|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES
|WIDOWS AND WHEATFIELDS: Compassion
Charles H. Dyer
I AM REVEALED
Nov 25 2012
IS COMPASSION OUT OF FASHION?
Warning! Too much compassion may be hazardous to your health! That could have been the title of a humorous article
that appeared in the Dallas Morning News. The writer described the most disastrous efforts of a kind librarian to help a
She was driving along and saw this man, standing beside his car, trying to flag somebody down. She stopped and he said
the battery was dead and asked if she’d mind giving him a shove to start his car.
rubber and came barreling like a missile toward the back of the man’s car. He turned white as a ghost, screamed,
prayed, jumped to the side of his car and started madly waving his arms. “No! Nooooo! Stop! Stoooopppp!” She
mashed hard on the brakes, skidded and managed to avoid a total disaster. “He did not,” she said, “ever tell me I
was supposed to put my bumper up against his first.”
We chuckle at this story because it reminds us of situations in our lives where a lack of understanding caused problems.
But the story has one sad twist. Most of us cannot fully relate to the librarian because we would never stop along the
highway to help a stranger. Our fear of being robbed – or worse! – keeps us in our cars with our windows up and our
doors locked. Compassion takes a back seat to fear.
But fear is not the fiercest foe of compassion. Selfishness is. The natural tendency is to “look out for ol’ number one –
myself.” We do not care for others because we are more absorbed with ourselves.
THE NATION’S “TERRIBLE TWOS”
The United States has barely passed through the celebration of its second century as a nation. Just out of diapers
historically, it’s a mere youngster among some other world civilizations. If the United States were an actual child, perhaps
we could attribute its present selfishness and violence to “the terrible twos” – that age when a formerly sweet
child becomes defiant.
The Bible presents a detailed account of another nation that struggled through its “terrible twos.” The nation was Israel.
Just two centuries after entering God’s Promised Land, Israel was out of control. Like the “terrible two” it was, the nation
stamped its feet and said no to God. Childish tantrums, foolish actions, and violent outbursts alternated with periods of
relative peace and calm. A strong, active parent can help modify these childish outbursts, but that leader was absent in
Israel. It was the time of the judges when “Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
A two-year-old without parental observation is a frightening thought. Picture your home being invaded by a curious,
unsupervised toddler. The potential for material damage or physical harm is immense! The child needs supervision.
But how does a selfish nation produce a compassionate king? Where could Israel turn to find the kind of leader it needed
in its time of desperation? God revealed the answer in the book of Ruth.
FROM BARRENNESS TO BLESSING
The historical background to the events recorded in the book of Ruth is given in 1:1 – “in the days when the
judges ruled.” This was a period of national, religious, and moral decay when foreign powers oppressed the people of
Israel. The difficulties experienced by the nation during the period of the judges resulted from their disobedience to God’s
law. From Moab and Midian in the east (Judges 3:12-14; 6:1), to the king of Hazor in the north (4:1-3), to the Philistines in
the west (13:1), Israel chafed under the yoke of foreign oppression. Hordes of men on camels swarmed through the
Jezreel Valley (6:3-5), and individuals had to harvest in secret to keep from having their meager resources looted (6:11).
Life in the times of the judges was harsh.
The individual story of God’s provision for Naomi through the faithfulness of Boaz and Ruth parallels the national story of
God’s provision for the nation through the descendant of Boaz and Ruth.
Naomi, her husband, and their two children crossed from Israel to Moab to pursue a better life. Refugees fleeing famine,
they hoped to start over in this new country. Excitement turned to grief, however, when Naomi’s husband died.
Naomi, now a middle-aged woman with two older sons, saw her options dwindle. The marriages of the sons to “foreign”
women caused a twinge of guilt, but the daughters-in-law proved to be wonderful wives who displayed great love for their
husbands and their new mother-in-law.
