Memories: Naomi and Ruth
(Based on Book of Ruth – a Dialogue Sermon)
Sermon date 11/08/2015
I guess I’ll begin. There was a famine in Bethlehem. The House of Food (that’s what Bethlehem means) had become a place of desperation. Elimelech said we had to leave. We couldn’t stay. We couldn’t stay in the place that was home, the place where our families had lived for hundreds of years. He made me bid farewell to my brothers and sisters – to all our loved ones. Then, he took us to Moab. He took us to the land of our enemies! We were no longer among God’s people, but surrounded by those who had no respect for God’s ways. Elimelech died and our sons took Moabite women as wives. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. They were of the age to marry – and we were far, far from home. It seemed there was no possibility that we would ever return. But, Moabite wives?
I was angry – angry with Elimelech because he had taken us from home. I knew why. I even knew we had to go. But, it just seemed that one bad thing happened after another. I didn’t want Moabite daughters-in-law. I wanted my sons to marry good Hebrew women – to continue to live on the land that had been in their father’s family for generations. I was angry—with life, with Elimelech and with God!
They were strangers – enemies even, who had come to live in our land. We knew they were from Bethlehem – yes, Bethlehem, the House of Food. Everybody laughed. Here were these Hebrews, who claimed their God to be above all Gods, coming in as refugees from the city that bore God’s promise of abundance. I heard the stories. I saw the disdain. Maybe I even, at times, shared that disdain. But, my people knew the pain of hunger. I wouldn’t say they were welcome – but they were tolerated.
Now the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, had, I think, an easier time. They didn’t have the ties to Bethlehem that Naomi and Elimelech had. They quickly learned to blend in. But, when Mahlon expressed his desire to marry me, no one was happy – neither his mother nor my parents. It was with great reluctance that my parents accepted the offer. They didn’t want a Hebrew son-in-law! And, Naomi didn’t want a Moabite daughter-in-law!
Ruth’s right. I looked at Orpah and Ruth and saw Moabites – not daughters. Things might have been different if Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion had lived. But they didn’t. Things might have been different if Mahlon or Chilion had produced heirs. But, they both died childless. I was sure God was punishing me – for leaving Bethlehem, for leaving the place promised to God’s people. When we left, had we not abandoned God? Now, there I was without husband, or sons, without heirs and with two daughters-in-law – Moabites!
The only glimmer of hope was that the famine was over in Bethlehem. At least in Bethlehem, I wouldn’t be a foreigner, a refugee. I told Orpah and Ruth to go back to their families. They had been good daughters-in-law. I prayed that the Lord would be merciful! And I got ready to go. Both Orpah and Ruth started to go with me. But, I knew they weren’t being realistic. What could I offer them? I was going back with nothing – to nothing! And I didn’t need foreign women to come with me! They would be a public declaration that we had abandoned God and God’s land! I would be judged. Yes, they had been good daughters-in-law, but to have them go with me was just too much!
Yes, Naomi didn’t want us to go with her. I think that even though she loved us, she was ashamed of us. She didn’t want to come home with her Moabite daughters-in-law. Orpah turned back. I pray that God was merciful to her. I thought about going back. But, I didn’t belong there anymore. I didn’t really belong anywhere! My family didn’t look at me the same way because I had been married to a Hebrew man. I knew, I understood, that going with Naomi provided no guarantees. But neither did staying in Moab. What man in my own country would accept me after being married to Mahlon?
I probably didn’t understand….Well, that’s not fair. I probably understood too well. But to see Ruth’s pain would have meant that I had to acknowledge my own. The Lord had not dealt kindly with either of us. We had no hope!
Her words, however, pierced me. “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.” I couldn’t argue with her. I could do nothing more than accept her presence with me. So we journeyed together.
I wish I could tell you that her company eased my pain, that it spoke to me of God’s constancy. But it didn’t. We travelled together, each with our own painful memories, each with our despair.
Did you know that my name, Naomi, means pleasant? There were times I laughed with scorn at that name. My life was hardly pleasant! So, when we came to Bethlehem and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” I replied, “Call me no longer Naomi. Call me Mara – Bitter, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” I have to admit, I counted Ruth’s presence as one more mark of that calamity!
The other women, the people of Bethlehem, looked at me with disdain. I was a Moabite and they didn’t want Moabites in their town. I could sympathize with Naomi – maybe not with her despair over having me with her, but with her despair at what had happened in life.
People may have greeted Naomi, but no one welcomed her into a home. We, like others without families to support them, had to rely on the traditions of the Israelites. One of those traditions was gleaning. Farmers were not allowed to harvest a field to get whatever had been missed the first time. We, the poor, we permitted to come in and gather whatever was left. (Sigh) That sounds wonderful --- but it’s not. Gleaning is dangerous. The desperate are often violent, trying to get what they need to survive.
Ruth’s right. Yes, there was food. But this was a hard life. This was a dangerous life. Sometimes the weaker were women were hurt, even killed, by others in the fields. Ruth insisted that she could do this alone and find enough for both of us. I think I knew that she would be a target because she was different, because she was from Moab, but I let her. I was too bitter to care – much. When Ruth went to glean, she came to the field owned by Boaz, a member of Elimelech’s family.
I soon found that others saw what I didn’t. They saw Ruth’s faithfulness and care. Boaz had heard of her and he responded with a welcome that was generous.
Boaz was kind. He knew I was foreign, yet he welcomed me. He called down God’s blessing upon me. I was comforted in a way that I had not known for a long time. I continued to work in his field, gleaning until the end of the barley and the wheat harvests. I lived with Naomi.
What a difference it makes when you have food to eat, when you are not consumed by fear. I began to see Ruth in a new way. I began to treasure her. So, when the harvests ended I said, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” (Pause) She had become my daughter!
Boaz had already showed his concern, so I told Ruth what she needed to do so that he would see her in a new way – as one he could marry! I still laugh to myself. What a nerve I had, thinking Boaz, a respected member of the community, would ever think of marrying a Moabite woman. But Boaz saw her more deeply, more fully than I did. He saw a faithful woman – not merely a Moabite woman.
Boaz fulfilled the law – offering Elimelech’s inheritance to the closest relative, but stating clearly that the relative would bear responsibility for Ruth and for me. When that relative refused, Boaz redeemed the field and took Ruth as his wife.
I was a wife again! And this time, I conceived. I had a son! Naomi’s God had blessed me.
Yes. Ruth had a son! My husband’s line continued. They named the baby Obed, One with the right to redeem. I could tell that attitudes towards Ruth were changing when the women said to me, “Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without next-of-kin, 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 borne him.” I think I truly heard them that time. “Your daughter-in-law loves you and is more to you than seven sons.”
They were right! I had resisted God’s grace over and over again. I had seen what was wrong. I did not see what was right – a daughter-in-law who would not leave me. God had surprised me with Obed in my old age. God surprised me even more, caring for me, journeying with me and my Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth.