Last week we started the book of Ruth and talked about Naomi--Naomi, her husband Elimelech and their sons moved from Bethlehem to Moab during a famine, during the time of the Judges--not a particularly peaceful or high point in the history of Israel. During the 10 or so years they lived in Moab, just East of the Dead Sea, the boys took local wives, and all three men died. Leaving the women widows, the younger women childless. Naomi heard that the famine had broken in Bethlehem and was intent on returning there. She knew that her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth would frankly have better prospects if they returned to their mother's houses. Moabites had failed to offer hospitality to the Hebrew people as they escaped from Egypt, so they were not on the "favored nations" list in Deuteronomy. But despite potential racial issues, Ruth steadfastly followed Naomi to Bethlehem.
Once back in Bethlehem, Ruth took the lead role. Naomi, widowed and her sons dead--characterized herself with emptiness, renaming herself Mara, bitterness. Ruth on the other hand, acts with fullness. She willingly, insistently accompanied Naomi to a foreign land, choosing her love and care for Naomi over what was expected, risking rejection rather than the safety of remaining with her own people or her own family. Ruth's declaration of loyalty is the wonderful "whither thou goest, I will go" speech that we so often hear at weddings It is perhaps even more remarkable when you realize that their relationship crosses national and racial boundaries, and is the pledge from daughter-in-law to--mother-in-law, not, as we so often assume, from spouse to spouse.
It is Ruth who in leaving the safety of her homeland becomes the instrument of salvation. Ruth is one who demonstrates God's love – not because of the lineage of her birth, but by her actions. She is the healer of wounds, and a foremother of Jesus.
Once settled in Bethlehem, Ruth became the bread-winner in the family: In the fields at harvest, Ruth gleaned behinds the workers, providing food for Naomi and herself, carried by a spirit of commitment that overcame whatever the challenges must have been living as an ethnic minority, marginalized as widowed women with no other means of support.. As was the custom and the law, the gleanings of a field--the grain or produce left in the field after the field was picked--were available to the poor and destitute. As luck would have it, Ruth gleaned in the field of Elimelech's relative, Boaz.
She worked tirelessly all that first day in the field. And when Boaz arrived that afternoon and inquired after who she was, the foreman spoke well of her. Boaz made suggestions to assure her safety and productivity, and her harvest was bountiful.
At Naomi's suggestion, Ruth put herself in places where Boaz noticed her. After a remarkable scene filled with double and triple entendre, Boaz agreed not only to redeemed the family property, but to marry Ruth, so that a child of their marriage would carry Mahlon's name, to carry on his line and inheritance.
Frankly, Ruth's story would be remarkable today. Imagine an Arab daughter-in-law returning to Israel with a widowed mother-in-law. Or a widowed Muslim daughter-in-law returning to rural Texas with her Christian mother-in-law. Or either of those daughters willingly joining in marriage to a relative of their mother-in-law.
Ruth lived in an age where all who did not "belong" were outcasts. There were formal and informal prohibitions against mixed marriages. There were trade sanctions against countries with different customs and different gods. Some commentators speculate that the book of Ruth was written down during a time when mixed marriages were frowned upon and probably legislated against. Of course, even that could have been in some states here in the US until the past hundred years or so.
But the book of Ruth doesn't give these concerns voice, but we don't have to read very far in the Hebrew scripture--or in the New Testament to know that tribal, race, and religious issues were only too often the cause of exclusion, war and strife. Ruth did what needed to be done in order for Naomi and herself to survive and eventually regain a foothold again--to move from a hand-to-mouth existence to a stable lifestyle.
And yet, again and again, beside the biblical prohibitions against mixed marriages are biblical witnesses that proclaim that God's people have no tribal boundaries, that God's people do not have to be alike to belong to each other. Again and again, the lives of the forebears of our faith are enriched and blessed when they reach out beyond themselves to include rather than exclude. Again and again, Jesus proclaims the Good News that love is the criteria for belonging, not blood, or race, or frankly – even right religion.
So often it becomes hard to hear the Good News--the Good News that God's love is not limited by difference in opinion, and that God's Kingdom is rich in diversity. When our fears are deep we often withdraw behind walls that are designed to sort and exclude people, not embrace and include. Today we see those fears manifest in The Patriot Act as it takes away rights of those who appear different, in the "English only" movement whose popularity comes and goes on the political tide; with those who would narrow the rich theological diversity of the United Methodist church, or our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion world wide, waiting and praying to understand the ramifications of the actions of the Prelates angered and frightened by the consecration of Bishop Robinson, a gay man in New Hampshire . Before some of us feel smug, lets not forget that those self-same fears are the way we demonize those who don't see issues "our" way.
Ruth, the Moabite seemed to take racial and religious diversity as a matter of course. Boaz, himself was of mixed parentage, as we find out in the genealogy in Matthew. Boaz was the son of Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, who assisted Joshua and his men in the overthrow of Jericho as the Hebrew peoples conquered Canaan. Ruth's family diversity was passed on to her son Obed, the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David. David, his foremother Ruth the Moabite, and Rahab the prostitute of Jericho are all there in the family tree of Jesus. I think that is self evident in what it says about religious and ethnic diversity and their welcome place in the Kingdom of God.
Ruth: foreigner, pagan, some might say trickster in the tradition of Rebecca or Rachel, not raised in the ways of the Lord, but certainly understanding the faithfulness and steadfast love that are consistent attributes of God throughout the Bible. A woman of valor.