An Unhurried Life

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Throughout November we’re taking an in-depth look at Ruth, the little book that helped pave the way for God’s Messiah to come into the world.

Fifty years ago a pair of sociologists conducted a famous experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dan Batson and John Darley invited a group of students to prepare sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan – Jesus’ classic text about offering the gifts of time and personal sacrifice to help someone in need.  The preachers-in-training would have to walk across the campus, one by one, to the place where their homiletical masterpieces would be presented and evaluated. 

The researchers didn’t reveal, however, that they were throwing the students a couple of curveballs. 

The first involved an imposed time constraint.  Some of the students were told, “You’re late – they’re waiting for you across campus.”  Others were told, “You should try to get there pretty soon.”  Still others were assured, “There’s no rush.  Head over whenever you can.”  These conditions were designated high-hurry, intermediate-hurry, and low-hurry.

The second surprise factor was a coughing, slouching derelict – an actor hired by the sociologists – who was plainly visible to the students as they walked by.

Would someone about to lift up the powerful example of the Good Samaritan be willing to stop and help a person in need?

It mostly came down to who was in a hurry.

Only 10% of the students in the high-hurry group – moving quickly on their way to sharing deep spiritual insights concerning the importance of helping those in obvious need – stopped to help someone in obvious need.  45% of the intermediate-hurry group paused to offer assistance, as did 63% of the low-hurry group.  Batson and Darley concluded that thinking about the Good Samaritan (even to the point of doing in-depth research) did not necessarily increase helping behavior.  You can get in A in theology, in other words, but still flunk life.

More significantly, people in a hurry are the least likely to live out what they say they believe.

Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual health.  In the words of the psychologist Carl Jung, “Hurry is not of the devil.  Hurry is the devil.” 

The greatest danger of living a hurried lifestyle is the way it prevents us from loving others.  Love takes time.  And time is the very thing that hurried people think they don’t have. 

Jesus was often busy.  But as we read the four New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) we never get the feeling that he is in a rush.  By contrast, hurried people have disoriented calendars and disoriented hearts.  “Sunset fatigue” is the term that describes the physical and emotional exhaustion one might feel at the end of the day.  Having poured ourselves out in an effort to check everything off our oh-so-important lists of things to do, the people to whom we have made life’s most important promises – the people we love – get the leftovers.   “Relational hydroplaning” means we skim the surface of key relationships, not taking the time or making the time simply to be present.

Now we can see Boaz with new eyes.

He is not in a hurry.  He takes the time to notice Ruth.  He perceives the reality of her needs.  He isn’t in a rush to move on to his next task. 

Boaz treats Ruth as someone who is worthy of God’s care, and therefore worthy of his own compassion.  Notice the tender way in which he describes God as the one “under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”  The next time you hear someone suggest that the Old Testament typically portrays God as a distant and demanding Judge, steer them to Ruth 2:12, where the Lord is likened to a mother bird sheltering its young.

Five verses later we read, “So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening.  Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah” (Ruth 2:17).

There’s a lot going on in this verse that we are likely to miss, but which would not have been lost on the original readers. 

After working in the fields until dusk, Ruth’s day is still far from over.  Now it’s time to thresh the barley.  A few years ago I got to visit an educational site in Israel where guests can try their hands at performing everyday tasks that date back to Bible times.  I threshed some grain and then ground it into flour with a stone hand mill.  I cannot overstate how many minutes it took to generate just a handful of flour.  We who are used to dropping into the local grocery to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home have little idea how much patience and sweat are required to transform just a little bit of standing grain into a few bites of daily bread.

At the end of one day in the field, Ruth brings home an ephah of barley.  So how much is an ephah? 

That’s easy.  It’s one-twentieth of a homer.  How much is a homer?  A homer was the amount of grain that could be carried on the back of a donkey.  The name refers to the fact that after you loaded up that much grain, the donkey would go,“D’oh!” 

If that makes no sense to you, I encourage you to consult with someone who watches The Simpsons, who can therefore introduce you to Homer, the head of the household. 

Ruth returns home that evening to Naomi with an ephah, which is approximately one bushel of grain.  That’s enough to provide bread for these two women for an entire week. 

Here’s how one of the original readers would have understand this text: “The man who helps Ruth on her first day out in the fields takes the time to notice her, respects her, and is crazy generous with her.”  Naomi is astonished.  She asks, “Where did you glean today?”  Ruth answers, “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz.”

And just like that, Naomi is struck by a wonderful new thought:

Maybe God is at work behind the scenes after all. 

That’s where we’ll pick up the story tomorrow.