Main point: God is the one who is in charge of our lives. Sometimes when we make decisions without God would turn out to be a bad idea. Everything might come full circle back to square one. But God receives all worshipers regardless of their race, sex or nationality. The loyalty and faithfulness of Ruth to Yahweh and his people sets an example of how we should follow Jesus.
Many of us in this church are migrants from other countries or born from a migrant’s family. It is not easy to leave your homeland and start a new life in a foreign land. It is a tough life. In the Bible, dwelling in a gentile place is called “sojourning”, and the Book of Ruth is also about a Jewish family who migrated to a foreign nation to start a new life. But it is a tragic story.
1) Starting a new life in a foreign land.
In Ruth chapter 1, verse 1, we know that the story happens during the period of Judges after Joshua conquered the Promised Land. Those were dark days for Israel when the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. (Judges 17:6) At that time, there was a famine. So a man from the tribe of Judah, who came from Bethlehem moved out from the Promised Land with his family to the neighbouring country Moab. When we first read it, the story sounds normal, for the major economy of the land in Ancient Near East is the local production of food. If there is no food, someone must move on to make a living, right? But if you know the context behind the story, you will recognise that in the Book of Judges, there is a cycle of redemption. Sin, Judgment, Distress of cries and Repentance, and Salvation through the rise of a judge sent from God. The Promised Land of Canaan supposed to be fertile land, especially the town of Bethlehem, which the name means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. It thought to be blessed with abundance. But now in this blessed land, there is a famine. The sin of the people has caused judgment and distress in the land because of their disobedience. Elimelek was called an Ephrathites because Ephrath was the earlier name for Bethlehem. At the time of the Judges, the Moabites oppressed Israel. There were still tensions between the two nations. And this man, Elimelek, which means “God is king”, left their divine inheritance of God’s promise to Abraham, out of God’s land of blessing. And he went to the gentile nation – Moab with his wife Naomi, and his two sons Mahlon and Kilion. Now in Hebrew, the name Mahlon means “sickness”, and Kilion means failing. I really hope you don’t name your children with bad names like these. With the bad names like these, they foreshadow troubles ahead of the hopeless family.
Then, as predicted with all the bad omens, in verse 3, we learnt that Elimelek died, so Naomi became a widow with her two sons. And Naomi’s first survival plan is to start where she is, in Moab, not in Judah. She arranged marriages for her sons to Moabite women, one named Orpah, and the other Ruth. By the context, they are foreigners who worship foreign gods. And marrying a local Canaanite is against God’s law in the Old Testament. Even so, Naomi’s family had lived there for ten years. But then, Naomi’s plan backfired – both of her sons, “sickness” and “failing” passed away in Moab too, without producing a single male heir. So Naomi was left without her sons and her husband. She left the Promised Land with two hands full and a small family, but now she had nothing left. Her sons did not leave her any grandchildren, that means in the ancient world, she will become a widow living in poverty. There was almost nothing worse than being a widow in the ancient world. Widows were often taken advantage of or ignored. They were practically always poverty-stricken. So, by the context of social circumstances, Naomi would have no descendant to inherit her ancestral land. Her family was doomed to be diminished.
In the time like this, it seems everything has gone wrong. Life is tough when we step out of God’s blessings when we disobey his commands. Elimelek, like the Levitical priest (Judges 17:7), is from Bethlehem in Judah. But when life goes hard in famine, he stepped out of God’s promise to his ancestors in the Promised Land. He tried to sojourn and start living again with his own efforts in a foreign country. But in the end, he lost everything, leaving an old widow and no male heir to continue his family’s legacy. How can Naomi survive? Naomi was trying, under incredibly difficult circumstances, to preserve the fading memory of her dying family. Even she was keep trying, but blow after blow strikes her down. Where is justice? Where is God in this story? So far, we didn’t see God’s intervention yet. There is no mentioning of God in these passages.
Are we sometimes doing the same as Elimelek? As the name suggests, who is the king who rules over our lives? Is it God, or do we only trust ourselves when we make decisions? Do we rely on God and pray to Him through his Son Jesus, trusting in his promises? Or, do we rely on our worldly wisdom and trusting what seems like an opportunity in front of us?
King Solomon wrote in Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
Sometimes, if we step out of God’s grace and his promises, and try to be our own boss without God, then, in the end, we might go back to step one because of our disobedience to God’s commands. In the story, under difficult circumstance, Elimelek and Naomi tried their own ways to secure their personal security and family prosperity but living a life without obeying God. Their ill fate seems to against every decision they make for themselves, and now Naomi seems without hope.
2) A faithful daughter-in-law
When Naomi heard in Moab that the famine is finished, God had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them. So she tried to return to her homeland in Judah to end her life there.
