The story begins “in the days when the judges ruled”….so it might be good to remember exactly what the days when the judges ruled were like. In Scripture, the book of Judges ends just as Ruthe begins…and the last words of the book are …”In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jdg. 21:25). Basically, during the days when the judges ruled, anarchy reigned and life was cheap. The book of Judges is characterized by horrific murders, corrupt leaders, the assault and obliteration of innocents…both Israelites and non-Israelites…in it you’ll read about the sexual violation of a lone woman by a mob of Israelite men, and an Israeliste father who kills his own daughter as a child sacrifice. During these days, Judah and Israel were not safe places to live. And then…on top of everything else…famine strikes. And it is at this point, Elimelech and Naomi took their sons, Mahlon and Chilion…and fled to Moab.
Now Moabites weren’t exactly friends of Israel…but when life is intolerable for your family…when there is no safety and no food…this is what caring parents do. They move their families….often to another country…so they might survive. It’s a story as old as time. The migration of people between nations around the globe…in times of war…in times of famine…in times of corruption. It is our basic human story for as long as we have occupied the planet.
And that is the context of Ruth’s story…it begins in Moab. Where her family found safety when they fled…and where they built a life togther. Her sons married, and they became woven into the fabric of their new country. Until tragedy strikes. First her husband died…which was hard enough. But 10 years later, both her sons died as well…so she was now a widow in a foreign country, with no family to support her. And hearing that the famine had ended in Judah…she decided to go back, in hopes that there would be extended family there who would take her in.
It’s true…her daughter-in-laws are also widows…but they are not completely left without support as Naomi is. They still have their own families in Moab who can care for them. And being young, they may still remarry. What I find interesting, through, is that they both make plans to travel back to Judah with Naomi in the first place. Clearly…they love her. They cling to her when she tells them to return to their own families. Naomi has blessed them by coming into their lives in Moab. She is beloved by these women who have become her daughters.
True, Orpah eventually chooses to return to her family at Naomi’s insistence …but Ruth refuses. She begs to accompany Ruth…choosing to leave her homeland and migrate to a foreign country…just as Naomi did all those years ago…just so she can be a companion to her beloved mother-in-law.
This is a story of faithfulness and love…it is a story of the selflessness and commitment we humans are actually capable of. And this story is in Scripture, because that kind of love is the witness of God’s presence in the midst of our messed up world. It is the kind of love that gives us hope.
I sang for a lot of weddings when I was in high school…and one of the songs I remember singing, was “Entreat Me Not to Leave You”….and it was Ruth’s pledge. Where you go, I shall go…where you lodge I shall lodge…your people shall be my people, your God my God…where you die, I will die…even death shall not part me from you!
It does sound like a wedding vow. Ruth promises her life to Naomi…binds herself to her in love…whatever may come…even unto death. And that promise is beautiful…holy. It is grace for Naomi, who has become bitter with grief. And God uses it to make the world a more beautiful place. As the story goes on…when they return to Judah…Ruth marries…and she becomes the grandmother of David, the renowned king of Israel….and she also becomes and ancestor of Jesus….listed in Jesus’ geneology in the gospel of Matthew.
Promises matter. Commitments matter. Choosing to walk with someone through life…whatever may come…matters. It is an act of grace. It makes the work a better place…a more beautiful place.
I will be honest here…I am not someone who ardently holds up an ideal of “Biblical marriage” in the way some Christians do…..because, quite frankly, Biblical marriage…the actual marriages of God’s chosen people in Scripture….were pretty skanky. They often involved multiple wives and mistresses as well.
But what I do believe in is the sacredness of Biblical promise-making. The beauty and grace of committing our lives to another person…and walking with them into unknown futures. Because that is how we embody God’s presence in the world.
The God of Scripture is a God who makes promises…covenants. Who vows to stay with people…to accompany them through history. When times are good and when times are bad. Even when they are unfaithful…God’s forgiveness knows no end. God is with them — Whatever may come. Wherever they may go. Jesus echoes that promise to his disciples — “Remember I am with you always…even to the end of the age”.
Of course, we are not God…and unfaithfulness and betrayal, cruelty and rejection are not things our promises can or even should, in most cases, survive. Sometimes, forgiveness is possible… sometimes reconciliations and new beginnings take place…but often, it is simply beyond us.
Yet…the audacity we have to still continue to make these promises to one another…these vows…one human being to another…is holy stuff. When we commit ourselves to others…to loving them in good times and bad…beauty is possible.
The sheer moxie involved in making marriage vows is stunning…yet when they are treasured by both partners…when they are honored..something truly lovely happens. Some of you have known the blessing of a good marriage…and that faithful love is an imprint of God’s love in your life. Even unto death. The love that gives us security and companionship…a safe place to land and a partner for our journey…is holy. Even unto death. I remember being in a hospital room, as a 92 year old man held his wife’s hand as she died…praying for her…”Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” With tears running down his cheeks, he bore witness to the promises they had made and kept.
Not perfectly, of course…he shared stories about rows they’d had over the years and how he regretted the ways he’d disappointed her at times…. but yet, with forgiveness and tenacity and kindness…they had persevered in the vows they made as young kids in their pastor’s home. And it was beautiful.
But as we see in the story of Ruth…it is not just marriage vows that reflect God’s imprint hereon earth…we see the holy, the beautiful…when friends…when family members…when strangers…show tender care and commitment to one another. Ruth’s vows are demonstrated by parents who care for children with special needs…and children who care for parents who are failing physically and mentally. Ruth’s vows are demonstrated in the determined souls who walk alongside people who are suffering — people who commit themselves to serve others in their work — to serve those who are mentally and physically ill — to serve those who are abused, who are refugees, who are addicted, who have lost everything in disasters of one kind or another. Ruth’s vows are demonstrated whenever we care more about another than our ourselves… whenever we “lay down our lives for one another”. For in Jesus’ words…there is no greater love than that. The amazing wonder is how often we actually see that love lived out in our midst.
We’re programmed to look for all the ways the world has gone wrong…but Ruth reminds us, in a word gone horribly wrong…even in the days when the judges ruled…Ruth reminds us that holy things are happening around us….in families…among friends…among strangers — some who are seeking safety and a shelter… some who are providing companionship and support…some who simply are loving and beloved….
God’s imprint is all around us. It is even in you. Amen.