Peculiar Treasures: Ruth
It was a long time ago when they left Bethlehem. Close to a couple of decades ago, it must be. It was during the famine, year after year when it never seemed to rain and the harvests were bad. So bad. All those winters when we didn’t have enough to last ‘til spring; when there was never enough to fill our stomachs. The children cried at night, their bellies were empty. It was a hard time.
So many people left, willing to gamble on an unknown future in a foreign land. Thinking that anything would be better than what we had.
We didn’t go, of course. Levi wouldn’t think of it. He called them deserters, cowards, for leaving our land, the land God had given us. And I agreed with him. After all our ancestors had gone through to arrive here, in Judah, the Promised Land. How could they leave? Where was their faith? Didn’t they believe that God would provide?
Naomi left, too. Just packed everything up and left us. I suppose she didn’t have much choice. Once Elimilech made up his mind there was no changing it. I knew him just as long as I knew her; I knew what he was like. “We’re going, Naomi!” he must’ve said. And that was that. They were gone: my best friend, her husband, their two boys.
I suppose having those boys was what made it easier to leave. Two strong boys like that could work anywhere, do whatever was needed to bring home food for the table.
But obviously, Levi was right. They were deserters, they were cowardly, faithless. Look what happened! She let those two boys marry Moabite women. Arabs! Non-believers! I would never have imagined that Naomi would allow such a thing.
And now…well… you reap what you sow. She’s gotten what she deserves. God punishes those who turn their backs on him. Elimilech – dead. Both boys – dead. And now she’s back. As if coming home is going to help anything at this point. You make your bed, you lie in it.
I do hate seeing her this way, though. She was always so full of life, so quick to laugh and tell a joke. She came back early one spring morning. Just showed up at the gates. You should have seen her. No one recognized her at first! Dressed in black from her head to her toe. Barely able to drag one foot in front of another. God knows how she managed to get here all the way from Moab.
And did you hear what she said? “Call me no longer Naomi, *call me Mara, *for the Almighty* has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” Empty, indeed. I guess she learned her lesson.
She’s taken up residence in that old shed behind the market. The one they used to keep the chickens in before they were butchered. “She” I say. I suppose I should say “they.” Naomi has come home empty, alright. But she’s not alone. She brought one of those…women…with her. One of her daughters-in-law. One of those Moabite pagans, living in our town, in Bethlehem of Judah.
I can’t imagine what she was thinking, letting that girl come with her. What’s her name? Ruth? She couldn’t have any sense in her head, this Ruth. What -- there were no eligible men back in Moab? She couldn’t get herself another husband? She can’t be that old or that ugly. Why come here? Why stick with your mother-in-law after your husband is dead? What were they thinking, those two? That God was just going to take care of them? That we were just going to take care of them?
Not that we haven’t done what is right by Naomi. We are perfectly aware that God asks us to show mercy and generosity towards the less fortunate. We know the laws given to our father Moses: “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” and so on, and so on.
Boaz can afford it, after all. The richest man in Bethlehem; he owns half of all the property in town! If he wants to let that strange girl, that Ruth, pick up what’s left over after the harvesters have been through his fields….well, I guess that’s his business. Just don’t ask me to donate. I’ve got a hard enough time as it is, now that Levi is…gone.
I saw her the other day…Ruth. I don’t usually go out in the afternoon, too hot. But I had to run an errand. And now there’s no one but me, you know, to do these things. So I took a short cut and crossed through one of Boaz’s barley fields. There she was in the hot sun, sweat running down her face, bending over to pick up what the men had left behind. It’s hard work, I’ll give you that. And she appears to be doing a good job. They’re not starving, anyway, Ruth and Naomi. But I’m glad it’s not me. My back would’ve given out long ago.
I’ve never had to ask for charity. Thanks be to God. Ruth is young. I’m sure her back is fine. Being young can be a disadvantage, though. The field hands that Boaz hires aren’t exactly knights in shining armor! And there she is out in the fields by herself in the middle of the day, no other women around to keep an eye on things. She’s lucky she hasn’t been, y’know, bothered.
Boaz must’ve said something to keep her safe. What a kind man he is, a real mensch. A true go’el. Do you know that word? I’m don’t know exactly how to translate it. A go’el is…well, a sponsor of sorts. A provider, a rescuer. When a woman loses her husband, his brother is the go’el. He marries her to take care of her, to provide for his brother’s children and to keep the family name alive. Naomi’s husband had no brothers; both of their sons were gone. It looks like Boaz has stepped in. Good man that he is. Isn’t he Elimilech’s second cousin or something like that? Then it’s only right that he would be Naomi’s go’el. She has no one else.
Except Ruth. She is a foreigner, but I have to admit, that girl works hard. Every hot afternoon in the fields. Every evening grinding the barley into flour. Every morning baking bread. I suppose that if I had a son, it wouldn’t be so bad to have someone like Ruth as a daughter-in-law. If I had a son.
Naomi, Naomi. What’s happened to you? You used to be so full of life, so brave and adventurous. You really have become Mara, haven’t you? Full of bitterness at the hand you’ve been dealt. You can’t even see the good that’s right in front of you. Not everyone has a Boaz, you know? Not everyone has barley fields with grain left strewn around for the taking. Not everyone has a Ruth to break her back every afternoon picking up after the harvesters.
God knows I didn’t. In those first few weeks after Levi died, I had nothing. Nothing. Everything I had, everything I ever thought I wanted, everything I dreamed of and worked for…all gone. It’s such a shock. No man to support you, no children to need you, no angels to point you in the right direction, no miracles to save you. Everything is gone, snatched away with no warning. Everything that is familiar, that tells you who you are and what you’re here for, disappears, evaporates into thin air.
Even God seems to leave you, disappearing just when you need him most. Yahweh, God of Gods, Lord of Lords, everywhere and eternal…. We learned these things as children. But there are times…there are times…when God seems like more of a rumor than a fact. When you wonder what future God could possibly have for you. When you wonder if there is a future…or a God.
I remember those days. I had no Boaz with his barley fields; I had no Ruth with her strong back. Just my crazy sister. She had always been so unreliable before. But when Levi died she took me in, fed me, gave me a bed to sleep in. She would just sit with me, even when there was nothing to say. And she would sing, too. Silly girl.
It seemed crazy at first – to be singing at such a time as that. But her song stuck with me. And God stuck with me. It took a long time, but life did get better. God was there all along, even when everything else seemed to be lost.
Life is many paths, Naomi, not just one path. There was the path that took you away from here, over to Moab with Elimilech. But now that path has ended and you’re on a new one. A path that’s brought you back to us, a path that Boaz has made possible, a path that Ruth has traveled with you. She stuck with you, just as God stuck with you. Wherever this path leads, you will always have God with you.
Last musical interlude.
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin;* and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15He 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.’ 16Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Sid Burgess, “Running on Empty, Arriving on Full.” Day One radio program, November 2, 2000. http://day1.org
Anna Grant-Henderson, “Ruth 1:1-18, Pentecost 22: Message/ Theology of Ruth 1.” http://oldtestamentlectionary.unitingchurch.org.au/2009/November/Pent22Ruth1_09.htm
Samuel Wells, “The word we don’t mention.” Sermon preached May 15, 2009. http://faithandleadership.com/sermons
Joan Chittister, "The Story of Ruth: Moments of Loss and Faith." Chicago Sunday Evening Club, Program #4415, January 14, 2001.