For the next two Sundays we will be talking about the Book of Ruth as a part of our summer sermon series on the great stories of the Old Testament. It is a lovely little four chapter book, a short story in the Old Testament, that is about good faithful people making wise decisions, and caring for each other in difficult situations. Each chapter covers a complete episode so it is an easy book to break into chapters for discussion purposes, or in this case for a two week sermon series. Stories are not foreign to the Bible; many Biblical writers used them as they saw the usefulness of them as a teaching tool. They are vehicles for truth and great meaning.
It is a book in which two women are the prominent characters and their friendship and love for each other is deep. It is a book which has a very special place in my heart. First because it is about ordinary good people, who out of their faith and goodness do extraordinary things. We can relate to the characters as none are kings, queens, great warriors, or super-heroes. They are people made of the right stuff, so they do the right things. Often Bible stories pint to character flaws, immoral actions, or a lack of faith or following the laws of God. Not so in this Book. Here everyone is good. No one is evil in Ruth; no one is a villain. Everyone acts with good moral character and sense of duty. We only claim Ruth and Boaz to be the heroine and hero because their characters were exceptional. They know no limits in their goodness. Their faith defines their good actions, and the story itself gives us a peak into the life of ancient Hebrews living in Judah.
Also, I first confess there is a selfish reason this book is very important to me. Many, many years ago, after I finished my studies at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and went to New York to study at Columbia, I still needed to finish my language requirements for ordination. Although I had studied Greek I needed to take Hebrew to be ordained in our Presbyterian denomination.
A Hebrew class was offered at General Episcopal Seminary in New York that would fulfill that trial of ordination. I took the class during what was a turbulent time in the Episcopal denomination as they lived into the new laws which allowed for the ordination of women. Some seminarians felt put upon and possibly a bit intimidated by the women now in their classes. And, it was into that not too friendly environment that I entered General Seminary to study Hebrew.
The men in the class soon learned that they had nothing to fear by my presence among them. My mastery of the Hebrew language was not going to intimidate anyone…. I was definitely not at the top of the class. In my defense, I was stretched a bit thin. I was enrolled in Columbia University in a Master of Science program and was interning in a mental health clinic on Long Island’s north shore. The Hebrew was an additional burden to a busy schedule!
But, the fact was… I was not the Hebrew scholar of the class.
The weekend before the final, I went to visit a friend in Washington DC. I had every intention of cramming all weekend for the exam but alas, did not. As I return to NYC by Train the following Monday to immediately go to the seminary and take my exam, I prayed to God. I joined the chorus of students throughout history that needed divine intervention if we were to pass a class. My prayer went something like…’God, I have several hours here to prepare for this final and I just don’t want to flunk the class, not be able to be ordained and prove to the seminary students in my class that women are not meant for ordination.’ Not receiving divine knowledge of knowing all Hebrew, I decided that I would spend the time translating the Book of Ruth from Hebrew into English. At least, It would give me practice on female verb tenses. So I did… And when I went into the exam later that morning, the professor told us that our final was … you guessed it…. to translate the Book of Ruth from Hebrew into English. YES!!!!! Thank you God!
So, here is the beautiful story of Ruth ..
Once upon a time, (actually it was in the time of the Judges) there was a Hebrew family consisting of the mother Naomi, the father Elimelech, and two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They lived in Bethlehem. One year their crops failed and they had to move to Moab to make a living. While living there, the two sons married Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.
Naomi loved her two daughters in law and all was well until the unthinkable happened! She was widowed and then so were her two daughters-in-law and they were widowed before they were able to have male heirs. In other words… in a male dominated society, all the males died in their family! This was, without a doubt, a terrible situation to be in. Women, in these ancient days, were nothing without a family and by family I mean male family. They could not own property, they had no rights, they had no money. This is not just pre-women’s lib, but prehistoric pre-women’s lib! Naomi had no way of supporting her two daughters-in-law in this foreign land and had to go back to Judah and live off of the generosity of her extended relatives. She told her two daughter-in-law that there best bet and chance at a future was to go back to their families, to remarry Moabite men, and start again. Naomi explained that she could not help them. Even if she were to remarry and have other sons, would the young women really want to wait for those babies to grow up to be married to them? Of course not. They should go back to their families where they had a chance for happiness. And the young women protested saying they wanted to stay. They loved Naomi. Eventually Orpah, under protest, does go back to her family. I need to make sure none of you think poorly of Orpah for doing this. She did what was right and at the request of her mother-in-law Naomi. However, Ruth would not leave, she just flatly refused; and she said an oath to Naomi…….
Doesn’t that sound awfully familiar? Those vows said between these two women sound amazingly like the wedding vows said in our services. They are vows of love and vows of making a lifetime commitment to another person. Ruth so loves and is so faithful to Naomi that she joins her family, Naomi’s people will be her people. Ruth will follow her where ever she goes. Ruth says she wants to be committed to Naomi for her whole life, and even death will not take away the love she has for her. It is beautiful statement of commitment and the faithfulness of true love.
