Sermon Seeds: Keeping Commitments
Sunday, October 31, 2021
23rd Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Ruth 1:1–18 and Psalm 146
Deuteronomy 6:1–9 and Psalm 119:1–8
Confronting the Future (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Every so often on social media, I will see a meme that exhorts women (It’s always only women.) to wait for their Boaz. The idea is that women who are searching for a partner (again, it’s always only presented in this light) should be patient and wait for a man (of means, status, and position) to choose them. If only they’ll change their behavior and actions, they will be found by their version of Boaz.
Of course, that’s not how the story goes.
The details of the story tell a very different narrative of how that relationship developed. Even more importantly, this story is not about Boaz. It’s about Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi:
Ruth occupies a unique place in the biblical canons in that it is the only book to be named after a foreign woman. Its title and Moabite heroine immediately raise questions of gender, ethnicipty, and otherness. These thorny issues, however, are taken up subtly and are sometimes even obscured, in a story that on the surface reads like an idyll. Literary and ideological sensitivity therefore are necessary to appreciate more fully the complex dimensions of the text, some of which are in tension with one another….
At the center of this drama stands Naomi, who has been stripped of everything that gives her life meaning and security. And it takes the loyalty and resourcefulness of another woman, her daughter-in-law Ruth, to reconnect Naomi to her kinsman Boaz and reintegrate her within her community. Remarkably, this ancient story dwells extensively on women’s experience and women’s voices.”Eunny P. Lee
One of only two books in the biblical corpus to be named after a woman and the only one to be named after a foreign woman, the book of Ruth is far more than a simple love story or even an ancient version of Thelma and Louise. It’s part of an epic story in which it’s role is to upend cultural norms and presuppositions.
This tale isn’t about finding Boaz…it’s about being Naomi and being Ruth.
The passage begins by situating this particular story within the history of Israel as well as a particular family dynamic. Judges and a famine governed the day and a family has been disrupted by the death of its patriarch and his heirs. The matriarch, Naomi remains along with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Traditionally, the younger women would have returned to their families. That is the course that Orpah takes, but Ruth has a different plan. Ruth chooses to remain with the matriarch of the family. It does not matter to Ruth that Naomi does not have other sons to marry. (Custom would have obliged any living male child to marry the widow of his deceased brother.) Ruth does not concern herself with Naomi’s lack of obvious material wealth and resources. Ruth commits to Naomi and persists despites the elder’s objections. Ruth does not ignore them or refute them, she simply and emphatically declares her commitment to Naomi.
That commitment flouts cultural norms, but the marriages of Ruth and Orpah to Naomi’s sons already set that precedent within their household:
Although the preferred marriage in Israel was within one’s family lineage and ethnic group (known as endogamy), Mahlon and Chilion espoused Moabite women. Marriages with foreign women were often disparaged in Israel, because they were thought to lead to idolatry (1 Kgs. 11;18). Moabite women were especially censured for using their sexuality to lead Israel astray (Num. 25:1–5). During the Persian period, the marital policies of Ezra and Nehemiah condemned intermarriage with foreign women (Ezra 9–10; Neh. 13:23–31). Some scholars think that the book of Ruth was written to counteract their strict interdictions, by highlighting a Moabite female convert to Israel, one who will be the ancestress to King David.Gale A. Yee
Ruth turns the table again as she maintains her connection to a family as well as to a people. She had decided to abide with Ruth. She promises loyalty, fidelity, and presence for life. Confronted with such resolve, Naomi ends her objections.
The little evidence we have points to a close and loving connection between Naomi and her daughter-in-laws. They weep upon the suggestion of separation, perhaps in part due to their grief at the deaths of their respective husbands, but mainly at the potential loss of one another. Among them, Ruth choses another way. She will not concede to the demands of society in face of her circumstances and Naomi’s condition. Those tears almost certainly responded to fear of the unknown, the prospect of ill treatment by whomever they might persuade to take them in. Ruth will not be passive in her destiny. She will determine it, face it squarely, and keep her commitments along the way.
