WE ARE FAMILY
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
Coming as we are from the mayhem that is the book of Judges, the book of Ruth is a nice change! The book’s “once upon a time” goes “In the time of the Judges” – a time when families were against each other, tribes were against tribes, everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes – and by this read “right for them.” Throughout the story of Ruth we see people being nice to each other. We see a loyal daughter-in-law, a caring mother-in-law, a caring field owner and relative, people blessing babies. The German poet Goethe had this to say about Ruth:
“(it) belongs to the realm of poetic art… (it) has as its noble purpose the creation of decent, interesting ancestors for the king of Israel; at the same time it can be considered as the most charming little complete piece of writing that has been handed down to us in epic and idyllic form.” As I’ve said things do seem pretty idyllic in the book of Ruth. Do we read the characters simply as “types”? Loyal Ruth. Kind Boaz. Is that all that we have to take from the story though – moral lessons and such? Is this story simply a nice bridge from the time of the Judges to the time of the monarchy of David? What does this story have to say to us about who God is? Let us look at our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts.
We’re very familiar in Toronto with migration. Many of us personally. When talking about our city to people I always like to point out that more than half of our population was born outside of Canada. We’re familiar with being uprooted from what is familiar. This so-called idyll starts with such an uprooting. It begins with famine. We’ve spoken about how dependent Israel is on rain. No rain meant no crops which meant famine and death. V1 –“…a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion, they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. He was known by where he came from. It’s like saying “Are you one of the Rosedale Coopers?” or the “Dukes of Hazzard.” He was established in Bethlehem. It was a big deal to go to Moab. Moab wasn’t traditionally scene as a very good place for the ancient Israelite. Its people were said to be the result of incestuous relations between Lot and his daughters. They were people who refused to help the Israelites during their wandering-in-the-wilderness years. Moabites were outsiders. They were “the other.”
So this family has to leave a place which is called House of Bread. “Beth” is house and “lehem” is bread. A place in which there is no bread. This is where our story starts.
People read this story and try to assign all kinds of motivations to characters. They say Naomi was acting out of self-interest when she wanted Ruth and Orpah to go back, this kind of thing. I think we need to be careful when we try to fill in the blanks like this. Hebrew stories don’t go into a lot of the inner life of characters. We can say with some degree of certainty though that things did not go the way Naomi expected. Elimelech dies. Her two sons take Moabite wives. Ten years go by. They don’t have any children. We’ve said that children in the OT meant a fulfilled life. Sons meant security. A continuation of the family name. Property rights. A good life. Naomi might have wondered about the lack of kids. Did she think that maybe God was punishing them for being in Moab? Was this belief confirmed for Naomi when her two sons also died, leaving her without her two sons and her husband? She’s alone in a strange land. Everything she had hoped for is gone. In her mind she might as well be dead. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” She’s including herself among those who are dead.
You may be thinking “There he goes again talking about suffering and death.” This is the great thing about the Bible though. Why do we look at these ancient stories? How does God speak to us in them? The human condition is still the same. The Bible recognizes that before creation there is chaos. Before God speaks life, darkness covered the face of the deep. Before a return to the House of Bread there is pain and despair. Before Easter morning there are tears in the dark. This story may be seen as an idyll but it begins with death and suffering.
We get this right? A friend of mine was telling me recently how her mother used to say “All God’s children got problems.” We know what this is like. If you don’t you will know. Things did not go the way I expected. We get a phone call in the middle of the night. We get called into the boss’s office unexpectedly and all our fears about being called into the boss’s office unexpectedly are realized. The test results are not good. The doctor wants to see us. We don’t get into the program we had our heart set on. I don’t need to tell a story here because we all have our stories, just as Naomi had her story.
Thank God though the story doesn’t end there. Look at these words in V 6 – “…she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food.” The Lord had considered his people. Now we may think “What does she have to lose?” There’s nothing left for her in Moab, after all.
Except… except for these two daughters-in-law who set out with her. Was this considered usual in the culture? We don’t know. It would seem not, given Naomi’s continued protestations to Ruth telling her to go back. When they get to the outskirts of town or wherever it was they got to – the equivalent of a departure gate I suppose – she tells them to go back. Naomi sees no hope for herself. She’s too old to have a husband. Even if she miraculously found one she’s too old to have sons to take the place of Mahlon and Chillion for the two women. “There’s still hope for you,” she tells them, but “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever felt that God was punishing you for something? Or wondered what you had done to deserve this? Felt that God was against you? People are told this kind of thing you know. We need to be getting this right friends. A friend of mine was told that the death of her husband was the result of her not following her religion properly. It’s crazy what people are told. It’s damaging. Naomi is feeling that God is against her.
