Sunday 4 November 2018

Ruth's story

Address given at Borrisokane on Sunday 4th November 2018, the Fourth before Advent

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

I have a confession to make - I’m a sucker for romantic stories, and the Book of Ruth is just such a story!
It follows a trajectory from sorrow to joy, from emptiness to fullness - what a delightful romantic movie it would make.

Today’s 1st reading (Ruth 1:1-18) sets the scene. It introduces two women as the main characters – Naomi, a refugee from famine in Judah settled in the land of Moab, and her daughter-in-law Ruth, a Moabite with no children. Disaster has befallen them. First Naomi’s husband dies, and ten years later both her sons die, including Ruth’s husband. They are both left as widows without the security of family, filled with sorrow and emptiness.

Naomi, in despair, decides to return home to Bethlehem in Judah. Her two daughters-in-law start out to follow her, but Naomi tells them to go back to their own people, where they might marry again and find security. One of them does so, but the other, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi. Ruth says:
‘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.’

In these beautiful words, Ruth makes a vow never to leave Naomi. By using the Jewish name for God, YHWH, she renounces allegiance to Moab and Chemosh, the God of the Moabites, and aligns herself with Naomi’s people and her God, the God of Israel. Ruth launches herself out into an unknown future as a refugee, trusting in Naomi’s God that all will turn out well. How much Ruth must have loved Naomi! We shall return to their story later.

But first let’s look at the 2nd reading from Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34).
A scribe asks Jesus, ‘Which is the greatest commandment?’, and Jesus gives a two-part answer. Matthew’s Gospel (22:37-39) records the same question and Jesus’s answer in slightly different words, which we all recognise from the prayers of penitence during Holy Communion.

 ‘The first’, says Jesus, ‘is “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”’

These words come from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. They are known in Hebrew as the Shema - even to this day they are the first words of every service in a synagogue. They are also written down inside a little cylindrical box called a Mezuzah fixed to the door of every Jewish house, to remind Jewish families of their covenant with God every time they go out or come in. I am sure every devout Jew would agree with Jesus that this is the greatest commandment.

 ‘The second is this’, says Jesus, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’
These words come from Leviticus 19:18. In effect they summarise the commandments in the Law of Moses concerning how to treat fellow Jews. No Jew could see them as being controversial. But for Jesus these words would not mean quite the same as for the Jews who heard him. They would see only fellow Jews as their neighbours, but Jesus believes that gentiles are to be treated as neighbours as well as Jews.

We can see this clearly in Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37). When a lawyer asks Jesus, ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’, Jesus leads him to answer his own question – he must love God and love his neighbour as himself. The lawyer then asks, ‘And who is my neighbour?’. In response Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans were gentiles despised and disliked by Jews, but Jesus leads the lawyer to admit that the Samaritan is a better neighbour to the man who is robbed and beaten on the road than the Jews who passed by on the other side.

Jesus tells him – and us too – that every person, without exception, is a neighbour to be loved as we love ourselves.

Let us get back to Ruth and Naomi – how does their story continue?
It was harvest time when Naomi and Ruth got to Bethlehem. It was a Jewish tradition to leave the corn in the corners of the fields to be harvested by the poor – this was called gleaning. Ruth went out into the fields to glean to support both of them. There she met Boaz, the owner of a field, who was a relative of Naomi’s late husband – that’s important as we shall see. Boaz had heard about all that Ruth was doing to support Naomi, and praised her for it. And because he was a kind man, he made sure that Ruth was able to glean enough for two of them without being harassed by the young lads doing the harvesting.

The Jews had a tradition that if a married man died without leaving children, his next of kin - his brother or another close relative - could choose to marry his widow, and this was seen as a good and righteous thing to do. It kept the property in the family. It ensured the future of the widow. And any children of the marriage would be treated as children of the dead husband.

No doubt Naomi could see how Boaz was attracted to Ruth. So she sends Ruth to ask Boaz if he will marry her in this way, to provide her with security. Ruth does as Naomi suggests. She visits Boaz on the threshing floor when he is sleeping, uncovers his feet and lies down beside him, and when he wakes she says to him, ‘Spread your coat over your servant, for you are next of kin’. Boaz wants to marry her, but he tells Ruth that there is another, closer relative who legally should have the first refusal - if that man does not wish to marry her, he, Boaz, will. And Boaz is as good as his word. The next day he goes to talk to the closer relative in front of the elders. He establishes that the closer relative does not want to marry Ruth – in fact he persuades him that he shouldn’t! And then Boaz says to the elders, ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired … Ruth the Moabite … to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance’.

In this way Ruth becomes Boaz’s wife, and with Naomi they live happily ever after. Naomi and Ruth’s sorrow is transformed into joy. The emptiness of their lives is filled by the son Ruth bears to Boaz, whom Naomi nurses. This boy will grow up to be the grandfather of King David, and an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ, through his earthly father Joseph. It really is a romantic story, isn’t it!

Ruth’s story illustrates how God works in individual human lives.
Naomi and Ruth had suffered terrible blows. It would be so easy for them to become bitter and angry, but they don’t – instead they make the best of their situation, showing their love for each other. And then good things start to happen. They meet a good man, Boaz, who is attracted by the love Ruth shows to Naomi. New life and hope come into their lives. They are offered a second chance of happiness. And they take it.

This surely is how God works in our lives, if - God forbid - dreadful things happen to us. If we hold on to what is good and true and beautiful, even when it seems we have been abandoned, even when we find ourselves in the depths of depression, then suddenly we will notice good things starting to happen. Our spirits will rise and we will start to discern new life and happiness. This at least has been my own experience.

Jesus calls us to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves, whoever they may be.
And we can see love of God and love of neighbour in Ruth’s story.

Naomi doesn’t desert her Jewish God, even as a refugee in Moab, and her example brings Ruth to take Naomi’s God for her own. Boaz in the story is a good man who constantly speaks of his God, YHWH. All three of them love God to the best of their ability and strive to do the right thing – to be righteous, in other words.

Both the Moabites and the Jews in the story show their love for neighbours who are outsiders and foreigners. Naomi and her family arrive in Moab as refugees from famine. The Moabites take them in and generously include them in their community as neighbours, so that both Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women. Ruth herself is a foreign economic migrant when she arrives in Bethlehem with Naomi, but Boaz and his people generously include Ruth as a neighbour in their harvest, and Boaz is glad to marry her.

There is a lesson in this for us today, when more people than ever are leaving their homes as refugees or migrants, driven by natural disasters, wars, and poverty. Will we include these people in our communities? Will we allow them to work and build new lives with us? Will we be glad when our children fall in love and choose to marry them? Will we love them as ourselves, as Jesus calls us to do?

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, whom to follow is to risk our whole lives:
as Ruth and Naomi loved and held to one another,
abandoning the ways of the past,
so may we also not be divided,
but travel together into that strange land
where you lead us,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen