Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘ruth’

Powerful & Prophetic Women be Heard!

Mark 12:38-44

Ruth

WomenPower

It’s important to recognize that all sacred books are grounded in a certain time and place. In the case of the Bible, it is also important to accept that the writers of the NT books and the Hebrew Scriptures were most likely all men. Women’s voices [and even their names] are not as prevalent as those of men. This is not an opinion; it is fact.

So, yes—often we have to look deeper at scripture stories to hear the voices of women and to hear the wisdom within their stories.

One rare story in the Hebrew Scriptures [OT] is that of Ruth.

RuthFieldThis story is all about a female protagonist. Sure, there are some men involved, but for the most part, as a reader, we want to know what happens to Ruth, what she’s thinking, etc.

I encourage you to read the whole story yourself. That way, you can notice certain details and let your imagination go to work. Read Ruth like you would any short story.

But for the sake of this conversation with you, we need to at least summarize the story:

Ruth, the Cliffnotes Version:
Once upon a time, there was this nice Jewish family. But they had a problem. A famine had hit their hometown. So the heads of the household, Elimelech and wife Naomi, moved east to Moab with their two sons to find something to eat. In Moab, they established roots. They ended up staying there for about ten years. A lot can happen in ten years. Their two sons met two girls from the area and they got married. Their names were Ruth and Orpah [not to be confused with Oprah]. Everybody was pretty happy in Moab. But then….

Those two now-married sons, one by one, passed away; so did Elimelech. None of them left behind good life insurance policies, so the three women were in trouble financially.

So Naomi decided that she should go back to her hometown of Bethlehem; maybe the famine would be over? Her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth packed up and started to go with her. But Naomi didn’t feel right about this and she asked the two women to stay in Moab. Orpah took her advice and went right on back. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. She even pledged her devotion to Naomi, deciding to leave her religion and her culture to stay connected to Naomi. What could Naomi say? She let Ruth join her.

Once in Bethlehem, things didn’t get any better. Naomi was depressed. Ruth was working a manual labor job in the barley fields for very little pay.

But as it so happens, while working out there Ruth met a famous rich guy called Boaz. Boaz thought Ruth was pretty hot [apparently] but also respected her enough to give her special privileges at the workplace. Ironically, Boaz happened to be related to Naomi’s late husband Elimelech.

Naomi figured it out. Boaz, by family law and custom, would be obligated to marry Ruth. So Naomi had a plan. She told Ruth to visit Boaz at night in secret and to lie at his feet. Yes, this is a PG-13 reference. It’s an erotic move.

Ruth did what Naomi asked and actually, Boaz was a bit surprised that Ruth had any interest in him at all. He was happy, though. He told Ruth that he would really like to marry her, but the problem was that there was another relative with even closer ties to Ruth’s in-laws. But Boaz had a plan. He would meet with this close relative to see what was up.

It’s high drama. Everyone’s holding their breath.

What Boaz found out was good news. The close relative was more interested in buying Naomi’s land than marrying her daughter-in-law. So a win-win deal was made. The closer relative renounced his obligation to marry Ruth, freeing Boaz to marry her.

So they get married.

This made Naomi really happy. Later on, Ruth and Boaz had a son and named him Obed. Obed, just for history’s sake, would eventually be the grandfather of King David. The end.

I said in the beginning that we have to keep culture, place, and history in mind when we read stories in sacred books. In 2015 you may see the story of Ruth as quite patriarchal and male-dominated. After all, Ruth [and other women] were just like property. We cannot deny that.

And yet, there are particular moments in this story that are rare examples of lifting up women as more than just wives for men who have babies and keep a house.

I’m struck by the comments said by the women in Bethlehem about Ruth. They tell Naomi that Ruth who loves her is of more worth than seven sons.

