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.
—Ruth 1:16

The Book of Ruth opens with an ironic twist, a woman, Naomi, her husband and sons must leave Bethlehem—the city name means literally “the city of bread” Beth-lehem—when an extreme famine occurs. They travel to Moab, which is occupied by their enemies, the Moabites.

For ten years they live and settle into in Moab and Naomi’s sons take Moabite wives. Tragedy strikes when all the men die. When Naomi learns once again the harvest is plentiful, she decides to return to Bethlehem, since women cannot live independently in the ancient near east.

Our story picks up on the road between Moab and Bethlehem, kind of a no-man’s land, with a struggle between the women. Listen for God’s presence and what God is doing in this story as I read from the first chapter of Ruth…(Ruth 1:6–18)

Then Naomi started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.

But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.

They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 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, 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.

In my former career, when I moved to a couple of different cities in the southeast, the first question among clients was always “where are you from?” Despite a southern accent I acquired in college, my unusual German maiden name indicated I was not a native. “Where are you from” was as if I were asked: “who’s your daddy?” A sly way of wondering, “can I trust you?” Perhaps you too have experienced this from travels or moving to different parts of the country.

Family of origin often is thought to fix one’s identity and one’s loyalties. You did not abdicate these easily—nor could you shed them in the face of others who felt they were essential to understanding you. Name, hometown, ethnicity are the very foundations of our identity. They either invite relationships or are red flags for exclusion.

Three particular books within Hebrew Scriptures address “the outsider” when the Israelite kingdom was restored: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ruth. They address identity, loyalty, and worthiness.

The prophetic books, Ezra and Nehemiah, specify plans to rebuild the temple, worship rituals to follow, and details, details, details of how to make Jewish culture and their city great again. They ban foreign marriages, demand purging the city of outsiders, and advocate restoring purity within the ethnic bloodline. We don’t read much from Ezra or Nehemiah’s archaic prophecies. They did not work so well.

We read the story of Ruth, often at weddings, and to reaffirm God’s love revealed in our lives…then and now.

This simple novella is more than a charming story. Rabbi Evan Moffic, who was with us in the recent class, The Jewishness of Jesus, sheds some light on understanding of why the message of Ruth was embedded in a story and not a prophetic book. Here is his explanation:

Once upon a time a man named Truth walked around town. He looked down and out. People ignored him. They turned away. He felt frustrated.

Then he saw his friend “Story.” Story dressed beautifully: Rich, luxurious clothes. A top hat and scarf.

Everyone came up to Story. They asked him questions and listened to his answers. He seemed to know just what to say to every person.

Truth then went up to Story and started complaining to him. “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me,” he asked. “What I have to say is so important.”

Story answered, “The problem is not with you, dear Truth. It is with your appearance. If you would take the time to dress up, as I do, people would listen to you.”

Truth understood. From then, he started to dress like Story.

And people started to listen to him. Even when they didn’t like what Truth had to say, they listened. And they understood.

The best teachers know Truth tastes best with Story. And they know that stories reveal the deepest human truths.

Jewish tradition is filled with storytellers, indeed, a Jewish proverb teaches that God created the world because God loves stories.

Moffic concludes with “Stories fill us with wonder, and truth.” The life-giving message of Ruth, told against religious and political authorities, is so risky it needs to be told in a story.

Ten years ago, Naomi and her husband and two sons fled their home and walked into a village in Moab as refugees. By marrying one of her sons, Ruth became a daughter to Naomi, joined their family, cooked meals, washed clothes, and fetched water. For ten years. Very likely Ruth was a young teen when she became a part of this family, essentially growing up in their home with Naomi as her mother, who raised her into womanhood.

After the death of husbands, they are grieving lost loves, lost homes, and an unknown future.

Now in a place—not Moab and not Bethlehem—a liminal space on the road—Ruth argues with Naomi three times to remain with her, wherever she goes. Ruth will not accept the rules that she is of a particular kind and must stay in her place in Moab. She trusts more in a love that grew from years of working together and living day-by-day as a family. When she married, she made a vow to her husband and offers it again to Naomi. “Your people will be my people, your God, my God.” In this covenant, it is people who come first and God is the foundation.

But Naomi is afraid. Ruth’s “otherness” is a burden. How can she bring this immigrant into her hometown? Her son had married the enemy. She had lived in a culturally mixed home. It would be far less risky for Naomi to not have such visceral presence of an outsider when she herself is trying to rebuild.

The short novella portrays Ruth’s transformation from “the Moabite” and the “outsider” to one who is respected for her devotion to Naomi, her willingness to work side by side with the people. But, the transformation portrayed in the story is not within Ruth; it is within the people, unfolding through the identity they assigned to her. Slowly, by living into the promise she made to be true and loyal, she is no longer seen as “the Moabite”, but is eventually called “daughter,” and wins the heart of a new husband.

Ruth bears a child and is revered in Judeo-Christian history as the grandmother of the shepherd boy who becomes the great, king David.

Through her love of people, Ruth became the unlikely mother who was able to redeem and rebuild Israel. As a foreigner, a widow, an enemy, and Moabite, Ruth is an improbable character to have a book written after her and it is her name that shines brightly in Jesus’ genealogy retold in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a testament to the ancient Jews to boldly put her name, and not Naomi’s name, in the title.

