The book of Ruth offers a simple and compelling story about how God uses kindness to make the world a better place. Because of this, it offers several wonderful examples of servant leadership.
If you’ve never read the book of Ruth, or if it’s been awhile, I suggest you read it now. It’s only 4 chapters and an easy read. If you want a quick refresh, then you can watch this great summary of the book of Ruth from the Bible Project:
1) Servant Leaders Put the Needs of Others First
The book of Ruth starts with tragedy. Naomi, an Israelite living with her family in Moab, loses her entire family. Not only does her husband die, but her two sons die also. Both her sons had wives, and their names were Ruth and Orpah.
The opening scene involves these three women. Naomi has decided to return to her homeland. Both Ruth and Orpah offer to go with her, but Naomi replies,
“Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way…”
Naomi loves her daughters-in-law. She has a long journey ahead of her, and frankly could use their help. But she also knows that if they stay with her, they will have nothing. It would be much better for them to go back to their families where they will have support and could find another husband. She chooses to put their needs first, and encourages them to go their own way.
But Naomi isn’t the only one who demonstrates servant leadership. Ruth also puts the needs of her mother-in-law first. She responds to Naomi with one of the most famous quotes in the Old Testament:
“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Ruth loves her mother-in-law and chooses to go with her, even unto death. She is going above and beyond the cultural expectations of her day to serve Naomi. Ruth’s choice to put Naomi’s needs first puts the rest of the story in motion, and the two return to the town of Bethlehem.
2) Servant Leaders Protect and Provide
When Ruth and Naomi return to Naomi’s home town, they have nothing. Traditional laws of Israel required farmers to leave a certain amount of their crop in the fields for the poor to gather and feed themselves.
Ruth volunteers for this task in an effort to provide food for herself and Naomi. One of the fields she works in belongs to an amazing servant leader named Boaz. When he sees Ruth and hears her story, he says this to her:
“Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”
Boaz takes it upon himself to protect and provide for Ruth and Naomi. He owes them nothing, but chooses to serve them. He makes it easier for Ruth to reap from the fields and gives her access to the best stuff, he protects her from men who may try to assault her, and offers her water drawn by his workforce.
Many leaders use their position to take advantage of those in need. For instance, they push employees to work more for less money. They may demand special favors for promotions or raises. They take advantage of people for their own personal gain.
But not Boaz. He uses his position of power to serve, protect, and provide for Ruth and Naomi. If you want to be a servant leader, you must remember that your job is to take care of your people, not the other way around.
3) Servant Leaders Show Extraordinary Kindness
Ruth is an interesting Biblical story because it contains no miracles or prophecies. God does not enter into the story with fire or glory.
And yet, his fingerprints are all over the events of Ruth.
This is an important truth for us today. More often than not, God does not change the world through impossible miracles, but through acts of extraordinary kindness by his people.
When Ruth explains the ways Boaz has helped them, Naomi identifies who is behind the kindness of Boaz,
“May [Boaz] be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”
Boaz, of course, is not the only one who shows kindness in this story. Ruth demonstrates kindness to Naomi by choosing to follow her and then later to Boaz.
In Ruth 3, Ruth approaches Boaz and asks him to be her kinsman-redeemer. According to Jewish law, a “redeemer” in this instance would take over the land owned by Naomi’s family and marry Ruth. The first child would become the heir to Naomi’s family and inherit their land (as opposed to becoming an heir to Boaz). This ensured their family line would continue, which was an important aspect of their culture. For more on this, check out this useful article on the kinsman-redeemer.
When Ruth askes Boaz to be her redeemer, he celebrates Ruth’s kindness by saying,
“May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.”
Ruth could have gone after a young husband with no connection to Naomi. She could have sacrificed Naomi’s legacy for her own. But instead, she pursues Boaz, a kinsman redeemer that could provide for them both. This was a touching kindness, and one that had a lasting impact for generations to come.
Why? Check out the family line that comes from Ruth and Boaz in Ruth 4:21-22, “Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.”
You probably recognize the name of David. He came from Bethlehem, and he would become the greatest king of the Kingdom of Israel. From his line would come an eternal King who changed the world in more ways than we can comprehend or imagine.
And it all started with a few acts of extraordinary kindness.
4) Servant Leaders Act Quickly
Something that drives me nuts is when leaders agree to help their people and then take their time. “Yes, you deserve a raise. Just give me a couple months” or “you’re right, this person is not treating you well. I will address it when I get a chance.”
There are countless examples of this. We see it in politics, work, media, and in our communities. Leaders love to make excuses when it comes to acting on behalf of their people – it can be difficult or inconvenient and it’s easier to just delay.
But that is not the way Boaz approaches leadership. He agrees to marry Ruth, but must settle a couple things first. When Ruth explains the situation to Naomi, her mother-in-law responds to say Boaz will handle the situation quickly.
“Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”
I love this picture of servant leadership in the book of Ruth. Boaz recognizes that Naomi and Ruth are in need. He doesn’t delay, but acts quickly to serve them and help them.
I’m sure Boaz was a busy man and that he had other plans for the day. Boaz put his own priorities to the side so he could act on behalf of others.
If you have the opportunity to serve someone, then act quickly. There may never be a convenient time to put others first, but as a leader it is your job to actually take the lead and make it happen.
5) Servant Leaders Operate with Integrity
Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, he wanted to be her kinsman-redeemer. But there was another relative who also had the chance to be the redeemer.
Boaz could have operated in secret. He could have just married Ruth and never notified this other guy. He could have met with the guy in private and tried to intimidate him.
Instead, he meets with the other redeemer and explains the full situation in front of the the town leaders:
So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.”
The other potential redeemer chose not to marry Ruth and redeem the land. He gave Boaz his blessing, and so Boaz was able to quickly marry Ruth without any scandal or secrecy.
This may seem like a simple thing, but Boaz risked a lot by doing things the right way. He knew it was right, however, and so he did it anyway.
6) A Servant Leader is Loving
A key component of servant leadership is love. It’s difficult to put others first or protect and provide for someone without loving them because those actions are, indeed, loving.
Listen to the words spoken to Naomi by her friends in the book of Ruth:
“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
Ruth chose to serve Naomi because she loved her mother-in-law. She provided by gathering grains, she showed kindness to her mother-in-law, and she acted quickly to ask Boaz to be their redeemer. And it all started with love.
Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, even when our neighbor is also our enemy. How can you love your enemies? Simple – start by serving them. You will have to be the first to show love (don’t expect your enemy to take the lead on this), and it may never be reciprocated.
But Jesus showed us love when we had none for him, and because of his work, we too can be the first to show love to others.
The book of Ruth is a compelling story of kindness and servant leadership.
Ultimately, the role Boaz plays is a mere foreshadowing to our ultimate redeemer. From the line of Boaz and Ruth would come the perfect lamb who would do more than just redeem Naomi’s line. Jesus came to redeem everyone who believes in him.
Bible Study Tools points out the way Naomi was empty, lonely, and devastated. Her life was so hard that she asked people to call her “Mara,” which means “bitter.” In the same way, our sinful nature has left us empty, lonely, and devastated.
Boaz and Ruth brought Naomi hope and joy again. Likewise, Jesus enters into our lives and offers us hope. He fills our emptiness, comforts us in our loneliness, and restores that which was devastated in our lives.
When you truly recognize the work Jesus did to redeem you, you can’t help but become a better servant leader.