To my mind stopping the reading of Ruth 1 at verse 18 is the narrative equivalent of ending the movie Field of Dreams just before the moment when Ray encounters his long-dead and estranged father on his magical Iowa baseball diamond. Why stop short of the scene that brings the whole thing together!?
So trust me: read the whole chapter of Ruth 1. Preach the whole first chapter of Ruth.
To see why, let us now turn to our story . . . and a sad story it is. Commentators on the Book of Ruth have often noted that the trajectory of this story can be summarized as “From Emptiness to Fullness,” and this first chapter is definitely the “empty” part. Or better said, it’s the emptying part. We begin in Bethlehem, the “house of bread” only to discover the bread in the house is gone. There’s a famine. People are hungry and when they get hungry, they soon become culinary refugees who go off in search of sustenance.
For a while Elimelech and Naomi find that sustenance in the land of Moab. Things look up but only briefly because soon enough the family’s breadwinner dies. That’s bad, but things brighten up a tidge when the sons get married. And for ten years life goes on before disaster strikes yet again and the two sons turn up dead, too. Even in Israel—where the laws of the land were supposed to protect widows and other vulnerable members of the society—things did not always pan out so rosy for widows. One can assume that Moab did not have those safeguards in the first place and so three widows equaled triple trouble.
The two young widows, Orpah and Ruth, have a shot at remarriage at least. They might yet have children. But Naomi sees no future. If you were a woman in the Ancient Near East, the simple (albeit sexist and patriarchal) fact of the matter was that the best way out of economic calamity was to get married. Men got all the breaks. Women without men got overlooked if not mistreated. But Naomi’s marrying days and child-bearing days were long gone. Her best shot was to go home and hope for some merciful extended family to take her in.
But given the wariness in Israel of marrying foreign women, Orpah and Ruth really were best off staying in Moab. Orpah is the more sensible of the two young widows and does just that. Ruth, on the other hand, is completely irrational. She goes against common sense and decides to stick it out with Naomi, come what may. Now Naomi had yet another mouth to feed in addition to her own and so although we usually hold up Ruth’s loyalty as a noble thing—isn’t that text about “Where you go I will go” riffed on at many a wedding these days?—Naomi probably regarded Ruth’s stubborn loyalty as one big pain in the neck. This was going to make things more complicated for her, not less so.
Because make no mistake: Naomi still saw but one solution and that was re-marriage. She was so focused on this that she even made up the ridiculous scenario of Orpah and Ruth possibly waiting around to marry Naomi’s future sons, not that she’d ever have another child, mind you, and not that Ruth or Orpah could wait around for a couple of decades while such kids—who would never exist anyway—grew up!!! Naomi’s throwing out of that scenario is the kind of silly and loopy thing you say when you don’t know what else to say and are in any event quite literally at the end of your rope.
Again, Orpah sees the sense of it all. Ruth refuses. She is going to stick with Naomi. She will as good as become an Israelite—religion and all—if that’s what it will take to stay with her bereft mother-in-law.
What a sad pair they were that day they shuffled back into Bethlehem. Things had not been great the day Naomi had left in the midst of a famine but at least she had her husband at her side and two handsome young boys trotting along behind her. But now here she was coming back looking like forty miles of bad road and with some equally sad-looking Moabite woman tagging along to boot. People felt sorry for her, but Naomi would not have any of their pity. What she wanted was for them to get as angry with God as she was.
And so she lights into Almighty God pretty good. “Time was my name meant ‘Pleasant’ and I used to be a pretty pleasant person, too. But that was before Yahweh messed with my life. Now just call me ‘Bitter,’ because that’s what I am. And it’s all God’s doing! God has only himself to blame for moving me from Pleasant to Bitter. So come on, folks, and join me in shaking an empty fist in the direction of Almighty God!”
It’s not the kind of thing you would ordinarily say in the company of a young woman who just said “Your God will be my God.” Naomi doesn’t exactly give a nice little promotional piece here for the God whom Ruth just offered to worship. You’d hardly be surprised to hear Ruth say, “Whoa! That is who your God is? I’d like to retract my earlier statement and substitute the line ‘Your God will not be my God!’”
