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The gift of the earned barley

Faithfulness and redemption/7 - A biblical page of unjust female servitude and the right sense of work.

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 15/05/2021

"History teaches that the less you read, the more you buy books"

Albert Camus Jonas or the artist at work.

The dialogue between Boaz and Ruth reveals at least some dimensions of reciprocity and of the dynamic between gifts, efforts and merits that exists within each one of them. Really valuable lessons considering the falling in love our time and age with meritocracy.

Civil life is a complex network of many different dynamics of reciprocity. We have the reciprocity of a contract, which arises from mutual needs, and which forms the backbone of cities, people and our global community. The reciprocity of friendship is also closely connected to this. It is similar to that of contracts, (it is bidirectional, it is linked to some form of conditionality, and it is not transitive, it needs a certain equivalence), so much so that some authors of the past viewed it with suspicion because they deemed too “mercenary” (Saint Bernard). Then there is the reciprocity of agape, where B's response to A's love is not necessary for A to continue to love, although A's happiness suffers from B's non-response (although not to the point of ceasing to love), an agape form of reciprocity that we could call unconditional.

The further one moves away from the contract and approaches agape, the more the reciprocity involved assumes an indirect form. In positive indirect reciprocity, (there is also the negative one of various forms of revenge), A does an action in favour of B and can then receive something from C. In this dynamic of reciprocity, when A acts to the advantage of B, he or she does not know whether or how or when, nor how much, someone else (C) will do something for him or her (C => A). That mutual advantage which is at the very heart of direct reciprocity is very different in indirect reciprocity, so different and nuanced that it almost seems absent. However, life continues, human communities do not die out because we are greater than our relationships of direct reciprocity and mutual benefits, and so we are able to continue to love someone despite not knowing if he or she returns our feelings, or even when we are sure that the feeling is not mutual. Indirect reciprocity is essential, for example, in the relationship with our sons and daughters, whom we love to the point of the impossible, not because we think, let alone expect, that our love (A) for them (B) will produce their direct reciprocity towards us in the near future (B => A), but because we hope that the love they receive from us will make them capable of loving others (B => C), thus continuing to feed the great chain of social reciprocity, which, perhaps, one day in some form or shape, in part will come back to us, as well (D => A). If and when the practice of this indirect reciprocity is lacking, the parent-child relationship becomes objectively incestuous. When it comes to our children we are gleaners of the last line, a few ears of grain remain for us during the years of the most generous harvests.

(The Book o Ruth 2,11). Boaz (C) learns that Ruth (A) had been kind to her mother-in-law Naomi (B), and being a distant relative of his, he feels moved to act kindly towards Ruth (C => A). We clearly know from the story that when Ruth had decided, on the way between Moab and Bethlehem, to follow Naomi, she had no future rewards in mind, much less this one from Boaz. She acted following her instinct, her vocation, and her intrinsic motivations. But life is capable of these surprises, when the benevolence we sow in our field flourishes in the field of another or when we see that the bread and grain thrown generously and without caution into the wind make their return (Ecclesiastes 11,1).

Boaz continues talking to Ruth: «"May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge"» (The Book of Ruth 2,12). Boaz wishes a full "reward" for Ruth, a rare word, mascòret, which means wages. We find it in Genesis, in the relationship between Jacob, who also emigrated, and his future father-in-law Laban: «Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be”» (Genesis 29,15). This is the first time that the word wages appears in the Bible. The wages that Laban paid Jacob was Rachel, who would become his beloved wife. Thus, the book of Ruth continues to tell us two parallel stories: that of the Moabite migrant and that of salvation and promise.

Ruth added: «“May I continue to find favour in your eyes, my lord,” she said. “You have put me at ease by speaking kindly to your servant - though I do not have the standing of one of your servants”» (The Book of Ruth 2,13). Servant, slave. I still cannot get used to the language that the Bible uses when women speak or deal with men, especially with those of higher status. We can follow creative hermeneutic and linguistic strategies and try to blur and soften these words (using "housekeeper", as in Ruth, the migrant/Rut, la migrante, Michael Davide Semeraro, Edizioni San Paolo, p. 83), or we can pause on these harsh words as one stops in front of a tombstone erected to the pain of women in human history. To remember, not forget, and not give ourselves peace, so that that pain can be eradicated forever from the entire earth today. «At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.” When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over» (The Book of Ruth 2,14).

