Will we find God here? . . .
based on Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Mark 12:28-34
by Rev. Frank Schaefer
There is a story about Benjamin Franklin once being invited to read to the
audience of the Infidel's Club--a literature society which was known to regard the bible a
literary wasteland. Quite craftily, Franklyn decided to read the book of Ruth; he craftily
contemporized names and some phrases of the story, so it would not be recognized as a
reading from the Bible. When he finished, those gathered agreed that this was one of the
most beautiful stories they had heard. Of course, they inquired about the author of this
literary masterpiece. You can imagine their surprise when he revealed the source of the
story, i.e. our good, faithful, old . . . bible.
The book of Ruth is certainly one of the best short stories ever. It really does read
like a novel. If you haven't done it yet, try reading it in one session. It's a beautiful
story with all the successful Hollywood ingredients: tragedy, friendship, trickery,
romance, and . . .a happy ending.
Although it is a beautiful story in itself, it's the story behind the story -- its
theological points -- that is even more fascinating. The book of Ruth is one of those
stories that shows how the saving grace of God unfolds in the real and sometimes messy
world . . .
Messy is probably not strong enough of an adjective to describe Naomi's feelings. Can
you imagine emigrating to a foreign country in the hopes for a better life only to bury
your husband, and your two boys in the span of 10 years? She was left with nothing, no one
to take care of her or her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.
Can you relate to the plight of these women? Have you ever faced the scary and
confusing side of life, perhaps after losing a job, or a loved one. What kinds of emotions
do we experience in such times? What were some of the emotions Naomi experienced? The
emotion of . . . .
Feeling ripped off
And questions, like . . .
Am I going to survive?
Will I ever have a family again?
How will I make the mortgage payments now?
Is anybody listening?
Does anybody care
Where do I go from here?
Is it my fault?
Must call a friend; what friend?
Hitting "rock-bottom" (like the prodigal in Jesus's parable?), Ruth remembers
her native land, the congregation of Israel, her kin folk, and her God, and decides to
return. Her daughters-in-law are Moabites, so as they reach the border, Naomi releases
them of their family loyalty. Orpah walks away, but Ruth is determined to stay with Naomi
sharing these beautiful words of loyalty: "where you go, I will go; where you lodge,
I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God..." These words
tell of a close friendship between two women joined by a common plight.
So what do these two women hope to find in Israel?
The text tells us that Naomi heard that "the Lord has visited his people."
or as the NRSV puts it: "...the LORD had considered his people and given them
food." (Ruth 1:6)
Naomi was hoping to find God's community; a community blessed by God, protected and
provided for; A community of care--care even for those who are on the social margins,
widows and foreigners like themselves. Perhaps, Naomi knew an early oral rendition of
today's Psalter reading and recalled the words: "I will praise the LORD as long as
I live; (146:2) . . . who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry
." (146:7) . . The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the
widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin." (146:9).
Or perhaps Naomi was familiar with the commandment of Leviticus 19:18:"love your
neighbor as yourself." Even though Israel's era of the Judges may have been
characterized by civil unrest, the concern for social justice and caring for one another
had always been a concern of Israel's theocracy--in fact social justice distinguishes the
law of Moses from other ancient Middle Eastern law codes (Hammurabi), including Moab, the
country Naomi's family had settled for 10 years.
Incidentally, the commandment "love your neighbor as yourself" is lifted up
by Jesus in our reading from Mark, too. In fact, love of neighbor and social concern is so
important in Jesus's view that he completely disregards the parameters of the question:
"what is the first (the greatest) commandment." The scribe clearly asks for
one--the one--commandment. And the expected answer to this question was the Shema, the
Jewish confession of faith to this day: "'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord
is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and
with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Deut. 6:4/Mark 12:29-30).
But as so often, Jesus surprises us once again. He quickly adds a second commandment:
"love your neighbor as yourself," and then joins the two together and
distinguishes them from the rest of the law: "There is no other commandment greater
than these." (Mark 12:31)
What does that mean for us? This, folks, is the essence of Jesus mission statement:
"the good news is preached to the poor." For religion if exercised within a
vacuum is dead. Something is seriously wrong if our spirituality, our relationship to God
does not somehow affect our relationship to others in positive ways, if it does not cause
us to be concerned and compassionate about those less fortunate. God is a God of love and
compassion and it hurts God to see people suffer. So, if we really have a relationship
with that loving and caring God of Psalm 146, wouldn't you think that the compassion for
others must somehow "rub off" on us?
Jesus's words are really not innovative, but they rather are a summary of what was
already there: the good news that God craves our love and wants for the human family to
get along, to be there for each other, to love each other. That's good news for all the
Naomis and Ruths, for all people of all ages, gender, races, and persuasions. It is good
news for those who are impoverished and oppressed, but also for those who are
well-nourished and well-to-do.
I remember a statement made by a Christian history expert on last year's ABC's
documentary special: "The Rise of Christianity." I was not surprised at this
professor's opinion that Christianity (like Judaism) was so successful and spread so
rapidly despite persecution because of the social networks it formed, because of the way
the early Christians cared for each other, even for those on the margins of society. There
is something about social concern, about social justice that resonates deep within the
human soul; we want this world to be a good place for all. God's message of love for God
and love for neighbor appeals to us.
I know I am getting ahead of the story line, but I find it interesting to see how God
comes to the rescue of Naomi and Ruth--not by way of miracle, but rather through ordinary,
but faithful people like Boaz and others in the community.
Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and the community had their part in this story of salvation. They
weren't passive. They were active participants in the unfolding of the story of God's
grace. The fact that God is sovereign and that he guides all things in his providence does
not diminish our part in it. We must make decisions. We must act responsibly. We must
represent God in the way we love and care for our neighbor.
Jesus's double commandment, the Psalmist's announcement of the care of God for the less
fortunate, and the story of Naomi and Ruth remind us to recognize the commonality that
binds us, and to set aside the differences that separate us. For survival of this planet
and to find happiness in this difficult life, we need each other more than ever. It is
time to strengthen our relationships rather than going off "doing our own religious
As one preacher once put it: "The tie which binds us is not similarity of national
backgrounds or shared political opinions. We are not tied by bonds of blood or social
class. We are not bound to each other by ownership. The tie which binds us is our mutual
love for God. The tie which binds us is that we have experienced the presence of God's
love in our lives and we are profoundly grateful for that love. The tie which bound Ruth
to Naomi was compassion. The tie which bound Jesus to us was compassion. The tie which
binds us to each other is compassion. We share a passion for God which motivates us to
have compassion for each other." (Gary Ritner, "Ruth & Naomi: Blest Be The
Tie That Binds," http://www.mumac.org/Sermonsg/Ruth.txt)
"The Lord has visited his people." Look out for God - will we find God
there? Will we find God in our community of faith, our church? Will others find God here?
Will they be met with the kind of love and compassion that God has for people like Naomi
and Ruth? The answer is up to us--whether we realize it or not: we are God's eyes and
ears, God's hands, feet, and mouth. Amen.