We all have hard lives. There are so many clichés … but, bad things happen to good people. Tragedy or loss is not necessarily caused by bad choices or the sinfulness in our lives. Sometimes bad things just happen. If we live long enough, we are going to face challenges and situations that are filled with grief, sorrow, suffering and loss.
Two of the five “churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials” (as written in the Washington Post) are the kitschy phrases we church people tend to use to comfort each other during challenging times. Phrases like: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” And “God is in control” or “God must have a plan for this.”
Naomi’s life seemed especially difficult. She, her husband, Elimelek, and children were forced by a famine to migrate to a new land. They left the land of their people, Bethlehem in Judah, and moved to the land of Moab. They were aliens making the best of it in a foreign culture. Elimelek died. But their sons had grown (making them 1.5 generation immigrants) and married Moabite women. Within a decade her two sons Mahlon and Kilion also died. She was left with her two daughter-in-laws but no male children to take care of them or to provide heirs for Elimelek, Mahlon or Kilion. For women at this time, providing a male heir is the mark of success and wellbeing.
Having no future in Moab, Naomi decides to return to Judah. Being loyal daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, prepare to go with her. Naomi, though, knows what it’s like to leave home for a strange land, so she encourages her daughter-in-laws to stay in Moab and return to their families and their familiar ways with the hope they will find new husbands. Orpah decides to go back to Moab, but Ruth goes with Naomi to Judah.
This is another story of redemption. When things go “bitter” with Naomi, God works through the faithfulness of Ruth to set things right and bless her and her husband, Elimelech, with heirs. Some say that this was Gods plan all along, but I don’t think so. It was God, working through the faithfulness (obedience and compassion) of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, who “makes lemonade” out of the “lemons” of their lives.
For me, that’s the hope of the Gospel, seen even here in this Old Testament story. Ruth is one of the named ancestors of Jesus … By naming her we are reminded of the redeeming work of God throughout history.
When we believe that God causes bad things to happen as part of some master plan, or due to some fault or sin in ourselves … we miss out on the full mystery of God. We, no doubt, get angry at God, and the bitterness of our life becomes a part of us. Naomi (which means sweet) says that she should be called “Mara” or bitter. She sounds bitter when she blames God for the tragedy she’s suffered. Yet, when she sees the hope and faithfulness of Ruth, she starts relying on God again … she gives Ruth advice … and the bitterness makes way for God’s sweetness to reign.
As I understand the culture of the time, Ruth was doubly outcast. She was a foreigner (a Moabite) AND she was a widow. She had none of the normal support structure that the other members of the Israelite community would have enjoyed. Yet she decided to follow Naomi anyway. When they got to Naomi’s homeland, Ruth had to find a way to support herself. So she took to gleaning in the barley fields. What that meant was that she went through the fields that had already been harvested, looking for anything that the hired workers might have missed. Whatever she found would be what she, and probably Naomi, would live on. Fortunately for her, she was taken under the wing of Boaz, a wealthy member of Naomi’s family.
This may be a stretch, but the idea of “gleaning” struck me from this. Specifically how it relates to us today, and our economic practices. The Bible recognizes that the poor are a fact of life, but it ALSO instructs that the poor should be provided for. The fields should not be stripped bare. There should be a remainder left for those in need. These gleanings were not a “handout.” It’s just a case of the wealthy NOT greedily taking every last scrap available to them. I think we could learn from that. We seem to have the attitude of “It’s mine. I earned it. Get your own.” This leaves the less fortunate with nothing to glean. No way to sustain themselves.
This week we’ll be reading the story of Ruth. That’s Chapter 9: The Faith if a Foreign Woman. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Ruth 1-4