I’ve always felt like I grew up the best way there was to grow up. I know not everyone likes being an only child, but I loved it. But maybe the reason I loved it so much was that I was never alone. I had five really good friends in my neighborhood, who were all about the same age as me. We all liked playing sports, and we liked the same TV shows, and we liked the same kinds of games. So life was good with friends.
My parents were around as much as they could be, but you know… parents work. So in the summer especially, I didn’t see them all the time. But I never had to go to day care or to a babysitter or anything, because we lived with my dad’s parents. There are about a million stories I could tell you about growing up with my grandparents in the home, but it really taught me a lot. I enjoyed it so much that I really have to believe that having grandparents in the home is just the best thing that can happen to a kid.
Now, my grandparents both lived under the Soviet regime in what was then the USSR, and they were both illegal Christians. Their faith wasn’t permitted, but they practiced, anyway. You don’t wish hardship on anyone, but at the same time their situation is enviable, because they clung to their faith like a lifeline, and they came to appreciate God’s presence in their lives so much more than many of us who are comfortable all the time, living with a faith that is not only legal, but the overwhelming majority faith of the country we live in.
Anyway, because they had so much appreciation for their faith, they also knew the stories of Scripture very well. I remember one time, shortly after getting my third-grade Bible, talking to my grandma about wanting to read a whole book of the Bible. The first one she told me to read was Jonah. It’s short, fun, and relatively well-known. I would recommend the same, by the way; if you want to just sit down and feel that sense of accomplishment of having read a whole book of the Bible, Jonah’s your place to start. But if you want a second one after that, my recommendation would be a little more unorthodox – it would be the book from which we read today – Ruth.
Now, as you all know, we’ve been working our way through the Old Testament. We just finished with Moses and the giving of the Ten Commandments last week, and we’re skipping to Ruth now. So, what happens in the middle? Well, Moses dies, just on the border of the Promised Land God had asked him to lead the people to. His assistant, Joshua, takes over. But after that, there’s a bit of a crisis of how the people are to be led. Moses just kind of became the leader; no one elected him or anything. Joshua was his natural successor. But, after Joshua died, how exactly were things supposed to work now?
Well, a system arose called the Judges (as explained in the book of Judges) wherein the people would find someone who was shown by God to be a special leader, and they would sort of “elect” that person as leader, not through a formal vote, but more the way that if you think of your group of closest friends, there’s probably a “leader” of the group, even if you never voted on it.
Well, the story of Ruth takes place in the time of the Judges. The nation of Israel is living in the Promised Land, and they are doing well. They’re not quite a power in the region yet – we’ll get to that next week. But they’re making it work.
Now, the story of Ruth starts, oddly, with her father-in-law Elimelech and her mother-in-law Naomi. They settled in the land of Moab, east of Israel. There, they had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, who each married Moabite women; one marrying a woman named Orpah and the other named Ruth. All three men die, though, and the women are left destitute.
Now, at the time, women were basically non-citizens. They had no rights independent of their husbands or fathers. If a woman’s husband died, she was supposed to marry his brother. In fact, the brother was legally required to marry her. Now, this may sound cruel or strange, but it’s actually an act of mercy; it means that no woman will go uncared for. However, Elimelech was old and had no brothers. And Orpah and Ruth were both Moabite women. They had shunned their own people, and had no legal standing at home. Naomi had no sons, and even if she were to have another, it would take years for them to grow into men, and what are Ruth and Orpah supposed to do in the meantime? So Naomi tells them to go home to Moab, and try to make a life there. They don’t want to, but Orpah gives in and gives it another try at home. Ruth, however, steadfastly refuses. She tells Naomi one of the best lines in all the Scriptures, in my opinion: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth so loves her mother-in-law that she will follow. Her mother-in-law has converted her to faith in God, and she won’t turn her back on that faith.
Now, that’s as much as we read, but there’s a lot more to the story. Naomi, the mother-in-law gives in and lets Ruth stay with her. They work their way to Bethlehem, and arrive right during harvest. Of course, as you would expect, there was a lot of work to do during the harvest. Naomi knows that her husband had a wealthy cousin named Boaz, so they head thataway to find work. Ruth offers to work in the field, which will earn them some money. She also points out that, hey – maybe she’ll find a single guy out there somewhere whom she can marry.
In fact, the fella who takes notice of her is none other than Boaz, her father-in-law’s cousin! After noticing this hard-working woman, he asks about her background. He finds out that she’s been taking care of her mother-in-law and scraping by with her, insisting on remaining with her, even though it made Ruth’s own life more difficult.
