Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for November, 2012

Life of Pi and the Story of Ruth

Ruth 4:  Redeeming and Being Redeemed 

“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Life of Pi is a novel full of fantasy, philosophy, adventure, religious exploration, and great story-telling. Author Yann Martel finally got Life of Pi published in 2001. Of course, a movie adaptation of the book is now in theaters, directed by Ang Lee. The main character/protagonist is Piscine Molitor, French for “pool.” As a boy, Piscine decides to change his name to “Pi” Patel. Pi grows up in India in Pondicherry. From an early age, Pi explores issues of spirituality, rationality, doubt, and God—all the while growing up with various animals in a zoo that his parents own. The story takes a dramatic turn when Pi’s family is involved in a shipwreck. Pi survives 227 days at sea, stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The twist is that his constant companion on the boat happens to be a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Here is one of the trailers of the movie, Life of Pi:

Life of Pi is a challenging story—one the author claims is non-fiction, even though as a reader, we wonder how that could be with all of the fantasy and surrealism. After all, the story begins with an old man in the French-speaking part of India in a fantasy town. The old man tells a novelist [who acts as narrator]: I have a story that will make you believe in God. And yet, Life of Pi does not push a particular religion, dogma, or doctrine. Instead, it closely links storytelling and religious beliefs. The book explains to the reader that on a literal level, each religion comes up with its own set of tales and fables which are used to spread the teachings and illustrate the beliefs of that particular faith. The boy Pi loves all these stories and enjoys hearing and telling them. So do I. But like Pi, I sense that sometimes we don’t listen very well to the stories themselves. We sometimes get caught up in our own agendas and motivations. We can forget that all stories can be aspects of a greater, universal story, and in this case, a greater story about love.   

The Bible is indeed a big book of stories. And in fact, as we take our final look at the story of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures, we ought to remember that these stories first belonged to ancient Israelites. They were passed down from generation to generation. These stories are still told by Jews around the world. And many of these stories are shared by Muslims and Christians, Buddhists, and Bahai’s, too. Chapter four of Ruth is indeed the end—I told you it was short! Here we find Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi in what seems like a happier ending to the tale that began so horribly. Boaz, true to his word, went into town to find the younger man who could be Ruth’s next-of-kin, called her provider [redeemer]—the one who could offer land, food, and security to her. Boaz surrounded himself with elders of the city so they could witness the exchange of intentions. The young man, Boaz shared, had the option of buying Naomi’s late husband Elimelech’s land, since the young man was the next-of-kin. So the man agreed to buy the land, or in their words, redeem it.

But Boaz continued: if the man bought the land, he would also “acquire” Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Elimelech’s son, so that Elimelech’s name would remain in his land. Suddenly, the young man changed his mind. This would not be a wise financial investment, as far as he was concerned. Land, yes. Ruth, no. Apparently, the young man had caught the disease of Xenophobia, the fear of foreigners. Marrying Ruth would most certainly damage his reputation and perhaps his wealth. So he gave up his right to claim the land to Boaz. Go figure. Anyone else sense that Boaz had this all figured out from the beginning?

The custom at the time in Israel, says the story, was for a sandal to be exchanged when a transaction of redemption took place. So the young man removed his sandal and gave it to Boaz. In front of all the elders, this happened. It was official. Boaz claimed Ruth as his wife; people agreed to be witnesses. And then, this declaration about Ruth: May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel…

Indeed, Ruth and Boaz got hitched. Finally, right? And soon after, the story tells us that Ruth got pregnant. She had a son. Women of Bethlehem celebrated for Naomi, saying: Blessed be the Lord! He [the child] shall be a restorer of life to you; your daughter-in-law [Ruth], who is more to you than seven sons, loves you. Naomi took the child, named Obed, in her arms. She cared for him. All is well. The story should end there, right? But it doesn’t. The story doesn’t end with Naomi restored to life, the land [and Ruth] redeemed. The story ends with this:

Obed became the father of Jesse who was the father of David.

 And then a longer list of the names of the Perez family tree. The end.

