How many of you have heard that phrase “Where you go, I will go...your people shall be my people?”
How many of you know that it’s story of Ruth...and her mother-in-law Naomi?
I ask only to make a point that these words and this general story are fairly popular in Christian and Jewish communities. If you’ve been around religious circles, your response might be something along the lines of “oh yea, didn’t Ruth promise to stick by her mother-in-law and then there was some bozo...or Boaz....guy who married her?” The details get a little fuzzy.
When it came up as suggested reading for this week and next, I initially thought “no, that story’s been covered.” I looked up the Scripture I’ve preached on while here, though, and...it hasn’t in the last 2.5 years. I’m so thankful for it’s timing and for the opportunity to dig deeper into it, because though the details may get fuzzy, the details matter.
Detail #1: Ruth was a Moabite. (One of those tribal names everyone who volunteers to read Scripture hopes isn’t included the week that I ask.)
The Israelites were told not to share in prosperity or create friendship (much less a marriage) with the Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:6. The Moabites were known as foreigners, unclean, and pagans (not worshiping the Israelite God).
Naomi’s sons should not have married Ruth or Orpah. They were Moabites. And yet, they did just that, as they were living in Moab. They were living in Moab, a distant land, because Naomi’s family was “driven there to survive a famine: need and desperation drove them to be aliens in a strange land.” (Sermon Seeds, ucc.org)
Ruth was not of the same ethnicity or religion as Naomi and her family.
Detail #2: The law stated widows would marry their next-of-kin/brothers-in-law. When a husband died, his next male kin, brother or cousin, would care for and take her in.
Many of you are giving a moment of thanks that this is no longer the system, depending on who your in-laws are.
That wasn’t an option here, though. Naomi had no more sons. Plus, she makes a great point to the women that, even if she did remarry and birth more sons, why would they wait around that long for that potentially unfulfilled hope?
The established system and law didn’t work for these women. Orpah chose to return to her family of origin, Ruth (and Naomi) decided to re-write the system for their survival.
We can’t really blame Orpah - she did a rational and reasonable thing, returning to her homeland, hoping that she would be cared for there. It’s Naomi and Ruth who are risking rewriting the system in the name of loyalty to a chosen family. As we know, our biological families, our families of origin, even marriages don’t always turn out how we hope.
Ruth and Naomi risk working outside an established system that didn’t work in this case in order to establish a chosen family and have a hope for their future.
Detail #3: “Lodge” doesn’t just mean living in the same space together. Its Hebrew root also translates to “complain” or “suffer.” (Think of “lodging a complaint.”)
Ruth promises to “lodge” with Naomi...she pledges to not only live and dwell with Naomi, but to suffer with her as well.
Ruth puts herself second to the needs of this other woman, and promises to make a life with her in a land foreign to her [while] holding the promises of a God she does not know. (Matthews, ucc.org)
That is quite a commitment! I have to wonder what kind of faith Naomi had that inspired Ruth’s action. (Lawrence Farris)
Ruth’s phrase “where you lodge” does hint more at a dwelling location, yet I think we can all agree that committing to dwell with a person means experiencing all of life with them - the ups and the downs.
Ruth promises to “lodge” with Naomi.
All of these details add up to a biblical story with an unlikely main character: a woman, a foreigner, a widow, and an assumed enemy of Israel. Ruth accepts the hardship and the messiness of what may come when she pledges her loyalty to Naomi. She joins the long list of unexpected underdogs used by God...David the little boy, Abraham and Sarah the old and barren, Moses the stutterer, the Hebrews the nation of slaves, and many more. (pulpitfiction.com)
Farris observes that "Abraham became the father of a nation, [but] Ruth will be the mother of its line of kings." (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts; ucc.org) Ruth, an unexpected underdog, is David’s great-grandmother and mentioned in Jesus’ lineage in the Gospel of Matthew.
“Who would expect that a woman of a historic faith, [Naomi], one of God's own people, might encounter the image of God in the unconditional, faithful love of a pagan widow, a foreigner on a lonely and perilous road in a place far from home?” (Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, ucc.org)
All of these details describing the build up to Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi matter, even though we don’t live within these social constructs of marriages and widows anymore. They matter because they urge us to reflect on our assumptions of relating with each other.
Sometimes biological families don’t work and we need foster families or “chosen families.”
Sometimes laws are in place that don’t afford equal rights to every human being and we need to work to change them.
Sometimes we assume “the other” is an enemy and we need to re-examine our perspective.
Sometimes the theology we are taught doesn’t work and we need to reconstruct our beliefs.
The details of Ruth’s story teaches us about all the complications and joys of living life together - beyond borders, beyond expectations, beyond social norms.
Of course, this isn’t the end of the story; we do know more of what happens beyond Ruth pledging loyalty to Naomi. Next week, we’ll see what else happens with these two women and what more we can learn.
For now, though, Kathryn Matthews challenges us all to ask “How does this text shine a light on the edges of our communities, and what, or whom, does it illuminate there? What do you think was [Ruth’s] image of God? Why does Ruth’s place in history as an ancestor of David matter?”
Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18