a bad investment and we are, in fact, worthy of love and belonging. That is hesed. That is the story we are being told in Ruth. That’s why this crazy little book about a landowner and a Moabite woman, is here for us today. Because that’s the true story. …”

He then transitions to the Lord’s Supper by continuing,
“I think one of the primary reasons its important for us to gather like this time, and time again is to be told the story over, and over, and over again of who we really are. It is why we will come to the Table together today. Because the Table – Eucharist – represents the true narrative, the true story of who all of us are. That as you come and as you take that bread – which is the body of Christ broken for you – may you remember as you take that bread that you are seen by your God as not a bad investment. You are not a bad investment. And as you take that, and as you dip that into the cup, that that is the blood of Christ shed for you. And as you put that in your mouth that you are tasting hesed. That that taste in your mouth is this story being told to you again: You are worthy of love and belonging. We are told the other story so often, it is important that we come togetehr and remind ourselves of who we really are; what our true story really is. So as we get ready to come to the table, I invite you to pause and reflect for a moment. Identify those voices in your head that have been telling you this other story. And as you come up, that you would open yourself to this, the body and blood of Christ: the reality that you are not a bad investment. You are worthy of love and belonging.”

[1] The related verb is ānan and refers to the act of being gracious to or generous toward, take pity on. It is used to designate activities that are freely offered or received. In the divine/human sphere, the terms refer to God’s response to those to God is humility (Prov 3:34), repentance (Is 30:19), and faith (Prov 3:3–4; Ps 57:1). A search of this term in the Psalms is illuminating. It is impossible to find a single appeal by any Hebrew psalmist, “LORD show favor to me because I am worthy of it.” Rather, “O LORD, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!” (Psalms 41:4; Cf. Ps 51, 57, et al.).

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