Liminal Lent: Ruth & Naomi
Today is the last Sunday in Lent before we move into Holy Week, and so it is our last week to focus explicitly, at least, on this theme of Liminal Lent, even as we suspect our global liminal season will last for some time yet. As a reminder, or for those of you who are joining us for the first time today, liminal literally means threshold, and is meant to refer to the in-between-ness we experience sometimes, that place between endings and beginnings, the seasons of transition when we’re between there and here. We’ve been spending this Lent studying stories of liminal seasons in the Bible, because even though these in-between, liminal seasons can be disorienting and uncomfortable, they can also be seasons when it is easier for us to hear and respond to God’s call on our life.
Today, we turn our attention to the book of Ruth. Ruth is a short book of the Bible, and I encourage you to give the whole book a read this week. We’re told at the opening of Ruth that during the time when Israel was ruled by judges – before the people clamored for a king – there was a famine in the land. So a certain man from Bethlehem named Elimelech goes with his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to live in Moab. Maybe there was rumor that Moab had food to spare? For some reason, Elimelech thinks things might be better in Moab. Moab, which in present day is where Jordan is located, was a neighbor to Israel, and sometimes relations between Israel and Moab were good and sometimes they weren’t so good. At any rate, Moab had its own culture and religious practices – they weren’t part of the covenant between God and Israel. Mahlon and Chilion both marry Moabite women.
At some point, Elimelech dies, and then both Mahlon and Chilion die, leaving behind their wives, Orpah and Ruth. This happens over some length of time, but the cumulative result is still devastating to Naomi. As a widow with no living sons, Naomi is in a precarious, vulnerable position socially and economically, and so are her newly widowed daughters-in-law. In the culture of the day, women didn’t inherit – men did. Naomi needs to figure out how to survive. And so she decides that the best thing to do is to return home to Israel, because now she’s heard that God has “considered God’s people” and given them food in Israel. And she’ll send her daughters-in-law back to their families in Moab, where they can try to start over and perhaps marry again.
At first, both Orpah and Ruth protest leaving Naomi. They care for her – she’s family, and they’ve been with her for years. Naomi pushes, and eventually Orpah concedes and departs, but Ruth persists. She makes a declaration: “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!” These are words of covenant, a beautiful act of commitment, of love. In fact, they’re often read at weddings. With these words, Ruth commits to the Jewish faith, making the God of Israel her God too.
So Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem. Naomi tells people to call her Mara, which means bitter, instead of her own name, which means pleasant, because she feels that God has dealt bitterly with her. She says, “I went away full, but God has brought me back empty.” Have you ever felt like that? I think our liminal seasons might often find us feeling that way at first. A season of life has ended, and we feel a deep sense of loss. Significant parts of Naomi’s identity – she was a spouse, a parent – they’ve been snatched from her. And although she’s returned home, Moab was her home for many years.
Ruth, of course, has suffered her own losses. She’s lost her husband, and now she’s in a new country, a place she’s never been before, far from her family of origin. But she immediately sets about trying to care for Naomi. Ruth asks Naomi to send her to glean in the fields of a kinsman of Naomi’s, a man named Boaz. Ruth clearly knows the law of Israel. There are provisions in God’s commandments that say farmers are not to gather every last bit of food to harvest from the field. No, whatever is left behind in the harvest is to be offered to those in need to glean. The vulnerable are protected in this way. And so Ruth goes to glean in the fields of Boaz. Once there, we see that Boaz repeatedly shows Ruth hospitality: He makes sure she is protected from anyone who might bother her. He makes sure she has water to drink and food to eat. Boaz follows the commandments for hospitality to strangers, for care of the vulnerable, for welcoming foreigners. But he doesn’t just follow the letter of the law. He acts with loving-kindness, with compassion, with care. And he lets Ruth know that he has heard about Ruth’s acts of loving-kindness too. He says, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Eventually, after our text concludes, Boaz and Ruth marry. We sense genuine relationship between them, but Boaz also acts, again, to follow the commandments of God, which include provisions for caring for widows like Ruth by connecting them to family again through marriage where possible. And in the surprising and unsurprising ways of God, Ruth eventually becomes the great-grandmother of a man named David, and an ancestor of Jesus. A foreign woman, a widow with many losses, far from home, becomes part of the genealogy that shapes Judaism and Christianity.