Now that’s a strong statement, for women’s worth was not a common subject. In this case, though, Ruth as a character is given her due. She’s more than just loyal, she’s full of love as a friend and committed to staying connected to that friend. She pushes aside even her religion and her homeland in order to stay connected to Naomi. She has no obligation to do this. Naomi tells her to go back. But Ruth insists on staying with her out of love. This is significant.

Ruth is a role model. Love is only mentioned once in the story, and it’s the love of Ruth for Naomi.

It’s that deep, devoted friendship that exists not out of obligation, but empathy for the other.

Thanks, Ruth!

widows-miteStory #2 I’d like to look at is in the New Testament in Mark’s gospel. It begins with Jesus of Nazareth warning anyone who will listen about pompous scribes who parade around in long robes screaming “Look at me!” and feel entitled to the best seats in synagogues and parties. They ignore the plight of widows [and even gain from their misfortune] and in the end, they say long prayers in public, for people to see and hear.

This warning is followed by another woman’s story. This time, she is not given a name. We only know that she was a widow, which also meant that she was poor.

She could have been Ruth.
Or Orpah.
Or Naomi.

Jesus sat outside the temple, staring at people putting money into the temple’s treasury. It was a charity box, supposedly. Rich people came and put large amounts in the box, for all to see. But then a widow approached the treasury and put in merely two copper coins. Barely worth anything.

After seeing this unfold, Jesus called his disciples together and made his point.

The widow, to the world, was only worth a few pennies. That’s it. But Jesus disagreed. She had actually put in more to the treasury than all of the rich people combined. She was worth so much more. She didn’t contribute out of obligation or abundance, but simply out of love. She gave all that she had—all that she was.

It’s not a stretch to see these two ladies, Ruth and the poor widow, as sister stories. Both were widows; both were poor; Ruth was also a foreigner and of another religion. Both were ignored, manipulated, forgotten. And yet, both were lifted up as prime examples of how we are supposed to live.

Both women were and are models of love and giving.

What stands out for me in both cases, what is prophetic about their stories, is that both of them overcame so much: a patriarchal system that was set up to oppress them; a lack of financial means; no significant place in society; tragedy and isolation.

In spite of all of that, they showed love. But it was real love, because they weren’t obligated to do so. They chose to love.

They chose to have empathy for the people around them.

They chose to call the other “my people” instead of other.
They truly loved.

And so I’ll stop now, and be quiet. May these women’s voices be heard! May their legacy live on in us.

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Sad, Glad, Soft, Loud, Stubborn Songs!

Based on Luke 1:39-56

 What are your favorite songs? Everybody has some. Which are the songs that give you energy, bring a smile to your face, and pick you up? You listen to them on your iPod, or in your car or at home and you just feel better? U2’s Beautiful Day or Cee Lo’s Bright Lights, Bigger City lift me up. Or which songs move you in a different way? Which songs resonate with your feelings of sadness or doubt or fear? Which songs sit with you and cry, mourn, or question? The Beatles’ Yesterday does that for me. And then, which songs help you to express frustration or anger? The ones that give you permission to express the deepest, fullest anger in your soul? Zero by the Smashing Pumpkins in on my anger playlist.

What are your happy, energetic songs? Your sad ones? Your angry ones?

Songs are powerful. This time of year, we don’t have to remind ourselves of that, do we? I think there is no season more prone to nostalgia, memories, and emotions than this one. And songs are a big part of it, right? Some Christmas songs are just silly and fun.

Yes, we sing Jingle Bells [before the tire blows out], and Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman, and the Hanukkah Songoh wait—that’s…not…well, it’s one of MY favorite silly/fun songs for this time of year, anyway. Thanks, Adam. All kidding aside, there are also songs we listen to and sing that are not silly or just plain fun. Some songs can lift us up and other songs allow us to be honest about our sadness or our anger. One mistake that we make as U.S. Christians is that we more often than not go for the silly and superficial music this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I love to laugh and to be silly. And I do it a LOT. But honestly, we often avoid the deeper, more honest songs that speak to the realities of our world and our lives. The songs that challenge us; the songs that move us to action.

