Ruth 1:1-18; 3:1-5; 4:13-17
To many people, the book of Ruth is a sweet little love story and nothing more. But, like the book of Job, this ancient tale is much more than meets the eye. It is the story of a woman of character, strength, and agency. It reveals God’s movements in the most unexpected places – in the lives of refugees, immigrants and destitute women.
We live in a world of refugees. Nearly 1.5 million persons have been displaced as a result of the wars in the Middle East. For these pilgrims, home is no longer a safe place to be – due to violence, threat, and religious and political persecution – so whole communities have uprooted themselves and begun dangerous journeys to Turkey, Greece, and Central Europe. They really don’t want to leave, but to secure safety for their families, loving parents are willing to sacrifice their social status and income to become strangers in a strange land.
The story of Ruth is about two refugee journeys. There is a drought in Israel and Elimelech and his wife Naomi journey to Moab with two sons to simply survive and hopefully make a new life for themselves. They were strangers in Moab, and had to prove themselves, and no doubt faced prejudice, since Moab and Israel were seldom on friendly terms. Eventually Moab became home and the two boys married outside their religion and ethnicity. The two boys and their father eventually die leaving their mother and two wives destitute. One of the widows Orpah returns to her family. But, Ruth sojourns to Israel with her mother in law Naomi. They are bound by love, but also by economic survival.
Back in Bethlehem, immediately Naomi sets about finding Ruth a husband. There’s a spark between Boaz and Ruth, and Naomi wants to capitalize on it. She devises a plan in which Ruth will show up at Boaz’ bedside after he’s had a few drinks and a good meal. You can leave the rest to your imagination.
The plan works, Boaz sets out to marry Ruth and also redeem Elimelech and Naomi’s property, and all’s well that ends well – a truly happy ending. Naomi’s fortunes is restored, and from Ruth and Boaz’ marital bless, a child is born, the grandparent of the great king David.
A romantic story, but so much more; it’s a story about the role of women in ancient times, the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants, and the need for two women to find economic security. Ruth is truly a heroine – she responds creatively and assertively to the hand that life deals her. She can give up, live in poverty, or she can find a way to personal and economic well-being. Yes, she does depend on the kindness of strangers, in this patriarchal society, where only men can own property. But, she also acts to shape a positive future for herself and her mother-in-law.
The book of Ruth is a reminder to all women and all our girl children that they have the ability to achieve fulfillment on God’s terms and not society’s. God wants girls and women to do great things, and not play second fiddle to men. Remember Genesis: “let us create humankind in our image and male and female God created them” – as equal partners in shaping the world according to God’s vision.
Ruth also reminds us to welcome the stranger and refugee. First, Naomi crosses the border as an alien, depending on the kindness of others. Then, Ruth must also cross a border, back to Naomi’s homeland, and learn to live with strangers who may initially be suspicious of her because of her ethnicity. While this passage doesn’t give us a framework for public policy, it tells us that God comes to us disguised as a refugee and immigrant, as someone of another ethnic background, someone who doesn’t speak the language, and we need to respond with compassion not hatred and prejudice. As Jesus said, “As you have done unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done unto me.” Moabite lives matter, refugee lives matter, black lives matter, and all lives matter and deserve our care.
Finally, Ruth tells us that God’s vision comes through unexpected encounters and unexpected people. Ruth is King David’s great-grandmother. A foreign woman gives birth to the grand-father of Israel’s greatest king. Years after Obed’s birth, I wonder if Ruth, now the aged great-grandmother of the future king, held David in her lap and told him stories of Moab and immigration and her courtship with Boaz.
Today, let us celebrate the diversity of human experience, God’s presence in the least of these, including refugees and immigrants, and the power of an unlikely woman to change the world. Let us teach our daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters to do great things for God and let us teach our male children and grandsons and great-grandsons to see their sisters and friends as equal partners and God’s beloved daughters.