As we near the end of Ordinary Time the lectionary lessons begin to lean into Advent with a focus on three faithful people, two of them in the genealogy of the Christ. The end of the book of Ruth reminds us that Ruth, against all odds, was part of the family tree of David and, thus, of David’s Greater Son. That is a key to interpreting and applying the book of Ruth; it is part of a much larger story.
That simple fact will keep us from getting lost in the beauty of the story and focusing on its narrative and aesthetic details to the detriment of the larger message. Ruth is a literary masterpiece, the quintessential short story. Literary scholars note its nearly perfect form. For example, its introduction and conclusion consist of precisely 71 words. It is set in 4 distinct geographical locations. Each scene ends with a perfect transition to the next scene. And so forth.
Thus, over the years, folks have gotten lost in the loveliness of Ruth. The beauty of Ruth’s pledge of allegiance to her mother in law Naomi in verses 16-17 have been used at countless weddings. Connect those words to the relationship between Ruth and Boaz and you have a classic romance tale. The fact that the story is driven by strong women tempts some to see in this book a feminist tract. Elimelech’s journey to Moab, a foreign land, indeed, a country historically hostile to the Jews, makes this a story about refugees, famine refugees. And this leads some preachers to focus on issues of immigration.
While all of those features are in this powerful story, it is not first of all about any of them. It is primarily a story of redemption. That word and its variants occur 23 times in the story. The narrative arc of the story moves from emptiness to fullness through the loyal love (hesed, verse 8) of Ruth and Boaz. It is the story of Naomi’s transformation from despair to happiness through the selfless, God-blessed acts of Ruth and Boaz. That transformation parallels what happens in Israel on a larger scale (hinted at in the movement from famine to plenty right in today’s reading). And it is an historical precursor to the redemption of humanity from destitution to security through the hesed of God expressed in the selfless, God-blessed acts of Jesus Christ. Ruth is part of the redemptive history that centered on Israel and came to fulfillment in Jesus.
Ruth’s place in the larger story is made unmistakable by its opening and closing words (which I will deal with next week). Verse 1 locates the story in the time of the Judges, that dark period in Israel’s history when there was no one charge. As a result, people did what was right in their own eyes, which led to a moral perversity that violated all the covenantal obligations God had laid on his chosen people. Indeed, Judges ends with a gruesome gang rape and the kidnapping of multiple women to become forced brides. Women were brutalized in those times. So, the book of Ruth functions as a tiny point of light and hope in that dark and depraved time.
But the book wasn’t written in those times, as the concluding genealogy of David shows. It was written after David’s reign, sometime in the monarchy, perhaps in the time of the divided kingdom, and maybe even in the post-Exilic era. The themes of emptiness and fullness, of loss and dislocation, of loyal love that results in redemption could fit many moments in Israel’s history and in our lives.
The dislocation is the first of many losses for Naomi. Motivated by starvation, Naomi’s husband leads his wife and two sons around the Dead Sea, over the Jordan, and down the King’s Highway to the fertile grain fields of Moab. That was enemy territory. For centuries Israel and Moab had battled each other, and now this little Jewish band settles in hostile territory. Then Naomi’s husband dies. Her only support in that sternly patriarchal time was now gone.
Oh, yes, she still had her two sons, who promptly married two Moabite women. Such unions weren’t strictly forbidden by Yahweh, but they weren’t blessed either. No Moabite could enter the sanctuary, even if they had been in Israel for 10 generations. But at least her two sons were still there to take care of mom. Then they also died.
Now Naomi is truly destitute—away from her home land, a widow with no children, saddled with two foreign daughters in law, both of whom have proven to be infertile after 10 years of marriage. Naomi is a female Job. Loss after loss led to bitterness and hopelessness. God has blasted her life; “Yahweh’s hand has gone out against me (verse 13).”
But then she hears a good word. There is food back in Judah again. So, she will drag herself back home, even though she will have no standing there, given that her male protectors are all gone. She resolves to travel to Bethlehem with daughters in law in tow. But a short way down the King’s Highway, she changes her mind (or reveals what she had planned all along). She sends her barren foreign daughters in law back to their homes to find new husbands among their own people and start life over again. She sends them off with a covenantal blessing that sets the tone for everything that follows. “May Yahweh show hesed to you as you have shown to me….”
But the women won’t go. In a shocking reversal of the stereotypical mother in law/daughter in law conflict, Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave. That leads Naomi to redouble her plea, endeavoring to prove to them that there is no hope for them if they stay with her. Referring to the Levirate law of marriage, Naomi points out that even if she could get another husband on the spot and she could have two babies nine months later, those girls wouldn’t/shouldn’t wait around another 20 years before they could marry those boys. “There is no hope, my daughters, none at all. So, go home, go home.”
At that Orpah leaves. But Ruth won’t. Naomi lays on the peer pressure. Look, your sister in law is going back to her people and her gods. Ruth replies with that famous avowal of loyalty that has graced many a wedding, in verses 16-18. But these are no wedding vows; they are a confession of faith, a testimony of conversion. At the heart of her loyalty to Naomi is Ruth’s pledge of allegiance to Yahweh. “Your God shall be my God.” And she calls on Yahweh to deal harshly with her if she ever breaks her promise to stay with Naomi “till death do them part.” With that, Naomi gives up, goes silent, and trudges home with her miraculously converted daughter in law. With that, a foreigner, an enemy, enters the covenant and the rest will be history.
Why would Ruth make such a decision to forsake her land, her people, her gods? Maybe because she has witnessed the faith of Naomi’s family over the last decade. But, then, wouldn’t Naomi’s bitter complaint against Yahweh in verse 13 give her pause. Or maybe Ruth’s experience of hesed from Naomi’s family had convinced her that the God whose hesed was at their heart of their hesed was worth following. Or maybe, like Abraham whom she resembles in many ways or like the Apostle Paul, she had simply been changed by the sovereign grace of God. God needed her to be in the family tree of the Messiah, so God grafted her in by mysterious grace.
Why would God go to the trouble of getting a Moabite into the genealogy of the Messiah? Here’s how the NIV Study Bible answers that question. “Ruth exemplifies the truth that participation in the coming Kingdom of God is decided not by blood and birth, but by the conformity of one’s life to the will of God through ‘the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5).’ Ruth’s place in the ancestry of David signifies that all nations will be represented in the kingdom of David’s greater Son.”
But that major theological point takes us ahead to next week’s reading. What can you say to your congregation today based on these opening words of Ruth? You can focus on that theme of loss, emptiness, hopelessness. When we are feeling those things and we think it is God’s fault, the story of Ruth and Naomi portrayed in these opening words point us to God’s mysterious, often incomprehensible ways of redeeming us in those times. When we think God has forsaken us, his loyal love will not let us go. In unpredictable ways, God can restore you, fill you, and give you hope. He did it in Naomi’s life, in Israel’s history, and in Jesus Christ. Ruth’s profession of faithful love to Naomi is a revelation of God’s faithful love to us. At this point in the story, we don’t know how this sad adventure will turn out, any more than we know how our story will conclude. But the inclusion of this story in the history of redemption assures us that God’s hesed will redeem us in ways we can’t imagine.
Although I don’t think it is legitimate to preach a whole sermon on the refugee crisis using this text, it would be very helpful to use that crisis to lead people into the situation in which Naomi found herself. The same would be true of the kind of oppression women face in some (all?) cultures today.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 4, 2018
Ruth 1:1-18 Commentary