July 2, 2017 / THE STORY OF RUTH - PART 1 / Katy McCallum Sachse / Ruth Chapters 1 and 2
Let’s start with an exercise. I’d like you to choose a word or phrase, as brief as you can make it, that describes the world as it is, or as you experience it, in these days. When you’re ready, just say it out loud.
If someone hundreds of years from now were to look back and write a story about a family in 2017, in these days, they might use some of those phrases. “In the days when people worried about what the President was going to tweet next,” or, “in the days when Black Lives Matter became a movement,” or, “in the days when health care was a big hot mess.” And if you and I could read that story, we would recognize something bigger, something true about our world. In those small phrases we hear something of the chaos, the anxiety, the uncertainty that we experience on a daily basis. There are plenty of good things about the world too, and we should not forget that, but even a small phrase, a single word, can conjure up a whole world that sometimes feels like it is teetering on the edge of disaster.
If you have a bible near you, or a phone with a bible app, or you want to look up the book of Ruth on biblegateway.com on whatever device you have, I invite you to do that. There are some bibles scattered around and you can share them with those sitting next to you as we work through the first half of the book of Ruth today.
The story of Ruth starts with a phrase much like the one we were just naming. “In the days when the judges ruled.” In the first few verses of this book we learn a whole lot about why this story matters – about why the bible wants to tell us about one small family in the middle of a very messy world. In our bibles, the book of Judges comes right before Ruth, and if you happen to have that, you can turn backward one page and see how that book ends: “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, anarchy. The book of Judges tells about an early experiment in governance. When the tribes of Israel returned home from slavery in Egypt, they had to figure out how to organize themselves. God warned them against monarchy, because kings tend to abuse the power they’re given, at least if you give them enough time. So the people tried a more grass-roots approach. They waited for a leader with charisma and strength of character to arise from among them and be in charge for awhile. It was loosely organized, at best, and to make a long story short, it didn’t end up well. By the end of the book of Judges, and the end of that period in Israel’s history, there was chaos. The things that had bound people together weren’t working anymore. The trust people had in systems of government had completely eroded. While some of the judges were good, ethical, courageous leaders, others took advantage of holes in the system and drove it into the ground.
So, what do you do when the systems that used to work aren’t working anymore? What do you when you are no longer sure, if you ever were, that the government is doing its job? What do you do when your society is in the midst of a tectonic shift, everything moving underneath you, and no clear plan for moving forward? If you ever thought that the bible was a dusty old book that doesn’t address the actual problems people have today, the book of Ruth is here to clear that up for you.
Because all of this – who we are when the systems around us are falling apart – all of this is exactly what the story of Ruth and her family is all about.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land and a certain man of Bethlehem went to live in Moab. Famine is always a sign, in the bible, of things breaking down. We know this is a terrible famine because it forces this man of Bethlehem, the city whose name literally means, ‘house of bread,’ to leave his home and his country, to take his wife and sons and cross over to Moab. This might not sound all that radical to us, but Moab is no ordinary country to the people of Israel. Moab is their enemy. For this man to flee to Moab is a sign of utter desperation, for even in scripture God has commanded that the people of Israel have nothing to do with the people of Moab. Things are bad. Really bad.
So this man, Elimelech, takes his wife Naomi and two sons and moves to Moab. There, his two sons marry Moabite women. Eventually, Elimelech dies, and so do his sons. Now Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law. They have nothing in common; they are from different countries and cultures, they speak different languages, they worship different gods. They probably eat different foods and there is nothing to keep them together, nothing that makes any sense, because everything around them says that they are supposed to be enemies, not family. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab, where they belong, and she will return home to Israel, where she belongs.
This story starts with immigration. Everybody in this story is a migrant, even a refugee. Elimelich and Naomi are immigrants in Moab; soon, Ruth will be an immigrant in Israel. Whatever family looks like and becomes in this story, it will not be built on looking, sounding, or being the same. It will be born out of difference and diversity and the risk of being a foreigner in a time when your welcome was not at all sure.
