by Daniel Harrell
June is graduation month—and I do add my congratulations to our high school graduates this morning. June is also a popular wedding month, I have a couple coming up soon. In that spirit, I thought it might be nice to take a look at the book of Ruth and one of the more famous romance stories in Scripture. Perhaps we’ll find something to make our own marriages and relationships better.
Then again, maybe not. Among the things I’ve been criticized for as a preacher over the years is the paucity of “life applications” in my sermons. Many listeners would appreciate it if at the end of a sermon I’d tack on two or three practical suggestions for living. My problem is that I don’t always know something practical to suggest. Even from those unambiguous passages—such as where Jesus says “love your enemies”—the obvious application is hardly practical. I read once about another preacher struggling to apply the story from Joshua of Rahab the Harlot to everyday life. Having completed the body of his sermon, this minister was moving on to the life application part when his inspiration dried up. A hooker in Jericho conceals two Israelite spies in exchange for a promise that they’ll not harm her or her relatives when the Israelite army attacks and destroys her city. Things like that just don’t happen much in the suburbs.
The New Testament book of Hebrews commends Rahab for her faith, but—“have faith in God”—does that even count as a practical application? Stumped, this minister went trolling online for help. Providentially he located a number of applications devoted to the story of Rahab. The first one read: “Christian adults should willingly cooperate with each other.” That’s good, though we probably should keep in mind that Rahab was a prostitute. Next came, “People need that sense of fulfillment that comes with helping someone in trouble.” True, although Rahab and the spies do act more out of self-preservation than altruism. And finally, “Many adults respond positively to reasonable requests.” But again, the prostitute thing. I’m guessing the preacher’s sermon that Sunday ended like most of mine do. You know, “Have faith in God. Amen.”
Unfortunately I don’t think my standard close will fly this morning. Ruth opens with an Israelite family fleeing famine. However no sooner do they make it to green pastures, than the patriarch of the family inexplicably dies. In an attempt to salvage the family tree, his sons marry local women but then fail to sire any children. And then they die. A destitute widow is now saddled with two bereft daughters-in-law in a culture where for women, marriage and children were the difference between living in safety and socio-economic marginalization. To simply say “have faith in God” comes off as both condescending and callous.
Ruth occurs during the time of the Judges; a time the Bible describes as when, “Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit.” It was a dark period of social, political and religious upheaval. The chosen people choose badly, opting for disobedience and disloyalty against God. Threats from outside armies loom. Famine comes. A man named Elimelech along with his wife Naomi and their two sons left Bethlehem (which means “house of bread”) and sojourned to Moab. Makes sense. If there’s no bread in your house, go to where the bread is. Even if the bread is in Moab.
For Israel, Moab was a place they derided as “the other side of the tracks.” Descended from the offspring of Lot’s drunken incest with his daughter back in Genesis (one of those charming Bible stories you don’t hear a lot), the Moabites were a persistent thorn in Israel’s side: They’d impeded Israel’s passage from Egypt into their promised land. Moabite women had seduced Israelite men into idolatry. The Moabite King had hired a sorcerer to throw a hex on the entire Israelite nation. Theirs was not a good relationship. But Moab did have food. And Moab had women too, women who could become wives for Elimelech’s two sons. Under normal circumstances, no self-respecting Israelite would marry a Moabite; but these were not normal circumstances. By verse 3, Elimelech was dead and Naomi in trouble. She needed grandsons for her family to endure. Like it or not, sons were her only source of social security.
So Naomi’s boys took a couple of Moabite women. Literally. The Hebrew word in verse 4 means “to lift” or “carry away” as in “to abduct” (though technically in this culture to abduct a woman did still count as a marriage). Desperate times required desperate measures. Though none of it made any difference. Ten years passed and no grandsons; no children at all. Then Naomi’s two sons died. And we’re just through verse 5.
Naomi is in a bad spot: She’s lost her husband, her sons, her country and with these her future. She’s saddled with the unwelcome responsibility of two ill-reputed Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Have faith in God? It’s God’s fault that she’s this mess. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she says in verse 20, (a name that means “pleasant”), call me Bitter instead because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. “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?”
A woman once told me of troubles she was enduring at her job. For spiteful reasons, two coworkers had targeted her for harassment. As a Christian, she determined to trust God and love these enemies, believing that eventually her faith and persistence amidst persecution would be rewarded. But the nastiness only increased. She tried to reason with her tormentors but they denied everything. They laughed at her. She didn’t go to the head of her department for fear of making things worse. But things got worse anyway. Soon her work was being sabotaged. At the end of her rope, all she could do was “trust God” again, this time reporting the harassment. But the boss sided with the bullies. Citing her sabotaged work as evidence, the supervisor demoted her for deficient performance. How was she to have faith in God anymore?
Then there was the man with marriage problems. He’d been married five years and had a young child, but his wife confessed she’d simply fallen out of love and didn’t know what to do about it. As Christians, they felt divorce wasn’t an option; they wanted to trust the Lord to fix their relationship. They went to counseling and over the course of many months, the husband relayed how he his faith had paid off. Yes, marriage was still difficult, but at least he had hope, and confidence that things would improve. God could work a miracle in is wife’s heart and rekindle her love for him. But then his wife admitted to an affair and decided to file for divorce anyway. Have faith in God? I never saw him in church again.