The songs of lament; the songs of justice.

All during Advent we have been walking through the story of Luke’s Gospel. So it is appropriate for us to talk about songs, because Luke contains a lot of songs. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us, because Luke likes to tell its story with the stories of the Ancient Israelites in mind. In other words, while we equate Luke with only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Luke actually echoes the stories of characters like Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and David. All of them sang. Their songs told stories. So do the songs of Luke’s characters: Zechariah, Simeon, the angels, and of course, Mary.

A reminder about the Gospels and how they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to what we may remember, the birth of Jesus is barely mentioned in the Bible. Only 2 Gospels–Luke and Matthew–talk about this event, and in drastically different ways. Luke’s focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Luke is honed in on God’s justice and love lifting up the lowly—those whose voices are often silenced. So it’s no surprise, then, that we find Luke’s story mostly about women. Of course, in the time and culture of the 1st and 2nd Century, women certainly did not enjoy many freedoms. In fact, the Bible we have leaves out much of what women might have said or experienced. So it’s rare that we get such a closer view of women’s perspective like we do in Luke.

Like the Ancient Israelite’s story of Ruth and Naomi, in Luke we find two women who share a special friendship. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as we know, were older and could not have children. Luke spends an entire chapter telling their story for a reason. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story parallels Mary and Joseph’s. You see, eventually, an angel visits Zechariah making a startling announcement that seems impossible; then, a mute Zechariah and a shocked Elizabeth deal with the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. This new kid, according to the angel with a name [Gabriel], will be like the prophet Elijah and bring the Israelites back to their homeland. Wow! But in spite of this amazing news, Elizabeth finds it necessary to remind everyone that up to this point, she’s been disgraced in her own community. Luke wants us to understand that Elizabeth was isolated. She felt worthless. But God via some Gabriel-angel told her something different.

Well, apparently this Gabriel was busy, because the angel made it over to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s relative, Miriam, who we call Mary. A similar announcement takes place. Mary is going to have a kid. Just one problem: she has a guy she likes who happens to be a descendent of King David [which is good], but they actually aren’t married. So getting pregnant maybe doesn’t sound so great at this point.

I love Luke’s rendering of the story. Mary is troubled at the news. Well, that’s an understatement!

Like Elizabeth’s kid-to-be, John, Mary’s son will also be a leader. Not just any leader—the next king to take over David’s empty throne. But Mary was less concerned with all that political jargon. Like Elizabeth, it was more about practicality. No, Mary wasn’t older like Elizabeth, but she did not know a man yet. That’s what the Greek text actually says. I’m not going to go into the tiresome debate about the word virgin, because I just don’t think it’s important in the story. What matters is that Mary and Joseph are not together in the way that would be acceptable in society. Remember, these are parallel stories. So Elizabeth was disgraced by her community for being old, female, and infertile. Mary would be disgraced also for being pregnant without a proper marriage commitment. Seems like they can’t win, right?

But again, that’s the point Luke is making. Yes, society points the finger and judges, but God doesn’t really care. This atypical story moves on as God chooses to lift up these two women. Check this out: after the angel leaves Nazareth, there’s no man in Mary’s story. No one–no Joseph! Instead, Mary goes by herself to visit Elizabeth in the Judean town where she and Zechariah lived. Now let’s assess this. Nazareth in Galilee was about 70 miles from Judea. But keep in mind that Samaria was in the way and we know how Israelites and Samaritans felt about each other. So most likely, Mary traveled around 100 miles.[1] What was going on her mind during that long trip? Probably she was afraid, nervous, upset, and unsure about the future. But she went with haste to see Elizabeth. For some reason, she felt that Elizabeth was the right person to tell.

