It was in 1914 that President Woodrow Wilson first officially declared the second Sunday in May as a special day to honor our mothers. It was then, in the wake of world war, and on the brink of a second, that he wanted to honor those who had lost their sons to the horror of war. Originally meant to be a Sunday of peace, it was a way to honor and remember those who grieved.
It is appropriate, then, that our sermon this week is an exploration of the story of another grieving mother: Naomi. While the book is named after the younger Ruth, most scholars agree that the main character of the story is the elder Naomi. Her story drives the narrative, and it appears that the reader is meant to identify with her journey more than Ruth’s. It is a powerful story of a grieving mother and the way that she becomes a mother through powerful and sacrificial love.
The story begins with Naomi. She and her husband, Israelites living in the Promised Land, are forced to relocate, due to a famine. They move to the neighboring land of Moab, where their two sons marry Moabite women, and it seems that life is good for the family. But then tragedy strikes. Naomi’s husband dies, as do her two sons, and she finds herself in a serious predicament. Without a husband or sons, she will not last long. She cannot own property, will not be able to make a living, and she is too old to bear more children, meaning that she will have no value to any men who might care for her. Of course, her also-widowed daughters-in-law have a chance. They are young and child-bearing. They can remarry and find protection, and Naomi sends them away to do just that. She knows her life is empty, lonely, and bitter, and she wants them to have no part in it. In fact, she decides that she should rename herself. “Naomi,” she reasons, means “pleasant,” and there is nothing pleasant about her life. Instead, she continues, she must be called, “Mara.” Mara means “bitter,” and is a better name for her life and her circumstances.
Perhaps we can relate. How many of us today find ourselves in a Mara State of Mind? Maybe we are grieving the loss of spouse or loved one, and find it difficult to move on. Maybe we are struggling to find someone to share our lives with and wonder if it will ever happen. Maybe we hate our job, or can’t find a job, or love our job but can’t keep it because it won’t pay the bills. Maybe we struggle on this Mother’s Day, because of grief or pain around our own mothers or our desire to be a mother. Maybe we watch the news and find little reason to be happy with the state of the world. We can relate to bitterness.
Likewise, Naomi has become Mara – jaded, hopeless, angry. Bitter.
But then something happens which changes the direction of the whole story. One of her daughter-in-laws heeds her advice and heads off to find another suitor. But the other one – Ruth – won’t leave. She doesn’t leave Naomi’s side. She explains that she is going with Naomi, wherever she goes, whatever she does. It is this famous line that sometimes gets used (out of context) at weddings, “your people will be my people.” She vows to stay with Naomi, even though she would do better on her own. And that’s exactly what she does. The two of them return to the Promised Land, because that is the best shot that Naomi has of surviving – return to the homeland and see if they can together find someone who will protect them.
Once they arrive back in the Promised Land, they are not guaranteed protection or success. Naomi sends the younger Ruth toward the fields, in order to glean some on the edges of the fields. There was in that day a system of welfare that was designed to help those in need. The poor, powerless, or outsider could follow behind the workers in the field and pick up some of the scraps that were left behind. The workers planned on leaving some behind for those who did not have land or money. Ruth was able to take advantage of this welfare system and collect enough for her and her mother-in-law. But understand that this is not a fun little children’s story about Ruth the farmer. In taking this action, Ruth lived on the edge of danger. She was at the mercy of these men, and women in her place were often taken advantage of, with no recourse for protection or retribution.
But here is where there is another change in the direction of the story. The bitter Mara/Naomi is probably on pins and needles, expecting to hear terrible news when Ruth returns to her. She probably waits, like many a helpless mother or mother-in-law, imagining the worst, playing nightmare scenarios through in her mind. But then Ruth returns with a very different story. It appears that the owner of the field that she randomly picked was a man named Boaz. He was kind to her, telling the workers to leave her alone, and making sure she has enough to take home to her family. As she tells the story, the older, wiser, Naomi knows what is really happening here. Boaz is a member of her extended family, and thus becomes a potential redeemer and suitor. Boaz’s interest means that there is a chance that he might be willing to care for them in more permanent ways.
Naomi knows that this is their shot to survive and acts fast. So she sends Ruth back to him that night, to make it clear that she is eligible and willing! Naomi dresses Ruth to impress and sends her with clear instructions of what to say to Boaz. But again, it is a risky plan. Young and made up and beautiful, again, Ruth is in danger of attack by the men at night. Or perhaps she is misreading Boaz’s intentions and disaster awaits. It is high risk. But it is also high reward. Ruth goes to Boaz and the wise Naomi was right. Boaz is interested and responds with romantic return of interest, as well as legal intentions. He works out the steps necessary to buy himself into the name and property of Naomi’s dead husband, proposes marriage to Ruth, and the story ends happily ever after. The two marry, have a child, and as Grandma Naomi rocks the child to sleep in her chair in her home, we find her retribution is complete. Bitter Mara has been replaced once more by Pleasant Naomi. Instead of cursing and crying out to God, she thanks God for his hand of protection and providence.
Kathleen Robertson Farmer explains that this is why Naomi is the main character of the story, as Naomi’s redemption is the primary theme of the narrative. The book is only 85 verses long, but the word for redeem or one of its derivatives is found 23 times…about every third verse! Ruth is a story of redemption led by God. The underlying theme of the book is that God is at work redeeming God’s people. Naomi is saved not by her own work, but by God’s grace.
God redeems Naomi. Her involvement was important, but minimal. From her perspective, God was the provider, and redeemer. Look again at what God does:
- Provides a committed and sacrificial Ruth to follow her when she didn’t have to.
