A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 18, 2015
This story, we’re told, takes place during the time of the Judges. A famine in the land caused Naomi and her family to leave the Promised Land and go back across the river to Moab, modern day Jordan. Her husband, Elimilech, and then their sons, die, leaving the women in Moab. Moab is home to Ruth and Orpah, the young widows. But Naomi was from Bethlehem, across the Jordan River, in the land of Judah.
We’re reminded the issue of immigration, migration, and refugee status is not, ultimately, one that can be controlled with political statute. When people are hungry, in danger, fearing violence, out of options, and unable to see hope in the Promised Land, they flee. Borders become meaningless lines on a map when survival is at stake.
This story also reminds us of the vulnerability of women in many parts of the world, even today. Naomi and her daughters had no hope on their own.
Naomi has nobody in Moab to whom she can turn for help. Her only chance is to get home to her people and to throw herself at the mercy of her kin in Bethlehem.
So she tries to send her daughters in law back to their own families, knowing they have a better chance to make it if they are with their own people, in their own land.
Perhaps she also knows that just as she has no chance in Moab, where people judge the refugees from Judah, so also do her daughters in law have no chance as Moabite refugees in Bethlehem.
We wish Orpah well as she returns to her family. We totally understand why she sees her best hope involves returning to her family, not becoming a refugee in another land. In any other story, she’s the exemplary character. She follows the direction of her mother in law and does a prudent and wise thing.
In this case, she is out-obedienced by her sister in law, Ruth. Ruth, who decides that true obedience to her mother in law is to disobey her instructions to return to her own people, to stand with with her mother in law, to embrace the challenges to come so that neither of them will be alone.
And we’re left with Ruth and Naomi. Two women who decide, as they watch their future collapsing in a fiery pile of smoldering rubble, to let go of the ashes of those dreams, and head off toward whatever is next. Together.
Whether it is stated out loud in this text or not, the truth remains, we have prejudices against people.
Because they are foreign.
Because they don’t speak our language.
Because they look different than we do.
Because their names sound odd in our ears.
Because they are poor.
Because they need help.
Because because because.
There is a tension in Scripture over this issue. There are commands to not marry foreigners. There are reminders that if you marry them, you better not worship their false gods. There are chapters and verses all about keeping separate, keeping pure, and keeping away from “them”.
The commands against Moabites are spelled out in Deuteronomy. To the 10th generation, Moabites are to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord.
And then there is the Book of Ruth. About a poor, widowed, childless, Moabite woman from the wrong side of the river.
I hate to give away the ending to the book, but let me just say she does pretty well for herself, despite what Deuteronomy instructs. You will see Ruth’s name in the genealogy of King David, her great grandson. And since Jesus is descended from King David, (more than 10 generations later), she is sitting deep in the family tree of our Lord and Savior as well.
As much as we want to keep separate, and not welcome, the stranger because of their differences, we also have to deal with Ruth. Because if it weren’t for her, King David wouldn’t have been born.
It is as if every time we decide who is in and who is out, God comes along and invites someone else to join the party. God makes us care about the widows and the people on the margins by putting them smack dab in the middle of our family tree.
And here we are, still talking about this poor, widowed, childless woman from the wrong side of the river all these years later because God won’t be limited by our ideas of people we think we don’t need.
Isn’t that how we do it? We decide that we’re good with the people we already have. Or with the people who are like us. We can’t imagine that we might need “them”, those “other” people who speak different languages or who grew up in Moab.
Naomi tries to suggest that to Ruth. “You should just go home with your people. I’ll go to my people.”
Ruth sees a different way. Sure, everyone could go back to their own clan. That’s what Orpah chose to do. But we never hear about her again. Maybe it was all fine for Orpah—hopefully her family took her back in, and they made it through the famine. But Orpah drops out of the narrative at this point.
Ruth refuses to do go back.
‘Do not press me to leave you’ she tells Naomi,
‘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 chose to stay with Naomi, making sure that neither of them had to make that journey by themselves.
Ruth chose to stay with Naomi, recognizing that while the journey would still be difficult together, it might just be impossible alone.
And I used to hear Ruth’s pledge “your people shall be my people” as if she were renouncing her own Moabite people. Throwing out her University of Washington Jersey because she’d moved to Boise and was required to wear the BSU blue and orange.
But I hear it differently today. Now I hear her saying, “there is no longer us and them. There is no longer my people and your people. We are all each other’s people.”
Because her next line is “your God is my God”. And when we sign up for Naomi’s God, for the God we worship and serve, we become a part of God’s family.
And if God wants to welcome Moabites to the family, who are we to tell them to go back to “their” people?
If God wants to continue to challenge our understandings of who, exactly, God considers to be our brothers and sisters, then who are we to tell them they are on their own and that we don’t matter to each other?
Robert Alter, in his translation of Ruth pointed out that this is a story of good people. There are no “bad guys” in this story. There is no Pharaoh or Babylonian army. In other biblical texts, even the good guys have bad sides. Moses, as you remember, had murdered someone before God called him to deliver his people. David, Ruth’s grandson who we’ll encounter next week, is the perfect illustration of a flawed human being.
But this is a story of good people helping other good people make it through difficult times.
I’ve been pondering why this story was written as it was, with no antagonist, no enemy at the gate. And I wonder if it is to remind us of our tendency to look for blame and once we’ve assigned it, to extend our blame to an entire group.
