Sermon 17

Be Like Ruth

Ruth 1:16

 October 21, 2007  

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

      The Book of Ruth begins in abject sorrow, for death has stricken Ruth’s family and famine has scorched the promised land – a place that once was flowing with “milk and honey” (Ruth 1:1; Exodus 3:8). Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, has lost nearly everything and she is in the deepest dungeons of despair. Now how do we know that about her? Can we see into her soul? Is she some sort of transparent psychological type? No, we know this because Naomi doesn’t even want to hold on to what remains.


A Female Job

And what remains for her are her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Rather than hang on to them, Naomi pushes them away (Ruth 1:8). Rather than take up their loving offer to stay with her, she digs in. This is because after the death of her beloved husband, Elimelech, and then, ten years later, her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, she’s devastated. She’s depleted. She feels empty (Ruth 1:21). And so she believes she has nothing to give Orpah and Ruth – “Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?” (Ruth 1:11). And if Naomi has nothing to give, then it’s best to push them away and send them back to their homes in Moab – derisively called “the washbasin of the Lord” (Psalms 60:8, 108:9). Naomi feels worthless because she has nothing of worth to give away (distorting Acts 20:35).

But there’s even more to Naomi’s sorrow. Not only has she lost so much, but she also believes it has happened because the Lord God Almighty has set himself against her (Ruth 1:13, 20) and afflicted her with this calamity (Ruth 1:21). So she not only feels empty, but she also feels under attack from on high!

In this way she is like Job of old – a female Job, if you will [Edward F. Campbell, Ruth (1975) p. 59]. So Job’s words could be Naomi’s words when he cries out – “the terrors of God are arrayed against me…. He crushes me with tempests,…. He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me…. He seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces…. He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare…. He breaks me with breach upon breach; he runs upon me like a warrior…. He has made me a byword of the peoples, and I am one before whom men spit…. He breaks me down on every side,… and my hope he pulled up like a tree…. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; for I am hemmed in by darkness, and thick darkness covers my face” (Job 6:4, 9:17, 16:9, 12-13, 17:6, 19:10, 23:16-17).


Being Bitter

This onslaught levels Naomi and she cannot rise above her wretchedness. She instead capitulates to it – she caves in. Her grief engulfs her – so much so that she cannot stand her name any longer but must change it to Mara or מרא in the Hebrew, which means “bitterness” (Ruth 1:20). No more shall she be called Noami, which means “liveliness or delight” (Campbell, p. 52). In this way Naomi is again like Job, who says, “God… has taken away my right, and the Almighty… has made my soul bitter” (Job 27:2).

      By so doing, Naomi disregards the divine wisdom which says, “God’s anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Or, “though I have afflicted you,” says the Lord God, “I will afflict you no more” (Nahum 1:12). Or, although God says he is like moth or pus [כעש] to Ephraim, and “like dry rot to the house of Judah ,” he can also say, “I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit” (Hosea 5:12; 14:8). This wisdom is predicated on the teaching that “it is God’s nature to do contradictory things” (Luther’s Works 4:131). But Naomi will hear none of it. She wants a monolithic God – contra the Bible – who only helps and never hurts, not even in order to help. If need be, she’ll even settle to have one of God’s hands tied behind his back so that he no longer will be the One who “makes weal and creates woe” (Isaiah 45:7 and my “Duplex Verbum,” Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1994).


God’s Strange Consolation

By disregarding this wisdom, Naomi is thrown out of spiritual balance. She becomes theologically lopsided – stressing the negative to the exclusion of the positive. Like Job’s wife of old – who by old Jewish legend was called Zitidos [Barry Moser, The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible (1999) p. 447] – she says to herself, “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). But by so doing she misses the strange consolation of the Lord God. “He has torn,” we are told, “that he may heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up” (Hosea 6:1). So his tearing does not exclude his healing – as Naomi supposes. In fact, as Lutherans confess, “God terrifies… to make room for consolation and quickening because hearts that do not feel God’s wrath in their smugness spurn consolation” [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 189].

      Now for this consolation to work, it must be based on patience and hope. It must hold that God’s time is the best time [see J. S. Bach’s glorious cantata, Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (1707) BWV 106]. And if God does not rescue us right away, we must not suppose he has abandoned us. No, it is only “a postponement, not a loss. It is our mortification, not our destruction. It is upbuilding. The blessing is [just] being postponed” (LW 5:203). So


we should not think that when the sun is hidden by clouds it has been completely removed from the world, or that a bright body has become black and dark. The sun keeps its light, but we are hindered by the clouds from seeing it. So God is good, righteous, and merciful even when he strikes. Whoever does not believe this departs from the unity of the faith that God is one, and he imagines another god for himself, who is inconsistent, sometimes good and sometimes bad. But it is an outstanding gift of the Holy Spirit to believe that when God sends evil, He is still gracious and merciful (LW 12:374).