So Boaz does as he can as her employer, and protects her; he makes sure she is taken care of. He ensures that she stays in the field with the other women, so the other men can’t harass her. Eventually, she approaches him privately and indicates that she’s interested in him. Now, because of the laws of the day, the sort of “twist” in the story is that it turns out Boaz doesn’t have the right to marry Ruth. Boaz has to sit down with the actual man who is obligated to marry Ruth, and he has to sit down with the elders. He has to request special permission to marry Ruth, meaning the man who’s supposed to marry Ruth to give up his right to do so.
He ends up sort of tricking the man to do so. He says that Naomi, who has a parcel of land that had belonged to Elimelech. He says that it’s this other guy’s to take, if he wants it, and the other guy says, “Yeah, sure.” But then he says, “Of course, you’ll have to marry Ruth if you want.”
And this is where we get to a complication. As it turns out, if a man marries the wife of a deceased person, any children she bears will not be considered his; they will be considered her husband’s children. This guy seems to believe that there’s no point in marrying Ruth, potentially having children with her, and then being forced to care for land that won’t ever really be “his,” because the land would belong to any sons he’d bear with Ruth. So he gives up his rights to the land, and to Ruth. Thus, Boaz is able to keep the land and marry the woman he’d fallen in love with.
So, what is this all about? Well, it’s about people doing their duty, for one thing. More importantly, it’s about love and the families we create. We have the family we’re born into, of course. But just as important is the fact that God gives us love in our lives, and we have to embrace those relationships well. Huge amounts of meaning in our lives come from the people around us, and God so often puts those people there.
That’s the other really important thing here: our institutions are valuable, but only when God blesses them. Inherently, there are things in our world that we rely on, but the things in themselves cannot function. For example, we all know people who have gotten into bad relationships, and even some who have chosen to marry. Inevitably, those marriages fall apart. But it’s not that the institution of marriage is broken; it’s that, sometimes, people make bad choices. Sometimes people change, sometimes people can’t make it work, sometimes personalities are just too different. “Marriage,” in and of itself, is not magical; it will not make a bad relationship work.
“Marriage” can’t fix or save anything, because while it is a serious institution that God gives us to increase our happiness, our actions, attitudes, and choices matter. God won’t just magically let one thing fix everything for all-time. The Presbyterian perspective on Baptism is similar: it’s really important, and it’s a welcoming into the community, but it doesn’t guarantee salvation, nor does it guarantee faith, nor anything else. Our institutions, our relationships, our ties to others – they are meant to bring us joy and make our lives better. But in and of themselves, they have no power. It’s our relationship with God, which makes these things flourish. Our culture can’t write the checks; it can only cash the checks that God writes.
In this story, we see a lot of cultural trappings about who belongs in what role, and what people are supposed to do. Sometimes, those things work out, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not a comment on whether those things are good or bad. Instead, this whole story is a comment on following where God leads you. Ruth was led to Naomi, and she clung to her fiercely. She wanted to be part of Naomi’s life and follow Naomi’s God, because she realized the truth of God. Even though some parts of her life we more difficult, others were easier. And, all things said and done, she made the right choice – sometimes by following the customs of her culture, sometimes by sidestepping them.
Our culture, by itself, is no more perfect than any individual person. Following where God leads, on the other hand, is good. And just to see where these things lead, almost as justification for this whole story, Ruth gives birth to a son (who is fathered by Boaz, but is technically considered her first husband’s son, as I mentioned earlier). She names him Obed. Obed later has a son, whom he names Jesse. Jesse has sons of his own, and the youngest he names David, who becomes the king of all Israel, and an ancestor of Jesus.
Ruth is a foreigner who doesn’t fit in; she’s a woman in a man’s world; she’s a convert to faith in God rather than someone born into it; she’s outspoken when she should be quiet. Ruth is not a typical hero. Yet, it’s her name in the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel. She’s preserved there, the outsider who was mother to the men who led to Jesus.
God uses us, in all our brokenness, in all the ways we don’t fit. God sees us, not as the world does, but with the sacred worth inherent to us by being God’s children. It’s remarkable that this story would ever be told at all, since Jews in ancient days were often very skeptical of intermarriage with people of other tribes; yet Ruth is the great-grandmother of the greatest king Israel ever knew.
We may never “fit” exactly the way the world wants us to; but God has a special place for everyone. When we feel a bit like Ruth, like someone out of their depth, God still calls us to something. May you have the fortune of figuring out where God is leading you today! Amen.