Now in every story there are symbols, histories, and perspectives to keep in mind. None of us will really embrace the story of Ruth unless we know something about redemption—a word we often hear in U.S. Christian circles as something reserved for explanations of Jesus Christ “saving” or “redeeming” people from sin. We hear redemption and head right for atonement and the cross. But that’s far too limiting and quite unfaithful to the Ruth story. And actually, not far removed from Black Friday and the shopping frenzy that will continue until December 25th, we don’t have to look hard to understand what redemption actually meant historically. Redemption is about business. It’s about buying and selling and consumerism, as we would call it today. Everyone here is familiar with gift cards, right? You may have bought some for family and friends already. What is the language we use when someone uses her gift card? Redeem. She, the consumer, redeems her gift card. He redeems his iTunes code to buy a song.

Redeeming is about exchanging bonds, gift cards, or whatever–for money or goods. We know how this works. We also know how redemption works with debt. If you have a mortgage, someone can redeem it by paying it off. If any of us have been unfortunate enough as to experience our house being foreclosed upon, we know that it can be bought back or redeemed. So I’m trying to bring home the point that we ought to read Ruth’s story as it is, with its own lens. We should not project other things onto it, including Jesus of Nazareth or much later projections of atonement or redemption because of original sin. This actually lessens the power of the story itself. Ruth is about a widow who was poor, a foreigner, and a person who practiced another religion. Ancient Israelite law made two things clear to Ruth and Naomi: 1] Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband, had land but now that land was up for grabs, because the women could not inherit it on their own; 2] foreigners were not welcome to marry Israelites.

You can read about this in the book of Leviticus, specifically chapter 25. So basically, Naomi and Ruth had no men in their lives who were family. That meant that they were destined to live in poverty and on the outskirts of society. Unless…someone redeemed their situation. There is a Hebrew word for this type of person. It is go’el, in English, a kinsman-redeemer. The young man who was a distant relative of Naomi could have been their go-el. But he refused out of Xenophobia [see previous comment about not marrying foreigners] and out of his desire to keep land for himself. If he would have married Ruth, she would have had access to his land as well. For the young man, redemption was measure for measure. He wasn’t acting oddly because he simply followed the status quo of his time. This is essential in the story, because it helps us understand why Boaz’s action ended up being the climax in the Ruth tale. You see, Boaz had no financial reason to redeem Elimelech’s land; he had no social or religious reason to marry Ruth. His redemption was not about measure for measure, but about mercy and love.

Boaz redeemed and played the role of go’el, for a reason. He loved. It’s clear, long before Boaz calls the elders of Bethlehem together to witness the transaction that Boaz cared for Ruth greatly. He admired her even. Boaz saw how Ruth was kind, loyal, and loving to Naomi. Ruth redeemed Naomi, even without money, land, or power. Even though Obed’s birth was a blessing, the women of Bethlehem proclaimed that Ruth was more important to Naomi than seven sons! Why? Because she loved her. Ruth was go’el for Naomi when society didn’t even think it was possible. And so Boaz responded to Ruth’s character by showing her Xenophilia—a love of foreigners. He cared less for his reputation and more for Ruth as a person. He loved; he redeemed.

And so the story can lift us out of our consumerism, out of our obsession with getting as much as we can, of maintaining our reputations and not making waves out of fear. The story begins and ends with Naomi’s doubt and even anger towards God. She moves from hopelessness to restoration. She feels, at the beginning, that God hates her. Until Ruth proves her wrong.

“I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

Pi is sitting down with the Canadian novelist to share a meal to begin telling his story. They prepare to eat and Pi bows his head in prayer. He closes by saying Amen.

Canadian Writer: I didn’t know Hindus say “amen.”

Pi: Catholic Hindus do.

Writer: Catholic Hindus?

Pi: We get to feel guilty before hundreds of Gods instead of just one.

Writer: But you’re a Hindu first?

Pi: None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

While the writer is trying to “pin down” exactly what Pi believes, seeking some sort of explanation for these crazy stories, Pi reminds him to just listen to the story. So I say to you, just listen to the story. Ruth isn’t about a family tree, or Jesus of Nazareth, or Christmas or shopping or even sin.

The story is:

Ruth loves Naomi when she doesn’t have to; Naomi is redeemed.
Boaz notices Ruth’s love; Boaz chooses to love when he doesn’t have to; Ruth is redeemed.
People in Bethlehem see this love and they are redeemed.
Naomi thought God was absent and even against her until Ruth loved her.
Ruth thought that her gender, nationality, and religion limited her until Boaz loved her.
None of us knows God until someone introduces us.

