Skivers, tax-avoiders and the generosity of God (Ruth 2)

Homeless man - flickr Creative Commons

Homeless man – flickr Creative Commons

It is hard for the rich to be generous.

 

This sounds counter-intuitive. Surely it’s harder for the poor to be generous? When you have so many extra resources you can spare them, you can afford to be more generous than those who have little.

 

This is true, yet it’s often the poor who are most generous. I noticed this in Africa.

 

I was doing a Holiday Club for children in Zimbabwe. I knew the drill, I had run dozens of Holiday Clubs in Britain. You did a craft and they would carefully take it home to show their parents. On this occasion, they baked cupcakes. At the end, they offered some to us. We smiled at how polite they are, thanked them, told them it was theirs to enjoy and they should take it home and eat it with their family.

 

In Britain, those children would have thanked us and taken them all home. A really generous British child might have given us one of the six cakes and we would have had tears in our eyes at how adorable they were.

 

These kids didn’t play by these rules. “No, no – really – have some,” they said. They took the cupcakes and put them into our hands. They were distributing them liberally. “Eat them, enjoy them.”

 

We British leaders were confused. “Don’t you like them?” we asked.

 

They looked blankly at us. “It’s good to share,” they replied.

 

I felt hollow. We had taught them all that week that it was good to share – but that’s just the thing you say to kids because you know they won’t do it. It was a shock to discover that someone actually believed it.

 

We sat and ate with them. It was indeed good to share, and it did something weird to my heart.

 

*****

 

There is a lot of noise from politicians today about so-called ‘strivers’ (those who earn a wage) and ‘skivers’, (those in receipt of benefits). Well, Ruth was a skiver: she was entirely dependent on handouts from those in power. If you recall, Ruth has crazily left the security of her home and family to come to the Lord’s country. She decides to work by gleaning and walks into that most miraculous of fields – one run by someone who happens to be obeying God’s law.

 

Boaz is a man of standing, a man with responsibility and wealth. he has workers and respect – he holds all the power. He could have abused his power so easily, and there are clues in the chapter that other men would have done so without a second thought.

 

But Boaz is different. He greets his workers with ‘The Lord Bless you’ and his actions show these words to be a prayer, not just something you say to tick the holiness box. He reveres God and takes His law seriously.

 

The law said that you were not allowed to super-efficiently harvest your fields for every last scrap, but only go over them once, leaving the bits at the edge for anyone who needed the food to gather it. Our tax system mimics this: we are not to keep 100% of our profits but they are distributed among the poor, sick and unemployed in our society.

 

And like our time, people were keen to get around these laws however they could. But Boaz was different. Boaz was not a tax-avoider. In fact, remarkably, Boaz goes beyond this, telling the workers not to harm Ruth, sharing his own lunch with Ruth, instructing the workers to allow her to glean even among the good crop, and even to pull out some stalks for from the bundles. Boaz is JK Rowling – happily paying his taxes and giving money to charity above and beyond that.

 

Ruth ends up with so much barley that Naomi cannot believe it. Boaz doesn’t just ‘do his bit’. He is crazily generous, ridiculously so, just as Ruth was stupidly generous to follow her mother-in-law to a foreign country. They are a good match.

 

Boaz’s heart beats with God’s own love for the poor and the vulnerable. He doesn’t shame Ruth. He doesn’t make her beg. He doesn’t give her grain in return for turning a blind eye while his workers molest the foreigner ‘because men have needs too, you know’. He goes out of his way to ensure she has more than enough.

 

And how does he interact with such a sponger? When Ruth comes to thank him, he doesn’t bask in his glory as beneficent provider, modestly reflecting on how grateful he is that God has given him so much and how he can help those less fortunate. His focus is on God and on Ruth, not himself: “Are you kidding? You have been amazing to Naomi – to leave your family and home like that and come to all the way here to live with us, just to make sure she was okay? Just – wow. You’re the blessing, not me. I’m just so pleased you’ve taken that courageous step of coming to God – may you find shelter under his wings. I’m so grateful you’re here and I pray that God will bless you abundantly. Thank you.”

