Fr. John Allison
October 31, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Today in our Old Testament reading we hear the beginning of the Book of Ruth. In some ways the story parallels that of Job, which we’ve heard over the past few weeks: a once prosperous family experiences tragedy and cannot understand how God can allow such loss and pain. But the similarities end fairly quickly in a number of ways and were we to read beyond today’s lection we would see this story as one not only of fulfillment of hope and promise but also as foundational to the Gospel that Jesus proclaims several centuries later.
As we have heard, the story begins with a famine in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem” as translated from the Hebrew, means “House of Bread,” and so there is quite literally no bread in the house of bread. What people had come to rely on and expect was no longer present. And so begins the journey of Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons to the country of Moab, a country that was more often than not in conflict with Israel and that did not worship the same God. In spite of being in a foreign land, things presumably go well for the family at first but in a very short time it all turns around. Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi to care for the two sons. As the sons grow up they each marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth, but then not long after the two sons die and Naomi is alone with her two daughters-in-law.
Now, it should be said that in the Naomi’s culture a woman alone was in a very precarious position. As a poor widow in a foreign land she would have been vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation and even violence. She has Orpah and Ruth but they too would be in jeopardy as widows. That’s the situation when she hears that the famine has ended in Bethlehem and begins her return home. But it’s a difficult journey and not long after she begins she pleads with Orpah and Ruth to return to their own mothers so that they might begin again and find new husbands and be with their own people. “It’s been far more bitter for me than for you,” she says, “because the hand of the Lord as turned against me.” She believes she is being punished and has no hope for redemption. It’s here that the story turns and that Ruth emerges as it’s heroine. Orpah is sad to leave Naomi but agrees and returns home. Ruth, however, stays. She is steadfast in her devotion to Naomi and promises to be with her no matter what: “. . . where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.”
Our portion of the story ends there for today but jumping ahead we know that, indeed, Ruth is true to her word and, beyond that, upon returning to Bethlehem their fortunes begin to change. Most specifically with Ruth marrying and bearing a son. The son, Obed, will be the father of Jesse who will be the father of David who will become King David, to whom Matthew and Luke in their Gospels trace Jesus’ earthly lineage. As I said earlier, this story of Ruth is foundational to the Good News of Christ. That this foreign woman, a Moabite whose people were the sworn enemies of Israel, who endures great loss of her own and yet remains faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi in the face of an unknown future, that Ruth is a key figure in this royal line is yet another of God’s surprises. But I getting a bit ahead of myself.
In Ruth, in her faithfulness, we have a model of how we are to love one another as God loves us. We have a model of how to love God and love neighbor. As I’ve sat with the story this week and reflected on what such faithfulness looks like in my own life, I tried to imagine myself as the various characters. While there are times when I have aspired to Ruth’s level of devotion there are also many more times when I have felt Naomi’s sense of hopelessness. I think many of us have episodes of such despair in our lives and feel that God has stopped hearing our prayers or even, in the words of Naomi, “that the Lord has turned against me.” It may be in the loss of a loved one or in addiction or in chronic pain that won’t go away no matter what. It may be in deep depression that seems to have neither cause nor resolution. It may be in loss of home or job. It may be in divorce and the breaking up of family. The list could go on and on but my point is that we all suffer and at various points in our lives we struggle to make our way through the darkness. The promise of light is faint, if visible at all. As people of faith, we’re not always comfortable admitting that. So often we become so focused on the praise and celebration that is at the center of our worship that we rush past any acknowledgement of lament or sorrow. Indeed, the witness of lament is present in much of our scripture, as we seen in Job and Ruth, but it’s uncomfortable to dwell there for too long. The reality, however, is that we need such acknowledgement. We need emotional space to grieve and to wrestle with doubt so that we may begin to heal. We need someone like Ruth to stand with us, to cry with us, maybe even to believe for us when we struggle to believe for ourselves. That’s what we see Ruth doing for Naomi.
In our long and complicated journey of faith sometimes we are Naomi and sometimes we are Ruth. To love one another, to be present to one another with love, is to acknowledge these dual roles. To be faithful to God is to walk alongside one another through darkness and through light.
In our Gospel the scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment and Jesus answers with a Jewish prayer known as the Shema: “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.” And he adds, “The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark’s original readers would have known this prayer, the Shema, well; indeed, they would have prayed it several times a day and they would have been equally familiar with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Like us, they also would have known how hard these commandments are to embody in our lives.
In just a few minutes we acknowledge how hard they are to follow when we say together the general confession. We pray: We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We miss the mark in fulfilling these greatest of commandments, and yet, even so, God is with us, alongside us, as we are alongside one another in walking through darkness and through light. We cannot always see God’s grace in our lives, we often don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear, but like Ruth walking with Naomi, refusing to leave her, God is with us and refuses to leave. May we both receive such grace as God promises and also be vehicles of that grace for one another. Amen.