Sermons

Ruth Part 1: Hopelessly Devoted

Ruth 1:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

1 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.
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.” 14 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.

Throughout the fall we’ve been looking at lectionary selections that have told us how to fashion our lives around the example of Jesus, We’ve talked a lot about how our faith, mirrored in our actions, helps us be the church. Now, in this last month of the Christian year, we turn to stories that point us toward the celebration of Christ. Leading up to Advent the lectionary gives us several examples of faithfulness and our first one comes from the book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth, as a part of our cannon, is of course one of the few places in the male-dominated world of scripture where women play the major roles and are the central characters. It is one of the few places in the Bible where we find Hebrew writing that use feminine verb forms. I also read somewhere that this is the only conversation recorded in scripture between two women that is not about a man…but about their own welfare.

Ruth’s story is a story of immigrants fraught with poverty, loss, risk and survival. We read about hunger, death, perilous journeys, loneliness and bravery before we get to the happy ending that turns Ruth, a reviled Moabite, into the great-grandmother of King David and earns her a place in Matthew’s listing of the ancestors of Jesus. This is a story of courageous decisions and bold actions by two women who at different times in their lives are strangers in a foreign land.

The story begins with the family of Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons. The family is part of the Hebrew exiled population living in the southern kingdom of Judah. The original Israelites from Jerusalem were taken into exile there by the Babylonians long before. When famine struck in Judah the family made the bold decision to move to the country of Moab. The Moabites were descendants of Lot. They were pagans who worshipped many gods and they were generally despised by the Jewish people.

We can imagine that Elimelech and Naomi were pretty desperate, that the threat of starvation was very real for them, to make such a drastic choice. Think about the last place in the world that you would want to live and then imagine that it is the only place left on the planet with enough food to feed your family. What choice do you have?

We do not know much about the family’s life in Moab—how they were treated as immigrants—but we know that they were suddenly the aliens—the strangers in a strange land—where everything—the language, the food, the religion was different. Elimelech and Naomi were raised in a culture that kept careful watch over people who were different from themselves and now they were the ones who were different.

Then the unexpected happens, Elimelech dies. Naomi is bereft but her sons, who now presumably have the responsibility for their mother, seem well settled in Moab. It is where they have grown into men and–perhaps putting the idea of ever returning to Judah out of their minds–they take Moabite wives, even though intermarriage is forbidden in several places in the Old Testament. The danger of foreign women is a reoccurring theme in the Old Testament because such women were thought to sway their husbands toward foreign gods. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, for example, the men returning to Jerusalem from exile are told to expel their foreign wives. And Ruth, you will notice is never just referred to as Ruth, she is always marked as “Ruth the Moabite,” always tagged as a foreigner.

Do you think people still flinch when someone from another culture marries into a typical American family? I hope not. I have a friend from what I assume is a very sterotypical southern family who rejoices in the differences of her daughters-in-law and embraces the one from the Philippines, the one from Columbia and the one from Argentina the same way she embraces the one from Georgia. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all do that?

So back in our story the years pass and 10 years after their father dies, the sons of Naomi die too. Naomi is left widowed and childless in a foreign land. A stable household that once consisted of a woman and three men is now a household of three childless widows, none of them blood relatives. In a society where fathers, husbands and sons provided family security this household’s prospects now look grim.

This is when the narrative really becomes a story of women. Even God does not appear in the narrative as a person, but is heard about and given testimony to through the lives of the three survivors. It is difficult for us to imagine or to remember just how terrible this situation was. Without any men in their lives these women had no lives—no status, no stability, no place. For these women living in the ancient Near East their best hope, their only hope of survival was to find new husbands as soon as possible. And let’s think about it…in a culture that is all about having male heirs who would marry Naomi who is already in menopause and who is going to marry Ruth and Orpah who have been married to reviled Jews and now come with the baggage of a Jewish mother-in-law?

Least we forget what the culture was like for women at the time we have only to look to the last chapter of Judges, which is placed in the Bible right before the book of Ruth. Judges 21 tells the story of the near extinction of the tribe of Benjamin. The other Israelites have been killing them off and also have vowed not to give any of their daughters to men from the tribe of Benjamin. When they realize the tribe is dying out, they have a change of heart of sorts. They find a little town that did not send any soldiers to fight, who are are not covered by the vow, go there, kill everyone except 400 virgins whom they bring back and give to the men of the tribe of Benjamin. When it turns out that that is not enough women, they tell the Benjaminites to go to a festival in Shiloh and wait in the vineyards for the young women to come out and dance and then just carry one off for a wife. That’s how outrageously women were treated back in the day.

So what are three widows to do? Naomi, who name means, “sweet” belies that nature now and becomes bitter. She even suggests at one point that her name be changed to “Mara, which means bitter,” to better reflect her new state of mind.

