To be certain, the book of Ruth may not be the best known of the Old Testament writings. It is a peculiar little story about a widow and her daughter-in-law. Though it is a powerful story of a journey through suffering and despair to redemption and blessing, it remains a text we do not spend much time with. It starts and ends in the city of Bethlehem during the time of Judges. This was long before the birth of David and many, many years before the birth of our Lord Jesus. Yet, I find it has much to say to us today. There is much about turning to the Lord in our time of need, hope in the midst of suffering and despair, and redemption through the work of another.
The first part of the narrative is one of great tragedy which befalls a woman named Naomi. Naomi was married to a man named Elimelech and they had two sons together. There arose at that time a great famine in their land. Now, I doubt any of us can really appreciate what a famine is. We know what a drought is, but even that is not so severe. For us, a drought means we cannot water the lawn and perhaps pay a higher price for our water and our food. But a real famine is much worse. A famine meant there was a real scarcity of food. That is, in the land in which you lived and farmed, there was no longer enough food to be able to actually survive there. A famine meant people were going to die unless you took desperate measures. This is precisely what Elimelech and his family do. In order to have a future, they had to leave the land. They leave a place of death and starvation. Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons make their way to the region of Moab on the far other side of the Jordan River. There they manage to build a future. It is far away from family and friends, far away from all they knew, but at least they were together. Soon her sons married women from the region. This is a big deal. Their wives were outsiders to the customs and faith of their ancestors, and this matters a lot for what comes next.
Rather unceremoniously we are told Elimelech dies. In these times when a husband dies the care of the widow falls on any sons she might have, beginning with the firstborn and moving on down the line. So, even though there is grief in this moment, at least there is not the fear and uncertainty of being alone or reduced to begging or something like that. And this arraignment worked for about ten years, when suddenly, and again rather unceremoniously, we are told both of her sons die. Naomi’s life is reduced to one of incredible grieve and bitterness. She is now outside of the Promised Land. She has, no doubt, watched loved one’s wither away from famine. She has watched her husband die and now her sons. Her last link to security and a future have died.
The text goes on to tell of the incredible exchange between Naomi and her two daughter’s-in-law. The whole scene is pretty amazing. She hears the Lord has visited His people. The Lord has come to Bethlehem and there is relief from the famine. So, she decides to return home. Yet, she encourages her daughters to stay in the land of their own people. They do not owe her anything. She cannot provide for them. The prudent thing, the thing which makes sense is for them to part ways. Over and again, Naomi calls for them to turn back, turn back from being with her, turn back to their own people to the houses of their mothers, for they might have a future there. One of them does just that. With great tears and heartache, she turns back to her own people. The other, Ruth, stays clinging to Naomi. Here she says the beautiful line, “Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
It is a magnificent climax to this story of tragedy and despair, this daughter-in-law who does not turn back, does not leave Naomi but clings to her. In fact, as the story unfolds it will be through her faithfulness and dedication that new hope and life spring forth. But before we get to all that, there is something interesting which happens when she arrives back in Bethlehem. The town remembers her. They recall this sister of theirs and call out “Is this Naomi?” But she says to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” She changes her name. The name Naomi means “pleasant” but that is not her anymore. She wants to be called Mara, which means “bitterness.” This bitterness is not her own doing but is a result of the action of her God. He has done this. He has caused this. What recourse does she have? So, she changes her name to match her reality.
Now, I do not know about you, but I appreciate texts like these, ones where we do not just rush through the hard challenging times and settle in victory and joy. This is what we always want to do, is it not? Texts like these allow the laments of the people of God to be heard. In many ways they remind us we can lament, that lament is not outside of our faith or prohibited by the Gospel. There is something valuable in this. I do not think most churches today allow for such a confession. All we hear about are the victories, the blessings, and the triumphs of the faith. So much so that if you are bound up in bitterness and heartache, you can begin to feel you have no place in the fellowship of God’s people. Or perhaps if your bitterness remains for too long it is something you are doing wrong, some correction you need to make to find the victory God has prepared for you.
The reality is, not everyone is doing okay. Those who gather together around the Word and Sacrament’s of our Lord are not all reclining in the joys and blessings of this life. There are people here today who probably greeted you with a smile and welcomed you to church, but deep-down are grieving. They are afraid of the future, timid in their actions, and have already secretly changed their name to bitterness. Perhaps they see their own personal failures clear-as-day. Perhaps they fear for their children or grandchildren. Maybe they simply feel lost in a world of despair and grief. They do not dare speak it aloud, not like Naomi did, but it does not change their reality. The Church always likes to look like it has everything under control, but we remain beneath a Creator who we cannot control. He is a God who does not cater to our needs or demands. So, like Naomi, we too turn toward the place God has visited, and there we go with our laments, there we go with our bitterness.
There is a beautiful turning which takes place for the people of God when they come in their bitterness and laments, empty handed and humble and do not hide it away. For they turn from their own desires and expectations, from their own illusion of control to the God who comes from outside of themselves and outside of their control. Naomi is reduced to waiting for redemption and redemption comes. It comes through Ruth who is faithful and true and ultimately marries Boaz and has a son. As that child is laid in her arms, she no longer desires to be called Mara but turns again to being Naomi. There in Bethlehem, a child comes outside of her ability, outside of her works or effort to bring hope and life. Sounds familiar, does it not?
The child born of Ruth is the grandfather of the great king David, and it is through the lineage of David the great King of kings will be born in that same little town. He will be the ultimate and perfect redeemer who works outside of our will or desire to do what we could never do. He lives the perfect life, keeps the Law in its totality, and sacrifices Himself for you. You then turn from your work or effort to hold fast to what He has done, to cling to His promise and work. This is where we find salvation, forgiveness, and life eternal. I love how in our baptismal liturgy we still ask the old question, “How are you named?” For your name, whatever it may be, will not remain lost in bitterness. For in baptism, you are connected to something greater, you are turned toward your salvation. In bitterness and joy, in good times and bad, you remain the children of God, and as such, heirs of eternal life.