How, like Ruth, will you be both redeemer and one who is redeemed? Remember, it’s not about “saving” someone; we don’t have the power to save people. But we can love. We can be caring and merciful when it’s not expected of us. We can go above and beyond. We can redeem relationships that are broken; prejudices that separate us; injustices that push down and hurt; hate that destroys.

Friends, so much in the next month will be about other things that seek to distract us from the great story of love. So many times, we’re tempted to read into stories our own interpretations that make us feel better, confirm what we already believe, or give us something we want. And yes, just like with Ruth, next week we’ll be talking about Bethlehem again and another baby born there. But I encourage you to let the stories surprise you, challenge what you believe, and push you to see higher, further, and differently.

For none of us knows God until someone introduces us.

No one knows love unless they see love in others.

No one finds healing unless someone offers a healing hand to them.

No one has hope until someone cares for them when all is lost.

No one finds redemption unless you or I decide to offer it to them.

I have a story that will make you believe in God.

Listen well to the love and redemption in your story. And now live it for others. Amen.


Character-Building and Redeeming

Ruth 3:1-18

Fear, Anger, and Sadness: Who Walks with Us?

No matter what age we are, or where we are on our journey—I think all of us know what it’s like to be scared, angry, or sad. When I was a kid, I moved a lot. I remember my first day of middle school in Iowa after moving from Indiana. I was scared. I didn’t know anyone in my school. The teachers were new; the hallways were strange; the students weren’t my friends. I felt alone. And I was scared. Then, as a teenager, I remember some vicious bullies roaming the hallways of our school. They didn’t just terrorize me—they picked on all sorts of kids. Sometimes they bullied a guy because he got good grades; other times, they bullied a girl who didn’t come from a family with lots of money so she wore hand-me-down clothes; they also bullied anyone they identified as different. This made me mad, furious–angry. Fast forward to my time as a young adult studying in seminary. I remember my first internship in a church and my first board meetings. I expected discussions and perhaps arguments about how we ought to serve the community, help those in need, lift up those who were down or include those who were left out. But those discussions rarely took place. Instead, time and energy was spent arguing over which songs to sing in worship services; the clothes that people wore; the dogma or doctrine that people “should” believe; and the amount of money the church should save for itself. It made me incredibly sad–depressed, even.

On life’s journey, I think all of us visit places that are scary, angry, or sad. Perhaps some of you are in one of those places today. Maybe you’re trying to get out of one of those places but cannot find the way. Such places in life, I believe, are even worse when we’re alone. We go from being scared to paralyzed; angry to hateful; sad to depressed. But in our stories, if we are not alone—if someone is with us through it all—things can change. Back when I started middle school in Iowa, I was frightened because I did feel alone. But by day number two, a kid named Derrick started talking to me in history class. Before I knew it, he invited me to his house. Soon enough, we were friends. And then a new school was less scary. As a teenager, I was angry at all the bullies around; it wasn’t fair how they treated us; the teachers turned away from it and other students let it happen. But friends gathered around me, stood up for me, and I learned how to stand up for others. Our anger turned into action as we stood with the kids who were constantly picked on. We chose to say “no, stop” when it was easier to just ignore it. And in seminary, as sad as I had ever been because of the hypocrisy and apathy of the institutional church—when I felt alone–my sadness was capable of becoming deep depression. But there were colleagues and friends, some working in churches, some studying in seminary—who stood with me. We shared our sadness, prayed for each other, laughed together, and refused to let hypocrisy and apathy overcome us.

Friends, it’s true that all the scary, angry, and sad places in life look different when we’re not alone, when we walk with others. It changes the game when we’re in a community or alongside a friend, a life partner, or a blessed colleague—people who pull us out of those places with support, love, and care. Then the difficult places can become opportune places to build character, to learn and grow, and even—to find something that was lost, or to heal, or to redeem.