—One horrible attack at Pearl Harbor and suddenly all Americans of Japanese descent should be housed in camps and lose their property, their businesses, their freedom.
—One would-be-shoe-bomber and we’re all taking our shoes off at the airport.
—One terror attack and suddenly all Muslims are terrorists.
—One racist shooting in the South and suddenly all southerners are racist.
—One bad interaction at a football game with opposing fans and suddenly all Vandal fans are “nasty and inebriated”.
We are people who excel at lumping people together and then judging them all as one. Let’s face it. It’s so much easier than getting to know a person on their own merits.
Remember back in Deuteronomy 23:3,4,6, when Israel is instructed not to let a Moabite into the assembly? Listen to the reasoning for that command:
No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.
We live the Deuteronomy world view well, don’t we? As long as we live we’ll hate the other because one member of their group did us wrong. We’ll keep them from being admitted to the Assembly of the Lord. Sadly, people can justify it because it is a biblical view.
Thankfully, it is not the only biblical view.
The over-arching narrative of the Bible is not of exclusion. It is of radical inclusion, where God instructs us to welcome the stranger, baptizing in his name even to the ends of the earth. Our own inclusion into the family of God, where the dividing wall of hostility is torn down is our reminder of how “your people will be my people” has worked in our own lives.
The story of Ruth, in a few short chapters, reminds us that what should not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord are blind hatred and separation. When we categorize others so we can pretend we aren’t connected one to another, we forget the people who have helped us. We forget the welcome our ancestors received when they were strangers in a foreign land. We build a world of my people and your people, forgetting that there are only God’s people.
How well do we live the Ruth world view?
This story, the whole way through, is idyllic and bucolic, where things work out and people survive and thrive. And while I’m glad it all works out for Ruth and Naomi, the truth is that the system that led to their marginalization in the beginning of the story remains in place at the end. They will encounter a kinsman of Naomi’s named Boaz and he will save them. But there are no guarantees that other women will survive economic uncertainty.
And because it is a story of good people helping other good people, we’re reminded that it is up to us, as other good people, to fight these systems that enslave and endanger people.
Tod Linafelt** wrote:
“Any theological reflection on the book [of Ruth] must start with the recognition that human action is of primary importance, and that human actors have the ability, indeed perhaps the responsibility, to resist and challenge social systems that tightly circumscribe such action but which are never entirely free from ideological gaps. The hope is that God will in turn respond to such initiative and bring to fruition what human actors have worked toward.”
Perhaps there is no “bad guy” in this story to remind us that there is no one to blame but ourselves, and we are all responsible for the systems that allow some people to thrive as others fall through the cracks. We can’t look for a bad guy to pin this on. Its on us.
There’s a movie coming out soon called the Experimenter. It’s about the experiments Stanley Milgram did at Yale in 1961 to test people’s willingness to obey authority using what they thought was real electric shocks on other test subjects (who were being played by actors). After World War 2, people were trying to figure out what could make a nation of good people like Germany turn into a nation that allowed and enabled the Holocaust of 6 million people committed under Hitler’s Nazi regime. His experiment was about conformity, conscience and free will.
He didn’t expect the results. Before the experiments, he asked students and colleagues how many test subjects did they think would harm another test subject because the authority figure told them too. Predicted numbers were 1 to 5%.
In fact, 65% of the subjects delivered shocks that may have been fatal, obeying commands from a lab-coated authority figure.
We look at Nazi Germany and wonder where the good people went. Turns out, they were there all along, and they were accomplices to genocide.
I suspect History will look back at late 20th and early 21st century America and ask the same question about us. Wondering how a nation of safety, stability, and freedom—a nation of good people— allowed its citizens to be gunned down at the grocery store, the movie theater, college campuses, and schools—and did nothing about it.
Martin Luther King, Jr wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail:
Your people will be my people, Ruth told Naomi.
Just think what we could accomplish if we took ‘your people will be my people’ as instruction on how to live with each other.
When we declare “your people will be my people”, we see the face of God in each person we meet.
‘Your people will be my people’ is a promise we make to each other, to offer what we have, knowing that others will also contribute what they have, and in the end, we will have abundance.
We recognize the problem of gun violence in this country is much easier to see than the solution to gun violence. And we know that good people have differing opinions about what to do. But we can’t let our differences keep us from coming together to seek a solution. Some statistics:
America has 4.5% of the world’s population and 42% of civilian owned guns.
There have been 990 mass shootings, in which 4 or more people have been shot, in the United States since Sandy Hook.
There have been 305 mass shootings in the United States in 2015. So far this year.
The Mission Committee would like to start a congregation wide conversation about gun violence that will, hopefully, help us begin other conversations in our community and with our politicians about how to seek a path forward. As the commentator said about the story of Ruth, “The hope is that God will in turn respond to such initiative and bring to fruition what human actors have worked toward.”
The first conversation will be Sunday, December 6. We will gather in the evening, share a meal together, and begin the conversation. If you would like to be a part of planning that conversation, please let me or the Mission Committee know. More details will be available soon.
Your people will be my people.
We are grateful that Ruth and Naomi were able to claim that for each other and find people who claimed that promise as well. May we live that promise for ourselves and for the people we encounter on the journey.
**Tod Linafelt, Surviving Lamentations: Catastrophe, Lament, and Protest in the Afterlife of a Biblical Book. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000): xvii.
Robert Alter’s translation of Ruth is in Strong As Death is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, Daniel (New York: Norton, 2015)