Sermon for May 9th, 2021
Our scripture reading for today is the first chapter of the Book of Ruth. It's a fairly long passage, so instead of reading it to you all at once, I'm going to intersperse the story with the sermon. You can follow along with the story on page 241 of your pew bibles in the Old Testament. As we prepare to hear God's word, let us pray: (prayer for illumination).
Redeeming Love - The Story of Ruth, Part I
Ruth was an elderly mother with three grown sons, living in the Southern part of the United States not too many years ago. Oh wait a minute...you were expecting the story of Ruth from the Bible? We'll get to that one in a minute.
All three of Ruth's sons had done very well for themselves in life. They were also very competitive, and each tried to outdo the others in showing generosity to Ruth, especially on Mother's day.
In discussing their plans, the first brother boasted that for Mother's day this year, he had bought their mother a brand new Rolls-Royce limousine, complete with a chauffeur to drive her around wherever she wanted to go. The second brother responded, "Good, because she'll need something to park in one of the four garages of the brand new ten-bedroom mansion that I bought her this year for Mother's day."
At this, the third brother smiled and said, "I've got both of you beat: You know how mom gets lonely sometimes, and now with her eyesight failing she can't read much anymore? Well, I traveled halfway around the world to buy for her an expensive and rare kind of talking parrot that has a 35,000 word vocabulary. This parrot cost me a fortune, but it can quote the entire Bible, all the works of William Shakespeare, and carry on a conversation about philosophy, economics, fine art, and current events. It took the bird's trainers over thirty years to teach it and it cost me a fortune, but I'm convinced our mother will absolutely love it.
Well, not too long after Mother's day, the brothers got together for dinner with Ruth in her new mansion, and naturally, they asked her what she thought of all her gifts. She told the first son, "The limousine is very nice, and I sure do enjoy talking to that nice man who drives it...but really, I don't travel much, I have everything I need right here, so I'm afraid I don't use it that often.
The second son said, "That's right, everything you need is right here in this beautiful house! You like the house, don't you, Mom?" Ruth replied, "It is certainly a beautiful house...but you know I really spend most of my time in just one or two rooms, and with my poor eyesight, I'm always afraid of getting lost in here!"
Seeing how hard their mother was to please, the third son got a little nervous (especially since he hadn't seen or heard the parrot anywhere around the house). But remembering the minor fortune he had paid to please his mother, he timidly asked her, "And how did you like my gift?" Then Ruth got a really big smile on her face and she said, "You always were my most practical son, and you always do know just what I like. The chicken was delicious."
Ok, now on to the real story of Ruth, the one from the Bible (page 241). Chapter 1, verse 1:
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.
Our story begins with famine, a desperate family, and a forced migration to a foreign land--things which, for better or worse, are not so strange to us, even in the 21st century. It's worth noting that Elimelech and Naomi and their sons are Jewish, and they move from Israel to the land of Moab. That would be like moving from the United States to Iran, or North Korea. Israel and Moab were enemies, with entirely conflicting worldviews and religious customs. Things would have to be pretty desperate to seek residence in such a place.
Verse 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.
Right about now, you might be thinking, "Pastor Neal, this is not a very inspirational way to start a mother's day sermon. I liked the parrot story better." That may be true. But tragedy has a way of intruding on any life or story, for mothers just as for the rest of us. We could spin our wheels asking why bad things happen to good people, but I'm far more interested in the question of how good people respond when bad things happen. And so, on with the story:
Verse 6: Then she (that is, Naomi) 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.
This makes sense, at least on the surface. In all ancient middle-Eastern cultures, stability and security came from one's family ties. Naomi no longer has family ties in the land of Moab, and since the famine in her home country is over, she decides to go home to Israel. What's interesting is that (at least initially) she decides to take her two foreign daughters-in-law with her. At some point however (probably after thinking things through, and considering what the future might hold for two Moabite widows in the land of Israel), Naomi reconsiders this:
Verse 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."
And here we learn something interesting: "Go back to your mother's house." Now, that may not sound strange to us, but anyone reading this story in the Ancient middle east would have said, "wait a minute--their mother's house? What happened to their fathers?" There is a subtle hint here that Ruth and Orpah may have lost their fathers, too. The picture that is coming together is of three very vulnerable women: No fathers, no husbands, and no sons. In a patriarchal world, that's a perfect recipe for poverty and exploitation.