 

Boaz’s actions shame me. The focus of his heart – on others and God – exposes my self-centred core.

 

But who deserves such generosity? We need to be practical here. I come back with the arguments: we can’t give to everyone. and what about those who have trapped themselves in poverty and just come begging? Surely we shouldn’t have to give our hard-earned profits to them? Don’t they need to learn from their mistakes first before we help them out?

 

In his book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller points out that if we hesitate to give to those who seem ‘undeserving’ then we are hypocrites. God gave to us when we were undeserving. God’s generosity will always far exceed our own. We don’t make judgements, we just give generously.

 

So this is how we should do justice, like Boaz: with hearts that echo God’s generous heart; with eyes that see the person and raise them up. Boaz honours Ruth as an equal, not an object of his charity; as a woman, not as a project.

 

We are generous – crazily, foolishly – because God has been crazily generous to us. This is our God: the Father who did not spare His own son but gave Him for us all; the Son who was rich beyond all telling yet became poor so that we by his poverty might become rich; the Spirit who is poured out abundantly, generously on the church, who gives us gifts.

 

It is harder for the rich to be generous.

 

Let’s not just reserve one of our cakes to parcel out to the most deserving. Let’s be foolishly, extravagantly generous.

 

I speak this to myself and I squirm as I see the hardness of my own heart, beating like a closed fist; shut tight like a padlocked treasure chest.

 
Over to you:

  • How easy do you find it to be foolishly generous?

 
I am itching to dig a little into the Bible. I want to hear the whisper of God in the words and lives of Bible characters. Over these next few weeks I will be doing a series on the book of Ruth, to look again at the story breathed out by God and let it write me.

 
Do read the relevant passage and join in with your responses to (and questions of) the passage in the comments.

  • Thurs 21 Feb – Ruth 1
  • Thurs 7 Mar – Last-minute God - Ruth 1, part 2
  • Thurs 14 Mar – Ruth 2
  • Thurs 21 Mar – Ruth 3
  • Thurs 28 Mar – Ruth 4 and overview

 

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17 Responses to Skivers, tax-avoiders and the generosity of God (Ruth 2)

  1. Mark Allman 15th March, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    I want to be like this: “He is crazily generous, ridiculously so”. Not only of my possessions but of myself. My time, and my resources to make an impact. I would rather do it anonymously. I do think we should be wise about how we give but at the same time I think we should be ok if we are “taken” when we give and the gift is not used as it should be. We are not responsible for how our gifts are used. We should not try to figure it all out. I think if we think we should give then give and let the rest work itself out however it will.
    I consider it an honor to be able to give. I do not want to give to get any reward at all either from man or from God. I want to give because it is the right way to live.

  2. Liz Eph 15th March, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Absolutely. Well put. x
    Liz Eph recently posted…Concretewords : The BottleMy Profile

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks, Liz!

  3. Alice 15th March, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    Your analogy of JKR and a skiver is amazing – it reflects it so well. This is such a challenge – as we looked at this passage in bible study group I was amazed that Boaz goes SO FAR beyond the basic expectation of the law – and that’s the definition of generosity I guess – giving more when you could give less and get away with it.

    Wow, I can’t even begin to talk about how this challenges me.
    Alice recently posted…My ManifestoMy Profile

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks so much for your encouragement, lovely lady! It means so much to me.

  4. Stephanie 15th March, 2013 at 4:39 am #

    This is so, so good. Thank you.

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      Thank you!!

  5. Diana Trautwein 14th March, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    LOVE this, Tanya. I am gestating a sermon right now for Sunday on John 12:1-8 – the anointing in Bethany – and the title is, “Scandalous, Extravagant Love.” LOVE when I see the Spirit stirring similar ideas in far-flung places at the same time. I’m discovering this is a theme that shows up in scripture again and again. And I think BOTH Boaz and Ruth model God in this story, our scandalously extravagant God. Thanks for this.
    Diana Trautwein recently posted…Suffering As Teacher — A Guest Post for Tanya MarlowMy Profile

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      How cool!! My husband was preaching on that passage this week too (the anointing at Bethany) and saying how it prophetically spoke of Jesus’ extravagant love for us on the cross. It really brought it alive for me.