Naomi persuades one of her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab but the other, Ruth, refuses. She insists on going with Naomi into a land where she will not be welcomed, she will not belong, she will have no clear future and absolutely no safety net to catch her. As a sign of her promise, she vows to Naomi these famous words: “where you go, I will go, where you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” These words sometimes get read at weddings, because they are a beautiful sign of commitment, but I always remind people that they are a promise of undying love and devotion to your mother-in-law. Just keep that in mind.
Along the way, walking from Moab to Israel, Naomi changes something about herself. She changes her name. “Don’t call me Naomi anymore,” she says. “Call me Mara,” which means, bitter. Who can blame her? Naomi is returning home, but with none of the hope or life or future she had imagined when she left. Her husband and sons are gone. Her daughter-in-law is with her, but what will their future be? They have no way to earn a living, no place to stay, nothing promised. Like immigrants and refugees everywhere, of every time and place, they are utterly at risk.
Ruth’s name too, has changed. Not like Naomi, of her own choice, but how people refer to her, see her, understand her. Naomi has become Mara; Ruth becomes, “Ruth the Moabite.” The story will not let you forget that she is a permanent outsider, that she does not belong, that she is an enemy and not to be trusted – at least, that’s the story that will be told about her. Ruth is given a label she does not want and yet cannot walk away from easily. Many of us know something about that.
Just two last things about this first part of the story of Ruth. One: this is one of the few books of the bible where God is never directly active. God is never the subject of a verb. People talk about God a little, not much, but God does not intervene directly, not even once. Seeing God at work in this story is not obvious – it requires a closer reading, reading between the lines, listening to the people and watching their actions. To see God at work in the story of Ruth is, I think, a similar challenge of seeing God at work in our own lives and our own world – it’s not always, maybe rarely, obvious. Perhaps this is part of why I love Ruth and Naomi. Because God is with them, and through them, and for them, but they do not always see it, and I know what that is like. Perhaps you do too.
And last, this.
I said at the beginning that this story takes place in the days of the Judges, when the world that Ruth and Naomi knew was a mess. But that’s not when this story was written. As far as we can tell, the story was written hundreds of years later, after another upheaval, when the people of Israel were returning from their exile in Babylon. They went home and had to figure out how to rebuild their lives, their communities, and their world. They had huge arguments among themselves about what made someone a real, true, authentic Israelite. What rules did people have to follow to belong? What about the people who had married Babylonians and brought their children with them to Israel – were they real Israelites now? I’m going to stop being subtle here and say that there were a lot of people who wanted to make Israel great again, and there was a strong movement to kick out all the people who were somehow not real Israelites, and once again, if we think that the bible is a dusty old book with nothing to say to us today, then the story of Ruth is here to clear that right up.
In the middle of that argument, someone looked back, way back into Israel’s history and found the story of a Moabite woman and her Hebrew mother-in-law who symbolized everything about being on the outside, at the margins, everything about not belonging to the good old boys club, and they wrote down their story as an example of how God is at work in us, through us, and for us, for the sake of the world. For the sake of the future. Not to give too much of the story away, but Ruth will become the grandmother of King David and without David, there’s no Israel. And for Christians, without David, there’s no Jesus. You can’t get to the future, you can’t get to the kingdom of God, you can’t get to the peace and justice that God wants for the world, without this outsider, immigrant widow and her mother-in-law. Immigrants: they get the job done.
What is God saying to us in this story and what are we going to do about it? We are still having these same arguments, aren’t we, about who belongs and who doesn’t, about what makes you a real insider and what keeps you on the outside, about the place of foreigners and immigrants, about how to provide safety nets for those on the margins. We humans have been having these arguments forever, and I don’t suppose they will end anytime soon, but into that argument, God tells a story. A story about the future, about a family, about ordinary lives that transform everything even though the people living those lives never knew it at the time.
Whatever God is saying to us in this story, I suspect it starts with this: that the people we push to the edges are the people God chooses to stand with, to work through, to move the future forward, and our best hope begins with saying to those who are being pushed aside: where you go, we will go; where you stay, we will stay. Your people are our people. Your God is our God. Your future in our future. We are bound together as the beloved people of God in this world, and when we choose each other, when we choose love and faithfulness and generosity, we are telling another story, one about a God of mercy and hope and justice. And if anyone thinks that is a dusty old story, then our lives can bear witness to the vibrant, living, gracious future that our stories tell.