a sermon based on Ruth 1:1-18
by Rev. Thomas Hall
Fred Craddock gives us a helpful way to think
about the opening chapter of the book of Ruth. He says, "I am going to word. The
moment I say the word I want you to see a face, to recall a face and a name, someone who
comes to your mind when I say the word. Are you ready? The word is bitter. Bitter. Do you
see a face? I see a face. I see the face of a farmer in western Oklahoma, riding a
mortgaged tractor, burning gasoline purchased on credit, moving across rented land,
rearranging the dust. Bitter.
Do you see a face? I see the face of a woman forty-seven years old. She sits out on a
hillside, drawn and confused under a green canopy furnished by the mortuary. She is banked
on all sides by flowers sprinkled with cards: You have our condolences.
"Do you see a face? I see the face of a man who runs a small grocery store. His
father ran the store in that neighborhood for twenty years, and he is now in his twelfth
year there. The grocery doesnt make much profit, but it keeps the family together.
Its a business. There are no customers in the store now, and the grocer stands in
the doorway with his apron rolled up around his waist, looking across the street where
workmen arte completing a supermarket. Bitter.
"I see the face of a young couple. They seem to be about nineteen. They are
standing in the airport terminal, holding hands so tightly that their knuckles are white.
Shes pregnant; hes dressed in military green. They are not talking, just
standing and looking at each other. The loudspeaker comes on: flight 392 now loading
at gate 22, yellow concourse, all aboard for San Francisco. He slowly moves toward
the gate; she stands there alone. Bitter.
"Do you see a face? A young minister in a small town, in a cracker box of a house
they call the parsonage. He lives there with his wife and small child. On Saturday morning
there is a knock at the door. He answers, and there standing before him on the porch is
the chairman of his church board, who is also the president of the local bank, and owner
of most of the land round about. He has in his hands a small television. It is an old
television, small screen, black-and-white. Its badly scarred, and one of the knobs
is off. He says, My wife and I got one of those new twenty-five-inch color sets, but
they didnt want to take this one on trade, so I just said to myself, Well,
well just give it to the minister. Thats probably the reason our ministers
dont stay any longer than they do. We dont do enough nice things for them. The
young minister looks up and tries to smile and say thanks. But I want you to see his face.
Now imagine this face that peers at us from the book of Ruth. It is a bitter face that
belongs to a woman who shoulders her life-belongings as she walks days on end toward her
destination. So bitter is she that she renames herself Mara-which means,
"bitter." What goes around comes around she must have mused. She returns to her
beginning flanked by two younger women-constant reminders of her bitterness. Hard to
believe that fifteen years earlier she had left this very place so full of hope and
adventure. Her husband and she with their two sons had sought to escape a local famine
that left meager crops and little income. So they had left for a neighboring country in
the hope of a better life.
But it wasnt to be; tragedy struck early. The first to go was Elimelech, her
husband who apparently died early in the sojourn. More recently, however, both of her sons
had died-perhaps an epidemic had swept the village-leaving behind wives who needed
tending. Three funerals and three widows had left Naomi a bitter woman. Victor Hugo may be
right when he said that sorrow is a fruit that God never allows to grow so heavy that the
branch cannot bear it. But Naomis life had borne enough sorrow to squash an entire
Thats how the storyteller opens the book of Ruth-one of the most tragic
beginnings in the Bible, almost beyond our imagination. Notice the downward spiral that
disfigures and distorts Naomi into Mara. The story opens with no one in control-the time
of the judges. Worse, a famine in the land leaves the cupboard bare. Now in a strange
land-Moab-her sons die childless which means, of course, there would be no one to carry on
the family name. Though urged by Naomi to remain in their own land, one of the
daughters-in-law insists on following Naomi back to her homeland. Thats where the
name change says it all. They are greeted by women of the town who ask in startled wonder,
"Is this Naomi?" Naomi says in effect, "No Im not Naomi"-which
means sweet or pleasant-"no, my name is Bitter
for God has treated me bitterly." Notice the last line of her speech: "I went
away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty."
