“An Undying Love”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, May 14, 2023
Reading: Ruth 1:1-18
Mother’s Day – we’re taking a bit of an unusual turn and looking at the story of the loving bond between a mother and her daughter-in-law. I love the book of Ruth for many reasons, not the least of which is because I also have a wonderful mother-in-law, and I would gladly move to England and look after her if she didn’t already have seven children of her own all doting on her and looking after her.
The story of Ruth is unlike any other book in the Bible. There’s no stated theology, no “this is what God did for the people of Israel.” This story is not about God, it’s about Ruth. For that matter, God is hardly even mentioned in the book at all. But the book of Ruth is a gem within the body of Judeo-Christian writings: a gracious and endearing short story or folk tale about an ordinary woman and her mother-in-law.
Even Moses and Abraham don’t have a whole book named after them. Saul and David and Solomon are all lumped together under “Kings.” Samuel gets a book, and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and a bunch of prophets have books named for them, but Ruth is not a prophetess or a queen or seemingly anyone of significance, yet she has her own book in the Old Testament. Some of you may already know why, but when I asked the Bible Study group on Tuesday if they had read the book of Ruth, many had not, so I’m guessing many others here today haven’t either.
Like many of the Old Testament writings, the book of Ruth begins by putting the story in its context, telling us when it happens: “In the days when the Judges ruled.” It will turn out to be important that we know that. Judges in Israel were administrators of justice in the tradition of Moses who, while still in the desert, had appointed judges from each of the tribes to help him adjudicate the people’s complaints and quarrels.
All the neighbouring nations had kings, but Israel had always maintained that God alone was King, so they had judges to mediate the covenant between them and God. After the book of Ruth comes the book of 1 Samuel, and that is when we will see Saul appointed as the first King of Israel. So, this brief little opening line tells us that this story happened before the time when Israel demanded a king, and I want you to remember that because it’s key to understanding why Ruth got her own book.
As the story begins, we read that a good Jewish family from Bethlehem flee their home because of a famine and end up in the country of Moab, on the East side of the Dead Sea. As a neighbouring country, there had sometimes been conflict between Israel and the Moabites, but most of the time the Hebrews mingled peacefully with their neighbours and started to learn the art of farming from them as they evolved from a nomadic, then pastoral way of life, and became an agricultural society.
Elimelech and Naomi go to the fertile land of Moab with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. Elimelech dies and the sons take Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, then after 10 years the two sons die, leaving three women with no children as widows. Naomi is now the head of this household, and she is living in a land where she has no family. Within a few short verses, we have come to learn that this is a story about vulnerability, because in those times, a woman with no father, husband, or son to take care of her was destitute. There were no protections in place for a woman in this situation, and she would often have to resort to begging or even prostitution to survive. And here we have three such women.
Being in such a precarious condition, and hearing that the famine is over in her homeland, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth begin the journey back to Bethlehem, where Naomi hoped that she could count on the charity of some extended family member. Her parents are long gone. Her husband was gone; her only two sons, dead. She might have nephews, but rarely were families then looking for another mouth to feed, especially one that had no way of contributing income to the household. They would be under no obligation to look after her, so she is totally dependent on their charity, and it’s possible; but the chances of them taking in three widows, two of whom are foreigners with NO family nearby...?
Naomi is vulnerable, and if Ruth and Orpah go with her, they are even more vulnerable. In verses 11-13, Naomi invokes what’s called the “Law of the Levirate.” It kind of sounds funny to our ears that she’s talking about having baby sons and waiting for them to grow up so they can marry Ruth and Orpah, but Jewish law stipulated that if a man died and left no children, his brother must marry his widow and give her children in the deceased brother’s name to preserve his name in the family lineage. Naomi’s two sons are both dead, so there is no one to fulfill that law; the only ones who would have the obligation to do so are not born yet.
The solution, she decides, is that Ruth and Orpah must return to their own families, leaving her to go back to Bethlehem alone. They are still of childbearing age: women married soon after puberty, so after 10 years of marriage they are probably still only in their early to mid 20s, so they can still take new husbands. Until they did so, they would have protection and provision in their parents’ homes. What Naomi says is so reasonable and obviously correct that Orpah accepts the wisdom of it and heeds her advice. But Ruth refuses, embracing the vulnerability and heads off to an unknown land, to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem.