Naomi continues her speech to Ruth and Orpah in verse 9:
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.”
Naomi is probably thinking, "You're young. There is still time for you to marry and have children." But remember that in Moab as well as Israel, marriages were arranged and provided for...by fathers. The lack of a father to arrange a "suitable" marriage is probably how Ruth and Orpah wound up married to foreign husbands in the first place. Their mother-in-law, Naomi, is now the only family, the only hope, the only connection they have left.
Verse 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.”
Two things here: First, Jewish law at the time stipulated that if a man died, his brother had a responsibility to marry his widow and thereby continue the family line. But Naomi has no other sons to fulfill this law.
Second, it's clear that Naomi places all of the responsibility and blame for her loss squarely on God: "The hand of the Lord has turned against me." And if that is indeed true (spoiler alert, it's not) then it would be reckless and inconsiderate of her to drag her daughters-in-law down with her perceived curse. In other words, her rejection of them is not selfish--from her perspective, it's an act of love and protection.
Verse 14: Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, 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 or 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—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
This is one of the most striking and beautiful passages in the bible. It's often used at weddings and placed in picture frames. But it's worth noting that it was originally a desperate and heartfelt promise, a profession of faith and solidarity, spoken by a daughter to a mother.
Verse 18: When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Naomi's name, in Hebrew, means "pleasant." And of course Mara means "bitter." Sometimes, for a season, God changes our pleasant life into one of bitterness. But that's never the end of the story. In fact, just like the theme of the harvest which shows up in the next three chapters of our story, it's usually only the beginning.
We'll return next week to the story and see what becomes of Naomi and Ruth. But since it's mother's day, and since I began this sermon with the story of three (somewhat misguided) mother's day gifts, I want to end today by looking at the gifts that Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth gave to each other. Unlike so many of our well-intentioned modern day trinkets, Hallmark cards, and obligatory five-minute phone calls, these are gifts of unparalleled value and sacrifice.
First, Naomi. She gave to Ruth and Orpah her sons. I think it's hard enough for any mother who has raised and cared for a child from infancy to place that still-small hand into the hand of another woman. More difficult, even, if into the hand of someone with different values and cultural beliefs. There are many warnings throughout the bible about allowing your sons to marry foreign wives, for fear that they will lead them astray (and many examples of how this actually happened). But Naomi shatters those prejudices, and even when her sons are gone, she continues to treat Ruth and Orpah with dignity, respect, and love--as if they were in fact her own children. It's a good reminder that not all mothers are the ones we are born with. Thanks be to God for the mothers God places into our lives along the way.
Next, Orpah. Her role in the story is brief. We don't hear from her again after this chapter, although Jewish legend says that she went on to become the mother of Goliath, the Philistine giant killed by young King David (who was the great-grandson of Ruth--which interestingly would have made David and Goliath cousins!). But although history has not always been kind to Orpah, the gift she gave to her mother-in-law was the gift of obedience. Like Ruth, she wanted to stay with Naomi. Like Ruth, she shed tears at the idea of leaving her. But she did exactly what Naomi asked of her, and there is no judgement for this on Naomi's part or Ruth's, or from the Bible itself. She was a faithful daughter in every way.
And finally, Ruth. She gave to her mother the gift of faithfulness, or in Hebrew חֶסֶד (chesed) which is sometimes translated as "loving-kindness" or "steadfastness." She was willing to give up her country, her people, and her faith to stand alongside another person, and to venture into an unknown future. In so doing, she blessed not only Naomi, but the Jewish people, and the entire world. Ruth would go on to give back to her mother-in-law her lost joy, and the lineage of her lost son. Ruth's descendants would include David, the greatest king of Israel, and Jesus of Nazareth, who gave himself as a sacrifice for all the people of the world.
The story of Naomi and Ruth is the story of redeeming love--love that goes beyond words and sentiments, love that sacrifices itself for another person, and in the process redeems, restores, and rebuilds the world in the wake of tragedy and despair.
Thanks be to God for that kind of love, which so often begins in the simple gift between a mother and her child.