Text: Ruth 3:3:1-5; 4:13-17
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Nov. 8, 2015
I watched her as she came down the aisle coming to a stop in front of me. She lifted her veil, turned and looked up lovingly into the groom’s face. Then she began to sing. “Whither thou goest, I will go, whither thou lodgest, I will lodge, your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” I smiled to myself and wondered if this lovely bride realized that the words she was singing were first addressed by a young widow to her mother-in-law.
That was a long time ago. Since then I have come to have a deep appreciation for this group of persons who often much maligned and the butt of many unfair and cruel jokes. If I had my way, Naomi would get my nomination for patron saint of mothers-in-law!
The book of Ruth from which today’s Old Testament lesson is taken is often thought of as a love story. In many respects it is. But in a more profound way it is the feminine counterpart to the book of Job. The opening chapter is filled with tragedy. A family, faced with famine, leave their home and country, migrating to a foreign land. In Moab, they raise their sons in an alien culture. When the sons grow up, they marry foreign brides.
Then tragedy strikes again. Naomi’s husband and both of her sons are killed. Left alone, she decides to return to Israel to claim the land of her dead husband. She urges her two daughters-in law to return to their own people and to their old gods. Tearfully, one consents, but the other, Ruth, insists on sharing Naomi’s fate and returns to Israel with her. They arrive in Naomi’s home town. They find that not only is the famine over, but the harvest is ripe and the grain is being taken into the barns.
At this point in the story, two ancient customs come into play. The first is a law that was given by Moses. He made provision for the homeless and hungry during harvest time. Not all the grain was to be harvested. The farmers were to intentionally leave a portion in the field. This surplus could then be gathered by the poor to meet their needs.
Upon their return to Naomi’s hometown, she discussed their situation with her daughter-in-law. They wisely decide to take advantage of this custom. Early the next morning Ruth sets forth to gather grain. Quite by accident, but in the providence of God, she went to the farm of Boaz, who just happened to be a relative of Naomi’s husband. Boaz spots Ruth working in the field and falls in love. He discovers that she is the widow of his distant cousin.
Here we encounter the second ancient custom, that of the kinsman redeemer. Under this custom, if a man died and did not leave a male heir, Jewish law required that the nearest living male relative should marry the widow. The first male child of such a union would be raised as the son of the dead man and when he came of age would inherit the dead man’s property.
In our story it turns out that Boaz is second in line to marry Ruth. He convinces the man first in line for the right for her hand. Ruth and Boaz are married, and in the fullness of time a son is born to them. It has a fairy tale ending for they live happily ever after.
The story is rich in nuance and filled with theological insight. This morning I want to reflect on this story by making three observations and then conclude by making two applications.
First, we find Naomi caught in a web of circumstances that are beyond her control. She becomes bitter and blames God for her plight. “Why,” she asks herself, “has all this happened to me?” “What did I do to deserve this?”
She is left without a husband, without sons, without heirs. In many respects, she is left even more destitute than Job. She reasons that even if she should remarry, she is now too old to have more children. All that had given meaning to her life had been taken from her. From her perspective, nothing she could do would change that fact. She decided she would live out the rest of her life without expectation of purpose. She would merely exist until she died.
This is a human condition that all of us experience at least once in our lives. A time when all that we have worked for, hoped for, lived for, longed for, seems suddenly to dissipate in midair and there is nothing we can do to change the situation.
As I read through the first part of this short book, I could identify with Naomi. I have been there. I could sense her hopelessness. I could feel her despair.
The second observation I wish to make is that even though Naomi thought God had dealt harshly with her and that she had no way out, she did not quit. She went on even though life did not hold much meaning for her. She returned to the home of her fathers. She planned a future of mere survival with her daughter-in-law. And, as we discover into today’s reading when she discovered that it was her cousin’s field in which Ruth had been working, she even plotted and schemed a bit.
The final observation I wish to make is that a transformation took place. The outcome was a happy one. Naomi’s linage was not cut off as she had feared. She is given a grandson. Meaning to her life is restored. Ruth, her daughter-in-law, who was a Moabitess, has a change of identity. She became a mother in Israel. In fact, Naomi became the great grandmother of King David and an ancestress of our Lord!
I believe there is a pattern in these observations that is often operative in our lives. What Naomi wanted for her life was not bad, nor was it outside the will of God. She merely wanted a normal life. Where she went wrong was in thinking that God was responsible for her plight. How often do we make the same mistake when things don’t go our way?
But Naomi was right in not giving up on life. What did she do? She took advantage of the things that were open to her even though these obviously were not her first choice. God honored this and was able to accomplish His purpose for her in the midst of complex and impossible circumstances.
I have found this pattern to be operative in my life over and over again. I have learned that when difficult times come, I need not despair. God is faithful. Again and again I have found that when I take advantage of the opportunities that are before me, God is able to use them for his glory and my ultimate good!
There is hope in this story for St. Paul’s as well. Our church has had good years and we have had years that have not been so good. This has been one of the more difficult years in our history. We too, have been caught in a web of circumstances that could easily have gotten out of control. But God has not given up on St. Paul’s. The fact that you are here this morning testifies to the fact that you have not given up on St. Paul’s either. Yes, we have obstacles to overcome, and yes we must face these openly and squarely. But God is with us. He wants us to succeed.
As all of you are well aware we are in the midst of our annual stewardship campaign. I am sure you have heard evangelists on TV talk about the so-called prosperity gospel. They say, among other things, if you find yourself in a hard spot, test God. Give to Him and He will take you out of your difficult situation and prosper you. I always thought these evangelists have gotten things backwards. We give out of gratitude because of all that God has done for us. And when we face difficult times, we keep on giving because we know He is faithful and will help us through the difficult situation.
Ruth and Naomi face hard times, but they faced their situation squarely and found, that with God’s help, their difficulties were transformed into their destiny. By God’s grace, St. Paul’s will rediscover anew and afresh that Jesus is indeed the same, Yesterday, Today and Forever. We will rediscover that our destiny is in Him! Amen.