From Bitter to Better: A Sermon on the book of Ruth
In our sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know, we turn to Ruth, one of the female heroes of scripture. It’s a story resplendent with themes of loyalty, love, and people going out of their way to take care of each other when they don’t have to. It’s a sweet story, only 85 verses long, and the principal actor is not God but ordinary people with hard lives. You can read it in about less time than I’m going to spend talking about it. I’ll talk about it so that when you do read it, you will really be able to savor the nuggets that you might otherwise miss.
Ruth is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. Girl power, yay. As you will say names mean a lot in this story. Ruth means compassionate friend. How and where it’s placed in the Bible is as inspirational as the contents of the book of Ruth.
A Family from Bethlehem Seeks Greener Pastures
The opening line sets it in the same era as the book of Judges—about 1200 BC. The first part of Ruth centers around a couple, Elimelech and Naomi, and their children who live in the little town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem means place of or house of bread. The area was known for an abundance of wheat farms–sort of the Kansas of ancient Israel. A drought struck, and soon there was no bread in the house of bread. So the couple left Bethlehem, seeking greener pastures in the land of Moab.
Despite their circumstances immigrating to Moab would have been frowned upon by their friends and family. Throughout the Old Testament, there are reports of frequent wars and perpetual animosity with Moabites. There are nearly 200 references to them in the Old Testament and outside of the book of Ruth. Nearly all these passages paint the Moabites in a most unpleasant light. The book of Deuteronomy forbids Moabites from entering worship assemblies. Even if there was Moabite blood in your lineage ten generations back, you still couldn’t attend public worship.
A World-Changing Small Decision
Despite the scriptures, famine drives our couple to settle in Moab. They provide for themselves, and they raise their two sons there. Then the husband dies. Ten years later, the sons (who had married Moabite women) also died. Those of you who have experienced this know nothing is as awful as having your offspring die before you die. The widow and bereft mother’s name is Naomi, which means “Pleasant One” in Hebrew. But her grief and all her pleasantness wore off. She blames God.
One day she tells her widowed daughters-in-law that there is nothing left for her in Moab so she will return to Bethlehem. “Go back to your people. Find new husbands and lives. I will leave you now.” One of the daughters-in-law says, “Okay. May you find happiness again. Goodbye.”
But the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, makes one of the most important decisions in human history. Without this decision, there would be no need for the Magi to go to the little town of Bethlehem because is Ruth the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus. She is one of only two women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
Ruth’s decision is to be loyal to Naomi. She says, “I will not leave you. Wherever you go, I will go. Your land will be my land. Your people, my people. Your God will be my God.”
Whithersoever–an odd yet beautiful sentiment
Ruth’s loyalty was so great that it is the prime example of this virtue in scripture. Her speech, to this day, is part of some wedding liturgies. Often wedding vows quote the King James Version, “Whithersoever thou goest, I will go.” Maybe it was read at some of your weddings. If not your wedding, probably your parents or grandparents recited this verse. People who have never said whithersoever in their lives make this vow to say, “Whatever life may throw at us, I am with you–always, I will be loyal and make my life with you.”
From Bitter to Better
So Ruth accompanies Naomi on her return to Bethlehem. They are bereft and destitute. When Naomi returns, people say, O, look who’s back. Naomi, the pleasant one. But Naomi says, “Don’t call me that. Call me Mara,”–which means bitter. She was bitter about her circumstance. But what she couldn’t see was how God would turn the bitterness she held in her heart into a baby she would later cradle in her arms.
Sometimes our bitter experiences are all we hold onto. When I hear the word bitter, I think of the time when I was a kid and my mom was making a chocolate cake. I saw the can of cocoa powder, thinking it would taste like a Hershey’s bar. Mom told me that it wasn’t going to taste like I wanted it to taste. I saw the word chocolate. How bad could it be? So I heaped up a tablespoon of brown chocolaty powder and…you know. Overpowering yuckiness!
Often life throws bitter experiences in our way. We lose someone. Our health turns for the worse. Someone betrays us. We lose a job. Like Naomi/Mara, it can turn us bitter and even make us turn on God. But like Naomi, we have no idea how, in God’s kitchen, those bitter experiences and be used in a recipe that makes something sweet. By themselves, sometimes the bitter experiences are truly awful. But God is always working through other experiences of life to make bitter better. We can’t control a lot of what life throws at us, but we can control our attitude. Hardship and pain are inevitable, but abject misery and bitterness are optional. Faith always anticipates a better final product–better than chocolate cake.
Biblical Welfare for the Poor
Although Ruth and Naomi are dirt poor when they arrive, ancient Israel had a form of welfare. It’s called the gleanings. Farmers passed quickly through their fields to gather the harvest, but in going so quickly, they’d miss as much as 25% of the grain. But they were not allowed to go through the field a second time to gather it up. It was to be left in the field for the poor to care for themselves. The Israelites built a system of compassion and care for the poor instead of the demonizing, institutionalizing, and criminalizing of people in poverty that we see today.
