Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, March 24, 2019
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The Family of God

Ruth 1:1-18

The book of Ruth is unique in the Bible. It is a short story, mostly detached from the larger historical narrative. It might be the closest thing the Bible contains to a “love story,” a tale of romance. Some Bible scholars think the story is remembered because of its connection to the lineage of King David. Perhaps it was just an interesting story. Maybe it was remembered because there were some who thought less of David for having a Moabite ancestress. Perhaps the story was remembered to remind folks that Ruth was no ordinary Moabite woman.

The story comes from the time of the Judges, which was not a high point in Israelite history. It begins with a man named Elimelech from the village of Bethlehem. Elimelech is forced to leave Bethlehem in a time of drought and famine. Unlike Jerusalem, Bethlehem had no natural springs. They had to rely on rain, and so drought was a bigger threat.

They went to Moab. Moab was the region across the Dead Sea from Judea. It’s about 30 miles wide east to west, by 60 miles north to south. It extended from the Arnon River in the north to the Zered River in the south, and the eastern border was the Arabian Desert. When the rains did not fall in Judea, they often did fall in Moab, just because of the way the weather patterns worked.

The Moabite people were distant relatives of the Israelites. They were the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, but they didn’t get along well, as is frequently the case with relatives. The Moabites had refused passage to the Israelites when they were at the end of the Exodus, and so the Israelites refused to allow them to go to the Tabernacle to worship God.

Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, and their two sons settle in Moab for the long haul, more than ten years. Their sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. But things go poorly there. Elimelech, Mahlon, and Kilion all die, leaving the three women as widows.

Being a widow in the ancient Near East was not a good deal. Without a husband, a woman lacked social status and financial security. They were dependent on the generosity of society. In Israel, they were guaranteed the right of gleaning, that is going through the fields after the harvest, and presumably it was the same in Moab. At least Ruth and Orpah are young enough that they can return to their own families and hopefully be remarried.

When the famine in Judea ends, Naomi intends to go back to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah both want to go with her. But Naomi discourages them. “Go back to your mothers.” We know Ruth’s father was still alive, but it was the mothers who did most of the work of

arranging marriages. Naomi has nothing to offer them. She has no more sons, and she is too old to have more. Their prospects are better in Moab.

Orpah does the sensible thing and goes back. But Ruth insists on staying. She has no obligation to Naomi, so this is an act of HESED, “steadfast loving faithfulness.” She insists, “I will go where you go, live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In the ancient Near East mind, gods were tied to the land; so to leave Moab was to leave her gods behind.

Ruth is often lifted up as an exemplary figure. But what about Naomi? There must have been something about her that compelled Ruth to stay. What was it? It’s hard to be sure. We only see part of the story. But in spite of the tragedies in her life, Naomi kept her faith in God. She is bitter. She is grieving and angry. But that’s part of the grieving process, but she doesn’t give up on God.

Naomi also shows a lot of wisdom in the story. And she wants what is “best” for Ruth and Orpah. Even though it means having less for herself, she wants them to stay in Moab because that’s their best chance.

Whatever it is exactly, Ruth sees something in Naomi that compels her to want to stay with her, and be a part of her people, and to have Naomi’s God as her own God. And I think all of us should be challenged when we read this story to ask ourselves, “Am I living my life in such a way that other people want to become a part of my people, and have my God as their God?”

The fact of the matter is people come to God through people. If I were to ask you for the story of how you came to faith, you would talk about people who made an impression of faith on you. I can almost guarantee that. What kind of impression are you leaving on others? This isn’t to take away from the importance of sharing God’s word, but people need to see God’s word being lived in our lives first before they will respond to God’s word being spoken.

The climax of Ruth’s profession is verse 17, and often it gets translated wrongly. Ruth doesn’t say “till death separates us.” She says, “Not even death will separate us.” Practically speaking, this means she intends to bury Naomi when she dies, which was a practical concern for a widow, and then to be buried with her in Naomi’s family tomb. She is NOT going back to Moab. But more profoundly, that is our profession as the people of God, “Not even death separates us.” The members of our family of faith in this life will be the members of our family of faith for all eternity.

Today we remember those who have passed on from this life, but we do so remembering that “Not even death separates us” in Jesus Christ.


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