A Sermon on Ruth, Naomi and Loving the Stranger
Ruth 1:1-18, Mark 12:28-34
“To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself – this is far more important than any burnt offering.”
This is something that I learned the hard way.
Hi, my name is Naomi. I am an Israelite woman who lived thousands of years ago, before even Israel even had a king, just a loose alliance between the twelve tribes.
In my day, we talked about the hesed of God quite frequently. Do know what hesed means? It is loving-kindness, the loving-kindness of God. We talked about it but sometimes it felt so far away.
What does God’s loving-kindness look like and feel like and sound like?
When I was younger, I didn’t know.
The circumstances that I grew up around made it hard to understand. I grew up in Judea where there had been a recent outbreak of violence among the tribes. It broke my heart – we all descended form mother Sarah and father Abraham; we were all sisters and brothers living in the promised land – and still we could not get along.
It filled me with sadness.
“How long?” I lamented to God.
How long would we endure these days Israelites fighting Israelites?
How long would we be unable to see the human faces of our enemies?
How long would we resist embodying hesed – loving-kindness – toward one another?
I fretted over the answers to these question not only for myself, but, as I got older, for my family. I married to a man named Elimelech and was two children named Mahlon and Chillion.
Can you blame me for wanting a better future, a safer future for my young ones?
Eventually the violence subsided – a truce was reached with the tribe of Benjamin – but then another situation arose: a famine covered the area where we lived.
Back then, there was no food pantry. No grocery stores. No anything.
When famine hit, it was serious.
As it worsened, Elimelech and I began discussing what to do. It became clear that would have to leave our homeland and go somewhere where there was food.
In the midst of our discussions, Elimelech turned to me and said:
“What about Moab?”
Just like that.
“What about Moab?”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“Our kids need to eat,” Elimelech replied.
He was right … but MOAB??? Since the days that Moses had led my ancestors through the desert, there had existed a hatred between the Moabites and the Israelites. Supposedly the King of Moab had hired this guy Balaam to curse us … and relations had just went downhill from there. Moses had said, “No … Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of God.” The prophet Jeremiah later foretold their doom, “The doom of Moab is coming close, [their] downfall is approaching swiftly.”
Nothing good had ever came out of Moab.
At least that was my opinion.
But Elimelech was right, our kids needed to eat.
So we left Bethlehem, which ironically meant “House of Bread”, and journeyed to Moab to find food.
The trip took several days.
After arriving, Elimelech and I settled down and made a life for our family.
We had food, we had each other, and it was good.
Then Elimelech died, of what, I am not quite sure, and my heart was broken.
Thank goodness I had my sons to look out for me and help me through this difficult time. Feeling the urgency of the moment, however, they soon took Moabite wives.
Really, I would have preferred them to go back to Judea and take Jewish wives. I mean that’s what they really should have done, but the circumstances did not permit it and, well, sometimes convincing a headstrong son is out of the realm of what a mother can do.
And so that’s how the Moabites came to be part of my family.
And even though I missed Elimelech a lot, we were a still family and we stuck together.
Then my sons died.
My beloved sons.
And I didn’t know what to do.
I missed them but, beyond that, I didn’t even know how I was going to eat.
At that time, as one of scholars Paula Hiebert points out, “a woman’s well-being was directly related to her link to some male.” If you didn’t have a husband, you had a father-in-law, or a brother-in-law, or a son, you had some male in your life who was responsible for your economic and social well-being.
I’m not saying it was right; I just saying that is how it was.
But in Moab, I didn’t have anyone.
Around that time, I heard that the town of Bethlehem was once again filled with bread and food.
So I made the decision to make the long trek back to home.
However, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my daughter-in-laws.
I didn’t have anything – I couldn’t even feed myself – so I decided to release back home to their parents who could provide for them in ways that I could not.
By that time, I had grown fond of them. We had been through a lot together. I had entered the country thinking: “You can’t trust the Moabites.”
But now, somehow, we had become family.
I didn’t quite know what to make of it.
But still, I had to release them.
So I said to them, “Return to your mother’s house. May the Most High care for you with the same kindness that you have cared for the dead and for me. May the Most High give you security and true fulfillment and lead you to new spouses.”
And then I kissed them.
We wept and they said to me, “No, no, we want to go back with you to the land of your people.”
But I knew there was no future for them.
So I said again, “Go back, my daughters. Why do you want to come with me? Am I going to have more sons who could become your husbands? No, you must go back. I am too old to marry again. Even I told you that there was still hope for me, if I were to find a spouse and have children tonight, would you be willing to wait until they are grown to marry them? Would you refuse to re-marry for this far-off hope? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you.”
Again we wept and my daughter-in-law Orpah kissed me, returning to her people.
However, my daughter-in-law Ruth did not budge.
“Look,” I said to her, “You sister-in-law has had the good sense to return home. You too must go.”
Then, what happen next astounded me.
Here I was, a woman who had entered a foreign country hostility. Here I was a woman who – if I was going to be honest – had become angry and bitter. Here I was – a woman who had nothing.
And these are the words Ruth spoke to me:
“Please don’t ask me to leave you and turn away from your company. I swear to you:
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people will be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die,
I’ll die there too
And I will be buried there beside you.
I swear – may the Holy One be my witness and judge –
That not even death will keep us apart.”
I wanted to say to her like I said to Elimelech all those years ago, “You kidding, right?’
But she wasn’t.
I could see it in her face as she looked at me with a ferocity.
As I raise my eyes to meet hers, the loving-kindness of Ruth’s words washed over me like a warm rain for one who has long been parched.
“This is hesed.” I thought with shock to myself.
Suddenly I could understand what people had meant when they talked about the loving-kindness or the hesed of God.
Suddenly I could see – hesed is the receiving of love even when I have nothing to offer. It is a warm embrace at a time of hardship. It is someone who was once my enemy saying to me: “Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people.”
Funny, I had always thought that home was a place – a building that you lived in – but perhaps it’s not. Perhaps home is the place we experience loving-kindness from one another.
Ruth had taught me that. Ruth the Moabite. Ruth, my beloved daughter-in-law.
Your scripture from Mark says, “To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself – this is far more important than any burnt offering.”
Yes – this is what Ruth had taught me.
And so Ruth and I traveled back to Bethlehem, together serving the God of Sarah and Abraham as siblings in the great human family.
At last, I had glimpsed the human face of my enemy and learned that they too were beloved.
And you know how I thought nothing good comes out of Moab?
Well, I don’t want to spoil too much because I think you will hear more of the story next week but Ruth eventually got married and had a son named Obed, who is the grandfather of a young boy named David. Maybe you have heard of him? He defeated a giant and became the King of Israel.
And then, through the line of David, came the embodiment of loving-kindness itself, Jesus.
Jesus had a Moabite in the family.
Can you believe it? God uses Moabites.
God uses all of us.