- Provides a Boaz who chooses to redeem both of them, bringing salvation that could not have been assumed.
- And provides a place and provision that means that she will survive to old age, watching her grandchild toddle around her feet. Her redemption is complete. And not because of her work or her perfection, but because of God’s grace!
But that redemption comes in the most unexpected of ways. Remember, Ruth is a Moabite. God using a Moabite to redeem a Jew would have been absolutely shocking. Many of the Israelites considered the Moabites considered Public Enemy #1. God’s prophets often denounced the Moabite faith, prophesied against their leaders, and even told the people to cast out the Moabite women from their presence. But here, the story of Ruth proclaims that the very redemption of Naomi by God comes through one of those very Moabite women! She is the instrument by which God brings about redemption!
It’s a story that we hear over and over again in Scripture. Throughout the Bible, God’s redemption comes in unexpected ways, from unexpected people. Two weeks ago, Daniel Pauls reminded us that God redeemed Jonah in the most unexpected of ways – through the fish, who helped Jonah to come to his senses and reclaim his purpose. Last week, we talked about how God redeemed the Jews in the most unexpected of ways – through the female, orphaned, outsider Esther. And now, we find that our central character Naomi is redeemed in the most unexpected of ways – through the outsider Moabite Ruth.
But that’s not the end of the story. Naomi is not the only one redeemed by God through the Moabite Ruth. Ruth, the non-Israelite Moabite, gave birth to Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. The most important monarch in the history of Israel. The final exclamation point of Ruth reminds us that these outsiders are the reason why the most important king in the history of God’s people was born. But not only David. The Gospel of Matthew proclaims that Ruth is part of the family tree of Jesus Christ himself! The story of Ruth, especially the maternal genealogy at the end of the book reminds us that when we think we have nailed down who God is going to use to accomplish his plan of redemption, think again. It is wise for us to spend less time declaring outsiders as unwanted, and more time asking what God is doing to and through them. The book of Ruth tells us that if God’s people took to heart the warning to expel the foreigners in our midst, then quite literally, Jesus would not have been born. And when we think we know who and how God is going to redeem us, think again. Open our eyes to the unexpected and surprising grace of our God.
Likewise, as we read this story, we understand that we, too are the redeemed. We, too, move from Mara to Naomi, from bitter to pleasant. Farmer reminds us that Naomi stands in for the people of God, representing our journey of faith. Whether it is Israel or The Church, Naomi represents the way that we, too, find ourselves often stuck in a Mara State of Mind. We are bitter; we are hopeless; we don’t know where to turn next. But, like Naomi’s story, our stories change direction, too. God reaches into our story and moves us from Mara to Naomi. From hopelessness to redemption!
And it often comes in unplanned and unexpected ways. I don’t know about you, but this is a theme I need to hear more often than not. I have shared before that I am a recovering perfectionist. Coming out of a family history of perfectionism, I am guilty of trying to do it all myself. Even as a preacher, I have to watch myself so that I don’t end up preaching every sermon about what we should do, how we should act, what our lifestyle response to grace should look like. I need to tell myself, more often than I would like to admit, that I have to actually talk about the grace part. A reminder that many of us Type A folks need to hear. It is God who redeems. Not you. Not me. For me, that means that I am still loved, even when my graceless perfectionism demands too much from others around me, or causes me to judge mercilessly the intentions and actions of others. So, in other words, when I yell too much at my kids, or fail to support my wife in ways that she deserves, or look down my nose at others because they don’t do or act or say like I want them to. Even when I fail to show grace, God never does. For Naomi, God’s redemption is swift, powerful, and complete.
The movie The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, tells the story of Walter Vale. Walter’s life is a rather empty one. He is grieving the death of his wife, trying to learn how to play the piano as she did, but after four different teachers have failed to make much progress, it is becoming clear that he doesn’t have what it takes. He is a professor at the local college, but is only teaching one class, in theory so that he can work on his next book. But in reality, he is not really working on writing, and the last paper that he co-authored was barely his work at all. When he is assigned to present a paper in New York City, he travels to his apartment that he once used often, but has left empty for some time. Upon entering the apartment, he finds that it has been rented under the radar to a couple of undocumented persons, from Syria and Senegal. His life is lonely, depressed, bitter, and he is not even able to find solace in his own home.
But, like Naomi, the story hinges on one or two moments of grace and redemption. Instead of throwing out this couple living in his apartment, Walter befriends them. He gets to know them, listens to their lives, and even starts taking drum lessons from the young man – Tarek. From a most unexpected place, Walter’s life begins to change. He finds hope in this young family, begins to find joy in his experience of their lives. Unfortunately, the story does not end up with an ultimately happy ending. Tarek is arrested for a crime that he did not commit. But again, in a key moment, the path opens toward grace and redemption.
Walter could have returned home, even more depressed, given yet another reason to be bitter. But he does not. Instead, he visits Tarek in the immigration prison, hires him a lawyer, and walks with him every step of the way until he is tragically deported. It is a story about finding grace in unexpected ways from unexpected people. And by the end of the story, we find that Walter has found someone to pour his life into, a passion that enlivens and empowers him, and a new reason to live. The story began with him waiting for a music teacher, hoping it would stave off his grief and depression. But the story ends, in the final scene, Walter sits in the subway station, emptiness gone and self-consciousness obliterated, playing his drum for all to hear. He has found a way out of his bitterness. He has found redemption. He has found grace.