READ : Ruth 1:11-21
Ruth is one of the most attractive characters in the Bible, and her story is one of the most beautiful, not just in the Bible but anywhere. It’s the story of an ordinary person, just like us, showing what it means to walk by faith.
Critics have called the book of Ruth the loveliest short story in world literature. It’s a moving story about love and loyalty, faith and providence, and – best of all – it has a happy ending. Ruth herself displays great virtues. She is courageous, pure, hard-working, patient, wise, faithful. But most of all, she is loving. Among all her other graces it is Ruth’s persistent love and selfless devotion to her adopted mother Naomi that shines through and makes her a model of Christ-likeness.
One of the things that has made the book of Ruth so endearing to generations of believers is the fact that it tells the story of very ordinary people living very ordinary lives. These are not celebrities – Elimelech and Naomi, Mahlon and Chilion, Orpah and Ruth, Boaz and his kinsman. All are everyday, small-town folks, people just like us. They are farmers and laborers, husbands and wives, parents and children. There is not a king or a prophet or a judge in the whole lot.
So much of world history seems to consist of a record of the words and deeds of famous people (of course, you could say it’s those words and deeds that made them famous in the first place!) Their stories may be inspiring, but we can’t really relate to these kinds of people. I mean, can you identify with a famous president or a great general? We don’t know what it’s like to be Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, let alone Paul or Moses or David. We don’t face the same challenges or have the same opportunities as the great men and women of the world. So what can their lives say to us?
But the book of Ruth is different. Not only are the people we meet there just like us; their lives are really our lives. Notice what makes up the story’s plot. There are no big or dramatic events, no wars or earthquakes, nothing even that would make the evening news let alone the history books. What happens in the book of Ruth is the stuff of our everyday lives: marriages and deaths and births, arrivals and departures, beginnings and endings. The story’s plot revolves around the struggle to get through tough times, to find love, to care for the aging, to make a family.
The story of Ruth begins with an ordinary Hebrew farmer and his family from the small town of Bethlehem in Judah. Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” but for Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their sons Mahon and Chilian, Bethlehem did not live up to its name. Palestine is an arid country; drought and subsequent famine were common occurrences in Bible times. As the book of Ruth opens, hunger is stalking the streets of Bethlehem. Unable to feed his family, Elimelech seeks relief by moving east and south to the territory of Moab on the other side of the Dead Sea.
But things only got worse there. Elimelech soon died, leaving Naomi a widow. Her sons married local girls, but neither young man lived long afterwards. The names of Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, mean “Sickly” and “Failing” respectively, and they proved to be prophetic. Thus Naomi and her daughters-in-law were all widowed, bereft of all comfort and protection. So when she heard that there was food in Bethlehem once more (v. 6), Naomi decided to return home. There at least she had some relatives who might offer help to her now that there was a harvest again. Naomi’s daughters-in-law set out with her on the way, but when they came to the turning point, she urged Ruth and Orpah to go back to their homes and gave them her blessing (v. 8). Orpah chose to do the sensible thing and return to her own family and people, but Ruth refused. She had decided to commit herself to Naomi, and nothing would persuade her to break that bond.
A Portrait of Commitment
Ruth’s devotion is a wonderful thing. The biblical writer describes the climactic moment: “At this (i.e. Naomi’s repeated arguments for the two women to go back to their own place) they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). When the text there says that Ruth clung to Naomi, it uses the same word which Genesis 2:24 uses for a husband’s “cleaving” (or holding fast) to his wife. This word represents the strongest kind of commitment to the deepest sort of relationship. Ruth’s decision was an act of determined faithfulness.
Her decision was to share Naomi’s future as she had her past, and in words that have echoed down the centuries, Ruth vowed her undying devotion to Naomi.
. . . where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more if anything but death parts me from you.
This pledge is hard to explain. There were no natural reasons for Ruth’s undying commitment to her mother-in-law. Ruth and Naomi shared no blood ties; there weren’t any cultural or religious bonds between them. The Moabites, Ruth’s people, were descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot, but over the centuries they had lost all sense of kinship with Israel. Moab resisted the people of Israel when they approached the promised land during the Exodus, and they oppressed them under their king Eglon in the time of the judges. The hostility went both ways. God’s law forbade any Moabite from joining in Israel’s worship, for the Moabites worshiped a brutal idol whose cult included human sacrifice.
Just as there were no natural reasons for Ruth’s commitment so there was no apparent sense in it. As Naomi herself argued most eloquently, Ruth had nothing to gain in going with her:
“Turn back.” [Naomi said to her daughters-in-law] . . . Why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? . . . No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”
Naomi has no future to offer them, because she has no other sons to give them. Remember, this was a culture in which one’s own children were the only hope people had for personal security. There was no insurance, no pension plans, no government programs, no retirement communities, no nursing homes. All people had when they grew too old and weak to care for themselves was their children. So where could foreigners like Orpah and Ruth expect to find husbands if they should accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem? It just didn’t make any sense.
Orpah did the sensible thing and said good-bye. But Ruth, as we saw, clung to her mother-in-law. Her love would not let go. She vowed to go with Naomi, to stay with her till death, to give up her own people for Naomi’s, and the old gods of Moab for Naomi’s God, the God of Israel.
What caused Ruth to make that commitment? What made her love her mother-in-law so profoundly? It certainly wasn’t for Naomi’s wealth or beauty; all that had long since disappeared. It wasn’t because Naomi was so fun-loving and happy-go-lucky; her hard life had turned her bitter (see vv. 13, 20-21). Nor was it because Ruth thought she could get something valuable in return; Naomi had absolutely nothing to offer. Why Ruth loved as she did is a mystery that our story doesn’t answer. In a way, it’s like the mystery of faith. Why did Ruth choose to accept Israel’s God? Why do we? In the end, perhaps the only reason we can give is grace. God’s grace was offered to Ruth through Naomi, and Ruth chose to accept it, to walk by faith, and not by sight.
Ruth’s devotion transcends reason and logic. It was a heroic gesture, made when she could have no idea of the happy ending that God had in store for both of them. But the most important point is that Ruth’s love was expressed in more than just noble words and promises. Promises may be easily made but later forgotten. Ruth’s love proved itself genuine not by the eloquence of her vow, but by years of patient, faithful service to her newly chosen mother. The true glory of Ruth’s devotion does not lie in the words she spoke to Naomi, beautiful words, to be sure and often repeated by brides and grooms. No, the true measure of Ruth’s love is seen in the days and months and years she lived with Naomi and cared for her right to the end of her life.
What Ruth was pledging herself to was not easy, but it was beautiful. More importantly, she backed up her pledge by taking Naomi’s hand and walking on with her to Bethlehem, where as far as she knew the only thing that awaited her was a life of grinding toil and poverty. Of course, the Lord had another plan, and in the end he would bless Ruth’s faith in ways beyond her imagining. As with marriage so with the life of faith. What matters most is not whether we can talk the talk, but whether we will walk the walk.