Boaz is the first architect of that full reward. In the Bible, and especially in the Book of Ruth, the promises of rewards for the righteous are asked of God but realized primarily by men and women. First, Boaz prays to God to grant Ruth a full salary, but then he is the one who works to ensure that that a just and plentiful salary materializes. These are the most beautiful prayers: before the meal we ask God to provide bread for those who have none and immediately after lunch we become the means where that bread travels and reaches the poor; we pray for world peace and then we become instruments of peace by moving our savings to unarmed banks; we ask the Father for a fairer and just world and then we work for justice in our cities and in the wages paid by our companies.

«As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Let her gather among the sheaves and don’t reprimand her. Even pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don’t rebuke her"» (The Book of Ruth 2,15-16). Having finished her dialogue with Boaz, Ruth goes back to work, and he is left alone with his workers. The dialogue between these men reveals a particularly precious detail. In order to express his benevolence towards Ruth, Boaz could have directly taken some barley and given it to her, explicitly using the means of gifts. Instead, he resorts to a more complex strategy, involving his reapers. Ruth does not know that the ears of wheat that she will find when gleaning are not only the result of her effort and skills, but also, and perhaps above all, of Boaz's benevolence. Boaz, however, preferred that Ruth obtained her salary by working.

We find ourselves facing one of the richest and most beautiful biblical pages on the meaning of work. If Boaz had taken the barley from his warehouse and donated the same amount of wheat she harvested in a full day's work to Ruth, the books of Boaz's company would not have registered a difference in revenue, but the Ruth’s experience and dignity would have been very different. Gifts are often a humanly positive and rich experience but when we present them, as an alternative to work, they are rarely as good. Even in that world of "servants", where labour lacked many of the rights and guarantees that human civilization developed in the following centuries, the Bible tells us that there is an added value in earning a salary with one's work instead of receiving it as a gift-donation from one’s master. Two thousand five hundred years ago, work was much more fragile and unfair than it is now, yet the Bible tells us that that barley earned for though work is much better than barley that has merely been donated. Thereby, it also tells us that a good employer must do everything to ensure that his workers do not feel like servants, receiving arbitrary gifts from benevolent masters, but as people who earn their wages with their toil and their skill. The day that we begin to think that our salary no longer comes to us from our work, because in the meantime we have become useless to the company that continues to pay us out of benevolence, is the beginning of a very sad period in our work life and our life in general, one that cannot go on for long.

However, there is much more in this verse of The Book of Ruth. Boaz knows that, even if her job is already of help, Ruth would still not earn enough to make a living for her and Naomi with her normal work. This is why he gives his reapers the order to drop the some ears of wheat "on purpose". Being completely unaware of this, she believes the ears of wheat that she has collected to be entirely the result of her commitment, talent and skill. And the Bible is telling that this is a good thing. However, we, together with the Bible, know that that is not entirely the case. Its perception overestimates, in good faith, the relationship between commitment, talent and results.

Here then, we have a fair and honest way of reading the dynamic that exists between merits and wages. We too overestimate the role of our merits in our results. We are not aware of it either, but behind our good harvests, there is often a Boaz (who in the book is also an image of the good face of God), who has ensured that our ears of wheat are greater than our commitments and talents. We went ahead "by chance" to glean in that field, then we met a good young farmer, who did not chase us away, then Boaz arrived, who "by chance" was a relative of our mother-in-law, then we came into his good graces. Boaz protected us from the harassment of other workers, enabled us to drink and eat, made us move from the third and last level of gleaners to the second line of workers, and finally asked for ears of wheat to be dropped "on purpose" for us.

All of this can be found behind our wages. We should not forget this, especially when, in the name of meritocracy, we have to measure and evaluate the results, merits and wages of those who linger in the third and last level where the ears of wheat are almost finished. Our crops do not match our merits. «So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. She carried it back to town» (The Book of Ruth 2,17-18).

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