      But though merciful he may be, easy he is not. For indeed it is “difficult…. to trust in God’s Word in the agonies of death so boldly that death is not faced with fear but with joy” (LW 22:179)!


Double Loyalty

So while the Book of Ruth begins with Naomi’s despair, it does not end there. Though her sin grips her, it does not determine the future of Elimelech’s family. For his daughter-in-law, Ruth, will not abide by Naomi’s despair. So at the very beginning of the book, there is a breakthrough that shatters the oppression of sin. In it, Ruth refuses to obey Naomi and flee to Moab – because of her love for her. Ruth breaks free into a holy protest. So rather than complying with Naomi’s insistent command, she offers instead her famous lines of loyalty [made sentimental by Charles Guonod’s (1818-1893) love song, “Entreat Me Not to Leave You”]:


Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16).


      With these words, Ruth, who was not a Jewess, but only knew of the one true God because she had married into a Jewish family, says that “even though I am not of your people, your God will not cast me aside. He will take care of me” (LW 2:276).

      In these words, then, there is a double conviction. First, and most obviously, she dedicates herself in them to Naomi (Ruth 1:14). Her love for Naomi will not allow her to wallow in despair and loneliness. Ruth, in devotion to Naomi and by virtue of her refusal to leave her, stays with Naomi and loves her.

But we also see in these words an unforeseen love for God. So “although she did not belong to the holy people – for she was a Moabitess – she was nevertheless saved because she clung in faith to the God of Israel” (LW 3:133). Ruth’s devotion, then, extends well beyond Naomi. It also reaches out to the one true God himself. And in that devotion we see her faith in God. Even the Hebrew of these couple of lines makes this point – being “as succinct as [possible]” and thereby showing that “something decisive is [being] said” (Campbell, p. 74). In this devotion Ruth isn’t tentative or quizzical. Rather she jumps in boldly, not being “enervated by too much reflection and overwhelmed by the delusions of reflection,” as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was to warn many centuries later in Denmark (Kierkegaard’s Writings 14:71).


Toughing It Out

So we are to follow Ruth and not Naomi. The choice is ours to make. The Book of Ruth drives us to this point: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Will it be the way of Ruth or the way of Naomi? Will you be hopeless or hopeful? Will you sink or swim? The pressure is on you to decide.

      And there’s only one right answer – you must be like Ruth! For the Scriptures are clear. We are to remain hopeful and purge all bitterness from our hearts. We are to look to God for our well-being. We are to embrace the sufferings of the world and the vicissitudes of history with confidence – not despair. We are to believe that God is for us (Romans 8:31). We are to remain steady in hardships and plow ahead (1 Kings 19:4-21; Luke 9:62), trusting in the Lord (Psalm 4:4-7; Romans 4:5). We are to tough it out and go the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:14). So “when the devil and the world slap you in the face and box your ears,… take it” (LW 24:182).

      This is what Ruth does and so blessings flow. In this way she is true to her name, תר, which in Hebrew means “refreshment” (Campbell, p. 56). In Hebrew her name even looks on the page like the Hebrew word for life-giving Spirit, ruach or חר – a word which connotes refreshment and new life from the beginning of time and ever after (Genesis 1:2; Ezekiel 37:9).

So Boaz says God will reward Ruth for seeking her refuge in him (Ruth 2:12). Naomi even comes to see that through Boaz and Ruth neither the living nor the dead will be forsaken (Ruth 2:20). Boaz says that by marrying Ruth the name of the dead will be preserved (Ruth 4:10). And God grants Ruth and Boaz conception as well as a healthy newborn son, named Obed (Ruth 4:13). And, miracle of miracles, Obed is actually called by the women in Ruth’s neighborhood, “a son born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17). And this isn’t any ordinary boy, but the grandfather of King David himself – from whom comes the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord (Ruth 4:22; Matthew 1:5, 16)! So Ruth – remarkably – is “more to Naomi than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15)! And with that the grief over the death of her first husband fades away (Philippians 3:12).

Lucky Ruth

But it’s tough to tough it out as Ruth supposedly does. Actually, however, that’s not what really happens! Something else occurs first – before she digs in and endures. Before she disobeys Naomi and expresses her love for her, she hears that God has already blessed Israel by ending the famine – for we’re told that “the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6). And with this glimmer of hope, Ruth is inspired – even though Naomi doesn’t follow suit and take the same report to heart as does Ruth.

