The scripture text for this sermon is Ruth 1:1-18.
Bethlehem means house of bread, but in this story from Ruth there is no bread in Bethlehem. There was famine in the land, and families had to make decisions, tough decisions in order to survive. If there is no bread in the house of bread, you have to move to find bread.
Elimelech chose to take his family to Moab, a high plain with rich farming soil on the edge of the Dead Sea. It was not an obvious choice for an Israelite. According to Jewish scripture the people of Moab are the incestuous offspring from Lott when he slept with his daughters, cursed from the beginning. In Deuteronomy, the people of God are not to allow Moabites to come to their assemblies. In Numbers, the women of Moab are considered to be little more than prostitutes. Elimelech may save his family on Moab’s rich soil, but at what cost?
With his wife Naomi and their two sons whose names ominously mean weak and diseased, they settle for over ten years in Moab. Elimelech dies soon after they arrive. The sons take foreign wives, cursed Moabite women. After ten years of marriage that bears no children, the sons die too. This leaves Naomi alone in Moab with two daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah. It is time to return home.
Ruth and Orpah follow her. Naomi tries to dissuade them. She tells them not to follow her because she is cursed by God, the evidence is abundant. She has lost her husband and her two sons. She is too old to remarry let alone make new sons to take care of her in her old age. Naomi is even too old for the only job women were allowed, prostitution. Her only option was to return to Bethlehem and beg for the mercy of her family. Ruth and Orpah were still young. If they returned to their mother’s house, their mother’s could likely find husbands for them again.
Unsaid by Naomi was that frankly, but likely true, she may not have wanted Ruth and Orpah to follow her. They were two more mouths to feed. If they returned with her to Bethlehem, they would be a sign of her family’s shame in marrying foreign women, especially despicable Moabites. Her family would be less likely to have pity on her with them in her company. Plus, she suspected they were cursed, since their union with her sons had lasted ten years without producing any children.
Orpah and Ruth protested, vigorously. They loved Naomi and could not leave her. Naomi stood firm. Go back to your own people, your own family, your own gods, your own houses. Orpah did the logical thing, the understandable thing, the smart thing, the thing she was instructed to do. She returned to her mother’s house and likely the possibility of a new husband, a new life and greater security. Orpah cried as she left for she loved Naomi, but her mother in law made sense.
Ruth did the illogical thing, the impractical thing, the thing that made no sense at all. She insisted on staying with Naomi. With firm statements that dared Naomi to argue with her, she declared Naomi to be her family now. Naomi’s ancestors were now her ancestors; Naomi’s God was now her God. Her future was with Naomi, not on the plains of Moab. She would stay loyal to Naomi, even though it was not in her best interest.
Naomi heard the sharp words of her normally quiet daughter in law. She might have been angry at her insolence, her reckless youth, her selfishness at not realizing the burden she was placing on her mother in law whom she pledged loyalty and love. She turned comment to Ruth and continued her journey to Bethlehem.
If one looked carefully, I suspect on the corners of Naomi’s mouth, one could see the start of a smile as she heard Ruth follow in silence behind her. It was a wrong decision, of this Naomi was sure. Another sign of God’s curse upon her, but somewhere deep within her, Naomi was gratified, even reassured by this unexpected show of loyalty and love by her Moabite daughter in law.
Ruth stays. To stay takes courage. She turns her back on her own family and gods and adopts a new family and a new God. Ruth is no longer a Moabite. She is an Israelite. Her conversion like all conversions is a dangerous even reckless act, because to cling to something new, we must let go something familiar left behind. In verse 17 Ruth utters an oath, like a marital vow. Her loyalties have changed, she will cling to Naomi.
We cannot attach ourselves to one thing without unattaching ourselves from something else. Paige and my mother get along great, today, but early in our marriage they got in a fight. I remember hearing my mom’s side of the story. After listening politely, I awkwardly tried to make clear that in this fight or any other I was always going to take the side of my wife. I was no longer Karl, the youngest son of Terry and Martha. I was Karl, the husband of Paige and father of Nathan. I had new obligations. When I said I do to Paige, my loyalties changed.
We cannot attach ourselves to one thing without unattaching ourselves from something else. We can only be loyal to one God. Jesus tells the rich young man that in order to follow him he must be completely loyal to him, even willing to leave behind what he loves the most, his riches. Like Orpah, the rich young man made the logical, understandable choice. He returned to his wealth, which still held his loyalty. He was not able to unattach himself to attach himself to Jesus.
As the short story of Ruth unfolds we can see the benefits of loyalty. In a time when women held few rights, two women sticking together, being a blessing for each other, brought more security than either could have enjoyed apart. Further, loyalty to something true and good opens our lives to possibilities. Ruth becomes the great, great something or other grandmother of King David, who was the great great great grandfather or something like that of Jesus. By being loyal to Naomi and Naomi’s God, she weaves herself into God’s rich story that leads to Christ.
When we are loyal to God, we discover an abundance of God’s blessings. This does not mean all of days will be without fear, or that sadness or loss won’t touch us. It does mean that when they do, God who is loyal to us will be there. When we give our loyalty to something other than God, we are rewarded with emptiness and longing in those moments when we need God’s presence the most.
In this season of Lent, spend this first week considering your loyalties. Are they with whatever brings your life the quickest happiness or are they with God? Do you understand that to be loyal to God means putting God before everything else, even job, family or wealth? Can you name the abundant blessings that have come to you when you have remained loyal to God? Come back Wednesday, at 6:30 when I lead a discussion on what competes for our loyalties in the world today and 7:30 when we ponder again who claims our heart. Amen