This is the story of Ruth—a story of sadness, anger, and fear—an ancient Israelite story of friendship—that brings about joy, courage, transformation, and redemption. We are looking at chapter 3 of this story, but let’s recap chapters 1 and 2 with the help of these paintings from Marc Chagall:

Chapter 1: Israel was in the middle of a famine. A man named Elimelech journeyed from Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife Naomi and his two sons to Moab. Elimelech died, and so Naomi was left with her two sons. Both sons married Moabite women. One was named Orpah, and the other was named Ruth. Later on, both of the sons died, and Naomi was left with only Orpah and Ruth. Eventually, Naomi heard that the famine was over in her homeland, and so she decided to return to Judah. She told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. Both Orpah and Ruth refused. Naomi insisted they stay, because in those days, a woman of Naomi’s old age would struggle to survive; she had nothing to offer Ruth and Orpah. So the three women cried, and they hugged, and Orpah went back to her family. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. No matter how much Naomi insisted, Ruth refused to leave her side. Ruth was willing to leave her home and all that she knew with no guarantees that it would work out. All for Naomi. So both women went to Bethlehem together at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Chapter 2 begins with this: Naomi had a relative on her late husband’s side. He was a wealthy man named Boaz. One day, Ruth told Naomi that she wanted to go collect the scraps left in the fields as people harvested the barley crop. It was common practice for the ancient Israelites to leave the stalks that fell after picking the barley. This was a spiritual practice of caring for the poor and foreigners who had nothing to eat. The field Ruth chose to collect in belonged to Boaz. Not long after, Boaz noticed Ruth and asked about her. His workers told him that she was the Moabite girl who came with Naomi.

So Boaz and Ruth meet for the first time. Boaz, not obligated to really care about this widow from Moab, tells Ruth: Don’t go collect in another field. Stay here close to my girls. Keep your eyes on where they’re picking the crop, and follow them. No one will bother you. And when you’re thirsty, go drink from the jars of water that the men have drawn.

Surprised, Ruth wonders why Boaz would show such kindness to someone like her. Boaz tells Ruth that it is her character that intrigues him, how she had stood by Naomi through thick and thin, how she had taken risks to leave her family and her homeland. So he makes sure that Ruth has enough to eat. And when Ruth tells Naomi this news about Boaz, the bitter, once-sad and angry Naomi praises God.

Now in chapter 3 and Naomi has changed completely. No longer down in the dumps, she now plays matchmaker. She has hope for Ruth and her household. Naomi knows that Boaz will be sorting the barley that was picked. So Ruth, Naomi thinks, why not clean yourself up real nice, make sure you smell good, dress up to the nines, and go to that threshing floor. When Boaz lies down to sleep, uncover his feet and lie down yourself. Quite a risk. Up to this point, Ruth had been protected from such a scenario. But now Naomi was asking her to put herself in a very vulnerable situation. Ruth isn’t sure, but her friendship with Naomi has brought her this far and given her much courage. So Ruth waits until Boaz is lying down and he uncovers his feet. Of course, the story is playing with words here, for the uncovering of feet is well—not about feet. I’ll leave the birds and the bees explanation to all you parents out there. But can you feel the tension in the story? What will happen to Ruth? How will Boaz react? The spreading of Boaz’s robe would be a symbol of betrothal. Is the story about to end with a happy marriage? No. Even though Ruth calls Boaz her redeemer, [the one who would allow Ruth to have land, food, and community], Boaz doesn’t accept. Don’t get me wrong—he is grateful for Ruth’s act of loyalty and her thankfulness. But Boaz mentions another man, a guy who is younger. But Boaz is clear that he will help Ruth. Either way, she would not be left alone.

At this point, you and I will leave the story there and wait to turn the page. There’s drama here, isn’t there? Unexpected twists abound. Rules are broken; obligations and duty are pushed aside in favor of friendship and mercy. Women destined to live in poverty, on an uncertain path, with seemingly little hope. And yet, a lasting friendship forms that binds them together. Their fear becomes courage; their sadness, joy.

An unlikely friendship between an Israelite woman and a Moabite woman is more than just a nice story. The book of Ruth was a protest against the Nehemiah-Ezra marriage laws established at the time, prohibiting Israelites from marrying foreigners. Clearly, Ruth’s story was challenging how society defined marriage, relationship, and even love. Obligation and duty gave way to friendships well beyond the established categories.

Ruth and Naomi had little in common. They were of different generations, from different cultures, practiced different religions, and claimed different homelands. But they trusted each other, even when things looked bleak. They picked each other up and shared what they had—be it wisdom, experience, talent, strength, or courage. And together, they were able to overcome the many obstacles of life. Together.