She’s going to be reminded that the situation is not quite the way it seems to her, however. There’s a great line in Psalm 56:9 – “This I know, that God is for me.” God is for you. God is for me. God puts people around us to remind us that God is for us. I believe God does that. God put Ruth beside Naomi to remind her of this truth. Naomi is feeling without hope. She’s feeling that she might as well be numbered among the dead. She’s feeling like the walking dead. Dead woman walking.
Ruth is about to remind her that there is something that not even death can separate us from. God’s love. God’s hesed. You’ve heard me talking about hesed if you’ve been around here for any length of time. It’s part of God’s nature. Part of who God is. There’s no one word that does justice to it in English. We say “loving kindness.” We say “steadfast love.” Whenever you see those words in our NRSV Bibles, chances are it’s this Hebrew word hesed. Naomi mentions it first when she says in V 8 “May the Lord deal kindly (hesed) with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
Ruth is about to be a living reminder that God deals hesed with us. Orpah returns home. We’re not to judge Orpah here. We’re not to use her as a foil for Ruth. The narrator doesn’t judge, and neither should we. Going home might be an expected custom that Orpah is following. Ruth makes the decision to continue to deal hesed with Naomi and with her family. It seems to be an extraordinary decision. Ruth is throwing her lot in with Naomi and with YAHWEH, whose name she invokes in her vow.
We all have a decision to make. We’ve been talking about this since we looked at Judge last year and considered that you have to serve somebody. You’re going to be worshipping something. There will be something – some thought, some idea, some object, some cause, on which you will base your life. We often use the image of a journey for life. There’s actually a game called “Life” where your little game man is a car. Ruth has reached a cross road. Important things happen at crossroads. We have a decision to make. The prophet Jeremiah put it like this – “Thus says the lord, Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way lies, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jer 6:16.) We don’t know what Ruth understands about YAHWEH, but she knows something about hesed. She tells Naomi that she is throwing her lot in with her mother-in-law and with God. Look at how the terms of the vow get stronger and stronger, starting with “going” – V16-17 “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 I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” That is beautiful. People say this at weddings even (without the “Do not press me to leave you” line).
What is Ruth doing here? Ruth is making a declaration that all hope is not lost. That it’s not true that Naomi might as well be dead. She’s reminding Naomi (and us) that it is in Yahweh’s steadfast love/lovingkindness that life is to be found. She’s saying in effect, as one writer puts it – “I’ll be damned if I even let death separate me from you.”
Not even death can separate me from you. Does this remind us of anyone we know? Look for this throughout the story. Someone has said in the book of Ruth, “God is a Moabite widow.” Ruth is speaking some truth here. Some very good truth. Naomi doesn’t seem to take it that well. V 18 “When Naomi say that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
It’s almost as if Naomi has forgotten about her daughter-in-law. This couldn’t have been a comfortable trip. “Awkward”, as the kids say. All this silence. When they get back to Bethlehem, the whole town is stirred. Is this Naomi? She looks kind of familiar. Who is that young woman with her? Naomi speaks again – V 20 “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, 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?” Naomi is speaking a lament. Unlike Job she doesn’t ask God why. Unlike the Psalmist she doesn’t end her lament with “Yet I will praise God.” She simply laments. As one writer puts it though, the prayer that is unspoken is going to be answered anyway. The thing is, you see, God is on Naomi’s side. She will know this by the time the story is over.
For now though, she’s alone – she’s returned empty. Remember though who’s standing beside her. I can picture Ruth going “Hello – I’m right here! I can hear you!” as Naomi goes on about how empty she is.
Ruth has made a vow you see. Where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge…. I’m with you, in other words. You have me. There’s a new situation along with a new woman in town. Vows aren’t just to declare things, you see. Vows are performative. They create a new situation. We’ve been doing a lot of vowing lately. Pastor Abby and I were involved in a lot of vowing in October. Wedding vows. Baby dedication vows. As one writer puts it – “The words of a vow have the power to change things… They call into being something that is not.” Ruth has made a covenant with Naomi, whether Naomi likes it or not. She has made a loving agreement – an agreement born out of hesed – out of steadfast love and lovingkindness.
Naomi doesn’t know it yet but this will change things. They’re back in Bethlehem. Our chapter ends like this – V 22 “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” I said at the beginning that Bethlehem means House of Bread. Lehem is bread. It sounds a lot like l’chaim – the word for life. Do you know what they use to make bread? Barley. Bread is life. Do you know who called himself the Bread of Life? Oh and he was from Bethlehem too. Isn’t it great how that all comes together? The Bread of Life made a vow too. We’re going to hear it in a few minutes. The Bread of Life made a New Covenant which was the fulfillment of a promise that was once described like this – “Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Does everything seem hopeless? Listen to this invitation “Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Because the price has been paid friends. This story began with famine and death. It won’t end there. Thanks be to God that it ends in life. So does our story. Anyone who thirsts, come to the waters. Stand at the crossroads and ask for the ancient path, where the good way lies and walk in it – let’s walk in it together – and find rest for our souls.
Thanks be to God for His precious gift.