      I’m really glad you loved this post, Diana. :-)

  6. Joy Lenton 14th March, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    This is brilliant, Tanya. Such interesting ideas and comparisons to place Ruth’s story firmly in the here and now – including our own tax system and welfare state. I’d never looked at it like that before! It really makes the narrative come alive. I love how you are putting flesh and bones on these biblical characters with such empathy and sensitivity. Each week brings a fresh, lively approach to the topic which makes your readers long for the next episode.

    Giving generously of our money, gifts, talents, energy and time is a real challenge to us all. No matter what our income may be, we can all contribute something: love, grace, encouragement, prayers etc. Some of the greatest gifts are those that cost nothing in monetary terms. It is especially moving when those with little in a material sense are often the ones with the largest hearts. A lesson here, perhaps, in not allowing consumerism to consume us – heart and soul.
    Joy Lenton recently posted…I’ll tell you what I want..My Profile

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:47 am #

      Thanks, Joy – it always encourages me to hear people say that my writing brings the Bible alive – that is my passion! ‘Not allowing consumerism to consume us’ – I love that phrase. Thank you.

  7. Jo 14th March, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    Wow, what a great post. Interesting comparison between the law to leave some grain for the poor and our tax system – haven’t thought of it like that before.

    When I read through Ruth last year it made me think a lot about the interplay between kindness/goodness/generosity and faith, because Ruth’s faith journey – if there is one – seems to me to happen in the context of her already being a kind, good, generous person. When Naomi tells her to return to her people and her gods in chapter 1, it’s Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi that seems to motivate her to go with her to Israel and adopt her people and her God, more than any personal faith commitment she may have had. Worshipping Israel’s God seems simply a bi-product of living in Israel, and living in Israel is a bi-product of her relationship with Naomi. Not sure really what my point is (haha), it just made me wonder because we tend to assume that all the Biblical heroes had a super strong faith, but to me it doesn’t seem like that was necessarily the case for Ruth, at least to begin with.

    • Tanya 18th March, 2013 at 11:46 am #

      Yes – it is always an interesting question to me to consider how much of Ruth’s faith was there, and whether it grew. I think there could be a possibility of her seeing something good in God through Naomi. It’s hard to say, because even those who have a firm faith like Boaz (as evidenced by his actions and keeping the law) don’t specifically say too much about God or talk directly to God, so it may be that Ruth also loved God…? Who knows! In any case, as you say, it is a real encouragement that the Bible heroes aren’t always, well, heroic…!

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment.

      • Jo 18th March, 2013 at 2:31 pm #

        Yeah that’s true about Boaz, and I guess you could contrast Boaz’s strong faith and action with Naomi’s disappointment in God and her bitterness. But the role faith plays for Ruth herself isn’t really clarified. Maybe she loved God throughout, maybe her faith grew, I wonder if it’s deliberate that we’re not told! Makes me think about how much of faith is our beliefs versus our actions, how much is personal versus community based. Maybe we sometimes place disproportionate emphasis on “But is that person a Christian?” rather than celebrating goodness wherever we find it.

  8. Lucy 14th March, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks so much Tanya for this excellent, thought-provoking and challenging commentary on Ruth. I so need to hear this right now, and will be delving into Ruth the first moment I get in order to glean (no pun intended!) the wisdom you’ve started to pull out for me. We’re having one of those weeks where every day is a new – massive – challenge from God about our giving and generosity. Just when you’re still mulling over one challenge – BAM! comes the next. (Being British, we haven’t yet acted on any of God’s promptings…) Yesterday, when my husband came home from work, I was trying to rack my brains for what God had challenged me on that day, since I’d come to expect a horrendous ask daily…! But today I think he’s speaking to me through your blog – so thank you. :) xx

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