Ruth 1; 1John 4:7-8 (Sermon 1 of 3 on a series on Ruth)
If you’ve never read Ruth, I highly commend it to you. It’s a small book that comes in the Old Testament, the time before Jesus, right after the time when Israel was ruled by wise Judges, and before the time when Israel begins to be ruled by Kings. This is important because the book of Judges ends by telling us that everyone in the Israelite nation is doing whatever they choose— very few are following God’s law. And then we focus in on this small story that seems so insignificant to everyone— everyone, that is, except Ruth and Naomi. Because it is their story— it is their life— and everything in it is falling apart.
It is hard to overstate how dire the circumstances are of Naomi and Ruth’s lives. They have truly lived hard lives. Naomi, when she was first married, left Bethlehem, her home town, because of a famine. She went to live in the land of Moab, which was just about the worst place you could live if you were an Israelite. Moabites were despised by the Israelites. Usually the law said that if a Gentile (a non-Israelite) converted to the Israelite religion and way of life you weren’t truly an Israelite for two generations. But for Moabites, it was ten— ten generations of faithful conversion in order to be considered a true Israelite. So Naomi must’ve had reservations about moving to such a land— to be an immigrant in a nation that was considered her enemy; and yet desperation moves people to do things they never thought they would do. And she and her husband move to Moab, have two sons, and those two sons marry Moabite women. At this point in the story, every good Israelite would know that was the worst thing that could happen— to have your sons marry Moabite women— and yet things only get worse. Naomi’s husband dies, and shortly after, her two sons die. In a land in which women cannot work; are not allowed to make money; are not allowed to own land; are not allowed to inherit land; Naomi’s luck, if ever she had any, ran out completely. It is not that she is now on her own— it is worse— she is now a burden to her family and she doesn’t even have any family. She immediately tells Orpah and Ruth, her two daughters-in-law, to go back to their families. It might be that they would have a chance to marry again; or at the very least, to be taken in with a family member where they could contribute something to the household. Naomi’s dignity has been washed away in her depression and she cannot imagine a world where anyone will want a woman who is dragging along her mother-in-law.
There is so much fear in this story, so much scarcity.
Orpah, after many tears, follows her mother-in-law’s sound advice and returns home. But something is different for Ruth. Even though there is nothing for her, in going with Naomi, Ruth refuses to go back home. Even though it means relocating to a nation she doesn’t know, Ruth does not go home. Even though it means taking on the responsibility for her mother-in-law as well as herself, Ruth does not go home. Even though it means worshipping another God in a foreign land, Ruth does not go home. Instead, Ruth relieves this beautiful speech— a speech that is often recited at weddings, although here it is a daughter-in-law’s words to her mother-in-law. Ruth says to Naomi, “where you go, I will go; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
And what is Naomi’s reaction? Naomi cannot see past the scarcity of their situation. She cannot see past her own grief and depression. Naomi says to Ruth, “don’t call me Naomi anymore, for Naomi means sweet. Instead, my name will be Mara— which means bitter.”
And isn’t that how it often goes. This is no Hollywood ending. There has been no miracle— in fact, if you have lived a life without ever feeling like you have known God’s presence, then this book of the Bible is for you. Because other than Ruth and Naomi mentioning God, God doesn’t show up like God does in other books of the Bible. There are no revelations; there are no appearances; there are no burning bushes; there is no parting of the sea. These women are struggling and it is only because of their faith in mentioning God, that we hear about God at all. What we do see, however, is what I would say an even greater witness of God’s presence in their lives— because we see their love for one another.
The word in the Hebrew for love in this passage is “hesed.” This Hebrew word for love is the one usually reserved for God’s love— it is a loyal love; a faithful love; an active love. It is a great big in your face kind of love; God’s covenant love that was given to Abraham and Sarah and again to Moses and Miriam and now we see that love again— this time, in the faithfulness Ruth has to loving her mother-in-law. Ruth loves Naomi even when Naomi has nothing in her to love Ruth back. And isn’t that so often the case. The people who need our love the most are the people who are the most difficult to love— who don’t necessarily have the capacity to love us back.
The author of Ruth is making a statement here about what God’s love looks like in real time; in real life. In a time in the nation of Israel when people aren’t even following God’s law, this Moabite woman chooses to go way beyond the law— she has no obligations to her mother-in-law at all— and yet she chooses to go with her, knowing that in this moment in her life, Naomi may not even survive on her own. Ruth, an immigrant in a strange land with a strange religion, becomes the example of what it means to live into God’s law by choosing “hesed.” This faithful, active, abiding love that Ruth chooses to show her mother-in-law redefines family to mean the two of them. This faithful, active, abiding love that Ruth chooses to live into redefines who she is as she crosses the threshold into a new life. This faithful, active, abiding love redefines everything in Ruth’s life because she chooses love over fear; she has the tenacity, the resilience, to choose to love instead of living out of fear, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Perhaps it’s surprising to you that several thousand years before Jesus a woman with seemingly no power at all chose to love the one whom others would call her enemy— an Israelite; her mother-in-law; a woman who worshipped a different God than the one she knew. Then again, God does work in mysterious ways. And if you’ll allow me a spoiler alert about the book of Ruth, it is a glorious surprise to find that this Moabite woman, an immigrant in Israel, a woman of another faith, does become the great-grandmother to King David, and the great great many great grandmother to Jesus himself. Because God’s love, “hesed,” is strong enough to redefine family. God’s love is wide enough to redefine who is our neighbor. God’s love is even flexible enough to redefine enemies as people we need to love. And God’s love draws the circle so wide, that all are found within God’s love.
Who is it that you’re having a hard time loving? Who is it, in our polarized world, that you have shut yourself off from because it’s easier to love those we agree with? Who is it, that you need to reach out to and find out how they’re really doing? Our world isn’t going to heal itself. It’s going to need all of us actively sharing God’s love in any ways that we can in order to become more connected. What threshold is God calling you to cross? Who is God calling you to love?