Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Empty Ones: Sermon on Ruth 1 and 2

"Ruth" by Henry Ryland (1856-1924)

Scripture can be found here...
Almost 20 years ago, an unnamed character in a mostly obscure comic strip with a niche audience was talking about her criteria for which movies she was willing to see.  She said, “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man.” This little sentence, penned somewhat offhandedly by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, took on a life of its own. It came to be known as the Bechdel test, a kind of feminist litmus test for the full representation of women in art and culture. It’s not that people who are interested in those things won’t see anything that doesn’t pass the test—believe me, we’d be watching precious few movies and TV shows if we held to that standard. But—it’s a useful tool, not perfect, just consciousness-raising.

The Book of Ruth is one of just four books in the Bible that passes the Bechdel test.[i] That means that the book of Ruth contains at least two characters—in fact, there are three—who are women, who have names, and who have at least one conversation that is not about a man.

This makes Ruth a remarkable book. It’s a remarkable book written for a pivotal moment in the history of God’s people. The opening sentence tells us that the story is set in the time of the Judges, but scholars will tell you it was written much later, in the time of the return from the Babylonian exile.

This is the background for the book of Ruth, also called throughout the book, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth is not from Bethlehem in Judah, she is not a Jew. She is a foreigner.

The names are important and revealing in this story. The book begins as the tale of a man, Elimelech—a name that means, “My God is king.” Though we don’t have a God who intervenes in obvious ways in this narrative, that name—My God is king—sets the tone for a story in which God’s hand seems to be guiding people and determining outcomes. Elimelech sets out from Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and his two sons for Moab. They are being forced to flee to another land because there is a famine in Bethlehem—Bethlehem, a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread.” There was a famine in the house of bread, which tells us that something is very wrong; things are topsy-turvy, upside down. And Elimelech’s sons are named “Mahlon” and “Chilion,” which translate “sickness” and “wasting,” so, that’s not good. Still, they marry our heroine, the Moabite Ruth (which means kindness) and another Moabite woman named Orpah[ii] (which can mean shadow or darkness). Naomi’s name means “pleasant.”

Here’s why it matters that the book of Ruth was written at the end of the Babylonian exile. After about sixty years of captivity in Babylon, the Jews were permitted at last to return to the land of Judah. During the exile, the priests and scholars of the people had spent much of their time of study and prayer attempting to figure out why God had allowed this terrible thing to happen to them. They came to believe that it was their own fault, that the people had worshiped other gods, and they laid much of the blame for that behavior on foreigners. Aliens. People of other ethnic backgrounds. As they returned from exile, strict laws, draconian laws, went into effect, prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and foreigners. Those who were already married to foreigners were required to divorce, to split up their families. Jewish men were required to send away their foreign wives and children. The book of Ruth, set in another, earlier time, is a story about an alien, a foreign wife, Ruth the Moabite.

Back to our story. All three men die, leaving behind all three women as widows, and Naomi also becomes a mother who has lost her sons. In our day, this would be considered a tragedy of the greatest proportions. The depth of pain and loss for any family who loses one member is great. This family has been hit particularly hard.

But there’s more than the human, emotional toll of grief and loss. There is also the social reality of what it meant to be a woman in that era. These three women have entered a nightmare. In this ancient world, women without men to protect and care for them are incredibly vulnerable. They are in constant danger—danger of starvation, or danger of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. They can’t go out and get a job to support themselves. Well, they could. But it’s not a job any woman really wants. Naomi as the matriarch of her tiny and decimated family makes the decision. They will return to Bethlehem, because there is news that the land is producing food again, the famine is over. There is bread again in the house of bread. Their best hope lies in returning to the land of Naomi’s birth, the place where they might be able to find food and family.

And then a struggle ensues. Naomi lets it be known that even this decision is not foolproof. It’s as if her conscience is telling her: don’t drag these young women along. There are no guarantees. Naomi’s words to them are heartbreaking. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” [1:8b]. Naomi puts herself in the same category as the dead. Naomi is all but dead herself.

When Ruth and Orpah protest, she refutes their pleas with dark humor about the unlikely scenario of her giving birth to sons again, so that they could grow up and marry the young women. “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me” [1:13b]. Naomi cannot account for all that has happened to her, except to believe that God has turned away from her. She is bitter. She is a shell of her former self. She is empty.

Orpah weeps, kisses her mother-in-law, and heads down the road towards her parents’ home.

