Katharine Sakenfeld, a professor of Old Testament Literature at Princeton Seminary, says of the Book of Ruth:
"In the midst of scriptures filled with wars and threats of wars, with trickery and treachery among brothers and sisters, with attempts at genocide and brutal reprisals, with disobedience and unfaithfulness, the book of Ruth has been viewed as an island of tranquility in which people act well toward one another and the community celebrates a happy ending for all concerned." (Sakenfeld, p.1)
She is talking about the position of the book of Ruth as in the time of the Judges, as the first line tells us, and around the time of King David, as the concluding lines suggest. This was a treacherous time, as she described, a time of transition and turmoil. We could just as easily translate this to our current situation. In the midst of a warring world, with terrorist threats, climate changes and natural catastrophes affected by global warming, in the midst of hateful political battles, the book of Ruth brings a vision of love, loyalty, and faithful living that warms our hearts and makes us yearn for something similar. Ruth’s story was not a time without troubles. Naomi’s family fled Judah because of a severe famine, and ended up in Moab, a place not highly regarded by the Israelites. Yet, they must have had abundant food there. Worse than just fleeing there, the man’s sons intermarried girls from Moab. Then all the men died, leaving a household of women in an era when women had no power and few rights. The widowed Naomi heard that God had restored food to her home land, so she started out to go home. Part way there, she stopped and told her daughters-in-law, also helpless widows in the view of their times, to go back home to their families in Moab, where they might have a chance of re-marrying, which was really their best hope for survival. When they refused, she reminded them that she had no way to provide for them because she had no more sons or other male relatives. Orpah finally saw the sense in what she was saying and tearfully left her. But Ruth "clung to her," the text tells us. The word for "clung" is the same as in the Genesis text we associate with weddings: "Therefore a man leaves his mother and father and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." It is not a sexual joining, but rather speaks of loyalty and love. And that is a big part of what the book of Ruth is all about. Here in the midst of a harsh world full of fighting, dishonesty, and downright hatred between peoples, we find a sweet story of great love and loyalty. Here we see a vision of a peaceable community, one where all are fed and provided for, where women are respected, children are celebrated, the elderly are cared for. Here we see a vision of what the Hebrews called hesed. Hesed is translated as kindness, steadfast love, mercy, loyalty, but it is so much more than this that it cannot be fully translated into English. The closest Greek equilavent is charis, which means grace. Hesed is most clearly seen in God’s relationship with Israel (and with us), staying faithful in love even when God’s people disobeyed time and time again. Hesed in the story of Ruth is modeled in the loyalty of Ruth to her mother-in-law in our passage. In our passage, in words most often used for weddings, Ruth vows to stay with Naomi wherever she goes, and to worship the God Ruth worships. She vows to stay not only with Naomi until Naomi dies (when Ruth could return to her home country of Moab), but to die where Naomi dies. This is a big commitment. Living in the land of Moab, perhaps Naomi and her husband continued in their worship of the God of Israel, but they would have been in the minority, surrounded by a foreign people worshiping foreign gods. So for Ruth to commit to worship Naomi’s God and country conveyed a strong loyalty and trust. It would mean a huge change of life for her. As the story continues, Ruth went out to glean in the fields that had been harvested in order to provide for herself and Naomi. And in doing so, she met Boaz, whom she married. Ruth bore a son, named Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of King David, the text tells us. Ruth is included in Matthew’s geneaology of Jesus.
Perhaps there was a real-life Naomi and Ruth, and all the other characters named, who lived around the time of the Judges and the first kings of Israel. But more likely, this was a story that gave hope to people living in uncertain and dangerous times. Tradition says that the prophet Samuel wrote the book of Ruth. Modern scholars suspect that it might have been a woman or a guild of women storytellers. It reads like a folk tale. And there are hints in the meaning of names – Elimelich, the head of Naomi’s family, means "My God is king." His sons names rhyme, a common feature of folk tales, and Mahlon means "weakness," Chilion "annihilation." Naomi means "sweetness" or "pleasantness." Ruth means "friend" or "companion." The story is so different than the world in which is was written that it seems unreal, more like a fairy tale where the prince rescues the maiden and all live happily ever after. The Israelites needed, and our world today needs, such hopeful stories of faithful living.
Such wonderful stories will not ring true for some people today. Those in war zones where bombs destroy the property and the families of the innocent, those in countries where they are persecuted because of their race or gender or even their age, our fellow citizens in our northeast who still do not have power or have lost their homes may not be able to hear such a story with a happy ending right now. And yet I hope that somewhere in all of these places, someone reads them this story of faith and love called the Book of Ruth.
For, as we celebrate All Saints Day in church today, I would add to my list of saints some of the folks I have heard about on the news this week – the National Guard in Hoboken roaming the flooded streets to rescue families and their pets, and elderly people in wheelchairs, all trapped in their homes or on their roofs by the contaminated waters; the 28 year old off-duty policeman who rescued 7 people from a flooding building and then died when he went back down into the basement one more time; nurses who climb many stories of steps to reach and care for elderly who live in high-rise buildings but cannot leave to get food or drink or go to a safer place without the help of electricity to run the elevators;. These are stories of modern-day saints, of steadfast love and care (hesed) for one’s fellow human beings. These are the stories that give us hope in the midst of horrible tragedy. Our hope is in the faith, hope and love that God gives us to share with others.
In our NT text today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells us that the greatest thing in life is love. He does not mean romantic love, or even familial love, but an agape love, something like hesed, which involves our whole being. When the scribes in Mark’s story had been questioning Jesus to try to trip him up, to find places in which his theology was wrong so that they could discredit him or have him arrested for causing trouble, Jesus answered a question about the commandments of the Hebrew Bible. "Which is the first of all of them?" asked one of the scribes. Jesus answered by quoting the Shema’, the words faithful Jewish followers say every day of their lives. First and foremost, he told them, love God, with all your heard, soul, strength, and (added in Mark), your mind. In other words, he told him, and us, love God with your whole being – no holes barred, no holding back. Then, said Jesus, "Love your neighbor as yourself," also quoting the Hebrew Bible that his listeners would have known (Lev. 19:18). This love of self will not be a self-centered love, because it will grow out of the first love, the love of God. Loving God, and realizing that we are loved by God, enables and empowers us to love ourselves just as we are, with all our shortcomings, and to reach out to others with the same strong love we receive from God. If only our community could embrace this love fully, there would be less homelessness for we would find ways to share what we have with all others. If only our country could fully embrace this love, we might not have the violence of thefts and abuse and revenge, and the vicious political fights that we at least have to endure only a few more days. If only all the people of our world could embrace this love with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, we might better care for one another and for our planet.
The greatest commandment, this summing up by Jesus of all the biblical commandments and message, appears in all of the Synoptic Gospels. But only in Mark does a scribe then tell Jesus that his answer is good and right, and that love is greater than any other sacrifices one might offer to God. "You are not far from the kingdom of God," Jesus told this kind scribe. When we live in loving-kindness, trusting in God’s love for us and sharing that love with all around us, we bring the kingdom of God closer to reality.
This table, which we approach regularly, is a symbol of God’s unending love for us, offered in the words and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ to and for us. As we remember the saints who have come to this table before us, and have preceded us in bearing God’s love out into the world, may we strive to follow Jesus’ words of love for God, for self, for neighbor, and to live as faithfully and trustingly as did Ruth in following Naomi and Naomi’s God (who is, of course, also our God). God is faithful and loving, always. May we be so as well.
Glory be to God. Amen.