But human nature being what it is, you can just imagine that some Bethlehemites were not keen to welcome Naomi and her heathen daughter-in-law. I can just see the influencers of the day scrunching their eyebrows and asking, “Why should we let Ruth, a dirty Moabite, immigrate and take from us? These immigrants are taking from us, and soon, we won’t have enough for our people. They come and leach off our welfare. When Moab sends its people, it doesn’t send their best. They have different customs–they eat port, speak a different language, and bring their idols. When they marry our people, they will produce kids who aren’t loyal to our ways, and someday they will replace us. Don’t let this happen. The Bible says Ruth and her ilk are an abomination. Send her back to where she came from!” It would be easy to twist things to blame every problem in their society on allowing too many immigrants.
The Bible contains significant tension between welcoming strangers and preserving Israelite culture. Ruth shows the benefits of hospitality to immigrants.
Compassionate Acts Ripple into the Future
Fortunately, Ruth meets a righteous man, a relative of Naomi’s named Boaz. Naomi sees an opportunity, and she plays match-maker, advising Ruth on how to seduce him. Soon, Ruth and Boaz fall in love. In essence, Ruth introduces herself as his handmaid and essentially proposes to Boaz, asking him to take her and Naomi in. There is some protocol Boaz has to work out because another relative had “first right of refusal.” It all gets sorted through, and Boaz and Ruth marry and produce a child who becomes the grandfather of King David and an ancestor of Jesus.
It’s a remarkable story of redemption, of loyalty. God is rarely mentioned, but working behind the scenes to bring better out of bitter. It’s a story of ordinary–hard-living, and suffering people persevering in faith despite their hardships. It shows us that without compassionate friends, the world is a more ruthless place. It reminds us that the kindnesses that we show people today may ripple out for generations to come. Thus Ruth serves as a model for all of us.
Ruth should make us look to increase, not decrease women’s agency into the Handmaid’s tale
As fascinating as the story is by itself, there is more. The fact that this story finds its way into the Bible at all is wonderful. A foreigner-female hero is lifted up for her agency and praised by an ancient patriarchal culture. It took some guts and forward-thinking to put Ruth in the Bible. In my opinion, this courageousness can guide people of faith in our thinking about today’s issues when millions of women are afraid that all the progress we’ve made will be rolled back because of a minority position of trying to get back to the bible—where women are often portrayed as lesser than men. Instead of denying women’s agency, we should accentuate it.
We can do better than rolling back the clock into some dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. In the Hulu fictional series, The Handmaid’s Tale, a society turns the clock backward on women’s rights claiming that it is the biblical model. But the inclusion of Ruth in the Bible counters what other passages say about women in the Bible. Including the book of Ruth in scripture marks a time of progress in thinking. We have this story in the Bible that suggests that other passages in the Bible about women are outmoded and backward. That is, Ruth lets us know that we can have a spirit of keeping on doing better instead of suffering under some alpha-male patriarchy.
You can’t roll back the clock thinking you are just doing like the Bible says when we have the book of Ruth plopped in the midst of all that regression. We would do well to adopt that spirit. Let’s move forward, not backward. Like the inclusion of Ruth, let the spirit of valuing women’s agency to make their own decisions reign. It’s lazy theology to argue for going back to some idea that the Bible itself subverts with the inclusion of Ruth. We would do well to try to move forward with women’s rights instead of backward–especially if you believe God has something to do with the creation of the Bible.
Ruth should modulate how we think about and talk about immigrants.
If you want to know how the Bible works, you look for the tensions where different parts seem to point in opposite directions. In the book of Proverbs, for example, one passage says a soft answer turneth away wrath. But another passage advises giving a sharp rebuke to set people right. Well, which is it? One must discern for themselves for their time and setting. The problem with the way a lot of people interpret the Bible is they dissolve the tensions too easily and take extremist positions that neglect the whole other side.
In the Bible, there are lots of passages about keeping the Jewish bloodline pure—especially when it came to the Moabites. The concern was about immigration and what it could do to their culture and lead people to turn away from God. But then, we have Ruth that shows however immigration policies get played out one must remember not to demonize people or to be inhospitable or neglect the welfare of people who have already immigrated and are now your neighbors. Jesus did a similar thing when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.
Taking this biblical view can inform how we enter into debates about immigration in our country. The book teaches us to be less fear-mongering and more compassionate as we live in the tensions and seek a better path.
Thus the book of Ruth challenges us to wrestle with what it means to be compassionate friends with people who are in need today. It encourages us to continue to honor heroic women and to embrace the virtue of loyalty. It’s a story for all ages.