Then there is a hint of good news. The famine in Judah is over; there is food back there. So, Naomi decides to pull up stakes and go back there where someone may have pity on her, where things will be more familiar, where she may feel at least a little bit more at home. Where would you go if you had to go home? Where do you feel most secure?

We can only imagine that this decision to travel was difficult for Naomi. She had made the trip before and it was hard. Now she was reversing her travels along the same perilous path and this time there wouldn’t be any men along. She knew how dangerous it would be to travel with her daughters-in-law along.

She must also have had doubts about how she would be received back in Judah…would people welcome her back home or would they resent the fact that she and her family left in the first place? Would they think that she was tainted from choosing to live among a hostile people? Would people at home think her choices were foolish and her losses well deserved? And most of all what would they think of her foreign daughters-in-law?

Still grieving the loss of her husband and facing the anguish of loosing not one but two children, we can only imagine that Naomi was not in the best position to be making life-changing decisions. And we know that at some point in their journey something changes in her mind.

She suddenly encourages the girls to go back to their own families. There are lots of tears and drama as there often are with mothers-in-laws and daughters-in laws—(I could tell you stories from both perspectives!) But suddenly Naomi wants to go on alone. If that really because, as one scholar puts it quite bluntly, “With the younger women clearly not pregnant they are of no use to Naomi so she tries to get rid of them.” Is that her motivation? Or does she really believe that having the girls stay in Moab to try to snag another husband from their own people is the better path? Or does she remember how difficult it is to live in a strange land? Does she want to spare Orpha and Ruth an experience in Judah like the one she had in Moab?

Naomi tells the girls that there is no reason whatsoever for them to continue on with her. She can have no more children that might be husbands for them and even if she could the age difference would make that impossible. Naomi seems to want to be alone with her grief. She blames God for her misfortunes and just really seems to be in a bad place.

Now we don’t know what the daughters-in law might have been going home to, but in the end only Orpha, does leave. Ruth insists on staying with and traveling with Naomi even if she realizes that decisions about faithfulness and loyalty are rarely made with a secure knowledge of how things will turn out. We can anticipate that things will not be easy for Ruth. She will be living among unknown people, with new customs, a new language and a new faith. We have to wonder what Ruth felt about claiming a new God in her life—especially when she has seen bad things happen to Naomi that have been blamed on this god.

Now that’s an interesting dynamic isn’t it? Both women have made all these huge, life-changing decisions, planned all of these big changes in their lives and now it sounds as if Naomi isn’t sure she wants Ruth with her. What drove Ruth’s response?

I suspect that she really did see that this bitter, older woman, needed her. But I also wonder why Ruth that didn’t want to return to her own family? Why would she prefer becoming a foreigner to going home? I wonder if there was something in her reply that said, “Hey! You can’t rid of me that fast!” I wonder if for Ruth, home was wherever Naomi was?

And I wonder how Naomi felt when she was unable to continue on alone? We only know that she zipped her lips and said no more on the matter. We don’t know if she was happy with Ruth or not.

And isn’t it interesting that Ruth’s response to Naomi leads her to utter some of the most famous lines in the Bible, “Where you go, I will go; where you stay I will stay; your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” Isn’t it surprising that these words we use in our wedding liturgy don’t come from some romantic love story—maybe from the time when Ruth and Boaz are married? It comes from a story about love between in-laws.

And so our reading for this week concludes as a foreign woman from a reviled nation and a bitter, older widow, make their way towards Judah where they will try to enter and re-enter life among the Jews. For the rest of the book Ruth will make slow progress in living her new life with the grieving Naomi.

Some scholars say that Ruth is an unrecognized gift of God’s grace to Naomi: that is takes quite a while for Naomi to see all the good in Ruth. Time and again working with the deacons in this church I can point to women who have been Ruths for older Naomis in their lives. What about you? Do you have a Ruth? It seems as if we could all use one!

Ruth has much to teach us about loving and caring; she has much to show us about selflessness and putting the welfare of others above our own. Who in your life needs a Ruth? Is God calling you to walk step-by-step and side-by-side with a Naomi? How will you respond?

 

Ruth 2: Happy Endings

Ruth 3:1-5
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
Ruth 4:13-17
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin;[a] and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The story of Ruth has all the elements of a good TV show—or maybe a two or three part mini-series. Last week we looked at episode one where we got the backstory on Ruth and Naomi. When Naomi decided to return home from Moab after the death of her husband and sons, Ruth the Moabite wife of one of her two sons decided to follow Naomi to Judah, making Naomi’s people her people, and Naomi’s God her God. Making this choice wasn’t easy, as the two women had no guarantee of support once they arrived. We ended on a note of suspense as they began to make their way to Judah.

This week scene one opens with them arriving safely in Naomi’s former homeland at a very opportune time—just as the barley harvest begins. That’s good news for the two women as it is a visible sign of the end of the famine and a sign of hope—bread for all.

