Ruth 1:1-18, Ruth 3:1-5, Ruth 4:13-17
Women of the Bible: Ruth and Naomi
The most common passage people ask me to read at their weddings is 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient, love is kind … love never ends. For obvious reasons, it makes a good text for folks starting out in marriage together, as the apostle Paul calls us to love in a way that puts the other before the self, always. Of course, I remind folks when I’m talking to them about this text that Paul wasn’t talking about love in a way that was meant only for married couples to share. Paul actually wants us to love everyone in this selfless way, not just spouses!
One of the next most-popular verses for weddings comes from our text for today. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” Often, when I’m sharing with couples possible verses for their wedding, I’ll read this passage, and the couple will say, “Yes, that’s the one, that’s the passage we want.” And then I have to explain that again, this text isn’t about love between spouses. This text describes the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It’s unusual, certainly. Still, though, most couples I meet with recognize that this kind of devotion and commitment is indeed something they want to find in their married life together.
So what is the story of Ruth and Naomi? The opening verses tell us that Ruth’s story is set in the time of the judges, the time period we talked about last Sunday, between the Israelites coming into the Promised Land and the time when they were ruled by earthly kings. During this time, there is a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem – yes, that Bethlehem – leaves Judah to go live in Moab. Bethlehem literally means “house of bread,” and biblical authors were not blind to irony, certainly. There’s a famine in the House of Bread. So this man Elimelech from Bethlehem leaves to live in Moab with his wife, Naomi and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Mahlon and Chilion’s names mean literally “diseased” and “dying.” Yes, this is biblical foreshadowing! Mahlon and Chilion marry women from among the Moabite people. The Moabites haves a common heritage with the Israelites, but they are a different nation, with different religious traditions. They worship different gods than the Israelites. The Moabite women are named Ruth and Orpah (not Oprah!) But after about 10 years in Moab, Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion all die. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are all left widows.
Naomi, an Israelite, hears that at last there is food in her homeland again – the famine has ended, and people are saying that “God has considered” the people and their plight. She sets out with her daughters-in-law to head back to where she was living before she left home with her husband. She, Ruth, and Orpah are vulnerable, at risk as widows in a patriarchal society. They have little to no social standing as they are, no one to provide for them, few legal protections. And as Naomi thinks on that, she encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their families in Moab, to find security in the home of a new husband. “Go back each of you to your mother’s house,” she says, “May God deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” They weep together, and both women say they will stay with Naomi. But Naomi insists she cannot provide for them. If Naomi were to remarry and have more sons – could her daughters-in-law wait until they were grown to marry them? Of course not. It would be foolish for them to not remarry. Naomi feels like God has turned against her. Her husband and sons have died. In a culture where a family line means so much, Naomi feels bitter, like a failure. In fact she will eventually adopt the name Mara for herself, which means bitter. Orpah decides to go back to Moab. But Ruth still chooses to remain with Naomi. And that’s when she says the words that are a vow, a commitment: I will follow you. I’m going where you’re going. I’m making my home where you’re making your home. I’m making your people my people. I’m choosing your God as my God. And if I don’t honor this vow, let God do to me what God will!
Ruth honors her vow, and she and Naomi return to Naomi’s home, where Naomi works hard to secure a good life for Ruth, and where Ruth remains focused on making sure Naomi is cared for too. Naomi helps Ruth connect to a kinsman, Boaz, who fulfills his role as “redeemer,” for the family line, marrying Ruth. And when Ruth gives birth to a child, Obed, Naomi serves as wet nurse. The women of Naomi’s community say to her: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin … He shall be to you a restorer of life … for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne [a son].” They say of the baby Obed, “A son has been born to Naomi.” Our reading closes with the author letting us know that Obed becomes the father of Jesse, father to David, most beloved of the kings of Israel.
The Book of Ruth is a favorite book of many Bible readers. After all, compared with the violence of war and Jael and her tent peg we read about last week, Ruth’s story has a lot to recommend it. No wars. A bit of romance. A story of devotion and commitment. A young woman, devoted to her mother-in-law. A man willing to step up and protect those who are vulnerable. But even though the story is drastically different than last week’s, our driving question still is the same: what’s the good news in the Book of Ruth? Some biblical scholars think Ruth was written to counter books of the Bible like Ezra and Nehemiah, which include serious statements against intermarriage, a marriage between Israelites and people of other faith traditions. Here is Ruth, a non-Israelite, who nonetheless commits her life to following the God of Israel, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David. And certainly, I think there’s something to the hopefully-now-unsurprising fact that God works through the story of an unexpected figure like Ruth. We talked last week about God using unexpected people to accomplish God’s work. Here, we find a Moabite, a foreign woman, a refugee, a widow, and her commitment Naomi leads to her being the right person at God’s right time to continue God’s covenant for generations to come. Phyllis Trible (1) notes that Ruth’s story is a bit like Abraham’s story in the degree of their radical life-changing decisions. Both leave home and country to go to a completely new place. Abraham has an explicit call from God to do so. Ruth doesn’t have an explicit call from God. But throughout the text, Naomi and Boaz both note that Ruth behaves with loving-kindness. The word has a sense of practicing loving-kindness toward someone even when they have no rightful claim on your compassion. The call on Ruth’s life that drives her to a new place is the call of loving-kindness, of compassion, and it changes her life as much as God’s more direct call changes Abraham’s.
