Introduction to the Reading:
Throughout the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament, names are full of meaning and they tell part of the story. On an insert in your bulletin, there’s a picture of a map from the biblical times we’re talking about, and on the other side is a list of character names and places in the Book of Ruth, and their literal meanings. If you’ve read Ruth in preparation for today’s service, see whether knowing the meaning of the characters’ names doesn’t deepen and enrich the story as you hear it again.
It begins in Bethlehem, with a young family: Elimelech and Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. The fact that Elimelech means “My God is king” and Naomi means “My delight” tells a spiritual part of the story. The narrator is communicating something about the larger relationship between God and God’s people through the names. Elimelech, whose name testifies to the supreme God, and Naomi are married—bound to each other by sacred covenant. Naomi—“my delight”—represents the chosen people of God.
Elimelech and Naomi are members of the tribe of Ephratha, which means “fruitful”. The narrator intended for the audience to recognize the irony that would emerge from their identification with that tribe—because although Elimelech is fruitful enough to bear two sons, they both die without having children of their own.
But the narrator also expected that we would remember their status as members of the ‘fruitful’ tribe at the end of the story—when Ruth and Naomi return to that tribe. As we discover in the Book of Samuel, Ruth eventually has a grandson named David, who becomes the greatest king Israel has ever had. So, the fruitfulness of that tribe becomes apparent when you keep reading the story down a few generations.
At the beginning of the story, Elimelech and Naomi are living in “Bethlehem”—the “house of bread”—and that becomes something of an irony, because there happens to be a famine, which prompts the couple to migrate to the land of Moab. Moab was a nation that had been settled by distant relatives some 12 or more generations earlier, but their language (or at least their accent), customs, humor, and culture would obviously have been different to what Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons were accustomed to. You can see the route the family might have traveled—how far they would have walked to find food, water, and security for their family. This story was written hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. Obviously, human beings have found themselves having to uproot and search for greater security for thousands of years. I don’t know how we read this story without recognizing the parallels and theological instruction for our response to the plight of migrants and refugees today.
We’re not given details about how or exactly when Elimelech died—only that Naomi became a widow with two young sons. Eventually, Chilion and Mahlon, ‘Pining’ and ‘Sick’ as they were, married a couple of Moabite women—one called Orpah, meaning “gazelle”, and the other named Ruth, which means “friend.” Gazelles were considered symbols of love and beauty for the Hebrews. So, although they were foreign, the Moabites were beautiful conveyors of love to this family. And, the full weight of Ruth’s name, “friend”, unfolds across the rest of the story.
The foreshadowed meaning of Mahlon and Chilion’s names becomes clear when theyboth die prematurely, before they’ve even produced offspring by their wives: Naomi, the woman who represents God’s delight, had given birth to sickness and pining—realities that we all experience in life, a pining for that which we do not have or something we used to have but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough when it was there; and sickness of mind, body, or spirit.
The final bit of word play I want to point out is one that might get lost in the translation, but is highly meaningful in the original Hebrew. The Hebrew word subgets translated in a variety of ways in English, depending on the context. In Hebrew, it’s always the same word: sub—but can mean ‘turn’, or ‘return,’ ‘go back,’ or ‘turn back,’ and ‘brought back’. The Hebrew word suboccurs fifteen times in the book of Ruth—twelve times in the first chapter alone. That kind of repetition is trying to make a point. In the Hebrew Bible, subis often used in a figurative sense to describe mental, emotional, or spiritual reversals. It can refer to apostasy (turning away from God) as well as to repentance. Obviously, the narrator wants us to be thinking about turns of heart, conscience, and spirit. See if you don’t notice how often it’s used as we read through Ruth Chapter 1.
Ruth is a story that has so much relevance for today. It’s a story of human suffering, of hardship and grief, of profound vulnerability, and how that hardship, grief and vulnerability gets handled by a variety of different people. As we read and reflect on the story of Ruth (and Naomi), see whether you don’t recognize the implicit instruction about God’s desired response to the hardship and suffering that is common in human life—whether it’s our own distress, or the adversity of others.