Tragedy struck less than ten years later when both sons died unexpectedly. Three grieving widows sat together lamenting
their unbearable misfortune when word arrived that the famine in Israel had ended. A bitter, barren Naomi summoned the
last of her resolve and decided it was time to return home.
Her faithful daughters-in-law obediently packed their belongings to join Naomi on her journey. Naomi released them from
their obligation and urged them to return to their families. Weeping, Orpah turned back, but the other refused to go.
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Ruth cared for Naomi, and her compassion came from the truth she had learned about Naomi’s God.
The journey from Moab to Bethlehem was brutal. They first had to cross the Dead Sea, doing so at the tongue of land
jutting out near the southern end. They then hiked north to En Gedi where a narrow pathway snaked its way up the steep
cliffs and into the rugged Judean Wilderness. The entire journey was sixty miles – four days of hard walking, down and up
thousands of feet in elevation, carrying everything (including water)! The long trek brought the exhausted women through
the twisted landscape of the Dead Sea and Judean Wilderness. Finally the two women walked wearily into Bethlehem.
Realistically, the situation looked grim for Naomi and Ruth. Both were widows without husbands to protect and provide for
them. They had no wealth, no resources, no prospects. The younger woman was a stranger who would face the stigma
and prejudice of being a “foreigner.” No strong government existed to care for them. This was the time of the judges,
remember. If two individuals ever needed compassion, Naomi and Ruth were the ones.
Along Comes Boaz
Striding across the opening verse of Ruth 2 is Boaz. Besides introducing him as a relative of Naomi’s former husband, the
writer also pictures him as “a man of standing” (2:1). In most Western countries today we associate that phrase with
wealth, power, prestige, leadership. And all of these are involved to some extent. Boaz does have enough wealth to
control numerous fields, and he maintains control over those who work for him. But the phrase also hints at Boaz’s moral
condition. He has a good reputation among the people. He is a man of integrity and character. He is a man of
compassion. And this side of his personality plays a key role in the remainder of the story. Boaz displays four
characteristics of compassion that made him a man of standing in Bethlehem.
He spoke kindly
Driven by a need to gather food for her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth made her way out to the fields of golden barley
that surrounded Bethlehem like a patchwork quilt. God’s Law allowed her to follow the workers and pick up those pieces of
grain they dropped. God had specifically told the Israelites, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the
very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 23:22).
Ruth, both poor and alien, certainly qualified for this provision!
Boaz visited his fields to supervise the harvest and observe the progress of his laborers. A social chasm separated Boaz
from his laborers. He was a man of standing, they were the hired servants. He owned the fields, they worked in them. It’s
natural for tensions to exist between owners and workers, between the haves and the have-nots. But Boaz didn’t look
down on his servants.
As Boaz arrived at the fields being harvested, he greeted the harvesters. “The Lord be with you!” They responded
in kind. “The Lord bless you!” Boaz’s words reveal this kind spirit. He cared for his workers, and he was verbal in
expressing his greeting and love. The workers’ response hints of their appreciation for him. Boaz was a kind employer,
and they respected him.
He cared deeply
Words are an important way to express compassion, but words ring hollow if they are not accompanied by actions. Boaz
could speak kindly because he was kindhearted. His care blazed most brightly when he spotted Ruth gleaning among his
workers. When Boaz asked the foreman about Ruth, the foreman gave a succinct answer (Ruth 2:6-7).
Boaz showed his care by providing for Ruth’s protection and provision. A single woman, especially a foreigner, faced
danger when she ventured alone into the fields. Boaz encouraged Ruth to stay with his reapers. “I have told the men not
to touch you” (Ruth 2:9). He also went out of his way to provide for her physical needs. “And whenever you are thirsty, go
and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” Boaz followed his words of kindness with specific actions.
