Scripture: Ruth 1:1–17
The book of Ruth is too long, and too short.
At four chapters, it is short enough that it is hard to read just one chapter, or one section, or one passage, without wanting to just…finish the book.
But four chapters is a lot to preach on in one setting, meaning it can feel too long for one Sunday.
So, what I want you to do is just focus on the passage in front of you. Just these words. Just this moment in time. Put out the rest of the story that you know. And ask what these words might speak to us on this day.
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters. Why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you,
to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die,
and there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
Story One: Jesus
There is the “right” way to do things. And then there is the Jesus way. His disciples all sat around one day, laughing at some of the things that Jesus had done over the years. The ways that he had messed with so many “supposed to’s.”
There was that time with the woman at the well. A couple of them turned a little red in the face when they remembered what they said to Jesus when they came back from town to see him talking to a woman like that, in the middle of the day, without any sense of decorum. And a Samaritan, to boot! They knew that there were a hundred different reasons why Jesus shouldn’t be talking to her, about matters of theology and worship practice. Like she was a man! But there he was, engaged in a deep conversation…and one that ended up converting the whole town! He didn’t care much about their “supposed to.”
And then there was Zacchaeus. A tax collector. A social pariah. And a funny looking, short dude, at that. He was just the kind of guy that you were supposed to walk by, either not noticing him or pretending you didn’t notice him. You sure didn’t go to his house! But there was Jesus, breaking all the “supposed to’s” and walking up to the dude in the tree and telling him he was going to his house that day. Made the people so mad! “He’s gone to be at the house of a sinner!” So what? Jesus crashed their “supposed to” party and did things his way.
Or what about the lepers? So many lepers? So many times that he walked right up to them, and touched them. Remember when you got sick behind the bushes when you saw him do it? I mean, there is no one on earth more disgusting or repulsive than a leper. But Jesus didn’t care. Right there, up in their face. Touching them. Telling them that they mattered to God. Jesus didn’t care what the “right” way was. He was going to do it his way.
Then one of them had a thought. “You know what makes all of those stories similar? In each one of them, Jesus cared more about the person in front of him than the rules that others made. Those rules insisted that those people didn’t matter. The Samaritan woman. The lepers. Zacchaeus. But they mattered to Jesus. He looked them in the eye. He put his hand on their shoulder. He included them in his Kingdom when no one else would give them the time of day. Think about the first time that you met him. The first moment you saw him. Didn’t he look you in the eye, to the point that you thought that you might well be the most important person in the world? Some fisherman. Some tax collector. Some no-name, like all of us. But in that moment, he didn’t care about any of that ‘supposed to.’ He just cared about you.”
They all sat in silence for several minutes. Remembering the one who showed them what true greatness was about. Then someone else drew a different connection: “It kind of makes sense. I was thinking about this the other day. I mean, think about it. Who was his great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, grandma?”
Story Two: Ruth
Indeed, the story of Ruth is the story of a woman who believed that the person right in front of her was more important than all of the “supposed to’s” and the “ought to’s” of her day. Think about it this way. She was from Moab, which meant in that time and place that her financial security and physical safety could only be assured through a man in her family. Without one, she was at great risk. But Ruth’s husband had died. Her father-in-law had died. She had no sons. Her sister had gone back to her family. The custom and the expectation was that Ruth should absolutely do the same thing. She was supposed to. But what did she do instead? “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.” She tells this to Naomi, her mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law who had even fewer options than Ruth did. Naomi was beyond child-bearing years, beyond marrying years. She could return to her home from Moab and hope that the systems of protection of widows would help her to survive. That is, if she survived the journey. If she wasn’t rejected by her own people for surviving them years earlier. If she wasn’t deemed a traitor for living with the hated Moabites for so much of her life. Ruth knew all this, knew what she was supposed to do, and yet did something very different. “Your people will be my people.” Ironically, we like to quote this passage at weddings…but for Ruth these words were a total rejection of the safety and security of marriage, to instead choose the person right in front of her and care for her needs, regardless of what she ought to do. This socially worthless, financially helpless, powerless, bitter husk of a woman—Naomi’s words, not mine—becomes Ruth’s reason for living, and if need be, dying.