“When Life Doesn’t Go as It Should”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
23 June, 2019
Ruth 1:1-22 (First in a series)
Our community, and individual families within it, have been experiencing significant losses and serious suffering recently. An inoperable brain tumor in an 8-year old boy. Not just one, but several unexpected, incomprehensible, premature deaths—each of which inevitably makes us cry, “Why, God?!” and ask all sorts of other questions that don’t have satisfying answers. Most of us know of at least one family enduring extraordinary anguish because someone they love is addicted to drugs or alcohol or gambling or something else, and it’s making healthy relationships with everyone around them impossible. Vulnerable young people in our own middle school and high school have been subjected to various forms of bullying, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear, determined way to root it out once and for all. Life, someone recently said to me, has not gone as it should.
But life in this world has never been free from pain or suffering. And coming to church, or being a person of faith, does not exempt us from these things. (Wouldn’t it be great if it did? Then we wouldn’t be grappling with the crisis of declining participation in the churches, would we!)
So, when we’re presented with profound pain or adversity, perhaps it’s misguided to characterize it as life not going as it should. As followers of Jesus Christ—who never sidestepped or retreated from suffering, but rather recognized it as a crucial part of his redemptive work—we might need to reframe the issue. Maybe, instead of thinking that life is not going as it should—even when we are taken to unthinkable depths, or visited by griefs that feel like they will utterly undo us—the opportunity and spiritual challenge is for us assess our response: to deepen our faith, to strengthen our understanding of how God is steadfastly with us through it all, and will bless us in undreamed-of ways as we persevere in hope and confidence in God’s abiding presence.
This is the lesson we can learn from Naomi, as well as Ruth. The book of Ruth is actually Naomi’s story, as surely as it is her daughter-in-law’s. And Naomi’s story is actually our story; it’s the story of the spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel. As we discovered by looking at Elimelech’s and Naomi’s names in the Introduction to the Theme, this is a story about how God’s people (represented by Naomi, “my delight”) tend to respond when suddenly things don’t go as they’d like, or think they should.
As we heard at the opening of the story, Naomi and her husband had had to make the difficult decision to migrate from their home in Bethlehem to the land of Moab, during a famine in Judah. There may be an element of adventure to such a move, but there is almost always real grief and duress in leaving family, familiar surroundings, and a sense of place in a community. These all represent losses and sources of sorrow. Then, after re-settling and acquiring a measure of security, Naomi’s husband died—and after that, her sons. In a patriarchal society where the men were responsible for the financial well-being of the family, this would have been devastating. There was no one to look after her financially, and she—like so many other widows and orphans—faced a life of begging. By Jewish law, her daughters-in-law might have recourse to some other male members of the extended family, who would have a moral and legal responsibility to either marry them or look after them. But Naomi was aging—it had been well more than a decade since she had lived in Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth would be foreigners in Judah, and there was a stigma against marrying “outsiders”. So, Naomi couldn’t guarantee there would be anyone or anything for them. Furthermore, she knew how difficult it was to uproot and move far from home and the familiar. At least if the younger widows stayed in Moab, if they went back to their families of origin, they stood a chance of finding another husband and leading a “normal” life; they would be welcomed home, treated with compassion and received as the victims of tragic circumstances that they were. But at first, they insisted on staying with their mother-in-law. This whole scene represents one of the moral quandaries they find themselves in.
In the midst of all this, it’s quite reasonable to think that Naomi might have wanted to be alone in her grief. Life had not turned out how she thought it would, or should. It wasn’t fair. She was understandably feeling sorry for herself, and a little jealous of her daughters-in-law as she encouraged them to just go home. She poured out her frustration, anger, and her sense of betrayal by God, insisting that they return to their parents’ homes and she would return to her own—where she was going, there was nothing for them. “No, my daughters,” she laments, “it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand for the LORD has turned against me.”
Naomi represents an ordinary person of faith for whom life has not gone according to plan or anticipation. She is so hurt, so angry, so beside herself that she just wants to be alone in her self-pity and pain. At no point does she express an awareness much less openness to discovering how God might be with her just then. She doesn’t respond to her circumstances by investing more hope and faith in her God to see her through or express confidence that God will surely bless her yet. Rather, she simply expresses her rage, her grief, and bitterness, and attempts to cut herself off from those who are trying to help her.
