This is the last month of the Christian year and the Old Testament readings in the lectionary now begin to redirect our thoughts away from matters of faithful living, even in the face of suffering as in Job, toward the celebration of Christ as ruler of all creation. That will be the climax of the whole Christian story. To prepare for this we first look back to the stories of some of the ancestors of Jesus (Ruth, Samuel, and then David) and explore how their faithfulness points toward Christ.
The book of Ruth could be classified as a ‘short story’. While it is set a time long before even king David (hence the book is placed after the book of Judges) most scholars would date the writing of the story to a much later time, after Israel had been in exile in Babylon. It is at that time that questions of how foreigners could become worshippers of Israel’s God arose.
Today’s reading sets the scene for the brief tale of Ruth and Naomi. Like all short stories we are meant to read the whole story in a short time. They are not stories to be read in part and finished later like a novel. So in ch. 1 of Ruth we find a number of issues raised but few matters resolved. For that we have to wait until later in the book (see next week’s reading).
Nevertheless, we can gain much from this early reading because even at the start of the book we read of the ‘bold decisions and shocking acts’ of Ruth and Naomi, as one writer puts it. Ruth makes a bold decision to stay with Naomi and to take Naomi’s people as her people and Naomi’s God as her God (v. 16). Decisions about faithfulness and loyalty, be they in regard to God or other human beings, are rarely taken with a secure knowledge of how things will work out. Nor are they often made without some cost. Ruth 1 speaks much about this.
Ruth 1 moves back and forth between emptiness and fullness. It begins with famine and ends with food available again in Naomi’s homeland (see v. 6). Naomi’s life begins with fullness – a husband, two sons and two daughters-in-law – and ends in emptiness with only memories of her family and unable to provide for the one daughter-in-law who wants to tag along (cf. v. 21). In contrast to her name meaning ‘pleasant’, Naomi’s experience has been bitter and later she suggests to the women of Bethlehem that she should be called Mara, ‘bitterness’ (v. 20).
But it is to this one that Ruth clings and to whom she will be faithful. While she is urged to return to her own people, land, customs and god, she chooses rather to stay with her widowed mother-in-law. We should not lose sight of the difficulty of such a choice. It would mean living among an unknown foreign people. She will enter a foreign land and encounter new customs. Most of all she will claim a strange god as her own, a god who, in her experience, has so far only dealt harshly with Naomi through famine and death. Ultimately Naomi’s death will be that of Ruth too (v. 17), and death seems to be the only certain thing about this life Naomi and Ruth now endure.
Ruth’s faithfulness to a woman who is not of her own people, who is without a secure future in that culture, and who knows the darker side of life, is a model for all faithfulness. Her commitment shows the depth and cost of faithfulness, even to another human being. We should remember also that this is a story in which the character Ruth knows not yet whether her commitment to another human in dire straits will be matched by divine faithfulness, even if we as readers sense the outcome.
But today’s reading has not set all the events of the story before us. We do not yet know, in the frame of the story, how things will work out. We are, however, given a clue at the end of this chapter, beyond the reading set for today. Naomi and Ruth return to Naomi’s home, Bethlehem, at the beginning of the barley harvest. The famine, which had driven Naomi away, has now passed, and an abundant harvest greets her return. There is a hint here to the readers that God will indeed bless these women even if we do not know all the details yet.
Two things come out of this reading of Ruth 1 in this period when we look toward the culmination of Christian faith in celebrating Christ’s rule over all. First, Ruth, our mother in the faith, is not only a model of faithful commitment to us, but foreshadows the faithful commitment of God, not only in this story, but in the one we will soon celebrate as king. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi faintly prefigures the divine faithfulness and commitment to creation which knows darkness and suffering, and whose future is insecure. Secondly, the mention of the barley harvest might call to mind the Eucharist itself, which like the harvest in the story is a foreshadowing of that great abundance to come, what we indeed celebrate in the feast of Christ’s rule over all.
Lastly in preaching from this passage, we would do well to ask ourselves always how well we as a community receive those who come to our shores, who by their lives, take on this nation as their nation, this people as their people, this land as their land. Does Ruth speak to us as an asylum seeker venturing into an unknown future? We are often, and rightly, seen to think ourselves into Ruth’s situation and to identify with her. More often than not we are really more like those who are asked to receive her into their midst.
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