A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 11, 2012.
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28
Halavie Dale was my English teacher my senior year of high school. She was an engaging person who could be charming one moment and a complete irritant the next. In other words, she was a good teacher. She was married to the biology instructor who was still known as “Coach Dale,” even by his wife, I think, though his name was Jack and he had long retired from coaching. He too was a bit of a character… kept a pet monkey in his biology lab, and like his owner, the monkey was a bit cranky. I would imagine that conversations in their household could become quite interesting at times because both had, shall we say, unusual personalities.
A remembrance from one of our classes has stuck with me over the years. Totally off the subject of English, one spring day, not long before we would be receiving our diplomas and leaving high school, Mrs. Dale asked the class what we were looking for in the life that was out there awaiting us. I suspect she asked this question every spring of each graduating class. What was our over-riding purpose and goal for the future? she wanted to know.
A good-paying job, one of my classmates said. To become rich, said another. One student said he just wanted to settle down, get married, have kids, live normally. But one of my peers said something that really set her off. He said he was looking for security. He wanted his life, in other words, to be safe.
Mrs. Dale lit into him like a hungry dog on a meat-covered bone. “And why would you want to do that?!” she fairly screamed. “How old are you? Seventeen? Eighteen? You’ve got your whole life ahead of you and all you want out of it is to be safe?! Don’t look for safe! Go out into the world and take risks! Don’t settle for being comfortable! Stick your neck out, take a chance, run around the corner without peeking first to see who or what is coming! Do it while you’re still young. You’ve got plenty of time to find security, but don’t do it while you still have the chance to discover what life can give you, if you are willing to risk losing it!”
Needless to say, we all sat there in stunned silence. I wonder if her remarks had as much of an impact on my classmates as they did on me.
I don’t know if Mrs. Dale was a religious person. She may not have had Jesus in mind when she said that. Jesus did ask, “For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” He was talking about those who would follow him, of course, and it’s hard to do that if your main goal in life is security.
Which, of course, is just one thing that set Jesus apart from everyone else. In that part of the world security was very important. Just ask Naomi.
During the time in which Naomi lived, and in that place, security was worth more than gold. And if you were the widow of a man named Elimelech, like Naomi, you had already taken enough risks to last ten lifetimes. The one thing you needed most, Mrs. Dale notwithstanding, was security. It was as important as the air she breathed.
Here’s the story… In a time of famine, Naomi and her husband Elimelech, along with their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, leave their hometown of Bethlehem in Judah and migrate to the land of the Moabites. There is no famine in Moab. Perhaps there they can get back on their feet until things improve back home and they can return to the land of their people. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and the family of Elimelech was about as desperate as they come.
Though the writer of this story does not give us a specific time-line, we are quickly told that Elimelech dies. But still, God has smiled benevolently on Naomi. In a world in which women are completely dependent on men for their well-being and their security, Naomi still has two sons to take care of her. Mahlon and Chilion take wives for themselves from among the Moabites. One is named Orpah, the other is Ruth. They all live happily together, for about ten years, and that is when things begin to unravel.
Again, we are given little detail. All we know is this: both Mahlon and Chilion die without having produced children, leaving Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth to fend for themselves. This is not 2012, nor even 1967 and the English teacher is not Halavie Dale. This is a man’s world. If today, we were to hear that a woman had been widowed, then lost both her sons – her only children – we would, of course, be saddened for her. We might even call her the female equivalent of Job. It is a shame that someone has to bear these kinds of losses, we would think. How sad, how very, very sad. However, in the days of Naomi it was more than just a shame; it was absolutely and totally devastating.
“…the woman was left without her two sons and her husband,” the writer of this narrative tells us. That statement is packed with all kinds of meaning, meaning which is tied up in the ancient – and to us, strange – culture of that day. It is also filled with pathos, and its implication is central to this entire story. “…the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”
It just doesn’t get any worse than that. Not back then, not back there. Not for Naomi who “…was left without her two sons and her husband.”
What do we mean? Well, in a marriage relationship the woman was the husband’s property. She found her fulfillment and purpose in life – her security – through her husband. Her identity was defined by the fact that she was “So-and-So, wife of So-and-So.” As a child she would be the daughter of her father and sister of her male siblings, if there were any. When she became widowed, which happened more often than not, she then had her sons to take care of her, if she was blessed to have had male children. That’s just the way it was.
In Naomi’s case, when the men in her life disappear in a land removed from her family, her identity, her purpose, her security disappear too. Naomi is the widow of Elimelech and mother of the late Mahlon and Chilion. She is left with no one – no one – to take care of her. Realizing her situation, she takes a new name for herself, one that mirrors more clearly her newfound place in life. She is now Mara. The name Naomi, you see, means pleasant or lovely. And since she no longer feels this way, it is best she be known as Mara, which means bitter.
