When I was a little girl, we always went to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She would cook a feast, and I only have happy memories surrounding those meals and holidays. I didn’t realize at the time that my grandmother didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t give it a second thought because we always had plenty to eat. Her house was modest and not fancy, but it was what I’d always known. It was just grandma’s house. I don’t know much about the generations that came before my grandmother. I haven’t searched the genealogy websites for records detailing when my family came to America. But, I have a feeling they came as poor immigrants.
Jesus’ family was clear about their ancestry. In the book of Matthew, the first chapter is dedicated to tracing Jesus’ lineage to show that he was a descendant of great Jewish people, including King David. One of the women mentioned in the story is Ruth, Jesus’ great grandmother who lived many generations before his birth. Ruth, who is one of only two women with individual books in the Bible. We often talk about her story because of her dedication to her mother-in-law Naomi. When Naomi’s husband and adult sons died, leaving both she and her daughter-in-law Ruth widows, Ruth decides to leave her homeland of Moab to follow Naomi to Bethlehem in Judah.
In doing so, Ruth becomes not only a widow who is childless, but an immigrant in a strange land. She is a foreigner who is poor and takes on the responsibility of feeding herself and her mother-in-law. But with jobs unavailable, the only way to find food is to go behind the workers harvesting the fields and glean what they left or the crops at the edges as dictated by Jewish law. In the Old Testament, farmers are directed to leave a margin all around their fields to feed the poor and are counseled against harvesting twice. Lev. 19:9-10. They are told not to gather every little kernel, so the poor can come behind later and avoid starvation.
When Ruth meets Boaz, the owner of the field, he tells her to only glean in his fields. She asks, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” Boaz says he’s heard about all she’s done for her mother-in-law, how she left her native land. He then says, “may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” Ruth 2:10-13. Eventually, Ruth and Boaz marry and have a son who becomes the grandfather of King David. Matt. 1.
Generations later, Jesus is born into Joseph’s family making him a descendant of Ruth and King David. Jesus, himself, along with Mary and Joseph would become refugees in Egypt when Jesus was a young child. In theory, at least, Joseph could work to provide for them, and they had treasure from the wise men. Matt. 2:14-16, 19. But without Ruth’s determination to survive, none of the rest happens in the same way. She is essential to Jesus’ story.
In the youth Sunday School class that Ben and I teach, we’ve been studying the book, “And Social Justice for All,” by Lisa Van Engen this semester. We’ve discussed poverty, hunger, racism, immigration, disparities in education, lack of access to health care, poor drinking water, and the climate crisis. Many of the problems have common threads that are generational and systemic in nature. One of the goals of the book is to show young people that the problems in the world and in our country are closer to home than we might think. Your classmate may be hungry and that’s why he can’t focus. The girl who is super smart may not be able to go college because her family can’t afford it. The person working at the gas station may have fled a war-torn country and can no longer work as a doctor now that he lives here. The mom working three jobs feels she is failing because she doesn’t have much time to spend with her kids. We’ve talked about how we must open our eyes and our hearts to the plights of others. By serving others, we serve God.
I am not advocating for a particular set of policies to address the problems we face. They are complex and serious. But I feel we are called to learn about the issues in the world and address them with kindness and empathy. In this season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can view the many chances to help charities as “causes,” or we can think about the actual people who are in need. The faces, names, and lives of those who are desperate every day of the year, not just at the holidays. If it is hard for us to imagine the lives of those who suffer from any of these societal problems, maybe we can think of our grandmothers and remember that at one point, in generations past, it is altogether possible that one of our ancestors was a foreigner in a strange land seeking refuge. And if that’s not enough, think of the immigrant, widowed, poverty-stricken Ruth, Jesus’ ancestor, and thank God that he provided people to help her. May we help those living in the margins today.