Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
3:1 Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. 2 Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” 5 She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”
4:13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (NRSV).
A Moabite Woman
I proudly admit it. I’m a Star Wars fan. I can’t wait for The Force Awakens to come out in theatres. I got to watch Return of the Jedi when it came out in movie theatres in 1983. No, I didn’t see the first two moves in the theatres I wasn’t even a year old when Star Wars was released in May of 1977. And I was only three when The Empire Strikes Back came out. But I was six when Return of the Jedi was released. I got to go see it as part of a friend’s birthday party.
I went to see all of the 1997 Special Edition re-releases in the theatres. Joy and I chose the piece of music called Throne Room from the end of the first movie as the recessional for our wedding. You know, the one where Luke, Han, and Chewie walk up and get those big gaudy medals from Princess Leia.
Yeah. We walked out to that.
In my office, I have a book called The Gospel According to Star Wars. It examines the Star Wars saga in light of mythology and Scripture. What we discovered with the release of the Prequel Trilogy, is that the entire six-movie saga was not really about the growth and success of Luke Skywalker so much as the tragedy and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Even by the end of Return of the Jedi, you know you pitied Darth Vader and were glad to see his apparition standing with Obiwan Kenobe and Yoda.
Stories of tragedy and redemption hold us captive. They put us on the edge of our seats, whether it’s a villain who gets redeemed, or tragic circumstances that are overcome.
It’s why Ruth is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s a story of tragedy and redemption. It’s a story of impossible circumstances being overcome through grit, hospitality, fidelity, and a little scheming. And, let me be honest, it’s a love story. I like love stories. We all do. In fact, I think the love story I’m living is the best one ever. Even in action-adventures, we all want the love story arc to happen, but especially so in the midst of tragedy.
Naomi’s life was full of tragedy. Elimelech and Naomi, were living in Bethlehem with their two sons, Mahon and Chilion. Then, a terrible famine struck the land. In a twist of irony, Elimelech took his family away from Bethlehem, which means House of Bread, to forge a new course for themselves where they could actually get bread and live. They ended up in the land of Moab, which was a long-time adversary of Israel. Then, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi to raise two boys in a foreign land.
Naomi’s two sons grew up in Moab and married their local sweethearts, Ruth and Orpah. When Naomi had lived there ten years, both of her sons died. Naomi was left without a husband, without sons, and with two daughters-in-law who were now her responsibility. They were three women in a patriarchal culture with little means to provide for themselves. Beyond that, Naomi was a foreign woman in a patriarchal culture.
Naomi decided her best hope was to go back home to Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law went with her, but Naomi tried to stop them. She begged Orpah and Ruth to go back to their mother’s house so they could marry again among their own people. She reasoned with them, telling them she had nothing to offer either of them.
This was Naomi’s way of showing hospitality to Orpah and Ruth. It was her way of seeking security for her beloved daughters-in-law. Naomi wanted Orpah and Ruth to go back so they could be safe and find a future. Naomi believed she had no future. It’s evidenced when she got back to Bethlehem and was recognized. The women said, “Is this Naomi?” whose name means pleasant. But Naomi said, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” which means bitter. She went on to say, “For the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (1:20-21, NRSV).
Naomi was a woman who, at this point in her life, was utterly undone. She had no hope. She saw no future. She believed God has brought this suffering upon her. She was lost. She was completely and utterly lost.
So Naomi told Orpah and Ruth to leave her. Naomi loved them, and she didn’t want them to suffer in her misfortunes. They had a chance at life again. They had a chance at security. But not with Naomi. They should return home and remarry. At first, Orpah and Ruth both refused to leave their mother-in-law.
Imagine the bond Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah must have had with one another. They were with each other when Orpah and Ruth lost their husbands, Naomi’s sons. They were shelter for one another during the worst times of their lives. They took refuge in each other. They cared for each other through their grief. Held on to each other as they wept at night. They loved each other deeply. But Naomi’s forceful reasoning eventually won Orpah over. She kissed her mother-in-law and went back. I can’t imagine the depth of Orpah’s sorrow as she obeyed Naomi and walked away from her. I wonder how many times she had to stop herself from turning around and running back. She left because her mother-in-law told her to go.
A lot of times, when the book of Ruth is being discussed, I hear people say, Ruth was faithful. Orpah wasn’t. Ruth clung to Naomi. Orpah abandoned her. But that simply isn’t the reality of what’s happening in the book. Orpah and Ruth were both being faithful to Naomi, but in different ways.
Orpah was faithful through her obedience to Naomi’s requests. When Orpah finally went back to her people, Naomi knew Orpah would be okay. I’m sure it was a huge relief for Naomi to have that certainty for the daughter-in-law she loved so deeply. Naomi would have been grateful that Orpah listened to her. No one can describe Orpah’s action as unfaithfulness.
Ruth was faithful to Naomi in a way that probably broke Naomi’s heart and worried her half to death. Ruth clung to Naomi and made this extraordinary statement: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16b-17, NRSV).
We hear Ruth’s words and we immediately think of her faithfulness. And rightly so. But it’s more than that. Ruth’s words are actually a statement of profound hospitality. We usually think of hospitality as something we can provide for others. It’s a gift we can give, whether it’s food, shelter, or even entertainment. But Ruth is a widow with no sons. She’s poor. She has nothing to give to Naomi but herself.
The only path Ruth could see was that she must care for her mother-in-law no matter the cost to herself or to Naomi. It probably broke Naomi’s heart that Ruth was so darn persistent. She wanted what was best for Ruth, but Ruth wouldn’t see reason. She was bound and determined to share whatever fate belonged to Naomi, even death. Ruth was simply living out her understanding of faithfulness to Naomi because that’s all she knew how to do. Naomi’s well-being belonged to Ruth as much as Ruth’s well-being belonged to Naomi.
When they got to Bethlehem, Naomi sought to secure Ruth’s future. She hatched a plan that could either be described as clever or dangerous, and probably a lot of both. Boaz has already taken notice of Ruth in the fields during the harvest. But Naomi decided to play a part Jane Austen couldn’t have written any better. As the opening words of Pride and Prejudice state: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Poor Boaz didn’t stand a chance!
Naomi intended to make Ruth look even more attractive to Boaz. So she sent an unmarried Moabite woman out to the threshing floor, among a group of men who were very likely drunk, so she could lay down next to one of those likely-drunken men, after uncovering him in some way. Naomi’s ended her plan by saying, “and he will tell you what to do.”
You bet he would!
And we know Boaz was a little tipsy because the Hebrew that the NRSV translates as “he was in a contented mood” really says, “the heart was good.” It’s an idiom that means he was too drunk to make good decisions. It’s a little surprising that Ruth’s response to this plan is, Okay. I can do that.
So after Boaz passes out, Ruth sneaked up, uncovered him, and lay down. Boaz woke up at midnight, rolled over, and was surprised to find a woman laying with him. But instead of Boaz telling Ruth what to do, as Naomi envisioned, it’s Ruth who told Boaz what to do. She invited him to spread his cloak over her because he’s her next-of-kin. Ruth offers Boaz the choice to marry her.
In the end, Naomi and Ruth’s hospitality and fidelity to each other payed off. Boaz married Ruth, and redeemed Naomi from a future of destitution. The child born from Ruth and Boaz’s union was a promise of security for Naomi in her old age.
But more than that, it almost appears that God was the grand schemer in the story. We think Naomi had a plan, but God took their sorrow, their plight, their devastation, and used their fidelity to each other for good. The child’s name was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David the King.
God works through the hospitality and fidelity we show to strangers and pilgrims, and family and friends, in ways we can scarcely imagine. Ruth and Naomi’s story of tragedy and redemption reminds us, even challenges us, to accept those who are foreigners and outcasts, those who are different and other. God can build us into a beautiful community with grace that extends to generation after generation.
One scholar suggested the final verses of Ruth could be summarized with a variation of Hebrews 13:2: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained the great-grandmother of a king unawares. I kind of like that. Because you never know what beauty God might bring forth in the future from those we might hardly consider today. But this poor Moabite woman is proof that everyone is worth our attention. And everyone is worthy of our hospitality.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).