Orpah finally concedes to Naomi’s insistence and does go back to her family after she weeps and kisses Naomi farewell. Orpah represents the individual who does everything society, custom, and the authority figures in her life expect her to do. Although it doesn’t say so, we’re left to assume the LORD dealt as kindly with Orpah as Orpah had dealt with Naomi and her family. But we don’t know for sure; no one ever told Orpah’s story.
Ruth, on the other hand, becomes the paradigmatic saint, the hero in the story. She, whose name means “friend”, resists what she knew would be the easier way, the expected way, and takes the path of real sacrifice, risk, and vulnerability. She has no idea what awaits her in Bethlehem—if there is anything more than a lifetime of begging and looking after an angry mother-in-law. Ruth’s life has certainly not gone according to any script she might have written either. But rather than become angry, despondent or self-absorbed, she instead utters words that are both humble and compassionate, that demonstrate the greatest levels of loyalty and faithfulness—not only to Naomi, but also to Naomi’s God: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” Ruth had already chosen; she was resolute in her commitments, and she would not be persuaded that they were foolish or baseless. And so, we’re told, Naomi fell silent. Whether her silence was grateful or angry we don’t know, but she let Ruth accompany her as she returned home.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, it says that the whole town was stirred up because of them. And when people asked about them, Naomi was honest about her emotional and spiritual state. She also revealed her self-absorption and ingratitude when she responded, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 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?” She was so engrossed with what she had lost that she failed to introduce, much less acknowledge, the great gift she had been blessed with in Ruth, the friend who represented God’s faithful presence with her.
But Ruth doesn’t say a word about it or express any resentment or condemnation throughout the entire story. She is a divine friend to Naomi, an embodiment of God’s grace to the woman in crisis—though Ruth was navigating her own crisis of grief and vulnerability.
We observe more of the “bitter” side of Naomi than we do of the “delight.” But the narrator doesn’t expect us to condemn Naomi, either. The story we’ve heard is one of a very difficult life—there’s a good chance Naomi suspects God was punishing her for something, but she doesn’t understand what it is, nor does she think she deserves it. That would be a perfectly normal human response, don’t you think? We can understand why she might be bitter.
I think we’re meant to recognize that there’s no point vilifying Naomi–because she represents us: she represents the people of God in general. At the same time, we’re invited to see Naomi—especially as she behaves next to Ruth—and also to see ourselves, and be inspired to live and do differently. To befriend the one in need, even when we are experiencing our own loss or need; the fundamental biblical and theological principle of caring for the one in need—regardless of where they came from, for they also are a beloved child of God—is clear in the story of Ruth and Naomi.
So, too, is the Christlike principle of humble vulnerability—the willingness to accept the friendship, the care and nurture of another, thereby participating in God’s design for mutuality in community. Just as Jesus accepted the hospitality of others, recognizing that it was what enabled him to more effectively minister to still others, in this story we can see Ruth both giving and receiving care as she chooses to embrace a covenantal relationship with Naomi. These are counter-cultural practices that refuse to buy into the impulse to fear the stranger and suspect the needy of trying to take advantage. They’re practices that reject a mentality of scarcity and resist the lie that each person should be self-sufficient. Because we know that every last one of us experiences one form of need or another. But God has created this world with an abundance, and for the sake of community. There is more than enough of everything–so that all our needs can be met if only we practice befriending and sharing the material, spiritual, and emotional resources as God designed and intended.
As we journey deeper into the Book of Ruth and learn more about how the different characters respond to the tragedies and the pains that life in this world inevitably delivers, pay attention to God’s invitation to you and me still today always—in whatever way possible—to be ministers of compassion to the needy, to welcome the outsider, to serve the “other” with humility and grace. Because we never know how God might intend to bless us through those encounters somewhere down the road.
Opening ourselves to the Spirit, and to the befriending practices of Ruth and of Jesus will place us at odds with the teachings of a fearful and selfish world. But they are the practices and Spirit that will ensure that life goes as it should. Amen.
New Interpreter’s Bible, ‘Ruth’, p. 899.