There are so many opportunities in this story for people to justifiably take other paths, choose other actions. In the face of loss, Orpah returns home to her family. Her actions weren’t wrong. No one would have faulted Ruth for doing the same. But she chooses to stay with Naomi, to care for Naomi, to stick by Naomi’s side in this liminal season. Naomi, in turn, despite the bitterness she feels, cares for Ruth, and makes her people, her connections, her country Ruth’s as well. Boaz could have ignored Ruth – just another person come to glean in his fields. That would have been generous enough. But he sees how faithful she has been, and seeks to be a vessel through which Ruth experiences God’s blessings.
We’ve been having our weekly Bible Study online for the past couple of weeks, and I think we’re getting the hang of it. It’s open to all – Wednesday night at 6pm over Zoom, and again, you can find the link to that in our email newsletter or on our facebook page. We had a great group this week, and we spent time studying the scriptures from Ruth for worship today. After class, Karen Brungard messaged me with something she’d been thinking about. She said that in thinking about Ruth and Boaz, she realized that each of them chose to do what was right, but unlike some more dramatic stories in the Bible, neither Ruth nor Boaz recounts God speaking to them directly. That’s such a good insight. I found Karen’s observation reflected in some of the commentaries I read this week too.Kathryn Schifferdecker writes, “God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s [loving-kindness] is embodied in human action.” (1) Although we don’t hear God’s voice directly in Ruth and Naomi’s journey, we see God at work through Naomi releasing Orpah and Ruth from staying with her, and through Ruth choosing to go with Naomi anyway, holding fast to a faith she had learned from Naomi and her family. We see God at work as Naomi sends Ruth to glean in Boaz’s field, trusting that Boaz will be observing the law that has bound the Israelites to God for generations. She does this even though she feels like God has dealt her a bitter hand. In spite of her pain, she acts with the loving-kindness God calls her to show. We see God at work as Boaz welcomes Ruth, a refugee from another country, without hesitation, again, something God’s commandments champion: welcoming the stranger, demonstrating hospitality. We’re following Ruth and Naomi through the most painful season of their lives, marked by loss and upheaval, the death of spouse and children, the loss of country and home, with widespread famine just the icing on the cake. And in the midst of such potential for ongoing devastation, we see in the book of Ruth faithful act after faithful act, not because God breaks forth from the clouds and makes grand pronouncements, but because of the everyday faithfulness of people like Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.
God acts through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s love, God’s compassion – the qualities and character of God are embodied in human action. I know in these hard days, we’re listening for the voice of God. That’s always a good idea! But we don’t need to wait until God’s voice bursts forth from a burning bush, or a dove comes down from the sky, or any other dramatic sign. We already know what God calls us to do in this season: we love God and we love neighbor. We try to reflect to others the heart of Jesus. What we can do is seek to understand what that love of God and neighbor looks like in our unique experience. In this liminal season of pandemic, when we don’t get to welcome visitors into our church buildings, what does it mean to provide hospitality and welcome the stranger? In this season of pandemic, who is most vulnerable? If we can’t invite those who are hungry to glean in our fields, what other ways can we serve right now? If we can’t gather physically around those who are grieving, whose worlds are turned upside down, what other ways can we show our support? If our love and commitment can’t be demonstrated in literally journeying side by side right now, how can we join together in a journey of the spirit? Sometimes, most times perhaps, God isn’t calling us to dramatic gestures that will make headline news and win us accolades. Most times, God isn’t calling us to be Moses, leading a nation, or Joseph, becoming right hand to a king. Instead, most days, God just calls us to be faithful. To persist in doing what is right, what is loving, what is just, what is full of compassion. Ordinary faithfulness changes lives and changes the world just as certainly as extraordinary gestures.
God is faithful to us, even in, especially in these days when we are anxious and afraid. And knowing that we are gathered in by God, under whose wings we come for refuge, we can be faithful to God and to one another too. In these days, friends, may God bless you for your faithful deeds, for your loving-kindness. May your days be full of blessing from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge! Amen.
(1) Schifferdecker, Kathryn M., “Commentary on Ruth 1:1 – 4:22,” The Working Preacher,