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!”
~Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth is a remarkable character in a remarkable book. She chooses to throw in her lot with another woman, against all reasonable assessments of possible risks and rewards. She chooses, further, to bind herself with a covenantal vow, to someone who is, to her, a foreigner. Those of you who were here last Sunday, forgive me for repeating myself, but this is worth understanding. The statement, “May the Lord do thus and so to me,” was surely accompanied by a gesture. A gesture like this, [one indicating the cutting of the throat] or like this [one indicating being stabbed with a knife]. That is covenant language—the Hebrew always refers to “cutting a covenant,” because covenants are always sealed in blood—one way or another. Ruth has promised, on her own blood, to stay with her foreigner mother-in-law, who is also a different religion AND a woman. No pro-con list would have resulted in this choice.

What could Naomi do? The two women, Judean mother-in-law and Moabite daughter-in-law, head to Bethlehem.

They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest. By the time they get there, their stomachs are as empty as their hearts, and Ruth the Moabite offers to go to a barley field to glean. Gleaning was a practice in ancient Israel and Judah that was codified into law. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is mandated: when farmers gather their crops—their barley, their wheat, their grapes—they are not to strip the plants bare, and if they leave a sheaf in the field by accident, they are to leave it there. These gleanings are for the poor. They are for widows and orphans. They are for aliens, for those we might call “illegal immigrants,” those who have no particular right to be there. Sometimes the text explains, “You will be blessed if you do this.” Other times it simply says, “I am the Lord your God.” We provide for those who are hungry because it is what the people of God do.

Ruth goes to glean. By coincidence, or by Providence—that quietly guiding hand of God—it turns out that the field she gleans in is owned by one Boaz, whose name means “by strength.” He is related to Naomi’s dead husband. And Boaz notices Ruth. He asks questions about her, and he learns of her loyalty and dedication to Naomi. He learns that she has been gathering the gleanings of barley since early in the morning without stopping.

Boaz speaks to Ruth, and tells her to stay in his field, to stay near his people for protection. He gives her some food to fill her empty stomach, and some kind words to fill her empty heart. And when she returns to the place where she and Naomi have been staying, her report of the day fills Naomi with hope—for the first time since she was reeling with the emptiness of her sorrow and loss.

As we end chapter two, we know there will be bread on Ruth and Naomi’s table once again. And we know that Naomi sees even greater hopes for fullness, for both herself and her daughter-in-law.

It has been a devastating summer, this summer of 2014. All around the world there are wars and rumors of war. Israel and Palestine seem to be abiding by an uneasy cease-fire. The streets of Ferguson, Missouri are still ringing out with gunfire after a young, unarmed black man was killed, and police responded with military force to peaceful protests, which then turned violent, and led to opportunistic looting.  In Iraq the ISIS forces continue to terrorize Christians as well as specific ethnic groups. And these are just the stories that have been in the news.

One theme runs through all these headlines. The theme is conflict based on difference. The difference may be religion, it may be ethnicity, it may be skin color. These are old, old fights, many of them. But in each case, thinking humans are choosing, for the most part, to align themselves tribally. They speak of “those people” when describing those whose actions they find abhorrent.

The book of Ruth tells another story, a cool breeze blowing through a landscape of boiling anger. It tells of love and commitment across the boundaries that ordinarily divide us. It tells of a woman from the region that, today, is part of Jordan, who gave her life and loyalty to another woman from what, today, is part of Israel.

This story was written at a time when immigrants, aliens, were demonized, when they were blamed for everything that was wrong in the post-exile society. This story was written to offer another perspective, one that holds to the notion that, in the words of one writer, “Biological family is too small of a vision. Patriotism is far too myopic. A love for our own relatives and a love for the people of our own country are not bad things, but our love does not stop at the border.”[iii]

The story of Ruth is the story of love that doesn’t stop at the border. It’s a story of human beings giving one another a chance, ignoring the walls that normally divide them, even those walls their religion is telling them to put up. 
-->It’s a story of radical commitment, against all odds, that gives God’s quiet and powerful hand an opportunity to take those who were empty and make them full again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Ruth, Tobit, Mark, and Luke. The number falls to three if you leave out the Apocrypha (Tobit).
[ii] “Orpah” can also mean “mane” or “back of the neck.”
[iii] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
[iv] Noam Zion, Megillat RUTH: Hesed and Hutzpah 

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