Mary.ElizabethWhen she arrives at their home, Elizabeth welcomes her. Actually, she embraces her. No doubt this made Mary feel better. Elizabeth didn’t scold her or ask her, “Where’s the ring?” or shoot judgmental glances at her. Elizabeth welcomed her. The story is redefining what society has taught. It doesn’t matter if Mary is unwed and pregnant. What matters to God is that both Mary and Elizabeth will participate in the passing on of Good News. John will preach it at the Jordan River. Jesus will preach and live it in Jerusalem and Galilee. And you and I must remember that this storyteller Luke knows about who these two babies will become. He’s writing a flashback story. It’s all making sense now. Of course, the God who stands with the oppressed, the God who lifts up the lowly will give these two women powerful roles to play. If both John and Jesus preached freedom for those enslaved, justice for those pushed down, and a place for the left out, doesn’t Elizabeth’s and Mary’s story resonate?

Well, just in case we STILL don’t get it because we’ve had too much eggnog and are fixated on manger scenes, Mary on a donkey, and the little drummer boy—Luke brings it home. And of course, Luke brings it home with music. The once-mute Zechariah sings. His song is joyful, but mixed with frustrations and years of sadness.

Zechariah sings:

Blessed is God, but the wait has been long for us to be saved from those who hate us. We needed to be rescued from enemies. But God forgives sins and is tender in mercy, giving light to those who sit in darkness and even fear death. God gives peace.

And Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is of a similar tone. It could have been a typical Hebrew poem of old. It looks a lot like Hannah’s song. Mary sings:

My whole being lifts up my God, but only because God has helped me in my lowliness. I may not have been blessed before, but from now on, I will be. There is mercy for me and great strength in God’s arm which scatters the proud and the powerful. God lifts up those who are down, like me. God gives hungry people things to eat. Those who are too rich are empty.

Mary and Zechariah’s songs, and eventually the angelic songs amid shepherds, of Luke’s gospel in chapter two, voice music of joy mixed with pain. Not all the joy of the songs is reality. People go hungry. The proud keep their thrones. The greedy get more. The lowly are oppressed. People often feel empty, even when they try to be faithful. Sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. And yes, THIS is what the songs of Luke’s story have to teach us. We so often paint the Jesus birth story in the most sanitized, friendly, and nostalgic way possible. But this will leave us empty. For the story is much, much bigger than how we’ve wrapped it up for ourselves. Hear the songs of this story. And now, hear your own.

We all sing—whether in public or in private. Sometimes we sing aloud and sometimes we sing in our minds or in our hearts and only we can hear. But we need to sing all kinds of songs, not just the easy ones. We need to sing songs of lament to express our grief and fear, honoring these emotions and then eventually stripping them of their power over us so we don’t stay in our grief and depression; so we don’t learn how to hate. And we need to sing songs of joyful praise and thanksgiving so we feel a connection to each other and to the land and the good creation around us. And we need to sing songs of courage and hope when all around us is fearful, violent, and bleak.

We need to sing like this in order to live like this.

Mary and Zechariah don’t just sing, they start to live out what they sing. They name their hopes, fears, sadness, and promises. Mary’s song is sung in the past tense. According to her, these promises have already been fulfilled [even though they hadn’t]. So she’s stepping out into the world with more than hope. She is living and breathing this song. She’s agreeing to be a willing participant in the giving and telling of God’s mercy and love to all people. And her song becomes her story.

So sing, friends. Sing all the songs of your whole being. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Sing.

Sometimes your songs of defiant love and acceptance will overwhelm the hateful words and actions in our world. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of honest doubt will completely heal someone who never felt she had permission to question God. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of thankfulness will remind another how special it is to just have food, and health, and people who love you, and not things. So sing.

And sometimes your songs will blend with many other songs, raising a voice of courage and unity to work for justice, peace, and acceptance for all So…sing!

And as you sing, step into this mercy and love of God that doesn’t push you down or call you names or leave you on the street or exclude you or applaud violence or offer simplistic answers or belittle your pain or ignore your challenges or judge your faults.

Step into that song; live it. Amen.


[1] Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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.

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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