So, the two women return to Judah to try and eke out an existence in It is told that the whole town stirred because of them. Their ears must have burned as the news and gossip spread of the two women’s unfortunate situation and Ruth’s loyalty and love to her mother-in-law.
Naomi is welcomed by her old friends and distant relatives and says her name should be mara and life has dealt her a bitter hand. However, don’t be fooled into believing that Naomi is one of those complaining whining women that waits for others to solve her problems. Not only are Jewish laws charitable for widows and strangers, but Naomi still has her faith and the love and faithfulness of Ruth.
As it turns out that it is harvest time in Judah and the crops were plentiful that year. Naomi comes up with a plan as she decides that she and Ruth can live off of what Ruth gleans in the fields. This was a common practice in ancient Israel. After the field workers harvested the crops, widows, orphans , and other unfortunates could go into the fields and take whatever remaining produce had been left. They were then allowed to use what they had picked for their own or sell it for profit.
Ruth gleans in the fields of a rich man named Boaz who turns out to actually be a distant relative of Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands. Although the narrator does not really come out and say it, we can assume that Ruth must have been a very attractive woman as her presence in the fields was noticed by Boaz who asks his field workers who she is. They tell him about Ruth and he recognizes that the woman is the widow of his distant deceased relative. Boaz introduces himself to Ruth and invited her to continue to glean in his fields. He says she will not be harassed by the workers of his field as she might in others and he will see that she gets water when thirsty.
Ruth was overcome by his generosity and asks why he would offer her, a foreigner, safety and water? Boaz said he knows of the sacrifice she has made out of love for her mother-in-law and asks the Lord to reward her. Boaz then tells his staff to help her out. Not only are they to make sure she is safe but they are to leave an abundance of grain for her to glean.
Ruth comes home to Naomi with an abundance of grain. Naomi is overwhelmed by what she was able to take home. Ruth explains to her that she was aided by Boaz and both women are overjoyed by their good fortune and Boaz’s kindness to them.
This is where we will stop today. Things are looking up for our two heroines. What started as a tragedy, has become a story of love and good fortune as the two women enjoy the bond of love and are finding a way to live in a dire situation. Things are looking up!
So what has happened here? Has anything of significance happened to get this story placed in the Bible? At first glance we might say no. It’s just a nice little story but it does not have that much depth for us today. But this is where we would be wrong. And this morning I want to bring out one; that being the importance of God within our relationships.
So far the main relationship in the book is between Naomi and Ruth, It is so strong that the vows that Ruth makes to Naomi sound much like marriage. I have used Ruth’s vow in marriage counseling. it is a complete vow of a healthy commitment one person makes to another. Ruth first says, “Where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge.” In this statement, she is saying something very important at the root of true friendships. Within friendship comes a joyful acknowledgement that the responsibility of personal companionship. We like to be with people for whom we care. Ruth is saying that she wants to be with Naomi whenever, where ever, through the good times and bad. Being a friend through the good times is easy; being a good friend through the bad times takes commitment. Ruth here expresses that commitment and love.
Ruth then continues saying that ‘Your people shall be my people.” This statement shows great maturity and strength of character on the part of Ruth. It is easy to say I will go with you or live with you, but that I will be a part of you is quite another. Often problems arise in a relationship when one person sees him or herself as being better that the other. They might have married each other or fallen in love with each other, but one person feels superior because of better background, better education, higher wage, better looks … whatever…. When Ruth says that Naomi’s people will be her people, she is stating their equality. She enters her relationship with Naomi on equal footing. She is willing to subordinate her tribal clam to the citizenship that will include them both. She gives up her individualism to be equal to her mother-in-law.
Ruth then vows that her God shall be the same God as Naomi’s. This is a very powerful statement and must be at the root of every successful relationship between couples, whether religious or not, if they are to make it together throughout life. God is to people what they hold as being of the utmost importance. For dome people, God is a Divine Reality, a creative and loving force; while for others it might be money, status, power, or themselves. What is important is that couples share the same values, hold as important the same things, worship the same gods. Ruth says she will hold the God of Israel, Naomi’s God as hers. They will share the same highest value and worship the same reality. What stable footing for any couple whether friends, lovers, or family members.
Ruth ends her vow stating that this relationship is until death and even in death they will not be parted. The totality of Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is awesome but the maturity and depth of it should be studied and emulated. I believe relationships like this one between Ruth and Naomi are models that God has given us. We are to try to achieve friendship and love like this in our own lives. And when we do, we receive a true gift from God!
But that’s not the whole or final story. We are only half way done with the book! And, of course, a new friendship is forming in our book… That between Ruth and Boaz. The next chapters of the book will tell us what happens between them.
So….. stay tuned for next week when we will conclude the story of the Book of Ruth.
Will our heroines make it? Will Ruth and Naomi become financially solvent?
What will become of the kindness of their new friend Boaz?
What will be the ‘ever after ‘ for these three people?
So, return next week, same time, same place and find out!!!!