“Our Family Tree: Ruth”
Ruth 1:1-18; Romans 12:9-13
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
December 10, 2017
In my family tree, there are moments when women were asked to save the day. When my cousin’s mother died giving birth to him, their young aunt was called away from her dream of living in New York City. She’d been enjoying the single girl’s life with a job during the day and parties at night. But when the news came, she left New York to come home and raise three small children. And there is the story of my own grandpa whose mother died when he was four. It was deemed that no man could be asked to raise a child and so his grandma swooped in and took him home. Men, of course, have been asked to step up in their own way but, at least until recently, there was a sense that families in trouble would need to be saved by the women.
When I look around this room I picture some of your own stories around this, the ones that I know and the many that I do not. Both women and men in this room have been asked to step up and save the day. You have visited your elderly neighbor every morning to make sure they are all right. You brought your ailing parents into your home to care for them. You buckled down and helped out your cousin one more time, or your daughter or your friend. I have learned some of those stories from you, just as my own family has passed down its own tales. And, in all of these stories, as far as I can remember, no one in them got a message from God. None of them have included the time there was a chorus in the heavens that told them what to do. No, it was usually very ordinary: just an attempt to meet the needs and troubles of the moment.
Which is, of course, the story of Ruth. As we consider this second woman in Jesus’ genealogy we are struck by how unexciting her life is. Unlike Rahab, there is no espionage in Ruth’s story; no helping to overthrow a regime. Ruth is ordinary and, sadly, her experience is all too common. She is a woman who has been widowed. Added to the grief of her situation, we know a bit about the customs of her time and we know her situation also means she has no power. She has no way to make an income and no male relative to protect her. Added to that, Ruth is also a foreigner. She is from Moab and Jews do not trust anyone from Moab. They see them as the enemy. Nothing fantastic, as far as we know, has ever happened to Ruth. She is just a woman who already has two strikes against her: her widowhood and her ethnicity.
So why is she in the Bible? And, not only in the Bible but has her own book? There is nothing exceptional about Ruth except this: when her third strike in life became a possibility, she chose the strike over a save. Naomi gave her permission to go back to her own people; gave Ruth her blessing to try to start again while she was young. No matter how difficult Ruth’s prospects were to go back home, they had to have been better than going with Naomi. In the new land, Ruth would not know the language or the customs or the religion. She would always be discriminated against. She would never fully fit in. But she refuses to leave Naomi. And there is a reason. It is a reason Naomi knew and Ruth knew and their original audience knew, but we may not immediately see.
It is this: If Ruth goes with Naomi, then Naomi can take her to one of her husband’s relatives and remind him of his duty to take care of this relative’s widow. Naomi cannot demand it for herself but Ruth is young and Naomi can demand it for her. If Ruth will give up her life as she knows it and go with Naomi, then Ruth can save the day.
So against her own interests, Ruth stays with Naomi. She “clings” to her the scripture says. And, in clinging, Ruth forms a new family. She binds herself to Naomi in order to save her. She is in the line of all the women who had little to give but who were faithful with their presence. She is in the line of all the women whose worlds were very small but who chose to better the small section of the world they knew.
This poor, powerless women practiced what is called “hesed.” It is a word that means many things but usually, it refers to God’s loving kindness toward us because of the covenant promises he has made. God “heseds” us—shows us love even when we don’t deserve it because of who he is because he has made us promises and he keeps them. That is “hesed” and Ruth’s life is full of it. Her most famous lines are the very description of it: “where you go, I will go,” she says to Naomi. “Your people will be my people…and where you are buried so will I be.” That is Ruth’s love for Naomi, even when the relationship is not great for Ruth. It is hesed.
We all have the opportunity to practice this in our own lives. When you think about it, the two best opportunities we have are with the people in our lives we did not get to choose: first, our family; and second, our church. In both cases, we didn’t get to pick the lineup. They are just in our lives. We may not always get along with them. We may almost never get along with them! But they give us the opportunity to practice hesed. We show our family members loving kindness, not necessarily because they are loveable but because we are in relationship with them and we want to keep our promise within that relationship. We show the same to our church family, not because we always see eye to eye, but because the Holy Spirit has brought us to the same place.
Why does Ruth get her own book; the only foreign woman to have the honor in the whole Bible? She gets a book because, when she didn’t have to, she said to Naomi, “I stick with you.” She is a message to all of us, in her smallness, of what God does for us. When he didn’t have to, he said to us, “I stick with you.”
She is an ordinary woman whose life does not include miracles or angel voices. Even her eventual claim to fame would have been unknown to her in her own lifetime. Think about this: Ruth never knew she was the great-grandmother to Israel’s greatest king. She never knew the role she played in helping to save the kingdom of Israel. What did she know? She knew she could save Naomi.
We can get overwhelmed with the problems of this world and with the trials in our own lives. Not all of us get angel voices or miracles. What we get is God who is like the glue in our lives, sticking with us. What we get is the opportunity to be faithful within the space we have. So this Christmas, stay small. Show hesed to the ones you’ve been given. Don’t worry about changing the world. Just focus on making your little corner of it better. You will never know where it will lead. Amen.