But take a step back, and see how radical her decision actually was. Compare hers to all of the stories that we have read this year in our narrative journey. Abraham gets multiple full-on conversations with God about how his family will be a family of promise…grains of sand on the shore…stars up in the sky…God holds his hand and tells him what’s coming, and EVEN AFTER he almost blows it a hundred times, God delivers. Or Jacob, whose mother does all the hard work for him, who gets this holy vision by God and a blessing with a new name, STILL whines to God about not getting enough protection or promises fulfilled. Or Moses, who has his hide saved by a dozen various women doing the hard work for him, from the midwives to his sister to the daughter of Pharaoh, all of them risking their lives for this kid, still almost blows it by letting his anger get the best of him. So once again, God shows up with a handful of mind-blowing examples of promise and protection, and STILL, Moses whines and argues with him for a full chapter about how much he can’t do it and needs God to help out. Or the whole nation of Israel, gifted manna and quail every morning, a pillar of cloud and fire to tell them where to go, a whole sea opening up so that they can walk through, and STILL they whine and complain and want to go back to slavery because at least they knew what to expect from their torturers and oppressors.
Compare their stories to the story of Ruth—who doesn’t get a burning bush. Or a pillar of cloud or fire. Or a stairway to heaven. Or a blessing and new name. She doesn’t get a promise from God, or even God to show up. And yet, she chooses to love the woman in front of her. She elects not to walk away from Naomi and leave her in certain danger. Chooses not to take her youth and her virulence as commodities and return back to her people. She sacrifices all of that for the person in front of her. Ruth doesn’t have any single commandment or promise given to her by God. Yet, eyes locked on Naomi, she figures it out on her own what God would have her to do.
But take one more step back, and see one more element of the book of Ruth. In the Christian Bible, this book is right after Joshua and Judges, because it tells a story chronologically between Moses’s death and the people entering the promised land, and the birth and reign of the great King David. But in the Hebrew tradition, this book comes much later, included almost as a prequel about the story of great King David’s great-grandmother, a woman from Moab named Ruth. And a lot of scholars believe that it was included in these later stories as a direct theological response to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two books tell the story after the Babylonian Exile, when the Jewish people came back and found that many of their countrymen had married women from foreign countries. In those books, there is an order to expel those women, to throw out these foreign wives for their unwelcome influence.
So alongside of those books comes the book of Ruth, to say “Not so fast! If you had expelled the foreign wives like Ruth all those years ago, the great King David would never have been born.” It is a story meant to remind the people that as soon as they get settled into the “supposed to” of rejecting the enemy, or the racial minority, or the “other,” they are in danger of subverting the Will of God for their people. God didn’t throw out Ruth. Maybe we shouldn’t either. It’s kind of meta, isn’t it? By telling a story of a young woman who chose to care for a marginalized and powerless outsider right there in her midst, the authors of Ruth reminded the people of another generation that right there, in their midst, stood those in need of care, regardless of what they are “supposed to” do to them.
Because Ruth rejected the “supposed to” to care for the person in front of her, King David was born to lead the people.
And according to Matthew, because Ruth rejected the “supposed to” to care for the person in front of her, Jesus was born…to do the same thing.
Story Three: Us
So what does all of that have to do with us? I don’t think we can take the story of Ruth seriously, unless we ask “who is in front of us? Who is in our midst? Who is our Naomi? Our Zacchaeus?” Scholar Robert Williamson uses the phrase, “Love the people in front of you to love.”
Who is the person that God has put in front of us to care for, even if the world has said that we are supposed to ignore them, reject them, even hurt them? If we are to follow the example of Jesus, and his great, great, great (X28!) grandmother, it means a radical commitment to those God puts in front of us.
Continuing last week’s theme, are there young people—children or youth—that God has put in your life who need you to be there for them? Maybe it is as simple as going beyond the “so how’s school?” question, to letting them actually talk some about their life. Maybe it is support in a host of other ways.
Maybe, like Ruth, the person in front of us is a member of our family. Who might we be called to care for, listen to, sacrifice for? They may be an extended member of our family, or they may be living in our own house. Is there a certain “ought to” that we need to let go of, in order to be there for someone in our family.
Regularly, I hear stories of LGBTQ persons who have been told that God doesn’t love them the way that they are. Their families reject them. Their church rejects them. As far as they know, God has rejected them. What would it take for us to see those folks in our midst, to lock eyes with them, and to tell them that according to the God who we worship, they are loved unconditionally?
Or what about racial minorities in our country? With this eruption of violence in the Middle East, I am reminded of the days after 9-11, when the anger and resentment of Americans was at a fever pitch similar to that of Israeli people today. When we were not very careful who we blamed, including any Muslim, or anyone who looked like they were from the Middle East, or even anyone who didn’t look like us. It wouldn’t be much different than the way that Jesus had been taught to look at that Samaritan woman. Or than the way that Naomi’s people had been taught to look at Ruth. What would it take for us to see immigrants and refugees in our midst…from the Middle East, from Central and South America, from anywhere in the world, to lock eyes with them, and tell them that God loves them? My guess is that we cannot individually do much to bring peace to the Middle East. But we can care for the people in our midst in ways that bring peace to our world.
“Love the people in front of you to love.”