Well Behaved Women

This is a sermon I preached many years ago in chapel at Columbia Theological Seminary, in the days before Marci had a blog. 

The story of Ruth is in the Narrative Lectionary this week, and while this is not the sermon I’m preaching Sunday, it still has something to say.

Ruth 4:9-10a and 13-17
1st Timothy 2:8-15

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi

“Well behaved women rarely make history,” or so the saying goes.

What good news for me! 

The book of Ruth bears that out. The only well behaved woman in this story is Orpah, who when Naomi tries to dismiss her Moabite daughters in law back to their families so she can return to her hometown of Bethlehem, Orpah is the one who kisses her and says goodbye. Never to be heard from again until Oprah Winfrey was named for her.  If only that clerk had spelled her name correctly on the birth certificate.

But, as it is, the women we remember from this story are Ruth and Naomi. Two different generations, brought together in a story of survival, mutual dependence, and ultimately, of legacy and history.

Naomi and her husband, Elimilech, have two kids. I guess when you name your children during a famine, you think that “Consumption” and “Sickness” are good names for boys, because that is what Mahlon and Chilion mean. Consumption and Sickness.  The family has gone across the Jordan river and up into the hills and plains of Moab to try to survive the famine. Both boys marry Moabite women. The story tells us that Elimilech and his two sons all die, leaving the women to survive on their own, without male protection, without social security benefits, without 401k’s.

And so the women do what women have done throughout history. They make the best of their circumstances. For Orpah, it means going home to her parents. For Ruth, it involves hitching her wagon to Naomi’s star. “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.”

The narrative is spare. We hear the results of their conversations, but the author doesn’t tell us how the conversation went down.

For instance, how do you think Naomi reacted when Ruth came back from gleaning in the field with far more grain than a gleaner should have been able to glean? “Ruth. You got that much grain how? I have a name in this town, missy. What exactly did you glean?”

Or how do you think it went when Naomi told Ruth to put on her pretty dress and go to the threshing floor? “You want me to go where and uncover what? Are you pimping me out? Are you serious?”

So we don’t know how either woman arrived at her decisions, but we know that they were both willing to do what needed to be done to survive. In a world where women had no rights and few options, these women joined together. At the beginning of the story, Naomi’s inheritance is going to be the death of her children. She asks that her friends call her Mara, or bitterness.

At the end of the story, her inheritance is far different. She becomes the grandmother of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, the father of David—the king to whom Jesus’ lineage is traced and to whom Israel will look back for their identity.

And while it is a happy ending, of sorts, Ruth is still “acquired” in a transaction by Boaz at the city gates. As honorably as Boaz behaves in this story, he still buys her as property. No matter how brilliant and gifted Naomi and Ruth are, they are lauded in the story only because Ruth gets pregnant and bears a son. At the end of the story, Boaz is still Boaz and Ruth is still a Moabite woman—being acquired at the city gates and praised for her fertility. As a mother of sons, I don’t discount what must have been her joy in parenthood. But there were many other God given gifts in Ruth that her society never allowed her to share.

At the end of this story, the social order has not been overturned. Women have not gotten the right of inheritance. This is not women’s liberation. Ruth and Naomi do not decide they have had enough of being somebody’s wife and decide to open a Cafe on Main Street in Bethlehem. So what do we do with a text that finds its triumph in the purchase of a woman?

Do we decide this story has nothing to offer 21st century folks who would never compromise their values? Do we dismiss them because they perpetuated a patriarchal system?

I hope  not.

Because their actions bore fruit. It took a number of generations, but Jesus was born in their town, from their family tree. And when Jesus entered the scene everything was different. He brought new life, a new creation to both men and women. The gospel narratives are full of women, traveling with him, eating meals with him, encountering him at the tomb. No small thing from a culture where women were treated as property. Our sisters’ voices come to us from those Gospel accounts, from Acts—giving us courage to encounter Jesus today. inspiring us to proclaim the good news.

We hear those voices in Timothy’s church. How I would love to meet these sisters of our faith. Upon hearing the GOOD NEWS of Jesus Christ, they were compelled to preach, to teach, and apparently with authority. And they seem to have done it while wearing their hair in braids and with lots of gold and jewels.  How do we know they were doing it? Because the writer of the letter takes great pains to tell them to STOP doing it. These women were so transformed by the revelation of Christ that they believed Paul’s words that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male and female. And they took to preaching the gospel. And please don’t think I take this text lightly. This is a text I live with each day in my ministry.

And while the author’s questionable exegesis of Genesis 2 did make it into the canon of scripture, it did not stop women from preaching.

I am able to stand here today because their faith is bearing fruit in our world.

But there are still women who are denied the freedom to respond to their call to preach within their faith tradition.

There is the older woman who came up to me after I preached a few weeks ago and said, “I always wanted to be a preacher, but it wasn’t a choice for us back then.”

There is the woman who, upon finding out I intended to go to seminary, asked me how I reconciled my plans with what God had to say in the Bible.

There is my friend Kelley, who when she was the associate pastor at a church we served, was routinely greeted after she preached with comments like “I don’t think women should be preachers. But that was a damn fine sermon.”

