Helping to prepare a bride and groom for their wedding is always an interesting process. One of the last things I do with a couple as part of their pre-marriage counseling is to plan the ceremony. I always ask them if they have any scripture passages in mind. If they do, it’s almost always one of two passages: 1 Corinthians 13, or Ruth’s words from our passage today.
Both are beautiful passages, of course, but I always wonder if the happy couple would be so enthusiastic if they knew the context of these verses. Paul wrote his description of love to a congregation mired deep in conflict—both with him and with each other. Ruth’s words are not those of a blushing bride to her beloved, but the words of a woman to her mother-in-law, after both their husbands have died, leaving them alone and childless. They’re the words of a woman who’s about to enter a foreign land occupied by people who hate people like her. They’re beautiful words of love and commitment, to be sure, but they’re words spoken in a situation that’s the exact opposite of dewy-eyed hope and joy.
They’re also words that alert us to the fact that the book of Ruth is a story of reversals. Expectations are overturned. Bad luck will end in blessing. Emptiness will be filled. Sweetness that had turned to bitterness gives way once again to sweetness. The poor will become rich. The stranger will become family. The hopelessness of two widowed women will prepare the way for the hope of the world. And, a despised foreigner from a pagan land will become the epitome of faith and love and an important branch in Jesus’ family tree.
It’s difficult to say when the story was written down or by whom. It could have been composed as early as King David’s reign, to affirm his right to the throne. Or it could have been written much later, during the exile, as a reflection on the nature of faithful and unfaithful leadership. Placed as it is in our Bibles, it appears to bridge the gap between the disintegration of leadership in Israel in the time of the judges and the beginnings of the monarchy.
It may also have been written down after the exile, during the return to Judah. Returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, Ezra denounced the presence of foreign wives among the Jews and demanded that all the wives from lands such as Moab and their children be sent away. Nehemiah, who followed Ezra back to Jerusalem, records that all people of foreign descent were expelled. The book of Ruth may have been written as an opposing opinion about the place foreigners had in the story of God’s people.
Who was the author? Again, it’s impossible to determine. The author might have been a village priest, an elder or other teacher. But, given its focus on women as the main characters and their concerns, the author may well have been a “wise woman” who told stories to teach and inspire her people.
The beauty of this story is that it really doesn’t matter when or by whom it was written. The concerns it considers, the insights it raises, and the hope it offers are relevant in any age, including our own.
The story begins, as many biblical stories do, with a famine. We meet a man from Bethlehem and encounter our first reversal. The name “Bethlehem” literally means “House of Bread.” But there was no bread in Bethlehem. So, Elimelech had taken his wife and two sons to Moab, of all places. It would be hard to think of a more unlikely place for a Jew to seek relief. Going to Moab meant leaving the promised land for a land populated by people who were held in the deepest disregard by the Jews. In fact, the Moabites were so despised by the Jewish people that, according to Deuteronomy, they were specifically excluded from the assembly of the Lord until the tenth generation, all because of some unfortunate incidents during the journey to the Promised Land.
The name of Elimelech’s wife was Naomi, which means “pleasant” or “a delight.” And, it might have seemed like, in spite of the famine, Naomi had every reason to be pleasant. Sons were considered a blessing, and she had two. While in Moab, her sons married Moabite women—Orpah and Ruth. But the sweetness of sons and the prospect of grandchildren dissolved into bitterness for Naomi when first her husband and then both her sons died, leaving her as a childless, widowed refugee. To be any one of those things would have made a woman vulnerable to poverty and helplessness; all three together would make life nearly impossible. Hearing that the famine had ended in her hometown of Bethlehem, Naomi decided to make her way back there.
Her daughters-in-law started out with her. But at some point, Naomi reconsiders the wisdom of this. After all, they’d be leaving their homeland to go with her. On the other hand, if they returned to their families, they had a chance to turn this mess around—to remarry, to have children, to find the security Naomi wouldn’t be able to give them. In a scene that turns most mother-in-law stories upside down, she acknowledges their faithfulness above and beyond the call of duty to her and to her sons, and urges them to return to their mothers and their Moabite gods. But they weep as she kisses them goodbye and insist on going with her.
