Rev. Katherine Todd
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,
“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 will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
This story of Ruth and Naomi compels us.
What possesses someone to cleave to another like that?
It is a mystery.
Did Ruth not have a better option? Was her family of origin a place she never wished to return? What were Ruth’s ties with her home country like – that she would give it all up to stay with Naomi and move to away from the only place she’d ever known?
Or did Ruth love her hometown and family of origin but love Ruth more? Was her commitment to her husband so deep that not even death would end her commitment to his mother? Did she pity her mother-in-law for having lost so much and feel an obligation to care for her? Was her connection with her mother-in-law so extraordinary, that leaving her felt like more than she could bear?
We do not know.
For some undisclosed reason, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.
And this seems clearly NOT in the best interest of Ruth.
She had a much better chance starting over in her hometown. She could re-marry. She was young enough. She could start again.
But following after her mother-in-law, who could no longer marry and had absolutely no way of caring for herself (as a woman in those days), was most certainly the bigger risk. As women, their entire livelihoods were reliant on their having men to provide for them. And all the men were gone. The ties that bound them were gone.
But Ruth commits herself to Naomi – that not even death should part them.
This is extraordinary.
And it probably saved Naomi’s life, as two were much more likely to survive than one, alone.
And so we have Ruth and Naomi traveling back to Israel, to Naomi’s nation-of-origin, in the hopes that they would somehow find a way to survive, as word had reached them that God has spared the people of Israel, giving them food.
This commitment by Ruth to Naomi is so extraordinary that couples getting married will often pull from this text – in hopes that their own love and commitment might be half as strong that that shown by Ruth to Naomi.
What is it about this text that draws us in?
I think it’s this utter commitment. I think it’s the depth of love shown in this most tangible way – of not leaving, even when it surely means suffering and risk and a difficult journey. This cleaving to another person with devotion is so utterly gorgeous. It draws us in.
Mercifully, Hebrew culture had a system for caring for the people. Since in that day men were alone allowed to own property and conduct business, so all women needed the care of a man in order to survive. Sometimes the man was a husband, sometimes a son, sometimes a father.
This system was so developed that they even had a system for making sure each man’s name and legacy was carried on. If a woman lost her husband and had no children, the next of kin had an obligation to marry that woman so that she could conceive and bear a child to carry on the family name. This was a family obligation. And the character and integrity of one’s nearest of kin could be measured in their willingness at such times to step in and provide for the bereaved woman in this way.
But in this instance, Naomi was advanced in age, and it seems her time of bearing children was over. She fell through the cracks. There would be no more children to care for her, even if her next of kin were to step in. She had lost the two she bore, and she could bear no more. The two young wives had no brother in law to step in redeem them, as it was called in that day. In fact, since Naomi and her husband had traveled to Moab and were foreigners in that land, they had no next of kin there at all. So these two women had absolutely nothing.
This was about survival.
And in this place of nothingness. In this place of emptiness.
They are reliant on God. They are reliant on the mercy of strangers along a risky journey.
And in this place of emptiness, they cleave to one another. They rely on each other.
When Naomi has no societal power left and no inroads to survival, Ruth will not leave her side. She works tirelessly for herself and her mother-in-law that they might have food. And to Naomi who feels as if her life is over and she has nothing, Ruth is living proof that God loves her and will not leave her.
Naomi shelters Ruth by bringing her back into the land and culture of Naomi’s roots. There, there is food; God has been merciful to the people. There, they have land owned by her former husband. There they have kin, if one will step up and care for Ruth in this way. And so Naomi guides her daughter in law – instructing her in this foreign land and culture – that Ruth may find her way and start anew, with fresh hope.
I will probably never tire of hearing this story.
We all need people in our lives like Ruth…
The kind of people who stay – long after their obligations have ended,
The kind of people who love – even when there’s little in it for them,
The kind of people who are committed to us – in thick and in thin, in plenty and in want.
We all come to places in our lives when we feel utterly stripped of all power and security. We face journeys that feel so endless and barren. We find ourselves with more loss than gain.
And in these times, we need people like Ruth.
I don’t know why some of us enjoy friendship and love like this only for a short season. I don’t know why some of us search all our lives and never find such companionship. I don’t know why others of us are so blessed to have several folks in our lives who would love us like this.
But wherever you find yourself today, I invite you to give thanks for those in your lives who have been there for you, for a lifetime or a season, or even a moment.
I have spoken to you before about that very low time in my life, that time pinnacled with acquiring bed bugs just before Christmas. The bed bugs themselves can be enough to make the strongest among us feel crazy, but the real pain was in feeling so alone in my suffering. And the bed bugs felt like icing on that cake of suffering.
The day I got the news that all fabric in my house had to be bagged and laundered and all belongings had to be pulled out 4 feet from the walls – for the bed bug treatment- I despaired, as I have no family in area. Who could I possibly ask to come and enter into my misery – to help me through this mountain of a task? I only had a few friends, and some of those friendships were new and untested. So I called one such friend, and though it may be hard to tell at the outset, she is among the saints of this world – if her acts of love are the measure. She agreed to come help, but she knew we would need more help if we were going to get everything ready in time, so she called some of her friends.
In the end, one of her friends agreed to come help. It was a tiny miracle. And so the three of us worked until we could work no more, and when it became clear that more would be needed come morning, the friend of my friend slept on my couch, in order to help me again in the morning.
What love is this?!?
What love is this – that goes the extra mile – and for someone essentially a stranger?
In this very low time, God showed God’s love for me through the love and selfless generosity of a stranger – to enter into my misery and walk with me until I could go on.
I do not know who your angels in disguise have been. They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, times and places.
They have come in our times of greatest need. And sometimes they come only for a moment.
But in these moments, God is showing the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. In these moments, God is present and real to us in flesh and bone through people who have opened themselves to be used of God.
In our lives full of glorious mountain moments and valleys of despair, may we find God present with us, in the stranger, in the friend, in dear companionship, and in moments of utterly selfless beauty.
It is hard to love like this.
That’s why it is so rare and precious.
That’s why an entire book of Bible is one such story.
But as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to be used by God,
we will find ourselves party to more and more such moments,
we will find strength to love with this kind of self-less and persevering love,
and we will witness the profoundly gorgeous love of God poured out.
God is actively working
To comfort the afflicted
To restore the oppressed
To heal the broken and brokenhearted
To shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death and bring us into a broad
land of milk and honey
To make our cups overflow!
God is actively working.
May we open ourselves,
listening for God
asking God to use us
and being obedient to the Spirit
That more people may KNOW the gorgeous love of God,
in moments, and friendships, and love, like the love Ruth showed Naomi.
Lord, use us.