“Where You Go, I Will Go”
For the last few Sundays, I’ve been focusing my preaching on the Gospel readings from Mark. But today and next week, I would like to pay more attention to the texts from the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book of only four chapters that tells the story of an Israelite woman named Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth.
It’s significant that the book is named in honour of Ruth, the foreigner. And it’s also significant that she is named again in the Book of Matthew when the author of the Gospel lists the genealogy of Jesus. Biblical genealogies usually include the names of the fathers and their sons, with the one in Matthew starting with Abraham, going down to King David, and continuing along as far as Joseph and Jesus.
Only a few times is there a mother listed. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is of course included. And so is Ruth. It says: “…Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…” and on from there. So, Ruth was a significant figure in the history of God’s People Israel, in spite of the fact that she came from another land and ethnic group.
And I think it’s not just because she was the great, great, great, great (25 greats) grandmother of Jesus. But it’s also because of the way she lived righteously in the sight of God and demonstrated the faithfulness of God in her decisions and actions.
But the story begins with Naomi. Naomi and her husband Elimelech were Ephrathites – Ephrath being an earlier name for Bethlehem in Judah. And Naomi and Elimelech had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. This family lived in Ephrath in the time before there were kings to rule over Israel and Judah, just a couple of generations before God set up a monarchy to assist the people in living together well. It was the time in which the people were ruled by judges who arbitrated between people and tried (not very successfully) to maintain justice.
The time when the judges ruled is described as one of the worst times in Israel’s history. Like the period of decline within the ancient Roman Empire, the Israelite nation began to crumble from within. The Book of Judges repeatedly states that during this time “when there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” As each family or group fought for its rights alone, the society became fractured.
The Book of Judges runs downhill, from bad to worse. The last five chapters contain some of the ugliest stories in the Bible – tales of sexual assault, idolatry, civil war, thievery, rape, and murder. No enemy does all this: Israelites do it to each other. Clearly, the exalted nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, has lost its sense of direction. And after all this, the Book of Ruth shines like a beautiful diamond against this bleak background.
Naomi’s story begins with great hardship and suffering for her family. Along with everyone else in Judah, Naomi’s family was hit hard by a famine in the land. The city where they lived would later be called “Bethlehem” which literally means “House of Bread” but there was no bread for them there at that time, prompting them to become economic refugees to the land of Moab where they remained.
That was only the first part of the struggle. At some point, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons. Trying to make a future for the family, the sons take Moabite wives – one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. Ten years pass, and for an unknown reason neither of the couples have any children. Then tragically, Mahlon and Chilion die as well, leaving Naomi alone except for her daughters-in-law.
It’s important to note that there was almost nothing worse than being a widow in the ancient world. Widows were taken advantage of or ignored. They would equate to the homeless in North American society. They were almost always poverty-stricken, as they had no means to earn a living and weren’t permitted to own property.
God’s law provided that the nearest relative of the dead husband should care for the widow; but Naomi had no relatives in Moab, and she did not know if any of her relatives were alive in Israel.
Can you imagine what her situation must have felt like? Perhaps some of you can… not because you’ve been in Naomi’s situation exactly, but you’ve had one loss after another, too many tragedies and disappointments piled on top of each other, and you know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by your problems and not to know which way to go or what to do.
While our whole world has been experiencing the struggles of the global pandemic, just as the land of Judah was hit with a famine, perhaps you have been devastated by a heavier load of illness, grief, loss, or tragedy. It’s been one thing after the next, and too much for anyone to handle.
Have you raised that question, that must have been in Naomi’s mind as well, “Why is this happening to me?” Have you wondered, “Why me, God? Why is everything bad happening to me? Where are you while my life is falling apart? Why are you punishing me? Why have you abandoned me?”
While Naomi’s name literally means “pleasant, lovely, and delightful” she calls herself “Mara” instead, which means “bitter and sad.” She says, “God has turned against me,” and she just hopes that God won’t turn against her daughters-in-law as well.
