Ruth 1:12-21 - Stepping Back

Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”

But Ruth said,
“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!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
She said to them,
“Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
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?”

Over spring break, I went to New York City and found myself wandering through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wasn’t planning to go in, but as I came up to the massive building, I couldn’t help but go inside. I got my ticket and walked straight into the first exhibit without grabbing a map. That was my first mistake. It turned out to be the Ancient Egypt exhibit and I kept feeling like I should appreciate the art so I kept lingering and making “impressed” faces. I walked up and down staircases and began to realize the museum was much, much larger than I realized. I finally got a map and found my way to my very favorite works of art—the impressionists. These are the paintings that I have on magnets or cheap posters in my living room all my life and to see the originals was like a dream. I walked aimlessly through the rooms staring at canvases by Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Goh, and Cezanne with a goofy grin on my face. One of my favorite things to do was to stand so close that the painting was just a blur of blobs of different colored paint. Then I would slowly back away until the colors formed something new, and suddenly I was looking at the water lilies again.

I’ve always thought I was looking at the whole picture of the book of Ruth, that is until I stepped a bit closer. At first glance, this looks like Ruth’s story—her Cinderella, happily ever after story; rags to riches with a handsome kinsmen redeemer to boot. The book is named after her, so surely it must be her story. But as I read this opening chapter up close, I began to see the main character isn’t Ruth—it’s Naomi.

Naomi has moved with her husband from her home in Bethlehem to the foreign land Moab only to have her husband and both of her sons tragically die. She is left in a foreign land without power, income, or stability so she does the only thing can do- she goes to the last place that she called home.  Naomi has lost everything, so it’s no surprise that she changes her name from meaning pleasant” to Mara, which means bitter. She seems like Job at this moment—she has lost everything and she names Yahweh as her adversary, as the cause of her anguish and devastation. Naomi believes she has lost God’s love, God’s hesed. 

This is an important Hebrew word because it is the bedrock of Israel’s relationship with God and it saturates the pages of scripture. Hesed is no ordinary kind of love. It is a faithful, selfless, costly love that motivates a person to do voluntarily what no one has a right to expect or ask of them. It shows what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is what God has for Abraham, for Joseph in prison, and for the Israelites in the desert. It is what Ruth has for her mother in law.  But Naomi cannot feel this hesed, she can only feel God’s seeming absence.

Throughout this Easter weekend, I was struck by the fact that Naomi’s story is a death and resurrection story. I couldn’t help but turn to the end of the book. What happens to Naomi? Is she still going by Mara? Is her life still bitter? After all she has been through—the death of her children and husband and an international move, a daring plot to see her daughter in law re-married, can she feel God’s steadfast kindness and devotion again?

The Lord made the once barren Ruth conceive and she had a son. The village responds not just with joy for Ruth, but for Naomi- “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 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.”

Naomi takes this tiny baby boy, the grandchild she’d given up hope in ever having, and lays him on her bosom. The neighborhood women are the ones who give this little boy his name—“A son has been born to Naomi and he shall be named Obed.”

We don’t get to hear Naomi’s voice though, we don’t know if hers is really a Job story. We don’t know if the women of Bethlehem speak what’s on her heart. They certainly see this child as the Lord’s provision and I would guess she was filled with joy as she held him in her arms.

But I would also guess she was filled with the deepest sorrow, for this little child cannot replace the husband and sons she lost. That grief will follow her to her grave. She will never “get over it.” That sorrow will always be mixed in with her joy.

This resurrection of a bloodline that once was dead is beauty out of dust. And as I take yet another step back from the painting, I see this isn’t just Ruth’s story or Naomi’s story—this is God’s story. It’s the story of death and new life, found over and over again in scripture, and in our own lives.

Our lives are filled with death and resurrection stories. Maybe you have stood in Naomi’s shoes, grieving the loss of a family member, or of a miscarriage. Perhaps you have walked alongside someone who has dealt with that pain. But you have also had smaller death and resurrection moments. They don’t compare to the heart-wrenching agony of Naomi’s story, but they are death and resurrection stories nonetheless. The kind that remakes you in ways you never expected. Maybe it was when you lost your job or broke off a serious relationship. These are death and resurrection stories. The death of your pride, of your hopes, of your plans. They are the stories that leave you changed—wounded and scarred and remarkably different.

When I was a junior in college I ran for student body president. I have always been very private about applying for jobs so no one will know if I don’t get them, but this time I had no choice. Posters of my face were all over our small campus and everyone who I was. I was the most qualified candidate by leaps and bounds and I’d wanted it for months. I’d already been working for student government and campaigned for weeks. On election night, I got the phone call I never expected—out of over 1100 votes, I lost by 24. I was devastated and humiliated. I thought this what God had prepared me for, what God had gifted me for. And then a few weeks later, I was sitting alone in the first Presbyterian church I’d ever been inside when I saw a little note in the bulletin that was a job opening for a “middle school coordinator.” I thought to myself, “I love middle schoolers and I love coordinating!” Two months later, I was officially a staff member at Bethany Presbyterian Church. The church where I would eventually become a member and become under care as I pursue Ordination. Without losing that election, I would almost undoubtedly not be standing here today. That’s not to say it didn’t hurt though. It doesn’t erase the agony of walking back into the student government office the next morning with celebration all around for everyone but me. The death of my pride and dreams. But the birth of something utterly new and unexpected.        

Death and resurrection. This is God’s story throughout time, and it is God’s story in Naomi’s life. Naomi says God has turned against her, that God has dealt harshly with her. We hear her stinging accusations, but we don’t hear what God has to say. The text does not answer her question- “Did God cause this agony?” “Why does God let mothers watch their children die?” I desperately wish for concrete answers, but they are not to be found. Instead, we must wait until the end for the women to exclaim—“God has not left you this day!” God was with Naomi in her pain, her emptiness, and sorrow. That is who our God is.

Transformation is what our God does. God does not erase the pain of death but transforms its power. This transformation is not limited to the cross, it is not finished on Easter Morning. God is transforming the power of death each day. Death is not the end of the story, no matter how painful it may be. Death of a loved one, of a child. The death of our hopes and dreams. The death of our pride and expectation. We do not face them alone. These deaths—big and small—are part of God’s story in this world.

We are not the focus of this painting, thanks be to God. We are spots of different colored paint—important and necessary for the beauty, but we are not the main point. These are not our waterlilies, this is God’s garden bridge. It is not all about me, or all about you. It is all about God’s active, present, life changing love for this world.

We aren’t given answers to Naomi’s painful questions. All we are given is an image of an old grandmother, holding her grandson in arms. When Naomi cannot name the truth, her sisters come to her side. When death overwhelms, it is her community who sustains her, who administers God’s hesed to her. They pick up the pieces where she cannot and proclaim the truth—that God has not abandoned her. And that truth is recorded in our holy scripture. The story of a brave widow and a refugee woman who are willing to do whatever it takes.

And Ruth and Naomi’s resilience is so stunning, so incredible that it becomes a part of the fabric of Israel’s story. Naomi's raw and honest relationship with God is passed on to her daughter-in-law, Ruth. And Ruth shares this with her son Obed, who shares with his son Jesse. So it’s no wonder David's psalms are so painfully transparent—his family has been doing this for generations. Theirs are the inheritance of women of valor who cry out to God and are not forgottenGod’s hesed for Ruth and Naomi is a part of Jesus’ inheritance. God’s radical, steadfast love is not contained to one testament. It is who God has always been and will always be.

God’s loving kindness meets us in our grief, when we scream out, “I went away full and You have brought me back empty.” And God says, “I am going with you. Where you go, I go. Where you stay, I stay.”