This week, I am posting a sermon which I originally preached in 2003 at Parkville Presbyterian Church where I was a seminary student intern.
Hebrew Bible lesson, Ruth 1:1-18
New Testament lesson, Mark 12:28-34
Ruth is moving to a new town, actually a new country.
It can be hard to move, even if you’re looking forward to the move. It’s hard to leave friends and familiar routines. When you get to the new town, you have to find a place to live, you have to find a new grocery store and you have to find where they keep the chocolate milk in the new store. You have to find a new gas station. You have to figure out which day is trash day. You hope you can find a new pediatrician before one of the kids gets sick. There are a thousand things that you did in your old home that you have to do in your new home but they’re all different and difficult because you are in a new place. Even if you are excited about the move, the actual moving and resettling is hard and stressful. Most of us don’t move for the “fun” of it, we move for a reason. A new job, to be closer to family, a better climate; lots of reasons, but we have a reason. So why did Ruth move? Why does Ruth follow Naomi? It’s not because Naomi was begging her to come along. In fact, Naomi gives Ruth every reason not to come.
In their culture to be a widow and childless is to be in a precarious position. Women had no inheritance rights. Their security was found in their husbands and children. Think of other Bible stories about widows. I can’t think of one who is not in dire straits. Naomi is widowed, childless and she is living in a foreign land. Her situation could not be much worse. So she decides to return home. Her daughters in law want to come with her. Naomi reminds them, she is not going to marry again. She is not going to have more sons. None of the means available to women in her time for personal security will exist for her.
Naomi has nothing to offer Orpah and Ruth, she cannot offer them well being. Their best option is to return to their mother’s homes. There, perhaps, another marriage can be arraigned and their future secured. Orpah is obedient to her mother in law, as their culture expected her to be. And although she was sad, reluctantly she went home. But Ruth is not obedient; she does not follow society’s expectation. She does not obey her mother in law. Instead Ruth declares her loyalty to Naomi,
“Where you will 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 I will be buried”
Ruth has just proclaimed her intention to radically change her life. She will live with Naomi, even though Naomi has just told her there is no future for them together. But why?
She will change her homeland and cultural identity. But why? She is a Moabite and the Moabites have historically been Israel’s enemy. Remember in Deuteronomy, Moabite men are excluded from the congregation because the Moabites denied food and water to the Israelites during the Exodus. The king of Moab hired Balaam to curse Israel. The Moabites have been one of the oppressors of Israel. Ruth may be willing to make the Israelites her people. But will they accept her?
She will worship Naomi’s God. But why? She can’t just add the Lord to the Moabite gods she grew up with. She must renounce her gods and her faith. She cannot worship them and God. She must worship only the one God of Israel.
She will be buried with Naomi. But why? In their time it was very important to be buried in ones’ homeland. Remember Jacob’s request to be returned home from Egypt after he died? And Joseph takes his remains home. And before Joseph dies he also requests to be returned home. And the Israelites take his remains home.
Ruth’s commitment is, when you think about it, extraordinary. The Rabbis’ place Ruth alongside Abraham for her decision to follow. And they point out that Ruth, unlike Abraham, does not have a direct revelation from God. Ruth in Jewish tradition is the ideal convert. But why? Why does Ruth make such a drastic conversion ?
Why does she follow Naomi? Is it something about Naomi?
It’s certainly not that Naomi is perfect. She’s not a one dimensional, too holy to be real character. After Ruth declares her intention to journey with Naomi, the text tells us Naomi, “said no more.” Now it could be that Naomi has simply accepted Ruth’s decision to come along, but some scholars suggest that Naomi is mad, so mad she stops talking to Ruth. They think that Naomi knew it would be hard enough to return home widowed and childless, after being gone ten years and now she has a Moabite widow tagging along with her.
And when Naomi returns home and is greeted by her friends, you can hear her pain,
“Call me Mara, (call me bitter),
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me,
I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
So why does Ruth follow Naomi?
Is it something about Naomi? I think it is.
Ruth lived with and observed Naomi for at least ten years. Ruth saw Naomi’s actions day in and day out, in good times and in bad. Ruth saw Naomi lose her husband and all her children. After these losses, Naomi feels she must send the rest of her family, her daughters in law, away. But even as she tries to send them away, Ruth hears Naomi entrust them to God and ask God’s blessing on them.
