This week, we go back in time once more. Back from the 1st century, when Christianity was first getting its start, from a possible location of Ephesus in Turkey, to a time centuries before that, “in the days when the judges ruled”. The story of Ruth takes place in the countries of Judah and of Moab, which would be present-day Israel and Jordan, in a time before the kings of a united Israel ruled. During this time, the book of Judges, which comes immediately before Ruth, tells us, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The book of Ruth is meant to stand out from that depressing pronouncement as a story to give us hope; to tell us that not everything is darkness, but that there are some people who are living according to God’s commandments. Through this summer, we have been hearing about those commandments that God gives, and how they can be summed up by these two statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Last week, 1 John told us that God is love and we also ought to love one another. Ruth is a story of what love in action looks like, and it is a story of how divine love can be reflected in human beings.
First, let’s start out with some background information on the countries of Judah and Moab. Judah, of course, was the home of the Israelites who claimed their family ancestor as Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Moab was the country next door with whom the Israelites had a relationship which today would be labeled, “It’s complicated.” If you go back to the book of Genesis, you will find a story claiming that the people of Moab descended from an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. But, Lot was Abraham’s nephew. And so, since the Israelites also descended from Abraham, they and the Moabites regarded one another as family of sorts. But, like any families, they had quarrels with one another. There was a time when the Moabites would not let the Israelites cross their land as the Israelites were heading into the land that God had promised them, for example. And the Moabites worshiped different gods, rather than the one God that the Israelites worshiped. So, perhaps the relationship between them could be likened to the relationship between family members who don’t like one another very much, but have to acknowledge that they are, indeed, family, when they sit around the Thanksgiving table together.
So, as we enter the story of Ruth, we see a man named Elimelech and his family, who were from Bethlehem, packing up and leaving for Moab because there was a famine. I want you all to notice a theme that the author of Ruth is playing with, here: the theme of being full and being empty. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. So, in other words, there was no bread in the house of bread. And Elimelech decides, for the good of his family, that he needs to leave and go to a place where his family may be fed. And that place is Moab, the country full of people who have, at best, a problematic relationship with the people of Judah. But there seems to be no condemnation from the storyteller for this action; just a simple statement of the facts. Except, after an undetermined amount of time in Moab, Elimelech dies. We don’t know what happened; we just have the simple statement that he died. Then Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, take Moabite wives, but after ten years of living in Moab, these two men also die. With no children from these marriages, Naomi is left without her husband and her sons, only her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi, who left Bethlehem with a full family and who was kept full physically during her time in Moab, has become empty, left with no one except her two “foreign” daughters-in-law.
So Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. This was not a decision to be made lightly: it was about 50 miles between Moab and Bethlehem, and while we can make this journey in under an hour today, back then, with no cars, this was a journey of many days walking. And, as a woman on the road, Naomi would have been in danger from thieves and people who would want to do her harm. So I think that Naomi feels that she has nothing left in life and nothing left to lose, and that she wants to see her home one more time before she dies. And though her daughters-in-law start out with her, Naomi realizes that they are young and have full lives ahead of them, so she urges them to go back. Orpah ultimately decides to go back, but Ruth remains with her. We don’t know why, and though we can speculate on the reasons, I think the storyteller wants us to know this about Ruth: she loves her mother-in-law, and that love will not allow her to let Naomi make the journey home by herself. Ruth will not let Naomi give up on life, and so she goes back with her to Bethlehem: a place she has never seen before, full of people who will look on her strangely because she is a foreigner. Furthermore, Ruth is traveling with a woman who discounts her at every turn because she is so focused on the loss of her husband and her sons. To be traveling with a woman like this and to say nothing against her takes an incredible amount of loving devotion.
There is a story in my family that goes like this: When my parents were young and first married, they were looking for a church home. One Sunday, they went to a church where the pastor preached on Ruth and said, “Ruth was a good woman because she knew her place.” My father’s response was to say to my mother that they would not return to that congregation because, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to this crap.” I love that story because it gives me insight into who my father is. But aside from that, whoever that pastor was, he was dead wrong about Ruth. Ruth’s “place,” if she had one, would have been to return to her own parents and to honor them above her mother-in-law, who should have been nothing to her once her husband had died. Instead, she chose to make sure that her mother-in-law was safe on the road back to Bethlehem, sacrificing her own interests and putting those of Naomi’s ahead of her own. This is the kind of love that God shows us. Just as Ruth would not let go of Naomi, so God does not let go of us. Where we go, God goes. Where we lodge, God lodges. And even when we die, God is still with us.
If you have spent any time on this earth at all, then you have experienced some form of loss. In my time as a pastor, I have done many funerals. At the funerals that I have done, I acknowledge the loss and I don’t try to smooth it over. Only after we acknowledge the loss and how much it hurts us can we try to move on with our lives and maybe think about our loved ones in the arms of Jesus. And in our story today, Naomi shows us how to do that. She complains loudly that the Lord has dealt bitterly with her, dealt harshly with her, and brought calamity upon her. She is grieving and she makes no effort to hide the fact.
But what Naomi doesn’t realize yet, as we come to the conclusion of today’s chapter of Ruth, is that Ruth is with her, and that Ruth will help her journey through this grief, and that Ruth will not let her give up hope. Do you have people in your lives who have helped you through your grief and loss and not let you give up hope? I’m reminded of when my maternal grandfather died in 2010 after a lengthy decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, during which my grandmother was his primary caretaker. My grandmother’s congregation had something called Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministers are laypeople in the congregation who are specially trained to come alongside of a grieving person and walk with them through their time of grief and loss. After the funeral and after all the family and friends had left, a Stephen Minister came to walk with my grandmother through her time of grief and sorrow, listening to her and helping her to see hope on the other side. This is a visible, embodied manifestation of God’s love for us.
God is always with us, and God always loves us. But sometimes, God can become too much of an abstract concept for our little human minds to deal with. And so, God sends people into our lives, people who go above and beyond the call of duty to help us because they love us so much. And through those people’s love for us, we can catch glimpses of how much God truly loves us. God’s love for us becomes something physical, something that we can touch, as we give and receive love for one another. This week, think about those people who have acted in your life the way that Ruth did for Naomi, not letting you go during your time of grief, no matter how ugly that got, and give thanks for them. And also, be alert and ask God how you can act as Ruth did for Naomi for someone who is hurting. In the coming weeks, we will see how the story of Ruth and Naomi plays out, but we’ll leave it here for right now. And thanks be to God for the times that God sends people into our lives to love us, and for the times that God allows us to love others. Amen.