On Thursday, I attended Stars of David, a world premiere play, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 







Towards the end of the play, there is a touching scene between a mother and daughter. The twelve-year-old daughter is crying—expressing to her mother all the fear and anxiety and inadequacy she feels as she prepares for her Bat Mitzvah. She can’t learn the Hebrew. She can’t get the traditions right. She’s feels like she’s going to fail; she’s unsure that she can go through with it. She’s scared, frustrated, and sad at the same time. Her mother looks at her with love in her eyes and simply says:

Life can be uncertain and scary sometimes. We can even go to dark places. But when you go with someone who cares about you, what was scary and dark becomes an adventure that you share together.

 Who are the people who journey with you in life—stay with you, through it all? Be thankful for them. Let them know how much they matter to you.

 Who are the people around you who are sad, afraid, or angry? How can you be a good friend to them—lift them up, encourage and bless them–not out of obligation, but out of genuine care?

Choose to be such a friend to others. And choose, like Naomi, to accept the people God brings into your life to challenge you and bless you—even when those friends come from unlikely places.

May Ruth live in your story. Amen.

An Economics of Caring

Mark 12:38-44

Stewardship of Each Other

Many Christian churches, on a particular Sunday in November, call it stewardship Sunday. So right from the start, I have to explain what the heck that means. Stewardship? Are we going somewhere, like, on a boat? And what’s a steward? Well, according to Webster’s Dictionary, a steward is:

 1] One employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)

2] An employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers

3] One appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution

4] One who actively directs affairs: manager[1]

 Okay, so put steward together with ship and what do you have? No, not bippity-boppity-boo…


Stewardship, remember? A word defined as:

 The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.[2]

Apparently, it is all about focusing on all of our roles as managers or supervisors of something—maybe a house, maybe money; perhaps boats, cars, or trains; maybe food and drink; or maybe even…people.

 Typically, on a stewardship Sunday, though, a church would focus on one thing: money. Oh yes—sometimes we do talk about money in the church! Well, at least we try to once a year. Look, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to hear someone preach at you about money. I’m with you. Maybe you’re thinking, Man, I do NOT want to hear another sermon about money. I am constantly bombarded with people selling me things and asking me for my hard-earned money. And besides, my money is my own business. Preacher Man, just preach on Jesus and leave my money alone.

 Okay, will do. Let’s talk about Jesus today. But, I’m a little nervous about that, because uh-oh, it seems like Jesus didn’t follow our rules of avoiding money in sermons. But I guess we’ll make an exception. After all, he is Jesus, right? Okay, I’m being a little funny, but I’m also being truthful. Clearly, at times we have an avoidance issue in the church as it relates to money. But I think this particular story in Mark will help us. Really, I do. Because Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t ambiguous about this concept of stewardship–of being managers or caretakers of something. So let’s dive in.

 Our passage begins with the word beware. So right away, we know that Jesus has experienced something earlier that rubbed him the wrong way. What was it? Well, it’s pretty clear. Remember the scene when Jesus enters the Jerusalem temple and starts tossing tables around like a WWE cagematch?



Well, this story is also about the temple. Scribes [named here] and priests were the ones in charge of the temple. But they weren’t just religious leaders or theology teachers and preachers. They were in the business of money, too. Scribes and priests got a cut from every temple sacrifice that people offered and collected five shekels of tax for every first-born child.[3] Temple scribes and priests made it rain. And because they had money and charged taxes, eventually the temple scribes and priests figured out that they could also lend money to people. Of course, that meant that if someone borrowed money to pay for his home, the scribes and priests could foreclose his property.

Beware indeed.

 So Jesus was not pleased. These religious leaders, who were supposed to be lifting up the poor, standing up for God’s justice, and showing mercy to people — were playing the exploitation game. And religion is a perfect tool to use for exploitation. So they went about exploiting, in their long robes, accepting with pleasure all the respect and compliments of people in the marketplace. They were honored, exalted, and praised.

 Of course, in order to get wealthy and gain this high status, they had to step on a few people. I’m sure they devoured more than just widows, but Jesus chose to mention only widows here.The temple scribes and priests were exploiting their poverty, lending them money, charging them taxes, and bleeding them dry. And if ever anyone questioned their religious authority or started to smell a rat, they knew what to do. They stood up and prayed long, proud prayers. They schooled people in religious doctrine. That way, the people would all forget about the exploitation. That way, the scribes would get the best seats in the house and all the praise. Jesus was ticked off.

