+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Today, we have the opportunity to reflect on a book that has not often made its way into the worship life of this congregation. The book of Ruth is one of only two books in the Bible that bears the name of a woman – the other, of course, being the much later book of Esther – and readings from Ruth show up precisely twice in the three year cycle of readings used by most Lutheran churches in the US. So we’re not used to hearing from this book, and when we do, it is often framed simply as a story of tender love and devotion between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not the whole story, either. To understand what makes the Book of Ruth really tick, we’ve got to take another trip back into the Scriptures – this time, back to the book of Genesis.
We’ve already met Abraham and his wife Sarah, but in our journey this year we skipped over all of the stories about Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Lot was a wealthy man, like his uncle, and when Abraham set out from Haran in response to God’s call, Lot was part of his traveling party. In time, Lot realized that it was important for their two households to go separate ways so that they could survive on the meager fare available on the road, and so Lot and his family went out and settled in the infamous city of Sodom. When the wickedness of that city reached the heavens, God determined that Sodom and its sister city, Gomorrah, should be destroyed. Lot was given a warning and allowed to leave the city, but in the process of leaving he lost most of his property, as well as his wife, who looked back at the city they were fleeing and was frozen to the spot forever. Despairing of all that they had lost and believing that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was a sign of things to come, Lot’s daughters feared that they might never have the opportunity to find husbands to marry, to bear children, or to pass on their family’s legacy, so they seduced their father and conceived a new generation. According to Scripture, the descendants of that family eventually settled south and east of the lands promised to Abraham in a land known as Moab, and, in time, the Moabites came to be counted among Israel’s bitterest enemies for much of their history.
As Ruth opens, we are presented with a tragic situation of famine and want involving a couple from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons, were forced to move from their home in order to find food. From the perspective of the ancient people who first heard this story, the tragedy was seemingly compounded when the sons of this good Israelite family fell in love with women from Moab – Orpah and Ruth – and married them in direct violation of custom (if not an outright violation of the Law that Moses had handed down to them). Within several years, tragedy struck again, and Naomi’s husband and sons died suddenly and unexpectedly. As a result, Naomi was left with no means of support, and she pleaded with her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and try to make the best of their lives as widows. Ruth, of course, refused to leave her mother-in-law, pleading for the opportunity to remain with her in this now famous passage: 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. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17, NRSV)
We’ll never know why Ruth didn’t follow Orpah in returning to Moab when she had the chance. Perhaps she did feel a special attachment to her mother-in-law, and wanted to make sure that she was provided for. Perhaps the prospect of life among the people of Israel was something she didn’t feel that she could pass up. Perhaps there was something about the God of Israel that was compelling, something that drew her to journey to Judah even when she had no obligation to go. Whatever the reason, Ruth’s decision to cling to Naomi, to risk the problems that came along with being a stranger in a strange land, would in time become one of the most consequential decisions in the history of God’s people.
The book of Ruth goes on to describe how this woman of Moab met one of her late husband’s relatives and pleaded with him to provide support for her and her mother-in-law in their time of need. In language that more often sounds like a soap opera than what we usually expect from Scripture, Ruth and Boaz draw closer to one another and are eventually married, giving Ruth and Naomi the stability she was looking for, and making her one of the most famous converts to faith in the God of Israel in the entire Old Testament. Their family line eventually included the greatest king in the history of Israel and Judah – David – and, in time, the one whose promised coming would change the world forever – Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God.
The truth is, brothers and sisters, that this little story tucked into the Hebrew Scriptures is much more significant than our infrequent encounters with it might lead us to believe, and its significance goes beyond the mere fact that Ruth’s offspring would eventually be important figures in the faith. The book of Ruth cuts against our attempts to domesticate God or to see people as being outside the sphere of God’s influence by virtue of their birth or ethnicity (or even their religious background). As a woman of Moab, Ruth would most certainly have been looked down upon by her contemporaries as a possible corrupting influence on the people of Israel. The great law-giver, Moses, had warned the people about the consequences of intermarriage, about the dangers of welcoming foreigners into the fold. Though Israel was called to uphold and support strangers, and to ensure that their needs were met while they lived in their midst, there was among them – as there is among us today – a suspicion of those who are different. That human tendency is always lurking below the surface, often preventing us from seeing others as people made in the image of God and worthy of the dignity and respect they are due. Whether we’re talking about Moabites in the first millennium BCE or Central American or Middle Eastern refugees in the twenty-first century CE, we humans are maddeningly prone to demonizing or denigrating the other out of fear or prejudice. But God calls us to something better, to a recognition of our common humanity, and to an acknowledgement that God’s will for the world unfolds in ways that defy our capacity to predict or control. The story of Ruth is the story of loyalty across boundaries, of faithfulness that makes a difference in the lives of others, of a mysterious God who constantly and consistently refuses to be bound by our expectations.
This week, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for Ruth’s courage, for Boaz’s compassion, for God’s boundary-breaking love, and for the unfolding of God’s plan in ways that continue to surprise and delight us. Let us pray that we might open our eyes to the image of God in the face of our brothers and sisters around the world. Finally, let us pray that we might find inspiration in the story of Ruth as we claim anew our identity as God’s people in the world, called and claimed in baptism to serve God and our neighbors and to give God glory in all that we do and say. Thanks be to God! Amen.