Foreigners and fear of the other has dominated our lives since early history. Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to build walls and purge the Israelites of foreign wives. The “outsider” and the “other” threaten identity, sense of security, jobs, and dreams. We are hearing it again on the loud speakers on our political stage, both domestically and abroad. The fault is in the “other”.

Within our country, the elections have revealed just how much hurt and pain exists. In a culture that tells us to wear a face that says to everyone “I am just fine,” no better than fine, “I am succeeding” even if we are not, it represents failure to admit the dream life eludes us. This façade is crumbling.

Pew Research presents:

  • 75% of Trump voters feel that life has gotten worse
  • Bernie Sanders has struck a chord among Democratic voters who feel disenfranchised and cannot participate in the economic game
  • Distrust of institutions pervades younger generations
  • But, also this is the most racially and ethnically diverse election ever [1]

Compounding the attitudes pollsters found are the worries we should face about our culture:

  • The suicide rate is up across all age groups
  • Our multi-tasking is finally outted as unproductive and inhibits our ability to focus on what we are doing and each other
  • Communications styles in social media and texting—however efficient and easy—have led to less intimacy and anonymous bullying
  • 47% of Americans would be unable to cover a $400 emergency expense without selling or borrowing something or could not come up with the money at all.

That last one stung since I recall a similar statistic during the financial debacle in 2001 when I was in consumer banking and thought, surely, the devastating bust and financial cycles would have changed behaviors. A touching Atlantic Monthly article by Neal Gabler writes of the “secret shame” of the middle class. I imagine there are more people sitting in our pews who are part of the 47% than any of us would like to admit.[2]

Some of us are living on the edge in so many ways. Some of us are clueless about this too. Have we lost track of how to build enduring relationships based upon who we are and not what we should be?

In the divides, we may see the “others” as the enemy—threatening our lifestyles, freedoms, and economic stability. Others may see us as the “enemy” the ones living the good life and not willing to listen to or acknowledge the pain of others.

In the early 20th century, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr taught at Yale Divinity School and wrote extensively on faith in Western culture. He should not be confused with his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, whose prolific writing gained popular notoriety, and, somewhat, overshadowed him. H. Richard’s thesis on faith and devotion rings true with the breaking apart we are experiencing.

He observes—in Western culture—we more often live in a world of henotheism. We acknowledge one god as supreme in religion and faith practices, but live in ways that honor myriad little gods. For example, one may worship as a Christian, but are deeply devoted to our political party, patriotic values, or practice uncompromising commitments to sports teams or careers in ways the compete with our faith. Henotheism.

At the time, his writing was influenced by German National Socialism and Italian Fascism in highly Christian countries but tainted by nationalist pride.

Niebuhr argues even henotheism dissolves in times of upheaval when no one god offers the solace or deserves such primacy of devotion. He writes:

The natural, perennial faith of men in the society in which they were born…whose authority governed them, whose laws protected them, whose language gave them their logic, which nurtured them in life and by remembrance maintains them in death, for whose sake they reared their children, labored and fought—ever more comes to a cheerless end among large and little conscious and unconscious treasons, or among natural and political disasters…It is in such a situation that man’s other faith, polytheism, never wholly suppressed even in the midst of his social loyalties, is likely to become dominant.[3]

Niebuhr is not referring to the ancient worship of Zeus and Venus, but he is explicitly naming “polytheism” as splintered devotion, a sense of no one is in charge, and our values compete, when such despair sets in. Polytheism or some would now claim atheism or just plain giving up and instead withdrawing.

Niebuhr doesn’t leave us in despair but lifts us up into what he calls “radical monotheism.”

Radical monotheism understands God loves and values all of creation without any of the borders or walls or constraints we choose to create and value. Radical monotheism understands God is sovereign over all; we are not. Niebuhr acknowledges this is tough and rarely maintained, but we keep trying because God is on the side of new beginnings.

Enough academia. Truth is best told in a story.

Let me tell you a story about a woman named Ruth of immeasurable grace who was able to see new possibilities by reaching across to her mother and saying “I love you and will take care of you.” Ruth and Naomi loved the same men and by loving, loved God.

Ruth is a story and a potent critique against Ezra and Nehemiah who sought purification and exclusion during the campaign to make Israel great again. Ruth showcases the truth that God’s dominion is not a place, an ethnic lineage, customs or even a religion. Sacred lives in relationships. Through the bonds we hold with our mothers or with our daughters, we have perhaps tasted this sacredness.

In this story, God tears down some long defended walls to prove again and again, relationships are sacred, blessed, and pleasing to God. Ruth was not afraid to be something new and in the process, she ends barrenness and gives new life. Of course Jesus’ lineage celebrates a great- great- grandmother who lived with radical devotion to God.

We may not be on the road between Moab and Bethlehem, but we are always being asked to decide about our path ahead. We have our savior, Jesus Christ, who gave us the great command to love. As individuals, we can choose to see the new possibilities and risk venturing into relationships. We can choose to believe in one God and in this confidence build sacred bonds with the other. Amen.

[1] Jens Manuel Krogstad, “2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history” Pew ResearchCenter, February 2016, Accessed May 5, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/03/2016-electorate-will-be-the-most-diverse-in-u-s-history/

[2] Neal Gabler, “The Secret Shame of the Middle-Class Americans” The Atlantic May 2016, accessed May 5, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/my-secret-shame/476415/

[3] H Richard Neibuhr , Radial Monotheism and Western Culture, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1943) 28.