 So Jesus broke another one of our rules. We’re not supposed to watch people as they give money to the church, right? I mean, I’m a pastor, and I don’t even know what people give to the church. It’s private. But Jesus was nosy. He sat down opposite the treasury of the temple and with eagle eyes looked at the people giving their offerings. Rich people put in some nice sums of moolah. But then one of those aforementioned widows came in. Jesus was already fuming, so you can imagine his angst when the widow [the word for widow in Greek means a person poor enough that she has to beg] plopped in her two copper coins. Seeing this as a teachable moment, Jesus called his disciples to him and said: Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. The phrase truly I tell you is one you always have to pay attention to. When Jesus says that, it means that what is to follow is an important teaching. So the widow, according to Jesus, was all in. She gave her whole life, literally all she had to live on. Meanwhile, the others were putting in larger sums of money, but it didn’t really put a dent in their lifestyle.

 The story ends like that and the sermon usually ends with this interpretation:

The widow gave all that she had and so should we. We should be inspired by her generosity to give more than just a little bit of what we have. We should be all in. We should be more generous. Happy stewardship Sunday, everyone! Cue 1-800-GIVE-MORE-TO-MY-CHURCH and hear scratching of pens on checks.

 But the classic interpretation isn’t all that true to the actual story. Remember what happened before the widow dropped her coins in the treasury? Remember the temple’s system of exploitation, greed, taxation and a little religion mixed in for good measure? No, in Jesus’ book, the widow is no hero. She’s an anti-hero at best. Jesus doesn’t necessarily exalt the widow for the amount of money she gave. She puts in, according to Jesus, “more.” What is that more? Is it her devotion? Her faith? Her unselfishness? We don’t find out. But what Jesus does tell us is that he was upset–mostly that the woman had to give anything at all. Isn’t the church supposed to give TO the poor, not bleed them dry? Maybe it’s not the widow’s mite or her giving of money [money she desperately needed, by the way] that we should be applauding. Perhaps this story is not to be applauded at all.

 I think this story is about Jesus economics, or as I like to think—the economics of caring. You see, in our society, we tend to think about economics in this way: if you have money, you are blessed. If you’re poor, you are cursed. We start to equate wealth with God’s favor and poverty with God’s absence. And yet, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] and in Jesus’ NT teachings, God is a God of justice and stands with the poor. Wealth is equated with exploitation instead. Poverty is equated with being exploited. This is of course placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of humanity. If you are rich, don’t think you are somehow more blessed by God than someone who is not. Likewise, if someone is poor, remember how the majority of people become poor in the first place—someone exploits them.

 In short, I shouldn’t have to remind us all, but we’ve bought into this idea of looking out for number one. As individuals, we protect what we have with every ounce of our strength. During this time when we’re told again and again that we live in an age of scarcity; when we’re bombarded with negative messages about the economy; when we’re seduced by the lure of wealth at any cost. Beware, says Jesus. Beware of such thinking. We are not isolated individuals pushing our way to the top and exploiting and praying at the same time. We’re meant to be neighbor-focused. We’re made to be community—a group of people connected because each person shares a mutual need and a mutual desire to care for the other.

 In such a community, we don’t ask the widow to give all she has. Instead, we ask what we can do for her. In the economics of caring, we say on this stewardship Sunday, if you don’t have a lot of money, your gifts are just as important. So come, be part of this community, offer your gifts and talents; your time; your laughter; your honesty; your love; your wisdom; and that will be more than enough to bless. And then for those of us who can give, we give in order to love our neighbors—both here and out there. We give to lift up the single mom with two kids and no health insurance who needs to make a rent payment or she and the kids will be out on the street; we give so that all people—those who have never been to a church out of fear or discrimination or prejudice or abuse will feel welcome; we give to show hospitality to the stranger; to embrace the rejected; to share our whole selves with the needy world. And we don’t do it in a long prayer or with a long robe.

 Friends, any temple, any church institution–is part of the widow’s story, relived today. We too walk this line. We have to pay the bills. We want to keep the lights on, so to speak. We want to pay salaries for staff so they can share their gifts of leadership and special skills and so they can make a living, too. We want to make repairs to the roof and keep the building from falling apart. We want to offer dynamic programs for learning, faith growth, and enlightening education. In and of themselves, none of these things are bad. But none of that supersedes our economics of caring. This community, all of you, is meant to be connected in love and care for each other and for the world. So how will we be good stewards of people? How will we love and care for our neighbors, the marginalized, the left out and forgotten, the pushed down, the exploited?

