An Unbreakable Embrace
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on October 13, 2019
It was a little over 20 years ago when I enrolled in Hebrew at Luther College to fulfill my foreign language requirement. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was getting into. The class was taught by a man named Richard Simon Hanson. He was a very wise man who as it turned out looked a lot like Yoda. I always imagine him saying: “Speak in Hebrew you will.” Professor Hanson was fluent in some seven or eight languages and said he could get himself around a dozen more. The man was brilliant, though his teaching style was a little unorthodox.
Only three of us enrolled that semester and so we met for class in his office. Rather than teaching translation, Professor Hanson just had us translate. He would arm us with a lexicon and send us away. For our final, we actually gathered in the student union, held hands in a circle and sang one of the Hebrew songs he had taught us. After our first time through he stopped us and he looked directly at me and said, “Ken if you don’t sing louder, I’ll fail you.” I didn’t test whether this was an idle threat — I sang and danced my heart out our second time through and got my A.
The reason I bring up this particular class experience is not to do with the singing and dancing, but because the majority of our semester was actually spent translating the book of Ruth. At the time I thought it was a novel way to teach Hebrew, but later learned that Ruth is often used in introductory Hebrew classes. You see not only is a short book, but it is written in very clear and relatively simple Hebrew, unlike the Psalms, Job and the other books of the Old Testament.
Now I am sure this class wasn’t the first time I went through the book of Ruth, but in my memory that is where I go. I remember as I translated the book how much I enjoyed reading it. It reads like a romantic comedy. I found it to be a charming love story, about the widow Ruth and her admirer Boaz. However, in the end I remember being ready to move on to something a bit more challenging the next semester and I don’t recall going back to the book. At this moment it is a bit embarrassing, to think back about how clueless I actually was back then.
Today, I am blessed to study the stories we read in worship with my good friend, Pastor Marci Glass. I have come to count on Marci to help me see things in new ways. This particular week Marci reminded me that the book I translated and found so charming when I was in college and really even four years ago when I preached on this text, is many things, but one which it is not, is a simple love story between a man and woman. Marci opened my eyes to some of the crazy claims made in this book that is set in the midst of a patriarchal society. A society in which was dominated both by the male and their desires.
The book begins simply enough: “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land.”[i] As the judges are referenced it should be noted that the Book of Judges ends in this way: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[ii]
The book of Judges shares that some of the judges were great, while others were self-serving opportunists. The book is littered with horrific acts, villainous murder and the slaughter of so many. It is a gruesome read of what happens when everyone is out for themselves. It is a time when people wouldn’t look out for one another, or care about community, or welcome the stranger. Foreigners were enemies, or at best, were people to be ignored. It was a time when anarchy reigned and life was cheap — and that is the horror to which the book of Ruth appears.
And while it isn’t as bloody as the book of Judges, the book of Ruth still begins in tragedy. Here it is famine that forces a family of four to leave their home and move to Moab. However, the tragedy of food shortage is soon matched by a tragedy many of us have faced: death of a loved one. The husband and father of this band of four, Elimelech, dies and the woman, Naomi, is left a widow. A particularly fearsome thing in a patriarchal world. Yet, Naomi still has her two sons and is therefore somewhat protected by their male presence. The two sons soon marry Moabite women, but within the decade, both sons die and what remains are three widows. Three widows finding themselves in another kind of famine – a shortage of male protection in a patriarchal society.
Well with word that the food famine in Israel had come to an end — and nothing left for her in the land of Moab — Naomi resolves to head for home. Surprisingly, we read that her two daughter-in-laws go with her. At some point into the journey, Naomi realizes how foolish it is for three widows, two of whom would be foreigners when they reach their destination, to make this trip and gently urges the two women to turn back. Naomi shares how grateful she is for the way they have cared for her, but tells them there is no future in Israel for them.
Orpah and Ruth will not be cast aside so easily. They tell her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”[iii] But Naomi insists. She reminds the two young women that even if she turned out to be like Sarah and by some gynecological fluke managed to produce another son for them to marry, by the time the boy was old enough, they would be ready for the nursing home themselves. Again in a culture of male dominance, no single woman had much of a chance apart from a connection with a man.
