Alistair Mackenzie, teaching fellow, Laidlaw College
William Messenger, executive editor, Theology of Work Project
Note: This article explores a touchpoint for curricular integration from the ON’s annual curricular integration workshop.
This is the second part of a two-part article.
As we have seen, the book of Ruth has implications for ethics, economics and workplace environments. Theological students need to understand how biblical books like Ruth can inform the way Christians think about and live out their lives in the workplace.
Guarding against Harassment in the Workplace
In this story there are two people – Naomi and Boaz – very concerned about Ruth’s safety and reputation, particularly regarding the danger of sexual harassment. In Ruth 2:22, Naomi makes plain that Boaz, as a relative, has an obligation to help look after Ruth, saying, “It is good that you can pick up grain alongside the women who work in his field. Who knows what might happen to you in someone else’s field.” Boaz himself goes to Ruth and says “I think it would be best for you not to pick up grain in anyone else’s field. Stay here with the women….I have warned the men not to bother you”(Ruth 2:8).
In the light of the romantic direction this story takes it is easy to assume that more personal reasons lead to Boaz’s protection of Ruth. But these words were said when they first met and probably should be understood as the genuine concern of a conscientious businessperson taking care of those who work in his organization – particularly this solitary, vulnerable, foreign, female migrant. Boaz turns his personal concern into a workplace policy by advising his other workers how to treat Ruth and also advising Ruth where she is likely to be safe. Like Boaz, Christians are called to both refrain from harassment and to create, as much as possible, safe work environments.
Full Inclusion in the Workplace
Boaz does much more than protect Ruth from sexual harassment. He invests in her full inclusion in the workforce. Ruth is to have equal access to water (Ruth 2:9) and to the lunch table (Ruth 2:14). At meal time, Boaz invites Ruth to come sit with him and his workers and to dip her morsel of bread in his sauce (Ruth 2:14). Then he serves her until she is more than satisfied. The regular employees are to make Ruth’s work environment as secure as possible and to go out of their way to assist her in achieving her work tasks (Ruth 2:15–16).
Boaz’s actions are an investment in Ruth’s productivity. As a member of the work group, she could come up to speed on the best practices for each crop according to the local conditions, which would be different from what she was trained to do in Moab. She learned how to work both the barley harvest and the wheat – developing skills in multiple areas, or cross-training in today’s business terminology. In the group she could benefit from teamwork rather than having to perform every task on her own.
Today, managers and co-workers can invest time, skill and care in helping new workers become integrated into work groups, or they can leave newcomers to fend for themselves. Organizations can develop systems for “onboarding” new employees, or leave the task to the whims and chances of each manager and team. This is an issue not only of productivity, but also justice. If an organization invests in the successful integration of high-status workers – or conversely does little or nothing to assist vulnerable, minority, or non-traditional workers – it fails to respect the image of God in each worker.
These two articles have only engaged a portion the compelling narrative of the Book of Ruth. But this is still enough to suggest a number of ways in which Ruth might provide a rich vein for student papers and class discussion on faith, work and economics. Brief assignments could easily engage specific themes from these two chapters, while longer assignments exploring the book’s relationship to the Torah, the Old Testament histories and the New Testament also come readily to mind. Engaging the story of Ruth also provides an opportunity to open up discussion in class and learn from the experience of women, whose stories are less often told.
As seminary faculty and members of the Theology of Work Bible Commentary editorial team, we have found that the book of Ruth stands out as a useful resource for the exploration and discussion of faith, work and economics issues in the seminary classroom. And of course we commend the free, online Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Ruth to assist you in this.