This is the more that we have to offer. This will bring renewal, life, blessing, justice, and love. Amen.

[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2] Ibid.

Love Unbreakable

Ruth 1:1-18

Let’s explore the book of Ruth, in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s too bad, but this short book right after Judges and before I Samuel, is often overlooked. Megilath Ruth [Biblical Hebrew meaning the scroll of Ruth], is only one of two Bible books named after a woman. The other, of course, is Esther. No one knows for sure who actually wrote Ruth. There is some speculation that it could have been a woman or a group of women, in fact. The often-promoted idea that this book was written by the prophet Samuel is very problematic, considering that Samuel died before David became king and the book of Ruth actually mentions David as king. So, it’s safe to assume that we do not know who wrote Ruth. Also, we can only speculate as to when Ruth was written, though most scholars these days believe that Ruth was composed post-exile, or in other words, around 500 BCE when the Israelites were exiled from Israel. There are still some who believe that Ruth was written much earlier, perhaps around the 10th century BCE after the time of King David.[1] But the argument for a post-exile date is more intriguing.

The reason why is because of an historical interfaith marriage, as we would call it today. Ruth, a Moabite woman, marries Boaz, an Israelite man. As a Moabite, Ruth practiced another religion opposed to the monotheistic belief system of the ancient Israelites. This kind of partnership completely contradicted the law of Deuteronomy and the procedural teachings of Ezra and Nehemiah, which strictly prohibited Israelites to marry foreigners. From the get-go Ruth’s story has an attitude. And that’s what makes Ruth so interesting, even today. Just consider that this story focuses on two women and seems to be written from their perspective. How rare is that to see in a male-dominated, patriarchal society? And keep in mind where Ruth is in the canon of scripture. It follows Judges, a really crazy book of the Bible full of murder, betrayal, sex, and rulers. But Ruth isn’t violent. Instead of beginning with killing or power struggles, Ruth begins with a famine. People need to find food. Four Israelites have to leave their homeland and move to Moab, a place east of Bethlehem across from the Dead Sea.

And as if not having food were not enough, this family is dealt a severe blow—the husband and dad of the family, Elimelech, dies. Naomi, the widow, is left alone. But at least she still has her two sons, right? They marry Moabite women and for ten years it seems to be fine. But then, these two sons of Naomi die, too. So right at the beginning of the story, we find our main characters, Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth, alone.

And yet, there is apparent good news, finally. Naomi hears that the famine in Israel has passed. Logically, she knew it was time for her to go home; back to Judah. But Naomi didn’t expect that Orpah and Ruth, her daughters-in-law but also Moabites, would go with her. After all, Moab was their home. Go back to your mother’s house, Naomi said. May the Lord be kind to you just as you have been kind to me. May you find security and perhaps new husbands! She kissed them, they all cried and shared a nice moment. But Orpah and Ruth weren’t so eager to have Naomi leave them behind. No, we’ll go with you to be with your people, they said. Naomi was insistent, though: Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? I cannot give you husbands. And I’m too old to have a husband of my own. The hand of the Lord is against me. Obviously, Naomi was greatly saddened over her losses and misfortunes. She felt that she had nothing to offer to anyone.

The women cried together once again—their sadness was evident. Orpah then kissed Naomi and was resigned to stay in Moab, saying goodbye to her mother-in-law, this time for good. But Ruth stayed put. Ruth clung to Naomi. This verb in Hebrew for cling to also appears in Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. This verb is intimate. It denotes a special kind of care and devotion. And to make this a feel-good story, you would think that Naomi would be so moved by this that she would say, Yes, Ruth, of course I want you to come with me! But she didn’t. Naomi’s response to Ruth’s “clinging” was a brush-off: Orpah went back to her people and her religion, Ruth, why don’t you? And then, the oft-quoted speech from Ruth, in response:

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!”[2]

 And this time, Naomi was speechless. She didn’t insist that Ruth stay in Moab. She saw Ruth’s determination. And the adventure for these two women was just beginning. They were about to embark on a journey from famine to food, isolation to connection, and death to life. Phyllis Trible, author of God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, puts it this way:

A man’s world tells a woman’s story…The aged Naomi and the youthful Ruth struggle for survival in a patriarchal environment. Those women bear their own burdens….No God promises them blessing; no man rushes to their rescue. They themselves risk bold decisions and shocking acts to work out their own salvation in the midst of the alien, the hostile and the unknown. One female has chosen another female in a world whose life depends on men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.[3]

Ruth is a radical character in the midst of a radical story. She is an immigrant, a foreigner, an outsider, of a different religion, and also a woman without a husband. In her time and culture, these characteristics were hard to overcome. I would argue that they still are today. And so the fact that our hero character is Ruth should impact us. Let’s focus on Ruth’s clinging to Naomi and devotion to her that goes far beyond obligation or societal expectations. There is a Hebrew word that is more a concept than just a word that I have mentioned before: hesed. Hesed is not adequately translated in the English language. It can mean love, mercy, grace, kindness[4].

Hesed can describe God’s love for God’s covenant people. It is faithful, it is promised, it is loyal, and it is part of God’s obligation to humankind. God promises to be faithful, merciful, loving, etc. and likewise expects people to be faithful, merciful, loving, etc. Hesed appears in various Psalms, including Psalm 23: surely goodness and [mercy/faithful love/hesed] will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the lord forever. But hesed could also be expressed between people. Someone could promise hesed to another, based on a mutual exchange of affection and loyalty, i.e. in a life partnership or marriage.

So in the Ruth story, we discover a hesed expressed on different levels—Yahweh [God] shows loving kindness/mercy to Moabite women outside of the covenant; Ruth shows Naomi love and commitment; later on, we’ll see Boaz showing hesed to Ruth. Focusing on Ruth, though, we see in her a hesed that is unbreakable. Regardless of the circumstances, no matter the obstacles, even though Naomi does not return the same devotion—Ruth doesn’t waver in her love. In Ruth’s expression of hesed and in her story we indeed see an incarnation of God. Ruth’s love for Naomi is not based on culture, race, or religious sameness. The moment Ruth’s husband died, she had no required ties to Naomi. But Ruth transcended society’s expectations to love in a greater way. Ruth acted selflessly and added much joy and fulfillment to Naomi’s life which seemed to be headed for despair and emptiness.

Yes, Ruth models the kind of lovingkindness we associate with God, a God who chooses to be stubborn and stick with us even though we often don’t love back; a God who doesn’t choose certain nations to favor or even religions. Ruth models the behavior of a God who doesn’t consider anything but love an option, choosing to be present in our lives, wherever we go. God becomes the widow Ruth from Moab—the one who leaves her religion and homeland behind in order to show great affection for another woman, breaking all sorts of boundaries and challenging stereotypes to the extent that like Naomi, we’re all left…speechless. Ruth and God challenge our tendencies to stay with those who look like us, talk like us, pray like us, and eat like us. This type of hesed pushes us to recognize that we are far too loyal to the established categories of family, friends, and tribe. Who is family? asks Ruth. Who is foreign? Who is an outsider? Who deserves our love and mercy?

I hope the parallels are obvious in our story today. We don’t have to be in an election year to realize how issues of immigration, religion, gender, and loyalty continue to be important around the world. Honestly, it’s really easy to say we love our blood-tied families, our country, those of our religion, or those friends of ours who are just like us. But is that really the type of hesed love that we’re called to? How do you define a friend? Is a friend someone who shares your interests? Is a friend someone convenient for us to care for? Or, as in Ruth’s case, is a friend someone who doesn’t give up on us and pushes us to new, challenging, and special places; a person who clings to us even when we’re empty and lost; a person who scoffs at the racial, cultural, religious, sexual, and national categories we give to each other? Friends, our relationships with other people reflect our relationship with God.  We’re called to be like Ruth. We’re meant to build bridges where no one else will. We’re made to love the so-called foreigners, outcasts, and strangers as if they were our own family. Truly, we are. Why? Because if we claim this Yahweh, this great God of unbreakable love, then we ought to be moved and inspired to love in such a way. Don’t be distracted by the categories we have created for each other. Instead, show all people hesed. Follow Ruth’s heroic example. Amen.

[1] The Jewish Encyclopedia, Ruth.

[2] Ruth 1, New Revised Standard Version

[3] Trible, Phyllis, “A Human Comedy,” God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 166, 173.

[4] Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, Encyclopedia of love in world religions: Volume 1 – Page 268

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