For Ruth, who has already shown us that she is not one to think inside the box, it also seems as if the harvest will provide a chance for her bring grain back to Naomi by gleaning in the fields.

Gleaning was a well-known system among the Jews and served as a sort of Israelite welfare system. When hired workers passed through fields for harvest, they were allowed to bundle the grain they had cut, but of course they were bound to miss or drop some of the grain back onto the ground. Instead of making a second pass through the field, the workers left the fallen grain specifically for the poor: the widows, strangers, foreigners, orphans, all those who had no direct access to the benefits of the society in which they lived.

It was a difficult and meager way to try to survive, but as a foreign widow, Ruth had little choice. And, for her it is a brave choice to go to the fields alone and glean behind the other gleaners. So that decision made, we close Scene One.

In Scene Two we meet the third star of this show, Boaz, a man of Judah who was related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech. One of the reasons at least Naomi’s eyes light up when she hears of him, is the Levirate marriage law. That law required one’s nearest kinsman to marry a woman who had lost her husband and produce an heir for the deceased.

Now Boaz couldn’t marry old Naomi and produce an heir, but Ruth might be a possibility. She, after all, had been married to Elimelech’s son. Naomi might find some support as she was older and might find family who would take her in, but Ruth, however, presented a problem. Not only was she as a Moabite a foreigner, she was a much younger woman. In other words, she might live on for some time after Naomi. Why might this be a problem? Remember this was a time without social services. The only safety net was the family, and if the family couldn’t provide, well, you were on your own. Ruth’s only hope was marriage, but who would be willing to marry her?

For Naomi this seemed like a real solution to the problem of providing for Ruth and herself. So, she began plotting a strategy for Ruth.

Meantime, in our next scene, Ruth and Boaz do meet. Boaz is a prominent member of the community and our translation says he was rich. As it happened Ruth chose to glean in one of his fields at just the moment Boaz himself was coming to check on everything. When he sees Ruth he asks the servant in change of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?” Remember that was a natural question in this time when women were considered property.

The servant answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

Impressed, Boaz goes over and speaks directly to Ruth. He says, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women (his servants). Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”

Ruth was so grateful she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to Boaz, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”

Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

She replies, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly…even though I am not one of your servants.”

I think that even if doesn’t recognize it Boaz (like all the men in those Hallmark movies) is a little smitten with Ruth and he invites her to join him and the workers and the gleaners for lunch. She eats her full and as she is heading back to work Boaz tells the workers to even let her glean from the standing sheaves and instructs them to pull out some barley from among that which is already bundled and to give that to Ruth, too.

So she gleaned in the field until evening and when she beat out what she had gleaned, it was about an ephah of barley.
An ephah is a Hebrew unit of dry measure that is equal to about a bushel (35 liters).

In Scene Three, Ruth takes her gleanings home to Naomi who is, of course, very pleased. When she hears that Ruth worked for Boaz she is even happier.

Naomi says, “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.

And Ruth adds, “He even said to me, ‘Stay close by my servants, until they have finished all my harvest.’”

Naomi agrees, saying, “It is better, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field.”

So Ruth stayed close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests; while she lived with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

When the harvest is over and its time for it to be winnowed on the threshing floor, Naomi has worked out her plan. It all goes back to that Leverite marriage law. Boaz, who has already been kind to Ruth, isn’t married, he doesn’t have children and he is a close relative. In other words, he’s available and he fits the criteria for a possible husband for Ruth.

In Scene Four Naomi explains this to Ruth and directs her to wash up, put on her best clothes, and then go out to the threshing floor and wait until Boaz goes to sleep. Then, while sleeping, she is to uncover his feet and then lie down next to him. By doing this, Ruth will signal to Boaz that she is willing to be his wife (if he’s willing).

Now you can read these verses, as I do in the PG version or you can read a more R-rated version into it. We don’t know for sure all that happened that night.

The Bible says, that in our Scene 5 Ruth did exactly as instructed and waited until Boaz was asleep. He work up at midnight and was startled to find a woman next to him. “Who are you?” he asked. And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” Not exactly romantic, right??

And Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” Which I guess means, “Great idea!”

And then, being such an honorable man, Boaz explains that there is another kinsman even more closely related to Naomi and Ruth than he is. He says to Ruth, “remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.” I guess that means, “Sure, I’ll marry you if the other guy won’d.”