Being in a vulnerable situation, where the outcome is so uncertain, and you have no real way of expecting that things will turn out okay – in fact they could turn out disastrously – is really uncomfortable. For many of us the insecurity would almost feel unbearable.
Ruth’s vulnerability makes me think of the work of psychology researcher, Dr. Brene Brown. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brown opens with the words, “You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability.” That was certainly the case for Ruth, and it’s true for us too. By “rumbling with vulnerability” Brown means leaning into it, being both afraid and brave at the same time.
We all experience times where we feel vulnerable: your first date after a divorce; trying to get pregnant after a miscarriage; starting a business; watching your child leave for university; apologizing to your spouse for something you said or did; waiting for the doctor to call you back; moving to a new home, a new city, a new country; giving feedback; getting feedback; getting fired; firing someone. There are countless ways throughout our lives that we experience vulnerability, and there are as many ways of coping with vulnerability as there are people! Most coping techniques, though, are more likely avoidance techniques. It goes against our natural instincts to lean into vulnerability, to rumble with it.
C.S. Lewis said it well: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
It is certainly natural to try to avoid vulnerability, and protect ourselves. That’s what Orpah did, and we don’t really blame her. But her only claim to fame now is that the future mother of a famous talk show host misspelled her name, and now scripture readers round the world call her Oprah! Ruth, who selflessly embraced vulnerability is the one who got a book of the Bible named for her, and whose story is still read today.
In verses 16-18 we read Ruth’s strong declaration of undying love for and commitment to Naomi, and she goes back to Bethlehem in Judah with her mother-in-law. Naomi is not a blood relative; they’re not from the same tribe or the same religion, yet Ruth makes a permanent commitment to stay by her side. She leans into vulnerability instead of turning back to the safer, more reasonable option. Why would she do that? When you read the rest of the story (and it’s only four chapters, so I highly recommend it) it begins to make sense.
SPOILER ALERT! I’m going to read you the ending of the Book of Ruth: So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went to her, and the Lord gave her a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
This is why this book is in the Bible and why it’s located right between Judges and Samuel! Ruth, who wasn’t even an Israelite, by embracing vulnerability, becomes this central figure in the History of Israel, linking the time of the Judges to the time of the Kings, and especially the greatest King, David, whose city was Bethlehem, Naomi’s home.
By marrying Ruth, Boaz – who is a distant relative of Naomi’s – fulfills the Levirate law and thus guarantees Naomi’s security. Ruth made herself vulnerable, risked her own security, for the chance to protect her mother-in-law, and God honoured that willingness, protected them both, and furthermore blessed the entire nation of Israel through her.
Although the theology of the book of Ruth is not stated systematically, the story really does tell us a lot about God: it tells us of a God who can be trusted in the face of vulnerability. The theology may not be stated overtly, but we read in this book a living demonstration of the undying love of God who honours our faith by using our willingness to be vulnerable to do great things for humanity.
Ruth’s story doesn’t end there. Matthew 1:1-6: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
Ruth is one of few mothers who is mentioned, and what links these women is that they all courageously embraced vulnerability. Jesus was descended from women who were vulnerable, and God honoured their vulnerability because in Jesus, God himself embraced vulnerability to redeem us all. We can turn to God and trust in God when we feel vulnerable because God was willing to be vulnerable for us and God honours our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of love.
Brene Brown, a mother herself, tells the story of her young daughter being betrayed by a friend at school, and her daughter declared that she “would never trust anyone again!” Brown reminded her daughter of the Marble Jar that her teacher kept at school – when students did admirable things, marbles were added to the jar; when they misbehaved, marbles were taken out. She said, “We trust the people who have earned the marbles over time in our life. Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honours what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out. We look for the people who, over time, put marbles in, and in, and in, until you look up one day and they’re holding a full jar. Those are the folks you tell your secrets to. Those are the folks you trust with information that’s important to you.”
More than any other, God’s marble jar is filled to overflowing. We can trust God to sustain us and bless us in our times of vulnerability, and then we also bless others, just as Ruth blessed Naomi and all of Israel, and now all of us too. Thanks be to God.