In verse 8, “Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
This was a touching scene of the three widows. Naomi had a pretty good relationship with her young daughters-in-law, and their future well-being was her first concern. Naomi wanted them to return to their maiden home to get remarried and find securities. Even she was in great misery and pressure, Naomi still displayed her grace to her daughters-in-law. She asked God to show them kindness and bless them with new homes with new husbands. At first, both Oprah and Ruth cried aloud, and they wanted to join Naomi to Bethlehem. Naomi urged them again, so Orpah listened to Naomi, kissed her goodbye and went home to her people and her gods. But Ruth still clinging to Naomi, not letting her go. Ruth is determined that she would stick with her mother-in-law wherever she goes. She replied to Naomi in verse 16, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
Naomi saw Ruth’s determination, so she let Ruth stay with her on her journey. Ruth’s loyalty and faithfulness to her in-laws won’t be seen in the modern-day marriages. She was willing to change her Identity and convert from her pagan background to worshipping the one true God. Especially when she is a foreigner, a Moabite who supposed to be enemies against Israel. Ruth was still young, she could be much easier to remarry, unlike Naomi who is an old rag, but Ruth said to her mother-in-law, “Your people will be my people and your God my God”. That kind of commitment was unheard of in Israel. Naomi was a Moabite, but that didn’t stop her from worshipping Yahweh, nor did it stop God from accepting her worship and blessing her greatly. You know, the Jewish people were not the only people God loved. God chose the Jews to be the people through whom the rest of the world would come to know him. And this was fulfilled when Jesus Christ was born as a Jew. Through him, the entire world can come to know God. God accepts all who worship him; he works through people regardless of their race, sex, or nationality. And the book of Ruth is a perfect example of God’s impartiality. Although Ruth belonged to a race which was despised by Israel, she was blessed because of her faithfulness. One day, she would become the great-grandmother of King David, and a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ. No one should feel disqualified to serve God because of race, sex, or national background. And God can use every circumstance to build his kingdom. Ruth’s behaviour foretells what will happen to many gentiles from all nations when they come to worship the God of Israel through Jesus Christ in the Last Days.
As prophet Zechariah wrote, “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:23)
Also, when we look at the example of Ruth and Oprah, we can understand the difference between lukewarm faith and true faith of a person. Both characters have experienced similar difficulties and ill fate in life. Still, at the desperate moment, it distinguishes the loyalty and faithfulness of Ruth in comparison with Oprah, who found an easy way out of the misery. In God’s eyes, we who sits here at church were all born from pagan families and gentile nations – just like Ruth and Oprah. But God has included us as his children, in his family through Jesus. When life gets tough to be a Christian, that we are lack of securities and under challenging circumstances, do we still lingering to Christ-like the way Ruth did to Naomi? Or, Are we lukewarm Christians who would return the former life of our pagan root in the secular world? Are we loyal and faithful like Ruth, who swore her allegiance to God, no matter what it takes and hardship in life? Or, Will we drop out from the Christian faith, like Oprah, who went back to her people, when our life comes into difficulty and our personal security is at risk? Ruth said to her mother-in-law, “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:17) It was very unusual for Ancient Near East people to make decisions like this, choosing to be buried outside her ancestral land. She even made an oath invoking God’s holy name Yahweh, which is “the LORD” in capital letters.
When we come to make allegiance to Christ, testifying our faith to God, do we have the same heart and determination like Ruth? If we decide to follow Jesus, we should be determined when we make a choice. There is no way back like Ruth knew that if she joined Naomi back to Judah, she would have to leave her family and friends behind forever. We need to make the same choice when we want to follow Jesus and live for his Kingdom. There is no way back to the secular, pagan world once we choose to follow Him. Nothing can separate us apart from God’s love, and it is an everlasting covenant.
3) Everything comes full circle
So, when the two poor widows arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred. It had become the latest gossip in town. All the women said, “Could this be Naomi?” They couldn’t even recognise her because of her affliction.
Naomi replied, “Don’t call me Naomi” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20)
The name Naomi means, “sweetness”, but she wants to be called Mara, which means “bitterness” because her life was so bitter. She had experienced famine, exile, loss of husband and children, and childlessness, which might only be the beginning of her misfortune. Naomi’s replies to her old friends’ surprise of her misery made two points:
(1) She would be allowed to change her name to bitterness, and
(2) God be held responsible for her calamity and suffering.
Have you suffered before? When suffering occurs, have you questioned if God or other divine forces that lay a hand on you, for the bad things that you have experienced in life? Naomi’s reaction to the misfortune is normal, but yet she did not sin or curse God for her sufferings. She cried out for her sadness in life, and she could not foresee the good things that God had prepared for her and her family. We are human, and we are allowed to cry out in great distress and misery. But more importantly, we need to talk to God and ask him for help. Naomi had made the right choice to return to God’s Promised Land in Judah. Because we can see the calamity in the land of Judah has finally lifted in verse 22. When Naomi returned from Moab with her Moabite daughter arriving in Bethlehem, it was the beginning of the barley harvest. Barley is used to making bread, which symbolised Bethlehem is returning its former status as a “House of Bread” once again.
But Naomi and Ruth are still poor widows with no status or inheritance in Bethlehem. How will God transform Naomi’s tragedy to a blessing will be the focus next week. The Book of Ruth is a love story, and we will continue the story next week.
Let us pray and give thanks to the Lord for his message today.