The story of Ruth and Naomi – an Unlikely Family
Beth Henricks – May 14th 2017
Ruth 1:8-9, 15-18
Resources: Redefining Family in the Book of Ruth, Diane Jacobson (Word and World Volume 33, Number 1 Winter 2013)
Commentary on Ruth, Milton Acosta Benitez (Journal of Latin American Theology Vol 11, No 1, 2016)
I have been thinking about this message for Mother’s Day for several weeks. It seems familiar and expected to talk about our mothers, on being a mother, honoring mothers, listing the attributes that we love and cherish and how mothers share God’s love in so many ways. We have heard and read tributes all week about the power and influence of mothers in our world. I love the story of the young state legislator from Tennessee, Harry Burn who in 1920 had to make a vote on whether to ratify the new amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. The vote was 48 to 48 and Harry had to decide what to do. He had been publicly against the amendment, but on the day for him to cast his vote, his mother Phoebe Burn put a note in his pocket saying Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. She ended the note by saying be a good boy and put the rat in ratification. Harry cast the deciding vote and the Constitution was amended. Oh, the power of our mother’s influence.
On the surface, this is a joyful day of celebration and happiness. And many of you feel this sense of joy today.
But Mother’s Day is way more complicated than what might appear at first blush or in the sentiments expressed in our Hallmark cards. In this room, there is a full range of emotions and feelings about this day. There are some that are still in mourning over losing their mother. There are others that feel sadness in not having the experience of being a mother, or have chosen not to have children. Still others are in deep pain over broken relationships with their children or their own mother. Some here have had less than ideal role models for a mother and are working towards breaking a cycle of dsyfunction within themselves. I know some people did not come to Meeting today because it would just be too hard to sit here and listen to a message about Mother’s Day.
I have felt a leading in the last 2 weeks to talk today about families. Of course, families get just as complicated as mothers. Many people end up in therapy for many years due to issues with their family of origin. I first learned this term “family of origin” in seminary in the last few years. It is interesting to think that we have our family of origin but we can also have families beyond this understanding and the story of Ruth and Naomi in the Bible is a beautiful description of this enhanced view of family.
The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is only four chapters, but it is a story packed with pain, death, joy, loyalty, commitment and redemption. It reads like a short novel and I encourage all of you to read this book this week.
The issue of what constitutes a family is a major theme identified in book of Ruth. There is a redefinition of family with a focus on loyalty and love versus clan and blood relationships. This was significant in the period of time this story takes place which is likely post exile for the Israelites. Many Israelites had spent a whole generation in exile in Babylon and had left land behind in Judah. The land was now occupied by poorer folks who had not been taken captive or foreigners that were brought to the land and forced to settle in Judah. With Israelites returning from exile the question of land ownership was a significant one. But even beyond the land, the questions surfaced of who are God’s people? Who is included in God’s promises? Who is in the tribe? Who is part of the family?
In biblical law, family issues were considered in the category of property. So, if family disputes came up, they were turn to the biblical law to be settled. This story of Ruth completely calls into question the idea of family issues being defined in the context of property.
The story starts with a fine example of a traditional family with a father, mother and two sons. But also with impending trouble due to a famine in Judah. This traditional family moves to Moab which is a national enemy of the Israelites. The Moabites were considered an inferior people descending from Lot and his daughter. Deuteronomy 23:4says that “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord”. The story doesn’t say why Naomi and her husband chose Moab but they now become foreigners, immigrants there. And the trouble begins. First the father dies leaving Naomi and the two sons to make connections in this foreign land. The two sons marry Moabite women, probably to help establish themselves in this foreign land. More disaster occurs with no children being born in ten years and both sons dying. Wow – Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with two Moabite daughters in law. This is not a family unit according to biblical law at the time. This is probably why Naomi initially tells these women to go back to the homes of their mothers and fathers and find husbands there. While Naomi might view these woman as daughters, she knows in terms of Biblical law there are no possibilities for her and she faces disaster with no means of support for her existence.
Ruth completely rejects this conclusion with the speech that redefines family which Ann read to us today. Ruth is willing to leave her own mother and father and her country because of an act of devotion and love to Naomi. Ruth believes they are bound together as family irregardless of what biblical law says. For the sake of loyalty and love, Ruth is willing to become an immigrant in an enemy nation. What a radical commitment. At first Naomi rejects this idea but Ruth is adamant.
How will the Israelite community accept this? At first, the community is shocked by the return of Naomi with Ruth. And Naomi has become bitter about all of her misfortune and gives herself a new name, Mara feeling empty and alone without recognizing the gift of family that Ruth has brought to her.
Ruth comes to town as a foreigner and will do whatever work necessary to take care of Naomi and herself. She does manual labor by gleaning the fields after the reaping of the harvest reserved for the poorest of the poor in the community. She works on land owned by a man named Boaz who is kin to Naomi. Through a series of schemes, Boaz joins this unlikely family unit marrying Ruth. They have a child and Ruth, the foreigner from an enemy nation, becomes the great grandmother of King David. This story shows that expanding the traditional understanding of family was crucial for the promised future of Israel and for the redemption of the nation. This future includes a foreign enemy, an immigrant widow that is daughter in law, wife and mother. Covenant and commitment out of love and devotion become more important than law and tradition. And ultimately the Israelite community accepts Ruth as a Godly woman and compares her to other great women of faith.
Right from the start, Ruth shows her independence as she married outside of her own people, disavows the solidarity of her family, abandons her national identity, and renounces her religious affiliation. Some Biblical scholars consider only Abraham as approaching this radicalness and he had a direct call from God. Ruth stands alone without support. A young woman commits herself to an old woman in a world where life depends upon men.
At the beginning of this book we find famine and death. At the end food and life. Ruth brings together hope and hopelessness, death and life, pain and joy, loneliness and companionship, famine and provision, abandonment and redemption.
The family that had fallen apart at the beginning has been reconfigured. The Jewish hatred toward Moab is turned around into a genealogy of national importance.
I believe the story of Ruth gives us a glimpse in the heart of God and how God views family. God’s desire is for our family to be broad and inclusive. Many of us here today are in a place that we did not envision. We are widows, have lost children, siblings and parents. Our families of origin are diminished, gone or broken. We can feel Naomi’s lament of loss and bitterness as God feels distant and our future might appear bleak and lonely.
But the story of Ruth describes the love that God gives to all of us including the foreigner. Our family will include people that come from tribes that have been our enemies. God says they are family now. God calls us to be in relationship - to be family with folk that seem impossible. The family of God is far beyond our comprehension. Yet God’s love is beyond reason, rationale, conventional boundaries, and territories.
So who is your family? Do you have family beyond kin and tribe? Who is in your family - this family of God’s love and calling. And what are we willing to sacrifice for our family of God? How do you forgive those in our family that cause us pain and hurt? How can we live in the wholehearted center of God’s love with family?
I encourage you to reflect on these queries as we enter our time of unprogrammed worship. If God is speaking to you directly, hold this experience in your heart. But if God is giving you a message to share with all of us, I ask you to be obedient to the Spirit and share with all of us.