This Sunday we begin four weeks of reading through the book of Ruth.
An Old Testament story, Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges. This is before the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. The time of the Judges was a pretty chaotic time. Some judges were just and good, such as Deborah. Judges:4-5 describes the rule of Deborah, and concludes with these words, “And the land was peaceful for forty years.” But her righteous rule was the exception, not the rule. While a just judge would rise up in righteousness and peace to lead Israel, more often than not there was no leader or only unjust rulers. And as the book of Judges concludes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right.” Not following God in the covenant promises, society was turning in on itself. This is the setting for the book of Ruth.
This Sunday we’ll read Chapter 1 of Ruth. The story begins with tragedy – a famine in Israel causes Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their two sons to become migrants, fleeing Israel for the more fertile land of Moab. In the land of Moab, located south and east of Bethlehem, on the other side of the Dead Sea, tragedy strikes again. Naomi’s husband dies, and she is left with her two sons. They marry Moabite women, and lived there for about ten years before yet more tragedy befalls Naomi – her two sons die.
To review: famine drives Naomi and her family from her land. Her husband, and later her two sons, die. She is left as a foreigner in a foreign land, with two Moabite daughters-in-law.
Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, to her extended family. After blessing her daughters-in-law to return to their own families as she decided to return to Bethlehem, one of them – named Ruth – insisted on remaining with her. “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay I will say.” Ruth joined Naomi on her journey back to Bethlehem, leaving her home, her family, her country, her culture. In traveling to Bethlehem Naomi was now home, but grieving the loss of her two sons and husband. “Don’t call me Naomi (which means pleasant) but instead call me Mara (which means bitter),” for the Almighty has made me very bitter” Naomi said as her people welcomed her back to Bethlehem. And Ruth was the newcomer, the immigrant, the stranger in a strange land.
But the chapter ends with a word of hope: having left Bethlehem in a time of famine and loss, Naomi and Ruth now arrive in Bethlehem “at the beginning of the barley harvest.” The harvest is about to begin. The famine – and the loss? – is perhaps over.
Themes of loss are obvious in this reading. Naomi loses her husband and sons, her country and culture, and seems to lose her hope and faith in God. “The Almighty has made me very bitter,” she cries out. This reading also bears witness to the amazing loyalty of Ruth to her mother-in-law. Despite Naomi’s urging that Ruth return to her parents, Ruth insists on staying with her even as they move to a foreign land. Her loyalty is noteworthy.
Most of us have experienced significant loss and a sense of isolation at one time or another. Naomi suffers three tragic deaths in her immediate family, all while being uprooted from her home, extended family, and culture. It’s a horribly disorienting experience. She even cries out and blames God for her suffering. Many of us have been there.
Yet she is not alone. We never are. In this instance her daughter-in-law Naomi refuses to leave her. It’s not all warm fuzzies – reading the text closely, I get the impression that Naomi was perturbed that Ruth didn’t leave. “When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.” Ruth was so determined that Naomi simply gave up on trying to get her to go back to her home. Noticeably absent from the text is any reference to joy or affection shared in that moment. “Fine. Come along,” I imagine Naomi saying as she turns to walk north along the western shore of the Dead Sea.
Such is it with us and God. In our isolation, in our grief, in our resignation to going it alone, we are never truly alone. Our Lord sends us angels and companions in our life on Earth, and even when our eyes do not see, our Lord is with us in all we do. Like Ruth, our God is loyal and stubborn and won’t leave us just because we beg so. At some point we, like Naomi, resign ourselves to the truth that God won’t leave us alone.
Our Lord does not leave us alone. Whether we consider that “where two or three are gathered in my name I am with them,” (Matthew 18:20) or, “Lo I will be with you always, even until the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20), or, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you” (John 14:26), Jesus’ promise is clear: we are not alone.
You are not alone. Our Lord, the church, and the angels and companions that surround us are gifts of God and signs of God’s real, active, and persistent presence in our lives.