The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet, 1857
If I had to name the writer I believe to be the very best at putting things clearly, it would be CS Lewis.
In one letter he wrote that one of the things a writer should do is make sure that what he has written cannot be taken to mean something other than what he intended to say. Seems like an obvious bit of advice, but it is easier said than done. Lewis does it, though. You may disagree with what he is saying, but you won’t mistake it; you’ll know what he intended. It may be provocative and it may be unpopular, but it is never vague.
And yet, and yet. . . when he tries to describe one of the great virtues, he seems to doubt that he is quite up to the task. The virtue I am talking about is humility. Lewis treats the subject perhaps most thoroughly in his most famous work, Mere Christianity, and he deals with it in that Chapter entitled The Great Sin.
The great sin, of course, is pride, which Lewis emphasizes is “the essential vice, the utmost evil”:
Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.
. . . pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.
Given the ruinous power of pride and its pervasiveness (Lewis says that it is the one vice of which no one in the world is free) we’d have to say that humility is an accordingly important virtue. If it is pride that leads to every other vice, we might fairly say that it is the virtue of humility that leads to – or allows one to see and consider – every other virtue.
And yet. . . and yet . . . when Lewis discusses humility in the chapter, he spends most of his time telling us what it is not. Time well spent, in my view, because we do have this erroneous idea that prevails that humility is the same thing as modesty. Often the “modesty” we see exhibited day to day is false modesty, another dress put on to make the wearer appear virtuous.
The Bible contains many different kinds of writing.
Some of it, perhaps those parts with which we are most familiar, are direct pronouncements: “Blessed are the meek,” says our Lord Jesus Christ, “for they shall inherit the earth.” And then: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son. . . .”
But the Book of Ruth is not that kind of writing. This book reads more like a short story. By its own terms, it is historical – it is a story about real events that happened to real people. But it is, nonetheless, a story. It is the work of a writer who planned it and put in what he or she wanted and, likewise, left out what she didn’t. It has a plot and characters and it unfolds to a climactic and happy ending. Although it has much to tell us about God, it is not what you would call a tract. It’s not in your face about faith or salvation. It’s a story, and one that anyone could enjoy, no matter how they feel about religion or the faith of the Bible.
We Christians should not feel uncomfortable with this literary form; it was a favorite vehicle of our Lord, who time after time told stories to make his points about the character of God and the nature of His kingdom.
What other chapters in the Bible may tell us through straight-out pronouncements, the Book of Ruth shows us through human drama. And one thing it quite poignantly and accurately portrays is the virtue of humility.
Most folks would point immediately to Ruth’s decision to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, out of Ruth’s homeland and into Israel where she would be a sojourner and alien, without standing or means. That’s humility – Ruth does not put her own interests first. From a selfish point of view, Ruth’s prospects would have been immeasurably better if she would have taken Naomi’s first advice and returned to Moab and her mother and father and to a real possibility of another marriage and the establishment of another home.
I’ve got no argument with that, but my attention is drawn elsewhere in the story and particularly to Ruth’s decision to go a’gleaning. It’s her idea. Nobody suggests it to her and there are good reasons why they wouldn’t have. Gleaning is hard work. It’s done in the heat of the late summer when the crops are being harvested and it consisted of picking up those pieces of the crop that no one else wanted. It’s hard, sweaty work and it is done with only the prospect of meager, subsistence-type reward. Moreover, it involved a certain amount of risk to Ruth.
This may be just a ”guy –thing” and something that many may criticize me for, but I think Ruth was something of a looker. And I think that fact is important to the story.
What is my evidence in support of that?
- Boaz’s immediate interest in Ruth when he first sees her in his field. Yes, of course, the story tells us plainly that Boaz was impressed with Ruth’s character. He knows of Ruth’s selfless act of devotion to Naomi and to Israel’s God, but Boaz’s immediate attention to Ruth is before he knows who she is. Tell me, he says, who is this new girl in my field. Maybe these are just the words of a good steward of the land who wants to know who is active on his property, but the man in me says “no.” I think the writer is telling us – without saying it directly – that Boaz found something attractive about Ruth at first sight.
- Boaz’s statement to Ruth when she presents herself to him as a potential marriage partner. As Eugene Peterson translates it, Boaz tells Ruth:
. . . you could have had your pick of any of the young men around.
- And there is simply no disguising Boaz’s ecstasy when Ruth makes her proposal of marriage to him. If this were simply a matter of Boaz doing the duty that the customs of the day imposed on him I don’t think we would see the enthusiastic speech and the careful and immediate execution of a plan to make the marriage happen.
I may not be a Hebrew and I may not know much about the customs and sensibilities of the people who lived in Israel a thousand years before Christ. But I am a guy and this evidence speaks pretty clearly to me. In getting Ruth as a wife, Boaz thinks he has won the lottery (and he has) and maybe that is because he’s so impressed with her character (he is and he is right to be) but there is something in his tone of voice and in his immediacy of decision and response that tells me that there is something else at work here. Something elemental, fundamental.
Why do I think that’s so important? Well, think of it this way: what if this story were made into a movie and we see Ruth the young woman marching into the hot field to labor all day; would we see the story differently if the actor cast to play Ruth was Jennifer Lawrence than if it were Rosie O’Donnell?
And before you go accusing me of the worst chauvinism, let me explain that if Ruth is who I think she was, her decisions are all the more heroic, all the more emblematic of the virtue of humility. Because, you see, someone like the Jennifer Lawrence Ruth has so much more at stake. As she decides in favor of Naomi and further decides to place herself in the field of the most grueling and least rewarding labor, she is giving up real alternatives.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis tells us not to imagine that:
if you meet a really humble person he will be what most people call”humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.
That’s what I see in Ruth – an particularly in her decision to go a’gleaning. She was faced with duties and not-very-promising opportunities. But she took what she had. She did what she could, even though many in her position would have considered that beneath them.
Oh boy. What happens to the truly humble? Let’s go back to some of those parts of the Bible that are straightforward declarations. Here is one about humility that is attributed to King Solomon:
By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life.
Oh, yeah. The Book of Ruth shows us exactly that! Ruth humbles herself to the lowest station of life and receives wealth – pressed down, overflowing, shaken together, so great that she can “scarce receive it.” And she receives honor – a new status in her marriage to Boaz – a man of wisdom and consequence! And life! In Ruth’s case, a life that goes on and on through her children and posterity who include King David and our Lord Jesus Christ!