What an amazing person Naomi must have been. I think Ruth was able to convert, to give up her people, her homeland and her gods because of the faithfulness, the loving kindness she saw day after day, year after year in Naomi’s life. The loving kindness. The Hebrew word is Hesed. It means loving kindness but it means more. Hesed is a kind of steadfastness, a loyalty. It is to care for another with whom you are in relationship. It’s a care that goes beyond what is expected or required. Hesed is frequently used in the Bible to describe God’s acts of mercy and grace. It is an attribute, a characteristic of God. It’s an extraordinary commitment.
Actually this little Book of Ruth, its only four chapters, is full of people performing acts of loving kindness and loyalty. After Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, Ruth goes to glean or gather grain in the barley harvest. As it turns out she gleans in the field of Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz. Boaz notices Ruth and after learning who she is, he ensures she is able to gather enough grain. He instructs his harvesters to leave a little extra for Ruth. Boaz and Ruth end up getting married. They have a son, Obed. And Obed becomes the father of Jesse. And Jesse becomes the father of David. Who becomes King of Israel. The story is a wonderful tangle of relationships, each person caring for the other. Ruth for Naomi, Naomi for Ruth. Boaz for Ruth. Naomi for Boaz and on and on. And through it all God is working through regular people, day after day, year after year. It’s a nice story, with a happy ending.
But, this story raises an uncomfortable question for me. If someone watched my life, or your life, and they are watching, if someone was watching my life, would they see in me the faithfulness, the Hesed, that Ruth saw in Naomi?
I can think of people I have known who were like Naomi. All Saint’s Day is an appropriate time to recall those faithful people we have known. I remember my father in law, Walter Lloyd Jones. He pushed his church, a large middle class church in a changing downtown, to feed homeless people on Sunday mornings because other food programs didn’t operate on weekends. So First Presbyterian Church of Flint, Michigan offered Sunday morning breakfast to the homeless and my father in law invited them to church too. He also devoted his latter years to a jail ministry, and in spite of painful arthritis and a failing heart, he went to the county jail twice a week because he cared about the prisoners and what would happen to them. We can be thankful for the witness of his life and of so many others like him.
Perhaps you can think of others who live faithful lives. Like the kindergarten teacher who daily loves a roomful of wiggly five year olds and helps them discover how wonderful it is to learn. The neighbor who shovels your sidewalk just because he was outside first. The receptionist who is patient with a customer who is confused. The desk clerk who is kind to an angry person and tries to solve a problem she didn’t create.
If someone was watching my life, would they see in me the faithfulness Ruth saw in Naomi. When things get difficult at work, the boss is unfair, or the workload escalates what do my co-workers see? When the line is long and the service poor and the store is too hot, what do the people around me see? When it’s those difficult couple of hours in the late afternoon, the kids are home, and they’re hungry and tired. Its time to start dinner and homework and then the juice gets spilled. What do my children see?
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength and to love our neighbor as our self. It seems to me that must have been what Naomi did; love God and neighbor even as she lived as a stranger in a foreign land, even when she lost those most dear to her. Ruth must have seen the loving kindness of God in Naomi’s life.
For us as Christians, in a sense; Jesus is our Naomi. Jesus is the one who shows us how to live. Jesus is the one we are to follow, the One for whom we forsake the false gods of our culture. Jesus is the one who calls us to live as strangers even in our own land. As Naomi and Ruth walked home to Bethlehem together, Jesus walks with us. And even death does not separate us. For some people, the only way they are going to meet Jesus is through you and me. If someone were watching my life, who would they see?
The One who is truly God and also truly human shows us how to be most truly and fully human. As Ruth looked to Naomi and followed, will we – day in and day out, in good time and in hard times- will we look to Jesus and follow him?
A quite belated thank you to the people of Parkville Presbyterian Church for all your kindness. They were ( and I’m sure still are) a wonderful church, welcoming and encouraging myself and other seminary students.
I’m giving a presentation tomorrow afternoon( Humans, Animals, and God: Rethinking Creation) at the Midwest Popular Culture/American Culture Association Annual meeting in Detroit. If you are going to be there too, please introduce yourself. I’d like to meet you.