When Paul and Titus travelled to Crete, Paul left his companion there to oversee the churches on the island. Paul knew that Titus would be up against some unscrupulous rivals for the attention of the islanders. Writing to Titus to instruct and encourage him, Paul uses a most outrageous stereotype to strengthen his resolve. Quoting one of their own poets from six centuries before, Paul brands the people of Crete as “liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” From Paul’s context it is easy to see that he means the false teachers of Crete, but he paints with an uncomfortably broad brush for our modern sensibilities. I regret that we are not always as forward-thinking as we claim to be. We can have subtly sinful ways of pre-judging people according to their social background, family tree, or nation of origin.
That’s one of the reasons the story of Ruth is such a delight. She shattered the Moabite stereotype.
Everyone in Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem would have known the Moabite stereotype. It goes back to Lot, Abraham’s nephew from about 800 years before Ruth was born. Genesis 19 tells us that after being delivered out from the destruction of Sodom, Lot hid out in a cave. His own daughters plied him with drink and seduced him (don’t try to tell me the Bible sugar coats its narrative). From this incestuous disgrace arose the Moabite clan, and the stereotype Ruth inherited hundreds of years later. Imagine the gossip in Bethlehem on the day widow Naomi and her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth walked into town: “Who’s that with Naomi? A Moabite girl? Well, we all know what they’re like! You watch, she’ll be up to no good I bet.”
Now imagine in your mind’s eye the scene portrayed in Ruth chapter three. After a hard day in the fields; Boaz has eaten supper, and probably drank wine too – “his heart was merry.” He settles down on a pile of harvested grain to sleep. On Naomi’s instructions, Ruth approaches him in the dark silence of the night. All the signs point to the Moabite stereotype playing itself out. It’s like the seduction of Lot all over again. But what a difference! Ruth is praised by Boaz for her dignity and integrity: she hadn’t gone chasing after all manner of men, and she demonstrated through her modesty that she was not to be tarred with the brush of her ancestors. She broke the stereotype and proved herself a woman of honour. Consequently Boaz claimed her as his wife, and by divine grace, she became the great-grandmother of David, king of Israel.
Any one of us might be born into a stereotype. Perhaps our family history is a bit awkward, or we might be from a place that’s gotten a bad name. It might even be that our own track record has led people to pre-judge how we will behave. It remains with us to break the stereotypes. When we show the watching world that we, as Christians, are different from what they expect, they take notice: “We are new creatures in Christ, the old things have passed away, and new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).