Written by Mark C. Pederson, Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church
My apologies to Courtney, that I get to start off on the Ruth story! Maybe August should be an all female month of theme writers! But I do love the book of Ruth. It is, according to one commentary, “The perfect example of the art of story telling.” And like most good stories, it is sneaky. It weaves a very controversial theological theme, brought to us in such an appealing story, that we take it all in before we realize just how unsettling it is. This story highlights how radically different, grudging obedience is to passionate commitment.
Why do I love the book of Ruth? If you have done any systematic reading of the Bible (and especially the Old Testament) you will come quickly to love, absolutely love, anything with a narrative. The book of Ruth is the best example. The story starts with a family. The men (a father and two sons) who are usually the focus of a narrative, are mentioned and very quickly thrown by the wayside. Ruth and her family have left home to find food and end up settling in this foreign place. Now her sons marry foreign women. This is totally forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures. Previously, people of faith have taken incredible steps to avoid being joined to just such foreigners. Abraham and Sarah send a slave all the way back to their homeland to find a suitable wife for their son. In his old age, Isaac sends Jacob back to find a wife. According to Deuteronomy 23:3 “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD, even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the LORD forever;” Boy, does this little story fly in the face of that directive. Why? Because in three short generations this Moabite’s great grandson will rule God’s people. Maybe you’ve heard of him? His name is David.
This book is a radical corrective to Deuteronomy. Where you were born does not matter, your parent’s faith does not matter. How you live your life, that’s what matters. Now Orpah was faithful to her mother in law, Naomi. She stays with her through the one entreaty to leave, but finally gives in on the second and heads back to her own people. Only Ruth is radically committed to her mother in law. She will not leave. It is she who utters the beautiful words “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge I will lodge . . . “ These words are typically used at wedding ceremonies which kind of misses the point. This is the promise of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. It is the promise of one woman—one from a different country, from a different religious background, from a different generation—to another woman.
This commitment from Ruth probably saves Naomi. She is dependent on her husband to survive, and he is dead. Now she is dependent on her oldest son. He is dead. Finally she is dependent on her youngest son, and even he is gone. She has no socially prescribed way to provide for her own needs. She must be depressed. Her name means to be satisfied, or abundant water. Ironic, because she was driven away from her home by a severe drought. Sent off full, she is now returning empty. Her husband and two sons are all dead. When she and Ruth arrive back home, she tells people to start calling her “bitter” or Mara. The one whose name means abundance is totally empty.
But there is hope. She has a companion. There is not much in scripture to indicate that Naomi’s help would come from a Moabite woman. In fact most of what we’ve read in scripture up to this point would indicate that it would be impossible. But Ruth and Naomi are heading back to Israel at the time of renewed rains and an abundant harvest. God is doing a new thing. I can’t wait for the next installment of this story!
Quotes for the Week
“Patriarchy is like the elephant in the room that we don’t talk about, but how could it not affect the planet radically when it’s the superstructure of human society.” Ani DiFranco
“Each new generation of children grows up in the new environment its parents have created, and each generation of brains becomes wired in a different way. The human mind can change radically in just a few generations.” Alison Gopnik
“End-of-the-world stories tend to ring true. I’ve always been drawn to them, but as I wrote my own, I found surprising pleasure in creating a world that is so radically changed, yet where there’s so much meaning and value in every small and ordinary thing we have, and take for granted: hot showers, enough food, friends, routines.” Karen Thompson Walker
“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them — with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …” Eudora Welty
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” Sue Monk Kidd
Lesson: Ruth 1:1-22 (NRSV)
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 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. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Naomi and Her Moabite Daughters-in-Law
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. “7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.” ”
“Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“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.
17 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!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them,
“Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
21 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?”
22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
Questions for the Week
What is a story that has shaped who you are and how you view the world (one you’ve read, or one you’ve lived.)
Is there a person who has made a dramatic impact on your life by their radical commitment?
Does the story of Ruth have anything to say about the refugees who are currently streaming into our country? Why, or why not?