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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

May 5, 2019

Ruth 1


Once upon a time, long ago and far away, there lived a woman named Naomi.  She and her husband and their two young children were forced by famine to migrate from their home in Bethlehem to the land of Moab (modern-day Jordan) in search of food.  Not so long after they settled in Moab, Naomi’s husband died, leaving her alone with her children.  Somehow, she managed to keep a roof over their heads and food on their plates.  The boys grew up and married local girls.  But then the boys died, too, and Naomi and her two daughters-in-law were left alone, without spouses or children, grieving and destitute, in a patriarchal world where a woman without a male family member had very little access to resources, rights, or protection.

Naomi recognized that her future was not bright.  She encouraged the younger women to return to their families of origin in hopes that they might marry again, or at least be provided for by their parents.  One daughter-in-law followed Naomi’s advice, but the other refused.  “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” she pledged.  And so Ruth and Naomi set out to return to Bethlehem, where Naomi’s extended family lived.

Here’s how the story continues.  With Naomi’s guidance, Ruth goes to glean barley from the edge of fields owned by a wealthy but distant in-law of Naomi’s.  She meets the man, Boaz.  He is kind to her.  One thing leads to another, as they say, and pretty soon, they are married.  A child arrives, making Naomi a delighted grandmother, and they all live happily ever after.

It feels a little bit like a folktale or a fable, like it ought to have a moral at the end.  Something Aesop-ish, like, “Good things come to those who work for them,” or, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” or, “Never give up hope,” or, “Home is where the heart is,” or, “All’s well that ends well,” or something of the sort.  But if you read the book of Ruth carefully, all four chapters of it, you will discover that its meaning runs much deeper than moralistic clichés.

This is a story about forced migration, about a family left with no choice but to leave their homeland in search of a place where they will be able to find enough food to keep themselves alive.

This is a story about the resilience of women—women who endure unspeakable grief and trauma, women who accomplish things society says they cannot do, women who find a way to put the patriarchy to work for them, women who stick together and strengthen each other and build a new family of choice that leads them not only to survive, but to thrive.

This is a story about the kindness of strangers, for you’d better believe that the only way Naomi and her family survived—either off in Moab or back in Bethlehem, either when the menfolk were still alive or when they were gone—was because people who did not know them from Adam helped them out.

This is a story about compassion that reaches across all that would divide us.  People who perceived them as “other” on the basis of ethnicity or religion or gender or some other characteristic nevertheless saw their predicament and offered what they could—a basket of grain, a jug of wine, a place to lay their heads for the night.  People met their vulnerability with kindness, their need with generosity.

An Israelite widow finds sanctuary in Moab.  A Moabite widow finds family in Israel.  And here’s the thing:  the end of the book of Ruth tells us that Ruth’s son is named Obed, and Obed is the father of Jesse, and Jesse is the father of David—King David, that is.  The one who united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah… the one who slayed the monster Goliath… the one to whom many of the psalms are attributed…  And if you follow King David’s line on down through the generations, he turns out to be a long-ago ancestor of none other than Jesus himself.

So it’s no wonder that Jesus demonstrated care and kindness to women, to foreigners, to folks who were poor and hungry.  Not only did his mother, Mary, teach him well, not only did his Jewish faith form him well, but his many-greats grandmothers, Ruth and Naomi, also left him their legacy of struggle and strength, resilience and kindness.  And it’s no wonder that Jesus taught his disciples—which is to say, us—to go and do likewise.

For you just never know when the stranger whom you welcome, whom you help, whom you teach or serve or care for or feed or clothe or befriend—might just be an important link in God’s chain.  And if you’ve ever been welcomed, if you’ve ever been helped, if you’ve ever been taught or served or cared for or fed or clothed or befriended—well, then you just never know what place you might hold in God’s unfolding family tree.

For if God could work through Naomi and Ruth and those around them to help bring about God’s incarnation, who knows what God can bring about with you, with me, with us.


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