But I am most moved by Ruth and Naomi’s move forward in spite of what can only feel like utter disaster and failure in their lives. For Naomi, everything is lost. Where once she had a whole family, now she will have no descendants at all. For Ruth, though, there’s an escape plan. She can leave. This wouldn’t do anything for Naomi, but for Ruth, how easy would it be to just go back home and start over again? I don’t mean to malign Orpah’s decision. It was certainly a sensible choice, and Naomi didn’t seem to begrudge her path. But what on earth motivates Ruth to persevere and stay with Naomi despite what seems like a dead end?
Samuel Wells preached on this passage at a Baccalaureate service at Duke several years ago (2), and it struck me as an odd choice of text at first. But Wells in his message speaks to the students about failure that will inevitably be part of their lives. He writes, “I’m thinking right now of young man who left college 10 years ago. He went into consulting work on the East Coast. He spent a bit of time on Wall Street, and … [three] or four years ago he and a couple of others set up their own company. It was tough at first but soon it became quite a success … That company was his life, his identity, his pride, his joy.
“January just past it all went wrong. The company slid into bankruptcy like a sandcastle engulfed by the incoming tide. The young man saw his dream disappear and his security, prestige, and self-esteem melt away with it. Four months later, to my knowledge, his mother and sister have yet to find a way even gently to refer to the subject with him. His life is shrouded in silence and dominated by the f-word: failure.”
Wells continues, saying that in our culture, where we judge and are judged constantly, there are “a thousand ways to fail. We come to fear earthly failure in the same way we fear death -- in fact failure becomes a kind of equivalent of death -- which is why the young man’s mother and sister found they couldn’t even mention the subject to him. Our earthly successes become our quest for immortality, and if we fail, it’s like a double dose of death.”
But Ruth, in the face of “poverty and possible death says that, for her, there’s something that means more than self-preservation and survival. That something is loyalty and love. In showing such steadfast love against all expectations, she shows us the face of God in a way we might never have seen it if she’d been lucky and successful.” It’s the same perseverance that we find in Christ’s death, and the ultimate victory of life over death. Who would continue to have hope after the seeming failure of Jesus’ death on the cross?
While Wells was spending time in Northern Ireland, he spoke with a priest there who had dedicated his life to working for peace after decades of strife and violence. The priest had experienced failure after failure. But he persisted, dedicated to his work. He told Wells, “It’s better to fail in a cause that will finally succeed than to succeed in a cause that will finally fail.”
Ruth and Naomi experience utter devastation. But they bind themselves to each other, and to a path with God’s people that will last them beyond the hopelessness of their present circumstances. I can only imagine that when Ruth makes her decision to stay with Naomi, she makes her choice not only out of loving-kindness, but also with her eyes set on the horizon, into a future longer than her immediate suffering, into a plan and path that is grander than she can see in that moment.
What about us? What is God’s call to us in the midst our failures, in the midst of our suffering? Without a doubt, we will encounter times in our lives, seasons when it feels like we have come to a dead end, and the only thing we can do is go back to the beginning and start all over. When we find ourselves in such a place, what will we do? Like Ruth, maybe we can turn our pain into compassion, into loving-kindness that keeps us thinking of others instead of ourselves, even in our pain. And like Ruth, we can remember that we have committed our lives to serving God’s cause, and even when we are failing, God’s cause is the one that finally succeeds. Let’s stick with that path, even if we can’t see that far down the road just yet.
Remember, I told you that Naomi asked to be called Mara, which means bitter? No one ever calls her that. Because the bitterness is for a season. The toughest season of her life. But Naomi means pleasure. And through Ruth’s loving-kindness, Naomi holds a child in her arms that brings her joy beyond the future she could see. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Phyllis Trible, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ruth-bible
(2) Samuel Wells, Baccalaureate address to Duke in 2009, https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/the-word-we-don%E2%80%99t-mention?t-mention%3Fpage=0%2C0