Today we are looking at the story of Ruth. Ruth is a short book—only four chapters. The gist of the story is this:
Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave their home in Bethlehem and move to Moab because there is a famine in Bethlehem. They live there for several years with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech dies. Mahlon and Chillion marry Moabite women. Both Mahlon and Chillion die. Now there are three destitute widows: Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.
In the land of Moab, Naomi is a foreigner with no rights and no man to protect and provide for her. There was an animosity between the Israelites and Moabites and Naomi would be faced with the additional challenges of racism and hatred. Naomi has some choices to make. She feels she is too old to remarry. So she can stay where she is as a widow and with her daughters-in-law. She can stay where she is and send her daughters-in-law home to their families. She could return to Bethlehem and her family with or without her daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to her home and her family. She urges her daughters-in-law to return home and Orpah leaves Naomi and Ruth. They head off to Bethlehem and Ruth becomes the foreigner.
Circumstances can change and reverse quickly depending on what happens in our lives. This story is one in which the circumstances of the characters, for good or bad, are often uncertain and temporary. Following Naomi and Ruth’s return to Bethlehem, Ruth works hard to help Naomi survive. She is brought under the protection of Boaz—a relative of the dead Elimelech. Naomi plots a bit with Ruth and the upshot is that Ruth ends up marrying Boaz. Boaz and Ruth have a child who becomes the ancestor of David. The genealogies that we find in the Christian scriptures trace Jesus’ heritage back to Ruth and Boaz – to an Israelite and a foreigner.
God works through us and in unexpected places. The New Creed reminds us that God works in us and others by the spirit. Sometimes we like to think God works in us and not in those people. For Naomi to be a foreigner and find food in a strange land reminds us of the kindness of strangers and the kindness of people who are not like us. And then Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem and it is Ruth who is dependent on strangers. She is welcomed and protected and even finds a husband. The outsider is welcomed and cared for. Our humanity is the connection to the sacred. As long as we see people as us and them, we will struggle to maintain strict boundaries and struggle against the spirit.
When I was in Israel and Palestine we had an opportunity to meet two men who were part of the Bereaved Families Circle. They started with an us and them mentality—God is on my side and on the side of my people. The Israeli man told how is daughter had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. The Palestinian man told how is son had been killed by an Israeli soldier. As they spoke to us that evening they told their stories they cried together and held each other and called each other brother. Now they, along with others, work for peace. They are the same in their grief and loss and purpose.
In our own community, we might talk about us and them. We might talk about ourselves and our group of people. Most of us identify as Christian and the New Creed affirms that God works through us. Does God working through us exclude God working through our Muslim, traditional Aboriginal or Hindu neighbours? Does God working through gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender people exclude God working through people who identify as straight?
God works through people. We are the hands and feet of Christ whoever and wherever we are. Ruth and Naomi found compassion even among strangers. Throughout history people have tried to identify themselves and others based on the group they seem to belong to. Being surrounded by people who seem to be like us helps us to feel safe and often gives a sense of security. It keeps people who are not like us at bay and prevents the discomfort of recognizing that the other is not so different after all. Ruth and Naomi needed to eat and survive. They needed companionship. The name Ruth means companion or friendship, reminding us that companionship crosses many boundaries. Ruth crossed a boundary by marrying one of Naomi’s sons. She crossed a boundary by returning with Naomi to Bethlehem. She crossed another boundary by marrying Boaz. In crossing these boundaries, Ruth became an ancestor to Jesus. God works in us and others. God works in the people who seem different from ourselves because we are not so different but drawn together in our humaneness and the spirit of God that is within each of us.
When we feel like we belong—that we are an insider in a family, in a church, in a culture—it is easy to become complacent and forget that not everyone has that experience. Many of us have moments in our lives when we feel like the outsider, the stranger. If you have had that experience, remember what it was like. In the moments when you feel like you might be the insider look for the outsider and intentionally welcome them. Dare to cross a boundary. You might find God working where you least expect.
Ruth speaks to Naomi and continues to break down the barriers between them:
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
When we finally see God working in places we don’t expect we can be reconciled with one another and with God. We can be made anew in God’s image along with the people around us until there is no us and them but God’s people celebrating God’s presence together. In those moments we are reminded that we are not alone. Like Ruth and Naomi, we have companions on life’s journey. Like Ruth and Naomi, God travels with us whether we are in our own community and culture or whether we find ourselves the stranger.