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Learnings from the Book of Ruth

Ruth 1: 1-18

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. 2The 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. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These 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, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

6Then 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. 7So 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. 8But 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. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11But 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? 12Turn 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, 13would 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." 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16But 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. 17Where 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!" 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

The book of Ruth begins with the following words: "In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land" (1:1). Amid this famine, the story of Ruth unfolds. The tragedy of famine was a frequent occurrence in the southern deserts of Israel. It is not a surprise that a typical Israelite family of four is forced to leave their home and move to Moab, a tiny place east of Bethlehem, across the Dead Sea, and higher in the mountains.

A more familial tragedy soon matches the tragedy of a lack of food. The husband and father of the tiny family die, and Naomi is left a widow, a terrifying thing to happen in a patriarchal world. Still, she has her two sons and so is somewhat protected by their male presence. They soon marry Moabite women. But after some further time, both sons die, and what remains are three widows, two of whom are foreigners.

After ten long years, Naomi hears that the famine has finally ended in Israel, and she decides to go home. There is really nothing left for her in this land of Moab. Surprisingly enough, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Naomi declines their offer, suggesting that though they have been exemplary in their solidarity during the multiple tragedies that have struck the family, there is no future for them in Israel.

But Orpah and Ruth are determined: "We will return with you to your people," they both say (1:10). But Naomi is equally determined that she will return to Israel alone. She resorts to the law of Israel found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, suggesting that when a married man dies, a close relative, usually a brother, but a cousin if no brother is available to marry the widow to keep the male line going.

Naomi claims to have no living male relatives (quite an excuse as the story will later reveal that she has several). She conjures up with an absurd scenario wherein she tells Orpah and Ruth that even if she should meet a man on the Bethlehem Road this very night, and even if they would marry, and even if she should have sons (hardly likely at her age), would the two women wait for these boys to grow up in order for the women to marry them? At this stage, she fully expects the two daughters-in-law to get the picture and head home to Moab. And Orpah does; she knows when she is not wanted. But we are told, "Ruth clung to her" (1:14). So Naomi shouts, "Look! Orpah understood me; follow her lead!"

Not Ruth. Her reply is one of the Bible's greatest speeches. She goes on to say that she will go wherever Naomi goes, will live where Naomi lives, will accept Naomi's people as her own, will receive Naomi's God as her God, will die where Naomi dies, will be buried where Naomi is buried, and concludes these words with an oath calling on YHWH to strike her if even death were to part Naomi from her (1:16-17). After that speech, Naomi is struck mute (1:18).

It is rare to find such radical devotion so richly displayed in the Bible. It is even more rare to find it displayed by a foreign widow who is not welcomed by the one to whom the devotion is directed. In the face of thorough rejection, Ruth still clings to Naomi and vows grandly never to leave. Ruth is like the YHWH she has chosen to embrace, a YHWH who will never depart from and cling to people.

This story cuts through the prejudice of ancient Israelites who assumed that God was indeed on their side. Far from it, God is not an Israelite, not an insider in this wonderful story, but God is an outsider, a foreigner. God is a Moabite widow who shows us what it looks like in practical terms to love God and love neighbour.

In her commentary on Ruth, Phyllis Trible notes how this story cuts through the prejudice of ancient Israelites who assumed that God was surely on their side. In this wonderful story, God is not an Israelite, not an insider, but God is portrayed as a woman - an outsider, a foreigner. God is a Moabite widow who shows us what it looks like in practical terms to love God and love neighbour. The Book Ruth, in this sense, is the outworking of the greatest commandment.

In a contemporary sense, we notice that many of the world's problems ultimately stem from a lack of love: economic crises as a result of greed and stinginess; war and conflict as a result of hatred and exalting the needs and agendas of the self and one's own particular group; climate change as a result of failure to love what God has made; relationship breakdown through failure to love one another and even ourselves effectively.

I close this reflection with a prayer highlighting the centrality of love, a prayer inspired by the writing of Thomas Merton on love.

Can it be that easy, Jesus?

Can it be that hard?

That what You want for us is just to love

and be loved?

Is it possible that even those who have tried the hardest,

signed on the dotted line,

sat for years in classes

and strained their eyes from reading,

dressed in all the most appropriate garments,

and spoken with only the most measured words…

that these can miss You?

How can it be when those who have hardly tried at all,

who have damaged themselves and others so much,

that in the end they have no where else to turn

but to throw themselves on Your grace…

that these are the ones You search out?

How do we make sense of this, Jesus?

How do we love so scandalously, so inclusively?

How do we allow ourselves to be loved enough,

that all our hard and sharp edges

grow soft and round?

Help us to find the humility and courage,

the boldness and grace,

that in our loving and being loved,

we may somehow ignite our world with a compassion so fierce

that violence and abuse,

rejection and condemnation,

neglect and greed

become unthinkable.


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