I bet you’re glad you came this morning. At this rate we should probably call it a day and go home. That’s what Naomi did. It’s what most of us do whenever the troubles of life overwhelm us and God appears nowhere to be found. We get bitter and bail, only to then have guilt for giving up on faith and on God pile on. Our fellow believers, disappointed in us, take a wide berth around us, not really wanting to be around all the negativity. Ours can be a twisted religion sometimes. Naomi’s had enough. She’s outta here. Still, whether out of duty or desperation, Orpah and Ruth beg to tag along. But Naomi’s no dummy. There’s no hope for widowed and childless Moabite women back in Israel. She tells them to go back to their mamas. She frees them from any obligation. She sends them away to find new husbands from among their own people.
Orpah and Ruth nobly resist. But that just makes Naomi mad. “Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” Even if I found a husband for myself tonight (which ain’t gonna happen) and got pregnant and gave birth to two more boys (which ain’t gonna happen) you would still have to wait twenty years for them to grow up (which ain’t gonna happen!). Don’t you understand? God is out to get me! First he starves me, then he takes my husband, then my kids, my livelihood, my social standing, my security and my future. My life is over.” Talk about bitter. Who needs that? Orpah gets the message and leaves. Naomi then tries again to smack some sense into Ruth. “See, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Get out of here. Go back with her!”
But Ruth refuses. Instead she clings onto Naomi even tighter than before, cleaving, the Bible says, using the language of marriage commitments. Not only does Ruth cleave, she seals it with a vow of marital proportions. “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for whither you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.” These inspiring words have found their way into many contemporary weddings, which unfortunately demonstrates a lack of attention to context. Besides the daughter-in-law mother-in-law thing, which you can overlook, what you can’t overlook is that Naomi never reciprocates. Ruth makes a vow of allegiance and Naomi rolls her eyes. What a silly, stupid girl.
Why the undying devotion when she could have been safe and secure staying among her own people? Jewish rabbis interpret Ruth’s pledge as a conversion. She leaves her gods and her country, her family, friends and culture, to follow Yahweh, the Lord of a resentful old woman. If Ruth’s loyalty is the mark of religious conversion, it’s the fruit of some pretty unconventional evangelism. I’ve heard Christians talk about making Christianity more winsome and attractive; but never about what you might call the Naomi approach: “Hi, God loves you and has a horrible plan for your life. I’m bitter and depressed and wish I was dead. God can ruin your life too. Just have faith in Him.”
Whenever the troubles of life overwhelm and God appears nowhere to be found, we do tend to get bitter and bail. But here, the good news is that you can do it without any guilt. How’s that for life application? Naomi gets bitter but doesn’t feel bad about it for a minute. The difference, once you read the story closely, is that Naomi does not lose faith. True, she’s bitter. She bails. But where does she go? She goes home. To Bethlehem. Back to Israel. Back into the land and hands of God, the very God whom she accuses of having His hand against her.
Amidst all of her unbearable bereavement, pending segregation and poverty, Naomi still believes. She believes enough to pray for Ruth and Orpah’s well-being, to the point of invoking that glorious Hebrew word hesed, denoting God’s unfailing love. Naomi believes that God is good. She believes He’s in control. That’s why she blames him for all of her troubles. She knows he’s up to something. Messiness and trouble and even death are the material out which God does his best work. So instead of losing faith and running away, Naomi runs back to the only one from whom she knows she can get answers.
Hers is an example we see throughout Scripture. “How long, O LORD?” King David prayed in the Psalms, “How long will you forget me? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God!” This language of lament from King David echoes even on the lips of Jesus, the crucified Son of David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Followed by, “Father I commit my spirit into your hands.” “Give light to my eyes,” King David prayed, “lest I die and my enemy gloat, lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. No, I have trusted in your unfailing love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”
The salvation of which King David determines to sing is that same salvation which is ours in Christ our Lord. And it would be Naomi’s salvation, both in her own life and the life to come. As those who know the story of Ruth, it was a Moabite widow drawn to Naomi’s ruthlessly honest faith who against all odds emerged the great-grandmother of King David, the ancestor of Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Amidst a messy world, a distressed life and an embittered soul, Naomi’s faith never wavers. She keeps faith in a God who has caused her nothing but trouble. What kind of twisted religion do we have? Clearly one in which wisdom can look like foolishness, goodness can emerge out of suffering and life can rise from the dead. We trust in a Lord whose ways aren’t our ways, whose presence can feel like absence, whose mind we cannot know, whose decisions we cannot calculate and whose actions we cannot manipulate. Faith is called faith for a reason. And the life application is obvious.
Messiness and trouble and even death are the material out which God does his best work. The communion table is proof. The bread is the body of Christ broken. The cup the blood of Christ shed. Instead of running away, run home. Run here. Acknowledging your need and accepting the answer that is found through Christ our Lord.