She makes plain how impossible this situation is for them. Orpah and Ruth, both loving, dutiful daughters-in-law, respond in different ways. Orpah does what Naomi desires, tearfully kissing Naomi before departing for her own people. But Ruth continues to insist on going with Naomi. The speech so beloved by today’s brides and grooms is the one she makes as she begs Naomi not to make her go back and explains why she must go with Naomi.
“Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Our translation sounds like this is a promise Ruth makes in exchange for Naomi allowing her to come, too. But there’s no suggestion here of the future tense in the Hebrew. Instead, it’s more like “Your people are my people. Your God is my God.” This is a decision that Ruth has already made. She has already adopted Naomi’s people as her people. She’s already claimed Naomi’s God as her own. She won’t turn her back on her love for the one true God or the woman who surely made that God known to her. Naomi sees that there’s no changing Ruth’s mind, and the two continue on together.
Naomi and Ruth create quite a stir when they get to Bethlehem. Perhaps they had never expected to see Naomi again, but now here she is, without her husband or sons, but with a Moabite daughter-in-law. Maybe they were moved by the two travel-worn women who had likely been walking for a week or more over fifty miles of steep, rugged terrain that was often plagued by bandits. Maybe their hearts ached for the grief-stricken widows, especially when the once-pleasant Naomi lashed out in bitter recriminations against the God she was sure had caused her misfortune.
There are many reversals in this first chapter alone—the reversal of Naomi’s status from wife and mother to childless widow, the journey from Bethlehem to Moab to escape disaster and the return to Bethlehem, also because of disaster. But the most surprising reversal is in the ways that Naomi and Ruth respond to the crisis they find themselves in. Naomi, the Jewish woman from Bethlehem, rails against her God. Ruth, the Moabite, places her trust in the God she has come to know.
Naomi is sure that God has dealt harshly with her. Whether she feels it is deserved punishment for past sins or undeserved suffering like Job’s we don’t know. But, she was full and now she is empty, and her anger and anguish are so great that she insists that she be called by a new name: Mara, which means “bitter.” Never mind that she’s been accompanied by a loving and faithful daughter-in-law. Never mind that she’s home after so many years. Her faith, which must have been great enough to inspire her Moabite daughter-in-law to adopt it, is in tatters.
Ruth responds differently. She could have gone back to her Moabite gods and her Moabite family in her own homeland to start over. But she makes a decision based on love and commitment—to Naomi and to God. She will go wherever she needs to go, live wherever she needs to live among the people she now considers her own, whether they accept her or not. She will commit her life to a new path, based on her trust in God. This woman, whose foreignness will continually be noted by those around her, responds with more faith than the one whose faith came to her as an inheritance.
How we respond to a crisis can reveal who we really are, and what our deepest values are. The way we understand God’s working in our lives may be tested—not in the sense of seeing whether our faith is right or wrong or weak or strong, but as the true content of precious metal is discovered by testing. I’m always moved by those who endure great pain in their lives but continue to trust in God’s love. I am awed by those who weren’t certain about the depth of their faith until they found that it was the one thing they could cling to. Many of you are among them.
But, many of us are also like Naomi. What we thought was a rock-solid faith begins to teeter under the weight of grief or stress. We find ourselves crying with the bitterness of Naomi and the anguish of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” “Call me Mara,” we may feel like saying to those who witness our suffering.
But the good news is that we aren’t defined by how we react to any one set of circumstances. Thanks be to God if we can respond as Ruth did, and thanks be to God if we continue to grow in our faith. But, if we react as Naomi did, know this: God is waiting for us to work our way back. God’s grace is ever-present. Jesus’ arms are always open wide. It is about people like Naomi, whose faith is challenged to its breaking point, that John Wesley says, “We set before these an open door of hope.” The opportunity to reverse course is never closed to us.
We’ve all been in situations that we had high hopes for but which ended in disappointment. We’ve all had misgivings about situations that ended in rejoicing. Sometimes our responses, or those of people around us, to either success or disaster, surprise us. We may find that we aren’t the people we thought we were, or that our faith is not what we thought it was—for better or worse. The book of Ruth is about people just like us, who encounter life as we do—life that is often the reverse of what we expect. In them and their story, we see ourselves. In their story and ours we can find the one thing we know will never change—God’s steadfast presence and love. Whether life is bitter or sweet, God is with us, and God is for us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young