So ever the gentleman, in Scene 6 Boaz goes to the city gate where official business is conducted. The nearer kinsman comes by, and Boaz gathers 10 men to witness their transaction. Boaz explains the situation to the nearer kinsman. He says, Naomi is giving up what little property she has, and the duty of the nearer kinsman is to buy it so that the inheritance stays in the family.
The nearer kinsman says, “I will redeem it.” And that makes the romantics among us groan as we are always rooting for the Jacks and Rebeccas or Tobys and Kates in “This Is Us” and in this case we want Boaz and Ruth to end up together.
But as usual in this story, there is a glitch. When Boaz tells the nearer kinsman that the deal also includes taking Ruth for a wife and giving her offspring in place of her deceased husband—the nearer kinsman has second thoughts. He changes his mind. We don’t know why–maybe he was already married, maybe he didn’t want any more kids, maybe he thought this deal would really just complicate his life.
So we romantics smile as we realize the way is now open for Boaz to step in and marry (redeem) Ruth.
The 10 men who witnessed the transaction approve and bless Boaz saying, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children and may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah.” Now some of those ancestors they mentioned made some strange choices and had some dysfunctional families—but all the same, they are wishing Boaz and Ruth well.
So, in the final scene, Ruth and Boaz marry and, even though she was barren for the 10 years she was married to her first husband, now Ruth and Boaz conceive a child. Naomi, now a grandmother, is now holding a baby in what she once thought were forlorn and lonely arms.
And so concludes a great story about the deliverance of two women from difficult circumstances. Roll the credits tell us what actors were involved and who the sound engineers were and who was the script supervisor. That’s a wrap.
Or is it? If this is just a simple love story, what is it doing in the Bible? What is God saying to us through Ruth, Naomi and Boaz? What can we learn from what may seem too much like a simple love story?
John Piper the founder of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, says, “The book of Ruth wants to teach us that God’s purpose for the life of his people is to connect us to something far greater than ourselves. God wants us to know that when we follow him, our lives always mean more than we think they do. For the Christian there is always a connection between the ordinary events of life and the stupendous work of God in history. Everything we do in obedience to God, no matter how small, is significant. It is part of a cosmic mosaic which God is painting to display the greatness of his power and wisdom to the world…The deep satisfaction of the Christian life is that it is not given over to trifles. Serving a widowed mother-in-law, gleaning in a field, falling in love, having a baby—for the Christian these things are all connected to eternity. They are part of something so much bigger than they seem.”

Do you agree? Do you see God in the mundane events of an ordinary day?

Do you think God was involved in Naomi’s one son marrying Ruth in the first place or do you think it was just chance? Do you think God was involved in the decision that Ruth would accompany Naomi to her new start in life? Do you think God was at work keeping the older Boaz healthy and single and ready to marry? Was it a coincidence that Ruth went to glean in his field? Was it a coincidence that Ruth got pregnant right away with Boaz?

Another thing the book of Ruth teaches us is that life doesn’t automatically become perfect when you are a Christian. That even those most dedicated to God’s will do not get to walk a perfectly straight path to heaven. Life throws us one curve ball after another. We can take encouragement from the book of Ruth as time and again difficulties are overcome.

And a third lesson goes back to that quote from John Piper and that’s just simply that we never know exactly what God is up to. Even Ruth and Naomi could not predict that years later Matthew would list Ruth as an ancestor of Jesus. But if Jesus really did come to save the whole world—why shouldn’t his lineage reflect the whole world?

The story began with Naomi’s loss. It ends with Naomi’s gain. It began with death and ends with birth. A son—for whom? Verse 17 is the completion of Naomi’s long and twisted road. “And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.'” Not to Ruth but to Naomi. Why? To show that what Naomi had said in 1:21 was not true. That the Lord did not leave her empty like she felt when she first returned from Moab. And if we could just learn to wait and trust in God, all our complaints against God would prove untrue.

Ruth was written to help us see the signposts of the grace of God in our lives, and to help us trust God’s grace even when the clouds are so thick that we can’t see the road let alone the signs on the side. Let’s go back and remind ourselves that in this story it was God who acted to turn each setback into a stepping stone and eventually into joy. Let us remember that it is God in all of our bitter situations who is plotting for our good.

And, finally, some scholars are quick to point out that Ruth is a book that opens up conversations. This speaks to us today, as conversations abound in our government about welcoming aliens. What if a border agent had turned Ruth away from Israel? Who would be the ancestor of Jesus?

Ruth also provides a counter-point to Ezera and Nehemiah which focus on the post-exile period when the Jewish people were re-establishing their lives back in Jerusalem. As mentioned before this was a time when men were encouraged to get rid of the foreign women they may have taken for wives while in exile. Having non-Jews worship their God was a serious matter and one of great debate among the Hebrews. Ruth is a book that shows us assimilation, inclusion and love can work. Ruth the foreigner becomes a very important part of the community.

So the book ends as it begins with the story of Naomi, who is now no longer bitter and who has been blessed, not cursed by God. As the women of the village tell her, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

May we all have such neat and tidy resolutions to our problems, even if, like Naomi, we have to wait until old age. Let us always remember that old saying, “God is good, all the time. All the time God is good.

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