He accepted warmly
Some might think Boaz was attracted to Ruth only because of her beauty, but the text suggests otherwise. Boaz was first
impressed by her faithfulness and devotion to her mother-in-law and by her hard work. After this kind protection Ruth
bowed in amazement and asked, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me – a foreigner?” (Ruth
2:10). Ruth realized that not all Israelites appreciated her presence. Though she had been in town only a short time, she
may already have heard the verbal slurs and seen the little signs of hostility that said, “You’re not one of us!” Why was
Boaz so different?
Boaz’s answer spoke volumes. “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law” (Ruth 2:11). When
Boaz looked at Ruth he did not see a Moabitess. Instead, he saw a daughter-in-law who cared so deeply for her mother-in-
law she was willing to risk racial slurs and personal attacks to provide the food her mother-in-law needed.
Boaz saw Ruth through the eyes of God. And he wished for God’s blessing to be on this kindhearted foreigner. “May the
Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings
you have come to take refuge” (Ruth 2:12).
Some in Bethlehem may have barely tolerated the presence of this foreigner in their midst. Perhaps they resented her
because of earlier battles between Moab and Israel. Certainly many Israelites lost their lives when Eglon king of Moab
oppressed Israel for eighteen years (Judges 3:12-14). Perhaps they begrudged her the pieces of grain she took from the
fields – grain they may have coveted for themselves. But Boaz was different. He saw her faithfulness and hoped the Lord
would bless her. Little did he know God would answer his wish…through him!
Ruth was appreciative. Though her social standing was lower than “one of your servant girls,” Boaz
displayed acceptance. That Boaz had “given [her] comfort” and “spoken kindly” (Ruth 2:13) – two basic acts of
compassion often in short supply overwhelmed Ruth.
He acted generously
Boaz had kind intentions, but his compassion was also practical. Words of comfort are nothing more than idle wishes
unless they are accompanied by generous deeds. We have all known individuals who “know all the right words” but who
never move their intentions from their mouth to their hands.
At midday the heat in Bethlehem was most oppressive. The sun shown directly overhead from a cloudless sky, its intensity
sapping the strength of those who had been at work since sunup. The workers drifted to the protection of the temporary
booths set up beside the fields. Here, clay pots held water while freshly roasted grain and bread provided nourishment for
the weary workers. Sprawling on the ground, the workers rested and shared the latest news and gossip. The shade was
refreshing, the water was cool, and the bread freshly baked. The hired laborers expected such arrangements, but the
owner had no obligation to provide for those who were not in his employment.
Ruth had no illusions of receiving special favors the morning she first went to the harvest fields. Her greatest hope would
be that no one would harass her. Boaz’s earlier words of kindness had taken her by surprise, but at noon he approached
her and said, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.” As Ruth stepped into the shade of the
booth with the other workers, “he offered her some roasted grain” (Ruth 2:14). Boaz’s generosity must have
amazed Ruth. “She ate all she wanted and had some left over.” Boaz was not stingy with his words of praise…or his food!
Boaz met Ruth’s immediate needs for food, rest, and shelter. But his generosity extended beyond those specific acts of
visible kindness. As she left, he turned to his men and ordered them to be inefficient harvesters for Ruth’s sake! “Even if
she gathers among the sheaves, don’t embarrass her. Rather, pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave
them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her” (2:15-16). Boaz provided for Ruth’s long-term needs, and he did so in
a way that protected her dignity.
After just one day, Naomi knew God was at work. When Ruth returned from the harvest, she carried over half a bushel of
grain. That was far more than one would expect for a single worker picking up stray pieces of grain that had fallen
from the harvesters’ hands. No wonder Naomi asked, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the
man who took notice of you!” (Ruth 2:19).
Boaz’s generosity extended throughout the barley and wheat harvests. For nearly two months Ruth worked alongside
Boaz’s laborers. She found protection, acceptance, and encouragement. In short, she found compassion.
