May 13, 2014

"Hesed" - Ruth and Naomi

Sermon Scripture: Ruth 1:6-18
When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

So, we continued this week in church with our current theme: the unexpected.  We've talked about bit about Balaam and Jacob, it's time for a lady.  If you look at a table of contents listing out the books of the Bible, there are two books named after women: Esther and Ruth.  Today we are going to focus on Ruth.

Let's look at her context, why she was so unexpected, and what that means for us.

The first few verses of Ruth tell us that “in the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land” of Israel.  A man from Bethlehem went with his wife, Naomi, and his two sons to the land of Moab in order to find food.  The man died, and left Naomi with two sons, who went on to marry Moabite women.  Ten years later, both of the sons died and all three women were left as widows. 
So who was Ruth?
·         WIDOW: she had been married to one of Naomi's sons, but was then left a widow after his death. Being a widow in that time meant she had no man providing for her, she was free – and even expected – to return to her family.
·         MOABITE – Naomi's Israelite husband had moved her and her two sons to the country of Moab to escape a famine in Israel, and one of those sons married Ruth - a Moabite woman.  Israelites and Moabites were sworn enemies!  Remember that we talked a couple of weeks ago about how Moabite women were prompted by Balaam to seduce Israelite men.  24,000 Israelites then died from a plague. Then the Israelites conquered Moab.  People from these two nations did not get along.  Moab was considered an accursed nation.  Moabite women were treated by the Israelites as though they were all sexually impure.  They were not trusted.  (There are even verses in Deuteronomy that instruct Israelites to have nothing to do with Moabites - they are not to enter into the assembly of the Lord even until the 10th generation, etc.)

So let's return to the Scripture passage for today.  Here we have Naomi returning to her people after hearing about how God has provided food for them.  She and her daughters-in-law set out on the road leading to Judah (have you noticed how many Bible stories happen on the road...).  After they've traveled for a bit, she urges them to go back!  Go back to their mothers' houses – go back and may the Lord show them kindness just as they had shown kindness to her and her sons.  Go back and find rest in another husband's house. 

Both daughters-in-law say they'll return with her.  She insists again that they go back to their homes because she has nothing left to offer them.  She is too old to bear more sons for them to marry.  She has nothing to offer them. 

Here is where the unexpected happens. Orpah turns and goes home....crying, but she goes home as Naomi insisted.  Ruth?  She does not.  She stays put.  Naomi says that she follow Orpah & go home to her people and her gods.  Ruth's response is this:

                        Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.
                                    Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.
                                                Your people will be my people and your God my God.
                                    Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.
                        May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

Why was this such a big deal?  For a few reasons. 
·         Moabite!! - Remember that she is a Moabite, a member of a nation considered accursed by the Israelites...and she has just agreed to go back to Israel.  Vikings fan in a Packer's stadium, anyone?  Next, she has just sworn her fidelity to the God of Naomi – not the god of the Moabites.  This is a big deal!!
·         Woman!! -  Remember that in this time a woman was nothing without a man.  Without a man, a woman had no assurance of material, financial, or personal security.

Yet here we have a woman pledging her loyalty to another woman, but also to that woman's people and her GOD. 

In the Bible, the word used to refer to Ruth is “hesed”.  This word roughly translates to “loving-faithfulness”.  Ruth had just given up everything that made sense – her nation, her people, her identity, her gods – in order to do the thing that did not make sense, which was to remain loyal to someone who the culture of the time would have said did not require her loyalty.  The culture of the time would have said that Ruth should have returned to her family, to her mother.

We don't know why she refuses to go back to her home.  It was less socially acceptable for her to go with why?  The text doesn't really say.  Perhaps she had a negative homelife.  Let's face it – just because someone births a child does not automatically mean they are a good mother.  Today some people will be honoring their emotional or spiritual mothers, or those who acted more as a mother to them than their own biological mother.  Sad, but a fact.  But back to Ruth – perhaps the famine that had apparently spread to Moab (remember that Naomi was going back to Judah because food was there) had not spared Ruth's family and she had no one to return to.

We don't know for sure.  What we know is that Ruth shows hesed, she shows loving-faithfulness to Naomi.  “Where you go I will go.  Your God will be my God.  Where you are buried, also let me be buried.  Don't tell me to go away from you again.”  

There is another context in which the word hesed shows up in the Bible.  It is often used as a defining quality to describe God.  God is hesed.  God is loving-faithfulness. 

God demonstrates loving-faithfulness to each and every one of us on a daily basis, especially when it does not make sense.  Ruth saw Naomi at the lowest time in her life, during a time when she was likely not very approachable, and indeed was even actively trying to push Ruth away.  She was well aware that being faithful to Naomi was to go against the grain, to go against the culture that was telling her it was more appropriate to go home to her own family and not make herself a stranger in a strange land for Naomi's sake.  Yet she persisted in showing Naomi loving-faithfulness.  She refused to leave.  She knit her story together with Naomi's story, even though doing so did not make sense.  (Ruth → Naomi)

God sees each of us every day struggling in this life.  He has seen each and every single one of us in our lowest times, the times when we are not approachable, the times when we are lamenting and even actively trying to push God away.  God sees us when we are hurting and lashing out, or secluding ourselves and being self-destructive.  Yet he persists in showing us loving-faithfulness.  He did the thing that did not make sense and sent Jesus Christ to live and die for us that we might know a new way of living, that we might know a new way of being loved. (God → us)

That we might know how to show loving-faithfulness to one another.  There is a gentleman whom I've known for 16 years.  I count him as a member of what I call my “heart family”. I tell people that once you've become a member of my heart family, you are there forever, and I mean it.  You see, this man has spent the last 10 years of his life behind bars in a maximum security prison in Alaska.  I wish I could say he isn't guilty of the crime they've accused him of, but he is.  He is justly in prison right now.  I write to this man regularly, updating him on what's going on in my life, telling him all about Drexel, including him as a part of my family as much as I can seeing as we are separated by half a continent and some bars that won't go away for years yet.  He writes me back sometimes.  Recently he thanked me for not giving up on him.  He thanked me for showing him loving-faithfulness in a way that others have not.  The culture surrounding me would tell me that it makes sense to give up on him, to just quit.  I cannot.  He's a member of my heart-family. (Us → One another)

In the New Testament, we are consistently told to do the things that don't always make sense and to love one another no matter what.  Love one another whether we are Jew or Gentile, man or woman, young or old.  We are to demonstrate loving-faithfulness to one another no matter what, just as God does with us, just as Ruth did with Naomi.  And we are to help one another do so.  In the end, it will lead to good things. Ruth eventually did find a new husband – Boaz. 

In Matthew 1 we find a lineage of Christ – Boaz and Ruth are mentioned.  It specifically mentions that part of Jesus' lineage includes unexpected devotion despite what culture might say.  How prophetic!