The biblical story does not answer the question of why. There’s no explanation for the famine that turned them into refugees. We don’t know what caused all the deaths in the family, nor do we know why the women are childless.
But when the author of the story asks the question, “Where is God in all this?” she attributes none of Naomi’s tragedies to God, not even the famine. Instead, the author says that it is God who has given the people food back in Judah, providing Naomi with a place to return and seek help.
This story reminds me of the many times when I’ve had that theological conversation with people in the midst of the difficulties of their lives. Because I am a pastor, people often ask me the why question. Why is God doing this to me? Why is God not preventing these terrible events?
And I always struggle to answer. The most honest answer I have is “I don’t know.” And then, if I am brave, I tell them that I don’t believe God causes the bad things that happen, or that God wishes harm on any of us. I wonder if we can try to look for God’s presence and love in any small blessings that are shining through the darkness, but sometimes that is very difficult.
However, I notice that Ruth’s response to Naomi’s terrible struggle is different. She doesn’t reply to Naomi’s despair with theology. She doesn’t scold Naomi for blaming God. She doesn’t try to convince her that God is responsible for the good things in life, not the difficulties.
Instead, she just stays with her. “Ruth holds a thoroughly action-oriented, thoroughly pragmatic theology. She does not argue with Naomi’s perception of events, nor does she assert her own. She simply communicates presence. She refuses to leave.
“It’s not about God’s actions or intents, but her own. Ruth will worship the God that Naomi believes abandoned her. And she swears to do what four other people – Elimelech, Mahlon, Chilion, and Orpah – couldn’t do: to stay.”
It’s hard to know exactly why Ruth decided to go with Naomi back to Judah. Naomi certainly thought that Ruth and Orpah would both have a better chance at a good life if they went back to their families of origin in Moab and tried to find new husbands. And going with Naomi meant travelling to a foreign land for Ruth, learning customs and a religion that were not her own, and binding herself to an elderly widow that she would need to support somehow.
The only thing I can think of that would cause Ruth to stay with Naomi was love. She must have loved her very deeply. And she showed her love through the gift of her presence and faithfulness – the Hebrew word used is Chesed – the steadfast love and faithfulness that is attributed most often to God.
Using words that are sometimes paraphrased at weddings in the vows of couples intending to bind themselves to one another for life, Ruth promises Naomi: “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!”
And it is in those vows and their fulfillment that God is present and active, even though Ruth and Naomi don’t know that yet. “Where is God in all this?” Naomi may still be wondering. But one day, she will be able to look back on her experience and recognize God’s presence in Ruth, in Ruth’s vow, and in Ruth’s faithfulness to that vow. God’s grace was walking right beside Naomi, unseen, yet refusing to leave her.
If your life right now feels like Naomi’s did in the midst of her time of crisis, it may be very difficult to see God’s presence and help. But that doesn’t mean that God is not with you, only that you may not recognize the divine presence until you can look back on the experience later.
And so, if you’ve been through challenges in the past, I invite you to do that now. Consider how God walked with you through your one tragedy after another, through your loss, grief, or pain.
Was God present through a spouse who stayed faithful and supported you through difficulties? Was God present through family members or friends who cared and prayed and supported you through illness or grief? Was God present through advocates and helpers who paid attention to your needs and did what they could to assist you? Was God present through a still small voice that spoke to you in the quiet, and encouraged you to hold on or to keep going?
Ruth was not a rich, powerful person who could easily help and solve all Naomi’s problems. She had very few resources and shared many of the vulnerabilities that Naomi had. But she loved Naomi, and she clung to her, and we (who know the end of the story) know that Ruth’s presence and faithfulness were a gift of grace.
And one day, the women of Judah would say of Naomi: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may God’s name be renowned in Israel.”
May the same be true for you today, and all the days of your life. Whatever circumstances you may face, may you know God’s presence, faithfulness, and love beside you all the way.