Naomi encourages her two daughters-in-law to go back to their people. No sense in their being dragged down with her. They’re still fairly young. Perhaps they can find husbands among their own people and somehow put their lives back together. To remain with Naomi is to live in bitterness the remainder of their days, and who wants to do that? Yet, even in her bitterness Naomi offers the two younger women her blessing. “May the LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” It was her way of saying, “Go home, get married, have children, preferably male children. God be with you.”
One daughter-in-law, the one named Orpah, does as she is told. The other, Ruth, strangely enough, refuses to leave Naomi. She clings to her and tells her in those familiar words read at most weddings that take this passage completely out of context, and that Carolyn sang earlier as the call to worship…
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
And so, they make their way to Judah, these two downtrodden women, shrouded in the bitterness that death has brought to them. Judah is home to Naomi, but to her devoted daughter-in-law Ruth it will be a land of strangers. She will have to learn how to make a new way, realizing that she will live in a land of people who are not her own.
But what did she tell Naomi? “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Despite this bold statement of faith and devotion – one of the boldest in all of scripture – the truth is that neither of them knows what they are about to get into. But what they’re searching for – sorry, Mrs. Dale – is security.
This narrative does not attempt to re-write the realities of that day. In other words, there is no changing of the culture. What it does tell us is that Naomi and Ruth do indeed find the security they seek in a kinsman named Boaz. We also find that Naomi can come up with a pretty good scheme when she has to, when she has her back to the wall. Naomi decides to play the matchmaker.
Ruth has gone to work in Boaz’s fields, gleaning leftover barley. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. Naomi realizes that as long as Ruth is working in the fields, Boaz is not going to take special notice of her, so she decides to ratchet up the intensity of the situation a bit more. This is what Naomi tells Ruth to do… “Now wash and anoint yourself (which I suppose means that she’s to douse herself with their equivalent of Chanel No. 5), and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor…”
I won’t go into the details of the remainder of this little scheme, if for no other reason than we read it earlier and because, quite frankly, it’s got something of a PG-13 rating. If you’re really interested, you can read it later for yourself and figure it out (I said “later”!). The bottom line is that Ruth does indeed get Boaz’s attention and eventually she becomes Mrs. Boaz. She conceives and bears Boaz a son who will be the step-grandson to Naomi, the one who has put these people together.
Who needs eharmony.com when Naomi is around?
The story is told in our family that about the year 1939, my grandfather sent his youngest son Eric on an errand. Eric had just come to Greene County, Arkansas after having served a couple of years or so in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Washington State. His parents had recently moved to northeast Arkansas from their native Mississippi, and Eric, following his service, had come to live with them.
Eric’s father Will bought his eggs and milk from the Rogers family, who had a small farm down the road a piece. He had noticed that the Rogers had a pretty young daughter. So one Sunday morning, when the milk and eggs needed to be replenished, instead of going himself to get them, he sent his son to fetch them in the hopes that the young Rogers girl, who he knew would be dressed in her best for church, might answer the door.
She was – dressed for church, that is – and she did answer the door. And the rest is our family history.
I don’t know if my grandfather was familiar with the story of Ruth and Boaz. He was a closet Methodist married to a staunch Church of Christ, so it’s possible that he did. But we can be fairly safe in assuming that this kind of match-making has taken place many a time in a lot of different places, all the way from Bethlehem of Judah to Greene County, Arkansas.
The son born to Ruth and Boaz was named Obed. Interestingly enough, the women of the neighborhood – presumably the mid-wives who assisted in the child’s birth – referred to him as the son of Naomi, not of Ruth. Now why would they do that? After all, it was Ruth who had given him birth. “He shall be to you a restorer of life,” they said to Naomi, “and a nourisher of your old age.” “A restorer of life.” Perhaps they said this because they realized that this baby boy was Naomi’s salvation, her security, restored to her from the time when she lost her husband and sons. The days of bitterness are now gone. Naomi’s life has been restored.
Obed would become the father of Jesse and the grandfather of Jesse’s youngest son David, who would, of course, eventually become the king of Israel. Are you with me so far? Good, because you need to know that thirty generations after David, a baby born in a Bethlehem stable would continue the family’s ancestry.
Frank Yamada, a Chicago professor, refers to this story as “redemption in a broken world.”1 My question is, when is the world ever not broken?
If Jesus, the descendant of Ruth and Boaz – and yes, Naomi – can be believed, God is still in the business of weaving his will in the lives of people he chooses to put together in this broken world of ours. How God does that can, at times, be a complete mystery to us. But this is the bottom line as I see it: if we will be open to the workings of God’s Spirit in who we are, in where we go and in what we do, the very same God who is so intertwined in this fascinating story we have considered this morning, will do the same for you and for me. And God will turn our brokenness, whatever it might be, into healing and redemption.
If you believe that, it will make it easier for you see just how that is so. It may not give you the security you seek, but it will restore you in ways that are beyond your greatest imagination and bring you before the very presence of God.
Lord, thank you for this wonderful story that gives hope in the midst of bitterness. Find us faithful to you, for you will restore us just as you have done for all the Naomis of our world. Through Christ we pray, Amen.
1Frank M. Yamada, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 267.