      And there’s more – much more. Once in Israel , in the town of Bethlehem , they contact Elimelech’s relative, Boaz, and find out he’s “a man of wealth” who can help them (Ruth 2:1). And when working in the barely fields, “she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (Ruth 2:3) – which is far more than happenstance. For we know that she was actually being guided by God – “the unobtrusive chief character of the entire [book], but [who is] always in the shadows” (Campbell, pp. 112, 129). And this guidance doesn’t end here. Ruth not only catches the eye of Boaz, but also displays great strength and diligence in her field work (Ruth 2:5, 7). So Boaz is moved to give her extra food for her labors (Ruth 2:16). And after working through the harvest, Ruth is not denigrated as a mere laborer, but regarded as “a woman of worth” (Ruth 3:11). Furthermore Ruth’s next-of-kin willingly defers to Boaz and allows him to marry Ruth (Ruth 4:6). All eight of these lucky breaks – harvest, wealth, field, affection, strength, bonus, esteem, and marriage – show God’s love for Ruth, which makes her hopeful and tenacious (see Wayne E. Oates, Luck: A Secular Faith, 1995, in contradistinction to Nicholas Rescher, Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life, 1995).


Saving the Ungodly

So the great American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, had it wrong when he wrote that “God helps them that help themselves” (Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1736). No, the Biblical truth instead is that God helps us before we help ourselves (Isaiah 65:1) – and even when we are hurting ourselves! For though we are “faithless, God remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). And though “our hearts condemn us;… God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20).

Now this is the good news from God in Christ Jesus – that he comes to save “the ungodly” (Romans 4:5, 5:6). This is good news that he helps even when we can’t help ourselves – because we’re worse off than we imagine. For we in fact are “pitiable and wretched” when we think we’re just fine (Revelation 3:17). So we should be grateful that in the kingdom of God


there are only weak and sickly people, and that it is nothing but a hospital, where the sick and infirm, who need care, are gathered. And yet there are so few who understand that!.... [This] is the most profound wisdom that man can attain…. So… Christian wisdom does not consist in raising our eyes to that which is lofty and wise, to see ourselves reflected there, but in lowering our eyes to that which is lowly and foolish [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. N. Lenker (1907, 1988) 3:26-27].


Saved By a Curse From a Curse

So because of our sins, we are cursed (Galatians 3:13). We are slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves (John 8:34). This is because of the “hate of God… we are born with,” which turns us into “recalcitrant donkeys” (BC, pp. 102, 568). Rebecca West gives a stirring confirmation of this in her big book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1940, 1982) (p. 1102):


Only part of us is sane: only part of us… wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable… and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness…. There is nothing rarer than a man who can be trusted never to throw away happiness…. We ignore this suicidal strain in history because we are constantly bad artists when we paint ourselves.


      So our only hope lies outside of ourselves in Christ Jesus – who for us became a curse that we may be freed from the punishment we had coming for our wretchedness (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus therefore is punished in our place on the cross that we might be saved from the wrath of God (1 Peter 2:24; Hebrews 9:26; Romans 5:9). But this doesn’t mean he’s a victim (John 10:18). No, because he took upon himself our sins, “not by compulsion but of His own free will, it was right for Him to bear the punishment and the wrath of God – not for His own Person, which was righteous,… but for our person” (LW 26:284).

      This is hard to believe – and harder still to turn into a way of life for ourselves. So Christ leaves us his life in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper that our hearts may not “grow entirely cold” but rather increase in faith and love (Luke 17:5; John 6:53; BC, p. 453). So come to the altar and receive Christ this day in the “most venerable sacrament” of the Lord’s Supper (BC, p. 577).


Joining the Minority

Therefore instead of changing our names to bitterness, like Naomi did (Ruth 1:20), let us call ourselves Christians (Acts 11:26), after him who was inflicted with the sins of the world on the cross (1 John 2:2). Let us reverse the judgment that we’re nothing but “ungrateful… bipeds” [Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Mirra Ginsburg, Notes From Underground (1864, 1974) p. 32]. Let us instead join the 10% who thank the Lord (Luke 17:16). Let us follow the call to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Let us give up the bitterness of despair, as Job finally did for what he suffered, and loath ourselves for our haughty arrogance before God, repent and turn in obedience to serve God in humility (Job 40:3-5, 42:6-9), knowing that we have been purged by our sufferings and not forsaken in them (Job 23:10). Let us resist the cynics who argue that if we thank God for our troubles – the very “rod of God” (Job 21:9) – we would then never want to comfort others in theirs (contra Ephesians 5:20; Job 2:10; Hebrews 12:11) [Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (1989, 1998) pp. 25-26].

      So let us be on our guard. Do not thank God just to ingratiate yourselves to him and muscle more blessings out of him to feed your greed and self-importance. For surely that wouldn’t be “renouncing all things,” as we’re called to do (Luke 14:33; Matthew 6:19). But rather let us see thanksgiving as “thinking lightly” of all our blessings, knowing that if we don’t, we will “cheat ourselves out of Christianity” (Kierkegaard, Journals, ed. Hong, §1510).


(printed as preached but with some changes)