The character also tell their own story about Naomis family. Bethlehem, the place
where Naomi lives, is "Breadbasket," yet people are starving. And Naomis
family from the clan of Ephrathites or "fruitfulness," moves to Moab but are
"unfruitful" or barren. And "Mahlon," Naomis son, is meant to
sound like the Hebrew word for the disease that hit the Egyptians; and the name of her
other son, Chilion, comes from the root word, "to perish." Not an auspicious
The incongruity of lifes reversals are captured in the Hebrew word, shub, which
means "to return," "to turn back," "to go back," or "to
repent." Shub shows up 18 times in the book of Ruth, but it dominates this first
chapter (15 times). Shub suggests a mental, emotional, or spiritual reversal. Notice the
shub-ing or "reversals" going on in the story-Naomi and Ruth "return"
to Judah from Moab, from barrenness to barley harvest. In Moab, Naomi and her family seek
more out of life only to find the opposite: death. Naomis life goes from
"full" to "empty," thus she goes from "Sweet" (Naomi) to
"Bitter" (Mara). Yet at storys end there will be one final reversal-a good
news reversal that suggests Gods behind-the-scenes work. A child will be born to
Ruth and Boaz and he "will be a restorer of life," literally, he "will
cause life to turn around" for Naomi.
So in a few lines we hear the story of decline and bitterness-
Seems all we have on our hands is a tragic, seemingly senseless story. So what do we
learn from this story that will help us in our own travel through life? I think we can
pick up several important learnings from this tragic beginning. Clearly, tragedy does
happen and happen with such unexpectedness and pain that it can stun a family and suck
their breath out. Maybe the story is a heads up for us to develop and practice empathy and
not just sympathy to the Naomis of the world. Empathy not only listens for the facts, but
listens so intently to the heart that it can enter into and help to bear some of the pain
I was once sitting in a class as Bryant Kirkland, former minister of 1st Presbyterian
Church in NYC, drew my attention to this. One day, he went up to the board and drew a huge
circle. Then he placed an "X" at the top of the circle. "That," he
said, "is where some of your listeners will be on any given Sunday that you step into
the pulpit. Theyll have just gotten their loan, their job, a surprise salary
increase; the kids will have excelled and delighted them. Theyre at the top of their
Then he marked another "X" at the bottom. "And that is where others will
be when you enter the pulpit on any given Sunday. During the week their whole life has
come unraveled. Theyll have found out that their spouse has cheated on them or their
kid is taking ecstasy; theyll have been handed the pink slip, or contemplated
suicide." So the preacher just walks into the place of speaking from Scripture with
that knowledge he told us. Both need to hear the gospel-but how differently we hear it
from the bottom or the top of the circle. The opening scene in the book of Ruth cups our
ear to those who are at the bottom of the circle. It calls us to empathy.
But consider Orpah. She pulls a shub and turns back when Naomi insists that her
daughters-in-law stay in Moab among their own families. We usually dismiss Orpah as making
a bad decision, certainly less noble than Ruths. Yet the writer does not condemn
Orpah. Nor should we. Orpah also reflects faithfulness and obedience. She honors
Naomis wish and returns. Perhaps God dealt kindly with her too. But no one elected
to tell her story. She is so like many modern women today who choose traditional
life-styles and yet wonder that no one is interested in telling their stories. We
celebrate Ruth, but forget Orpah. Yet Orpahs choice raises an important question
about our own lives: to what in our own past are we to return in order to reclaim? Shub
takes on many shades of meaning-sometimes it means to repent, but sometimes it means to
turn back and go back to a familiar place.
Consider Ruth. Her choice is the reverse of Orpahs. She-perhaps out of anger,
even defiance-chooses to follow Naomi. If Orpah sends us back to reclaim something in our
past that needs reclaiming, perhaps Ruth turns us forward and tells us to leave the past
That was the case of a rabbi that Philip Yancy once spoke with. "Before coming to
America," the rabbi said, "I had to forgive Adolf Hitler." "Why?"
Yancy asked. "Because I did not want to bring Hitler inside me to my new
country." The rabbi got it right-he needed to leave his Moab and turn toward the
future through forgiveness.
Consider God. God is sort of a silent partner in the book of Ruth. Naomi lets God have
it when she blames all her bitterness as Gods doing. The accuracy of her statement
needs another Sunday to explore. But God may well be in the tragedies while at the same
time-though usually unnoticed or acknowledged-is also in the recovery and new situation.
Just because we cant find God in the foreground doesnt mean that God is absent
from the background.
In an intriguing playfulness with words, the writer mentions the "country of
Moab," which is identical to the very name that Naomi uses for God. Thus, the place
where Naomis troubles begin has not been abandoned by God, for Gods name is
written into the very fabric of suffering and trouble. Christian faith might describe it
in promise form: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God
and are called according to Gods purposes" (Romans 8:28). By the end of the
story we will discover that God has had a purpose in mind from the beginning. And so it is
in our lives too. Amen.