This story is one instigated through grief and monumental loss. At the center of that grief is Naomi, who has lost everything in much the same way as Job and Job’s Wife. She has lost both husband and children, and, as a consequence of those losses, has everything else in her life taken away…even her hope. Her only remaining possessions are bitterness and despair, and they are in abundant supply.
In fact, all that Naomi can see is what she has lost. She even views herself through that lens. She does not value herself as a person in her own right, she mourns the positions she no longer occupies and cannot imagine anyone wanting her presence alone. Ruth offers unconditional and unreserved love to Naomi. It’s both a promise and a gift. As Jessica Tate notes:
At the end of ch. 1, we are left with Naomi’s emptiness. This is where we so often find ourselves—with a scary diagnosis, a relationship crumbling, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We find ourselves in these empty places, uncertain of the end of the story. We do not know how, or if, our fortunes, our security, our confidence, our hope will be restored. We are left with simply a promise—a promise that we are not alone. It is a promise that finds incarnation in Ruth. Ruth will cling to Naomi no matter what. She will be with her wherever she goes, wherever she lives, wherever she dies. This text leaves us unsure of how the story ends but confident that Naomi does not face her emptiness alone. Ruth clings to her, refusing to let her go. That is God’s promise to us, as well—that God will be with us no matter what. It is the promise of our faith: That nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God.Jessica Tate
We, too, continue to live through uncertain times, surrounded by loss–of loved ones, of community, and of way of life. The pandemic continues as do other challenges such as climate change, the rise of white nationalism, and economic insecurity that do not have an anticipated end date. There’s so much we don’t know. In our faith communities, many of us are evaluating the resources for ministry that will be available in the coming year and our balance sheets fall short of the need and even shorter of the hope for making a meaningful impact within and beyond our doors. Attendance may be dwindling and the bone-weariness of the faithful may be discouraging, but sometimes we focus on empty seats so much that we forget to celebrate those who remain. We too can discount our value as our conditions change.
But, conditions change. That’s a fact and pattern of life. Our circumstances never remain stagnant, and we cannot make them. Gilbert Rendle challenges us to consider the following: “What if the questions we now face are not the product of things gone wrong but rather of the world grown different?” Later, he goes on to say, “We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us.” Ruth embodies that hopeful forward facing toward the future.
Ruth also reminds us that we can embody the love and presence of God for one another. In grief, there is perhaps no greater gift than the ministry of presence. Showing up and companioning with our kin in the experience of loss reflects the abiding of God with us. And, Ruth’s persistent pursuit of companionship foreshadows the persistent pursuit of the Incarnational Christ, descendant of her line, who breaks into the world because God’s love will not let us go.
We don’t have to let go of one another either. We can perceive and affirm the value and worth of every sibling in creation even when they object. We too can make and keep the commitment to abide in community with one another no matter what the future holds and circumstances prescribe. We can dispel someone’s isolation. We can share one another’s burden. We can confront the future…keeping commitments.
For further reflection:
“Genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment…’dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’ Many people want love to function like a drug, giving them an immediate and sustained high. They want to do nothing, just passively receive the good feeling.” — bell hooks
“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and ‘loaded with promises and commitments’ that we may or may not want or keep.”— Cheryl Strayed
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Uplift and celebrate members of your community who embody the ministry of presence.
Lee, Eunny P. “Ruth” Newsom, Carol A. et al, Ed. Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Rendle, Gilbert R. Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019.
Tate, Jessica. “Ruth 1:6-22.” Interpretation 64, no. 2 (April 2010): 170-172.
Yee, Gale A. “Ruth.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Ruth 1:1–18 and Psalm 146
Deuteronomy 6:1–9 and Psalm 119:1–8
1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,
“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.
17 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!”
18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
1 Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
6 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
1 Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways.
4 You have commanded your precepts
to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart,
when I learn your righteous ordinances.
8 I will observe your statutes;
do not utterly forsake me.
11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.