THE RESULTS OF COMPASSION
One man’s compassion made the difference in the lives of two widowed women – Ruth and Naomi. The story provides a
bright spot in an otherwise dark chapter in Israel’s history. While everyone else was “doing what was right in their own
eyes,” Boaz did what was right in God’s eyes. But what difference could such acts of kindness make nationally? Could the
compassion of one man in one small town influence the entire nations? The final chapter of the book of Ruth says yes!
As in a charming fairy tale, Ruth and Boaz overcame adversity and got married. But instead of picturing the couple living
“happily ever after,” the writer ends by sharing the legacy the couple left that extended far beyond their days in Israel.
Ruth and Boaz had a son named Obed. That child grew up and had a son named Jesse. He grew up and had eight sons
– the youngest of whom became King David! The compassion of Ruth for Naomi and the compassion of Boaz for Ruth
ultimately produced Israel’s greatest king. The book that begins “in the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) ends with David,
the king who set the nation aright. The pivotal link in the transition from chaos to kingdom in the book of Ruth was the
compassion of Ruth and Boaz!
I first started teaching in 1981. In those earlier years of my teaching I was far more “academic” in my approach. I had
midterm and final exams because I wanted my students to memorize key Bible facts. But one summer my perspective
I was teaching my favorite class, a survey of the prophets, in a five-week summer session. I had midterm and final exams
already prepared. Everything was ready, and I was excited (perhaps even a bit proud). My students would come away
understanding each of the Old Testament prophets.
But something went radically wrong that summer. Over the five-week period I taught my course, three individuals whom I
had known while a student at seminary failed morally. Each destroyed his family, damaged a ministry, and brought
disrespect to the name of Christ. But how could it happen? We had sat through the same seminary classes, studied the
same Bible, taken the same tests. Yet the truth of God’s Word had somehow not penetrated their hearts. Something was
That traumatic summer changed my approach to teaching. As I prayed through what I could do to help other students
avoid those pitfalls, I concluded that merely memorizing facts was not enough. We can become hardened to God’s Word
unless we work to apply it to our lives. We can grow cold in our relationships with others unless we work hard to cultivate
compassion, concern, and care.
I replaced my midterm and final exams with “hesed projects,” and I still tell my students these are the most important
projects they will have to do all year. They must complete two such projects to pass any course I teach. But what is a
“hesed project”? Let me quote from my class syllabus.
Hesed is the Old Testament word for “loyalty love” that has the implied idea of loving faithfulness to a covenant
relationship. The Old Testament wisdom literature and prophets continually stress the need for covenant faithfulness –
both to God and to man. One danger in school is the tendency to become” hearers of the Word only” – to divorce
knowledge from response. Believers must take time to cultivate and maintain covenant faithfulness in their relationships
with others. These two hesed projects are given in place of midterm and final exams to give each student an opportunity
to find time to develop “loyalty love” with others.
Each “project” includes the following elements.
1. Plan an activity that you and someone else can do that will:
2. Participate in the activity.
3. Write a summary and turn it in on the midterm and final reports.
I encourage the students to be creative in planning projects. If they are married, they might want to go on a picnic, go to
the zoo, go biking with their family, or visit some other place they have never seen. For those who are married the
emphasis is on doing something the whole family can enjoy. If they are single, I tell them to take a friend to dinner, go on a
hike together, go fishing, or go to a sporting event. They are to take time to enjoy the fellowship of another’s company.
The response has been overwhelming. I have a file of cards, letters, and hand-drawn pictures from the spouses and
children of students thanking me for the hesed project assignment. I receive calls from former students who tell me they
still have family hesed projects.
Loyalty love and compassion fit together. Someone committed to a relationship will demonstrate care and compassion to
the other individual. In Lamentations 3 Jeremiah found God’s loyalty love and compassion to be twin pillars of hope.
“Because of the Lord’s great love (hesed) we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:
22). How deep is your reservoir of compassion?
CHARACTER COUNTS, by Charles H. Dyer, Copyright 2010, Moody Publishers.