Reflection: Ruth, Naomi and Mara July 22, 2018
What is it you long for? When we are very young, we live moment to moment. In the moment, we may believe that that chocolate bar at the checkout counter or that toy another child is playing with will make us happy, if only we could have it. We ask and whine and cry – and sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t, and for the time being, we might be pretty happy. As we get older we are taught to covet what we see on TV or social media or the movies. A Happy Meal will make us happy, or the backpack with Spiderman on it instead of the plain one. And for a little while, again, we might be content – until the next great thing comes along.
Not all childhood longings are that simple, though. Some children long to be healthy or safe or loved in a home or world that has shown them that they are not. As we become older, those kinds of longings don’t leave us; they continue to haunt us, even when by all accounts we’ve received or achieved those things we wanted so much. Some of us adults may have other deeply-felt dreams or wishes: to have children or a partner, to make our mark in the world, to own our own home or to have more independence, to be free of violence or fear, to be able to feel financially secure or to feel complete, inside and out.
As we get older, many adults find themselves stumbling across a sense of emptiness in their lives. Often this comes with middle age, as we question the path we’ve been on in our lives and ask ourselves, “Is this all there is?” It can also come late in life, when we’ve been retired for some years and our energy isn’t what it once was and we find ourselves spending a lot of time on our own, thinking or perhaps even brooding on what life used to be and what it is now. There are many ways the emptiness can creep up on us; but I believe it’s an experience most people can relate to.
Today’s story sets up a contrast between emptiness and fullness – one that will follow us right through the book of Ruth. Naomi is a presumably happily-married woman who follows her husband to Moab when the famine, the emptiness of the land of Israel, becomes too difficult for survival. When she is there, in a land of plenty, her sons’ lives are filled with their marriages to two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Sadly, before either union can produce children, Naomi’s husband and sons die, leaving their lives empty of what most defined a woman’s life in that time and place, their husbands and children. In the midst of this huge loss, Naomi hears that abundance has come back to the region around Bethlehem – a hint that somewhere in this story, the fate of these women is going to change.
Naomi doesn’t see it though. She thinks life has nothing to offer her anymore, and certainly she has nothing to offer her daughters-in-law. She is empty, in her own eyes, and probably in the eyes of her neighbours. She urges the young women to return to their own families, for perhaps there they might find new husbands. Let’s be clear, this is not a great option for a woman in those times. While this would certainly be better than trying to survive on their own in a male-dominated society, they would likely be considered a drain on the family resources unless they did, indeed, remarry. It is a safe choice, perhaps, but not a great one. Orpah decides to follow Naomi’s advice, and returns to her mother’s house in hopes of marrying again. Ruth, though, replies with those famous words, in the King James Version “Entreat me not to leave thee”. “Don’t ask me to go home, because I won’t do it. I am going with you, even to the very end. “
This is a huge risk Ruth is taking. The Moabites were absolutely hated by the Hebrew tribes, because Moab had refused to help them when they came into the land of Canaan after their wandering in Egypt. The Moabites were the only people specifically excluded from the tabernacle of God’s presence. Ruth was going into a precarious situation as a hereditary enemy, a woman, a widow, with no-one but another widow for protection. But she would not leave Naomi alone, to face the journey and the uncomfortable life of a widow returning to her people childless. This relationship is clearly one of deep love and respect. Though Naomi’s life may seem empty, Ruth’s love for her is a blessing that has the capacity to begin to fill that void she feels inside herself.
What I note about this portion of the story is that sometimes what we are longing for is not actually what we need. Naomi longed for her husband and sons back again – an impossible dream, but completely natural for a woman visited by such tragic loss, not once, but three times! She could see no hope for her life, even with Ruth’s kindness to her. Yet it was that very relationship that set her feet on the path to emotional healing. Without Ruth, Naomi might have stayed Mara, bitter. It is ironic that Naomi, who grew up surrounded by the knowledge of a God who deeply cared for her and her people, found her hope in a relationship with Ruth, a woman who adopted that faith as an adult out of love of her mother-in-law. Ruth herself would have been raised in the worship of Chemosh the Destroyer; yet she had something to teach Naomi about faithfulness and hope.
Ruth too, had a surprise in store for her. Her kindness to Naomi has no ulterior motive. She doesn’t help her in order to ensure her own survival. The story makes it clear that her attachment to her mother-in-law is genuine, and praises her faithfulness to the older woman. What she doesn’t know is that in Naomi she has found someone who will navigate for her the strange ways of a land that will not welcome her, and set HER feet on a path to a better life as well.
It is clear through the story of Ruth that God can be trusted to fill the emptiness that troubles our souls. Remember, though, that it may not come in the form we expect, even the form we’d hope it would. There’s an old saying from an 18th century hymn (by William Cowper) that “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.” As we read through the book of Ruth for the next four Sundays, I invite you to pay attention to your own story – your own heart and soul – and ask yourself again, “What is it I am longing for?” Then pay attention to how God might be moving in your life to fill up that empty space. The story continues. Amen.
Reflection: Ruth, Naomi and Mara July 22, 2018