Oct. 31, 2021
All throughout the pandemic, as many of you know, my parents joined us for our Zoom services. Often they appeared before some exotic backdrop from their collection of travel photos – mom’s image appearing sometimes and then disappearing high among the palm branches, the way Zoom sometimes does it.
The truth, of course, was that they were in the spare bedroom/office where Dad does most of his work, and though we didn’t often see her, their dog Ruthie was there with them. Unlike our dog, Dottie, who has never been much of a church goer – and in fact was often pretty disruptive – Ruthie attended faithfully. She and I are especially fond of each other, and Mom says that Ruthie was attracted to the sound of my voice over the computer and developed a pattern of curling up on the bed to enjoy the services.
Ruthie was a rescue dog who came to live with my parents after likely having had some introductions at other potential homes. I’m foggy on the details but when Ruthie somehow got the sense that the visit was coming to an end – perhaps the adoption folks were packing up their car or something – Ruthie became clearly depressed. She declared her eternal love and loyalty right there on the spot to my parents, who were already thrilled to receive her, and in pretty much every moment since then she has maintained her declaration, which is how she came into the name “Ruthie.”
Mom quoted the famous line from today’s passage. “Where you go, I will go; 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.” Indeed, Ruthie is the perfect name for that dog, who perhaps is listening now. (If so, Ruthie, you are a good girl!)
While I think of a dog when I read today’s scripture, I’ve recently learned that many think of weddings. At least, that’s what Debbie Thomas says in her reflection for today. She says that the passage is often part of such liturgies, which surprised me because though in all of my almost 23 years of parish ministry I’ve never used it, the thought did occur to me as I opened to the passage this time that it would probably read pretty well at a wedding.
My mind went to the vows that I led Jake and Megan though 2 Fridays ago (remember the kids from my former youth group who somehow grew old enough to get married?) They covenanted to “join with one another and share all that is to come, to give and to receive, to speak and to listen, to inspire and to respond to one another as long as they both shall live.” It kinda sounds like Ruth, right?
Jake and Megan paired Paul’s famous love passage from 1 Corinthians with verses from Isaiah 55, which says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
That word that goes out from God, of course, is love and from that passage I understand God to be saying that love is never wasted. It is what matters most to God; it is God’s greatest gift to us; and any gesture from the living of our lives that expresses it becomes a part of God’s emerging kingdom and ultimate victory somehow and in some way. This, as we’ll see, is true for Ruth and in fact seems to be one of the book’s main points.
It is suspected that the book was written during the reforms of two Israelite kings: Ezra and Nehemiah who led the period of restoration in Jerusalem. Their efforts, according to one commentary, were to “purify Israel and cement its ethnic identity by casting out foreign wives and their children from the land.” No doubt, they thought they were doing the faithful thing, but in keeping with Israel’s prophetic tradition, the book of Ruth arose from voices within Israel that called for a restoration rooted not in an exclusionary kind of purity, but in the expansive, providential, saving love of YHWH.
The passage, it seems to me is well paired with today’s gospel text. What’s the greatest commandment, asks a scribe to Jesus. Jesus responds that the greatest is to love God with everything you have. And the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Then he says an interesting line: “There is no other commandment greater than these.” It is ONE commandment made up of two parts, so that somehow loving God and loving neighbor are part of the same thing. They are both the very thing that matters most to God, and they are both, to be quite honest not always the easiest thing to do.
I did a church survey once upon a time with a different congregation. I asked them what their greatest strength was, and they answered, “the people.” Then I asked them what their greatest challenge was. Do you know what they said? “The people!” People can be hard to love, and sometimes love goes unrewarded. God can be hard to love sometimes too. We don’t often know what God is up to, and sometimes it can feel like loving a mystery when what we would rather do is love a certainty. At least, we think we would. (Loving God as a mystery preserves the possibility of God being even more than our hopes and expectations.)
In case you missed it, the Book of Ruth is about a woman (Naomi) and her husband who leave Israel with their two sons because of a famine. They enter foreign territory and build a life for themselves with their two sons even marrying Moabite women. But, first the husband dies and then the two sons die, and the three widows are left on their own to survive. While the daughters-in-law have options – they can at least remarry – Naomi is a bit more desperate. She resolves to return to Israel and she sends the two younger women back to their families. The women refuse but Naomi insists. One eventually acquiesces, but Ruth refuses. That’s when she makes her famous vow and our passage comes to an end.
Stopping here, we might think that it’s a simple story of love and loyalty. But, of course, it’s not. It’s really a witness to wayward kings and extreme nationalism showing the work of God to build God’s kingdom and broaden God’s embrace through the unlikely love of one displaced widow for another.
At the end of the story Ruth marries a man named Boaz and they conceive a child. They name him Obed. Obed, as we are told, becomes the father of Jesse. Jesse, of course, is the father of David. David becomes King of Israel, uniting the 12 tribes and the northern and southern kingdoms. He is the one to whom God promises an heir to sit on the throne for God’s people forever.
Here, you might argue, the point has been made. God works mightily through what is small. God is strong through weakness. God has more in store than we might imagine.
But, there is more!
David, you see, is the Father of Solomon, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, who is the father of Jehoshaphat, who is the father of somebody else and so on all the way down to Jacob, who is the father of Joseph, who is the husband of Mary, who is the mother of Christ.
We go, today, all the way from the love and loyalty of a Moabite widow to God Incarnate – the ultimate expression of God’s love for all God’s people for all God’s time.
Look what Ruth’s apparently futile act of loyalty did!
Look what God did through it.
So, my friends, let us boldly practice that greatest commandment! Let your love shine brightly, for when it is given to God there’s no telling all of the places it will end up.