Ruth 1 presents one bleak picture. Naomi and Ruth are as empty as empty can be as the chapter comes to close. To riff on a Paul Simon song they were “She’s a poor girl, Empty as a pocket, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose . . .” Even God comes off looking bad. Naomi surely is not looking to God with much hope. Quite the opposite, in fact!
But then comes that last verse of the chapter (here’s why you need the whole chapter). “The barley harvest was beginning.” If the Book of Ruth were staged as a play, I would imagine that as Act One comes to a close, Naomi and Ruth would exit stage left, their heads bowed, their shoulders slumped, arrayed in tattered dresses. But then just as they step off the stage and out of the sight of the audience—and just before the lights go down between acts—suddenly the audience would hear the crunch of grain kernels beneath the women’s feet.
The barely harvest was beginning. Bethlehem/The House of Bread was going to get some bread going soon as the staff of life—barley and wheat—was brought in from the fields.
Crunch-Crunch goes the sound of grain kernels popping under the women’s sandals. It is the sound of hope. In the midst of great sorrow and after God himself has just endured a full frontal assault from Naomi, getting chalked up as a destroyer or life, suddenly God lets the sound of barely-crunch to be heard, and those of us who read the book and watch the play cannot help but smile. God cannot be counted out just yet.
Something more is in the works.
Stay tuned. Keep reading. Come on, turn that page!
If Ruth 1 is a picture of bleakness, it is also a picture of the human condition writ small. Ruth 1 is emblematic for so much of life. God created us for shalom, for flourishing, for life abundant in his good creation. But our sin unmade so much of what was good. Like Naomi, we may want to blame God for all the unhappy things that happen but as often as not the sad things that happen are simply part of that long chain—that series calamatis that just is human sin ricocheting from generation to generation—that is really to blame. We misuse the environment and then wonder why there are famines and people dying from disease. We enflame hatred and exaggerate ethnic differences among peoples and then wonder why wars erupt and people kill each other so callously. We become selfish and self-indulgent narcissists focused only on our own pleasure and then we wonder why friendships fracture and families fall apart and why even church communities become battlegrounds instead of previews of God’s peaceable kingdom.
“Death and decay in all around I see” as one old hymn lyric puts it. The news on any given day presents us with enough sorrow and mayhem to undo us all if we could really even begin to take it all in. The whole creation started out so full but now often turns up so empty.
But in and through it all God remains God and long about the time we conclude that it’s all over and there is no hope, suddenly some barley crunches under someone’s feet and we being to suspect that there may yet be an Act Two to all this creation drama. We begin to suspect that the God who created us for fullness will not be content to leave us in emptiness.
Ruth will become a distant relative of man from Nazareth named Jesus—with Advent 2015 just around the corner we can recall Ruth’s presence in the Family Tree of Jesus with which Matthew opens his Gospel. You might not have guessed such a thing for a woman who was such a destitute outsider when first we meet her. The prospects just don’t look good. Yet in Bethlehem that day, from somewhere just within earshot, we hear the crunch of barley underfoot.
Many years later in Bethlehem, from the unlikely location of an animal’s feedbox, the sound of a crying infant would be heard. And for those with ears to hear, there was a sense also that night that God was still around, still aiming things to move from emptiness to a very great fullness indeed.
Frederick Buechner once wrote a lovely book called The Alphabet of Grace. Near the end of this volume, Buechner compared life to the Hebrew language. As some of you know, ancient Hebrew contains no vowels but only consonants. So you have words that, all by themselves on paper, look like BRK, GDL, BNJMN. You can’t pronounce such things, of course, without vowel sounds to slide in between those consonants. Native Hebrew speakers know just which vowels to supply where. And so BRK becomes barak, GDL becomes gadol, and so on. Life is a little like that, Buechner suggests. There are lots of hard truths, hard sounds that get jammed together in the tragedies (and even in the ordinary circumstances) of our lives. It doesn’t always make sense or seem even very pronounceable. But it is finally faith that provides the vowels at just the right points, making even for now at least a little bit of sense of things. Life isn’t always very phonetic in some literal sense, but with the Spirit’s help, perhaps grace can supply what is sometimes missing.
As often as not, it’s the providence of God that does this for us. And providence can slide in those vowels in very surprising ways and places sometimes, as the story of Ruth can also remind us.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2015
Ruth 1:1-18 Commentary