“In the days when the Judges were governing,” an Israelite man named Elimelech lived with his wife Naomi in the little unassuming town of Bethlehem. But, there was a crisis in Bethlehem; a famine was ravaging the land. So, Elimelech and Naomi packed up their things, gathered their sons Mahlon and Chilion, and set off to find relief in a new land: Moab – a place no God-fearing Israelite would ever want to go. Once they settle down, Elimelech dies and Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with her two sons, who end up marrying two Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. After ten years, Naomi’s sons die and her life seems to be in ruins. But then, some light shines through the darkness: God has visited Israel and given them food. The famine was over; Naomi could go home and she wastes no time. She hits the road back to Bethlehem, with her daughters-in-law by her side. Some time on the way, she stops, turns to Orpah and Ruth, and says:
‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May Yahweh show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. Yahweh grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’ ‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of Yahweh should have been raised against me.’ They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let Yahweh bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’ Seeing that Ruth was determined to go with her, Naomi said no more.
We come this evening to one of the greatest stories told in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of Ruth. However, in this first chapter, we see that most of the speaking and most of the action belong to Naomi not Ruth. The story begins with Naomi and her family and the troubles they face. It tells of Naomi’s precipitous plunge into desperation. When the story comes to a close in chapter 4, Naomi is back in the spotlight. This book may be titled “Ruth,” but – make no mistake – this is a story about Naomi. So, I want to invite us to enter, if we dare, into Naomi’s reality and sit with her for a moment as her story unfolds.
It’s not a pretty story. It really couldn’t have gotten much worse for a woman in the ancient Near East: there’s famine, the death of a husband, foreign wives, and then the deaths of not one, but TWO, sons, leaving her childless. What we have here is every Israelite’s nightmare; “despair” would probably be the most appropriate word to describe Naomi’s reality. She’s at the wrong end of nearly every social and cultural spectrum: she’s old, she’s a widow, she’s childless, and she is living as a foreigner in the hostile, despised land of Moab. Now, she does have her two daughters-in-law, but, with both of her sons dead, these relationships have been severely weakened. Biblical scholars are actually at a loss to explain what the societal expectations would have been in this strange situation; we might call it “awkward.” What we do know is that Naomi feels hopeless and defeated. For her, all has been lost and she blames God. She has nothing to give to Orpah and Ruth and no hope of providing for their future. She has arrived at this moment of desperation when all she can think to do is to go home. Maybe she can figure something out when she gets back to Bethlehem? Naomi is lost; cut off from her family, her land, her community, and her God. She is homeless, without hope, and utterly alone – except for Orpah and Ruth, but she’d rather go it alone and not burden them with her problems.
For some in the room this evening, you may be immediately identifying with Naomi’s despair. Maybe you’ve been in that place before or you’re going through it now where the rug has just been pulled out from underneath your feet and you’ve fallen flat on your back and, once you pulled yourself up off the floor and looked around, you discovered that you’re all alone and your life, like Naomi’s, is in shambles. If that’s you, God is offering you hope this evening, so hang with me. However, I think many of us may have trouble putting ourselves in Naomi’s shoes. Sure, we’ve had some struggles, but life is going pretty well and we don’t feel homeless, hopeless, or alone. I want to suggest tonight that we all have more in common with Naomi than we think.
While we may all live in houses or apartments, we, like Naomi, are struggling to find our home. We live in a world racked with anxiety; built on our assumption of scarcity, of lack, of insufficiency; we live in a land of perpetual famine – personally and socially. In this world, we fear that we’ll never have enough so we put our hope in getting more… and more… and more. We buy houses that own us; we buy cars that drive us; we consume things that only leave us empty – and wanting more. So, we work and work and work and we never find rest. Caught in this system, we have no time for others, no time for community, for relationship; so just like in Naomi’s time, “the time when the Judges were governing,” everyone does what is right in their own eyes because we all are just trying to break free from our slavery. In a way eerily similar to Israel’s experience under the judges, our society, and maybe our own lives too, are fragmented, divisive, and falling apart. We are constantly on the move looking for more, trying to find a place to settle down, a land “flowing with milk and honey” where we can find rest. Instead, like Naomi, we end up living in strange places where our relationships are always under stress and we’re not sure who is supporting us. We try to be at peace, at home, but it always seems just out of reach and, in the end, we are homeless.
But, as we look back on Naomi’s story, we can have hope because God is working redemption in Naomi’s life – even when Naomi can’t see it. Now, Naomi’s story has a very happy ending: Ruth becomes the source of Naomi’s complete restoration to a place in community amongst her people and her God. Naomi is blessed by God with a new home. However, when we find her at the story’s beginning, Naomi is overwhelmed by her despair and sees little hope for the future. She looks at Ruth and Orpah, the only two people who actually still know her, and demands that they go home. Four times she gives the command: “Go back,” “Go home,” “Go home, daughters go,” and then she says directly to Ruth “Go home too; follow your sister-in-law.” But God was working in a most unexpected place; deep in the heart of a foreign, Moabite woman. In the way her promise to Naomi is worded, Ruth reveals a prior commitment to Naomi’s family and her God. Ruth says that Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God will be her people and her God because they already are. She’s saying, “What is true for me now will continue to be true for me in the future.” In this promise to Naomi, we discover that Ruth knows Yahweh, the God who is “true to his covenant and his faithful love.” In Ruth, we see what the Old Testament authors call hesed – God’s unashamed, faithful, relation restoring, community-keeping love – in order to redeem Naomi. But, Naomi was having none of it. She was ready to send Ruth right on home; in her despair, her homelessness, she couldn’t see how God was leading her to a new home. Through Ruth, God reveals that there is no home, no redemption, apart from communal relationships of faithful, selfless, and unrelenting love and mutual care. Some say “home is where the heart is” but I think Ruth is telling us tonight: “Home is where hesed is.”
The story of Ruth is like a parable; it holds up a mirror and invites us to identify ourselves with its characters. More often than not, we look in this mirror and see who we ought to be, which, for this particular parable, means we see ourselves as Ruth. The message is usually: “Be like Ruth!” Guess what? If we look honestly into this mirror and see ourselves for who we really are, we don’t see Ruth – we see Naomi. We are the ones in need of redemption this evening. We long for community. We long for home. Like Naomi, we are lost in our homelessness, our despair, and we think the only option is to go it alone, to pull up on our bootstraps one more time and see what happens. If all these people around us would just leave us alone we might have a chance! We’d rather just pull up our tent stakes, say our goodbyes, and strike out alone in search of a new “home” whenever things get rough. But church, I wonder tonight, and I worry, that maybe we’re leaving Ruth behind. Could it be that God’s redemption is waiting for us in the very relationships we have chosen to abandon? Could it be that God is creating a new home for us through the very people we would least expect? I wonder tonight if you can’t see God’s redemption because you keep ignoring Ruth. Who is it that you are “sending home,” just trying to avoid so you can get away? God redeemed Naomi and God will redeem us. But our redemption, our home, is only found in community with others, in relationships of faithful love. God is still working through Ruth today… have you turned your back on her?
 I have relied on Walter Brueggemann’s thoughts in chapter 1 of Journey to the Common Good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) for much of this cultural exegesis.
 Deuteronomy 7:9 , New Jerusalem Bible.