I know those stories are echoed in other people’s experience.

And I think of how sexism has hurt men too. I don’t know if the situation caused Boaz any pain. His story may not have troubled him, but it troubles us. When he was protecting the lives of 2 women, did it occur to him how unjust it was that all women were in such a precarious place? Would he have cared that Ruth only came to him on the threshing floor because he was a man who could provide safety and security for her and not because of his gifts from God?

And how did the church get from the picture we have in the gospels and Acts, where women are leading, financially supporting, and evangelizing the faith to the situation in 1st Timothy? How, in a few short generations, were women cut out of the picture?

The author of 1st Timothy was clearly troubled and perhaps threatened by a church in which women were preaching and teaching.  Was it hard enough for him, as a representative of this fledgling religion, to convince his pagan or Jewish neighbors that Christianity was a legitimate member of the monotheistic tradition without these WOMEN flouting all social and societal conventions and preaching? Is that how he justified ignoring Paul’s words in Galatians about male and female, or the words in Corinthians about a New Creation? What did he say to his wife? “Honey, listen. I know you are mad at me. But if we upset too many people, the authorities will arrest us and then where will we be? As soon as people calm down a little about Jesus being God, we’ll let women preach again. I promise. You just have to be patient.”

I, of course, have no idea if 1st Timothy’s author was conflicted at all about his comments. But we are. It reminds us of the moderate white Christians who told Martin Luther King, Jr. that the time had not quite come for civil rights. The same struggles facing the church right after Jesus’ resurrection are still with us today.

Because we live in this world of the “already not yet”. We know that God calls for the flourishing of all of God’s children, and yet slavery still exists, patriarchy and sexism still exist, homophobia still exists. Women are still being bought and sold at the city gates.

But we have faith that we live, as Lou Martyn writes,  in the “time after the apocalypse of the faith of Christ, the time of things being set right by that faith, the time of the presence of the Spirit.” * Naomi and Ruth’s great-great-great-great grandson, the legacy of their cooperation, became our savior, who has abolished the dividing walls between man and woman, gay and straight, red state and blue state.

In Christ, we live as people of hope. So how do we go about it?

Do we survive? Do we make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves? Like Ruth and Naomi, using their gifts to manipulate the system that considered them no better than property? Or like Boaz, who used his position of respect in the community, not to change the system, but to save two women.

Or do we fight? Like the women in Timothy’s church, who knew full well that women did not preach in the synagogues, but did it anyway, because they were compelled to respond to God’s call?

However we decide to respond to this new hope we have in Christ, it seems clear that we must stand together.

I know that I am standing on the shoulders of the women who have gone before me. Because of battles they have fought, you have fought, the way is largely clear for me. And I watch the next generation coming up behind me, the generation for whom Title 9 was a reality, rather than a new experiment. And I see the future wide open for them, for you.

I feel as if I am between Ruth and Naomi—seeing both generations with their different responses to the issues women face in ministry and not always understanding each other’s experience. Rather than uniting in our quest for the flourishing of all people, we disagree over tactics and responses.

This is not unique to this community. It would not surprise us to discover that many of the voices in Timothy’s church, calling for the women to stop preaching, were women. And what story would we be telling today had Ruth and Naomi not come together?

What is our inheritance going to be?

The story of Ruth makes clear that when women look out for each other, their inheritance is one of legacy. Of history. Of setting in place a lineage that will result in the birth of the very child of God who sets this table. A legacy of empowering the women and men who come after us to work even more boldly for the Gospel of Christ Jesus and the flourishing of all God’s children, that here, there may be room for all.


* J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Abingdon Press,  1997)

3 thoughts on “Well Behaved Women

  1. spouse ordained 1980 June 15 (in Millburn, NJ, Wyoming Presbyterian Church), four years First Presbyterian Church, New Vernon, NJ – until 1984, then twenty-seven at Burke Presbyterian Church “called” to senior pastor until honorable retirement 2011 four years ago, now at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC, parish associate – volunteer.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “There is the older woman who came up to me after I preached a few weeks ago and said, “I always wanted to be a preacher, but it wasn’t a choice for us back then.”
    There is the woman who, upon finding out I intended to go to seminary, asked me how I reconciled my plans with what God had to say in the Bible.
    There is my friend Kelley, who when she was the associate pastor at a church we served, was routinely greeted after she preached with comments like “I don’t think women should be preachers. But that was a damn fine sermon.”

    Three sentences. Simple statements. Matter of fact. But I want to scream: it was NOT alright and it IS NOT alright. We can have discussions and we should have discussions, but holding people back because it is not just quite the time; not just the right thing for now.
    I know: I probably should be more patient (and this maybe off-topic) and I should not alienate people because it will not help the cause. But there were a lot of people telling us that it was too risky and too early to bring gay marriage to the Supreme Court. They were wrong and I’m glad others took the risk.

    Thanks for writing these three sentences. They woke up a fighting spirit again. You and the two leading democratic candidates for president who support each other, are civil and don’t insult each other. There is hope !

    Thanks Marci!

    Liked by 2 people

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