And if that weren’t enough, Naomi ends with a statement of anguish and despair. “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”[iv] Now while I don’t believe for a moment God had turned on Naomi, it doesn’t discount that is how she felt. She felt abandoned. Forgotten. Alone. And I suspect Naomi felt by expressing this level of anguish the two women would be compelled to turn back and head home to Moab where hope was present.
And for Orpah it works. Orpah both hears her mother-in-law’s concern and senses when she isn’t wanted and so with a parting kiss, Orpah turns back to Moab. But not Ruth. Instead “Ruth clung to her.”[v] And this is the great and mysterious plot line of the story. Why does Ruth stay with Naomi? Why stay with someone who so obviously wants nothing to do with you? Why hold on to someone who seems to be rejecting your company?
The verb “clung” has been used before. It actually shows up in that ever so familiar wedding passage from Genesis 2: “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife.”[vi] It is act of intimacy… an act of devotion… an act of faithfulness.
So Ruth isn’t getting the point. Naomi is a strong-willed woman with a mind to drop kick Ruth to the curb. With Ruth draped about her, Naomi shouts something to the effect, “Orpah understood. How can you not? Please leave me and go home!”
But Ruth will not. Ruth is strong-willed herself and has made up her mind — she will not be deterred — and in the end gives one of the great Biblical speeches. A speech that has been made famous and perhaps even trivialized by white cake, beautiful gowns and tuxedos. For while it comes up in weddings, the power of Ruth’s speech is completely lost in that kind of setting.
A wedding is a celebration of two people who have chosen one another. Two people who make public vows of their intent to spend the rest of their life together. That is not what is happening when Ruth makes her powerful declaration. Ruth’s statement isn’t said between two people who have decided to spend their future together. In fact, it is the exact opposite.
Ruth has been dismissed by Naomi — not once, not twice, but three times. Naomi is doing everything in her power to get rid of Ruth… yet Ruth still says: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!”[vii]
For Ruth there is no possibility or question of leaving Naomi alone — even as Naomi thinks she wants to be alone. Ruth goes on to say that she will go where Naomi goes — she will live where Naomi lives — Naomi’s people are her people — Naomi’s God is her God — she will even die where Naomi dies and will be buried where Naomi is buried. And if that weren’t enough, Ruth makes an oath that God might strike her down if she ever parts from Naomi. Ruth is making a forever and ever commitment to a woman who has been trying to get rid of her. After which, in the verse following our reading, it says: “(Naomi) said no more.”[viii] But what could she say? What more is there to say? How do you respond to such persistence?
It is exceedingly rare to find such radical devotion so beautifully displayed. Perhaps even more rare is to find it displayed by a foreign widow who is being actively not welcomed by the one who the devotion is directed too. In the face of rampant patriarchy, thorough rejection and against all odds, Ruth clings to Naomi and promises that in life and in death they will be together.
I shared with the Bible Study this week that I am struck by the fact that Ruth appears to be the embodiment of the God she has chosen to embrace. That no matter how we try to run — no matter how we try to convince — no matter what we do — no matter what we say — God will never depart from us. This is the promise on which our faith is built. God will forever cling to you in an unbreakable embrace of forgiveness, grace and love. God will never leave you alone.
That is Good News. For in these first seventeen verses, there are nine renditions of the word “turn.” I see it as a testament to how quickly we as humans change loyalties. We go from one to the next. We turn away — we turn back — we turn another way. We are not dependable. But God is. And God never leaves us alone.
And we see it in this wonderfully charming love story — not between a man and woman — not between Ruth and Boaz — but in Ruth toward Naomi. In their relationship we see God showing up once again… this time in the unlikely form of a Moabite widow… which leaves me wondering in what unlikely way is God showing up in each of our stories today. Amen.
[i] Ruth 1:1 (nrsv)
[ii] Judges 21:25 (nrsv)
[iii] Ruth 1:10 (nrsv)
[iv] Ruth 1:13 (nrsv)
[v] Ruth 1:14 (nrsv)
[vi] Genesis 2:24 (nrsv)
[vii] Ruth 1:16 (nrsv)
[viii] Ruth 1:18 (nrsv)