Sunday, January 10, 2016

Ruth part one - "Kindness through Hard Times" (Ruth 1:1-22)

1.     Introduction

This was how this woman Naomi felt about her life! Look at verse 21. Naomi had left Bethlehem in Judah for Moab, with a husband and two sons, ten years earlier, and now returned with seemingly nothing. She was really depressed! And because of the Hebrew mind thinking that everything that happens (good or bad) comes from God, this set Naomi up for her relationship with God to be particularly strained (if not diminished). When things are going well, we can easily suggest that God only works for our good. Sometimes though, when things are traumatic, and we have been taught about an all-powerful God, it’s understandable that our faith is shaken. Reassurance is needed. Love is needed. When life takes tragic turns, God often chooses to use a human touch to restore people’s equilibrium. This was the case here, as Ruth touches the life of Naomi.

2.     Changing Names

There was a sense of Divine guidance in heading off to more prosperous Moab (modern day Jordan), and then returning to Judah (southern kingdom of Israel) when food had been restored to that land. However, between these trips, Naomi had lost her husband and two sons. We are not told how or why! But we do get the sense that these were great losses and probably premature, and thus a real shock to Naomi.

We can tell that Naomi has been a lovely person, given her caring relationships with her daughters-in-law. She clearly appreciated how they had been good wives to her sons (v. 8). Despite her own despair and loss, Naomi thought kindly about her daughters-in-law. Such love is seen in how these feelings were reciprocated (v.9b, 14a) – in tears at the very thought of separation. Such care clearly made Ruth particularly responsive to Naomi’s God (v.16b). Despite how she felt about her own future, Naomi believed that her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, would be best served in Moab (with their own people). Naomi certainly had a heart for these two younger women.

However, Naomi also sensed herself changing in personality and knew that her life was falling apart (refer verse 20). She wanted to be no longer known under the name of Naomi (which suggested sweetness), but rather now “Mara” (suggesting bitterness). Here is sadness, loneliness, hurt, grief, pain and depression; with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

3.     Ruth’s Response

This deep change, through grief, is what Ruth recognised in Naomi. Maybe the other daughter-in-law Orpah saw it too, but not as clearly and perhaps was not quite as emotionally moved. The text is not critical of Orpah; perhaps because it was her particular destiny to return to Moab and marry there (just as Naomi thought it to be). Naomi repeatedly suggested that Ruth, also, should not carry on with her to Bethlehem, but rather return to Moab with Orpah. For Ruth would know no-one in Bethlehem, she would be a young foreign widow, and thus would NOT have it easy.

Naomi explains that she has no hope of another husband herself, she would be too old anyway to produce other sons, and even if she could – the age gap would be too great to be of any help to Ruth. It may have been part of Naomi’s faith decline, that she did not see any positive possibilities in Ruth migrating to Judah. Ruth could have, without too much regret, returned to the house of her own mother, and fitted back into a more comfortable existence. Naomi’s advice did make a lot of sense, but Ruth would hear none of it!!

No one would have blamed Ruth for doing what would have been customary and sensible. But instead, Ruth sensed a real responsibility to stay with her mother-in-law. Clearly Naomi had wanted the company (and an on-going relationship), as she had started out with her daughters-in-law before it occurred to her she should send them back. This was perhaps a clue (or a cue) that Ruth had carefully picked up on.

The idea of acting kindly was introduced in verse 8b, where Naomi sought to bless Ruth with the Lord’s kindness. This blessing was on the basis of how Ruth had already treated Naomi and her family. You might see that acts of kindness are reciprocated and build a dynamic where kindness (rather than selfishness) becomes the norm. Ruth is kind to her mother-in-law, Naomi is kind as a result, and now Ruth really puts kindness into action (on behalf of Naomi). We shall see that the whole book of Ruth is a testimony to “kindness” (and provides a forerunner for the ultimate loving-kindness of Jesus).

Ruth will now continue demonstrating such kindness in her decision to stay with Naomi. The Hebrew word “khesed” here refers to kindness that goes well beyond anything the law requires or what might be deemed normal. This is kindness, over and above – down the extra mile. “Khesed”, or ‘loving-kindness’, is thoroughly loyal – and is an act of solidarity. We might easily overlook the fact that Ruth herself had lost a husband; and given that there had been no children, her marriage may well have been cut very short! Whatever grief Ruth was feeling herself, this drew her closer towards Naomi’s grief.

4.     A Sense of Call

We may conclude, that this feeling of real responsibility that Ruth had … was a call from God – a fairly clear leading, a bit of a ‘no-brainer’, based on an existing relationship with another person in acute and deep need. Sometimes we might wonder what God would have us do (and we are looking fairly far-afield), when the answer is right smack-bang in front of us. You could just imagine, as you read this text, Ruth being side-by-side with Naomi, an arm around her, guiding her home to Bethlehem. We read, Ruth “clung” to Naomi (v.14b)! This commitment was spelt out in the following verses (16-17a). Resistance on the part of Naomi became futile (v.18); such was the sincerity and integrity of Ruth’s commitment.

With “loving-kindness” often comes personal sacrifice. [Just think of Jesus leaving the perfect communal harmony of heaven to live in the fragile environment on earth and die a torturous death on a cross.] Ruth was committing herself to a new country with a different culture (never to return to Moab), to a new home and a new community (come what may), and a total allegiance to Naomi’s God (who she had no background understanding of). The reader is reminded in verse 22 that Ruth is a “Moabite”, which suggests her future may not be easy (in Judah).

Moab was NOT a country well regarded in Judah; there was a long history of animosity here. Deuteronomy evens bans the descendants of Moabites to the tenth generation entering the assembly of the Lord (23:3), leading to a view that God was disinterested in such people. But clearly, when a nation comes to have a face, and a personality, and living breath, things are different!

How will all this go for Ruth? We’ll find that out in chapter two.

5.     Back in Bethlehem

When Naomi with Ruth returned and walked into the town together, we read that, “the whole town was stirred because of them” (v.19). What do you think this was about?? A reaction to how Naomi looked, maybe!?! “Is this Naomi?”, they said. Certainly she was older, but perhaps there was more to see in her appearance. Perhaps this ‘buzz’ or reaction was more about a young foreign woman holding Naomi’s hand as she returns home! What does this mean? It was a Moabite woman, who Naomi was allowing to be her close companion (all the way back here in Bethlehem). Widowed, bereft of her children, needy; yet supported in this unusual way. Breathtaking! Maybe, shocking!! Certainly a moving scene, nonetheless! Did the crowd also recognise the potential prejudice, poverty, and lack of welcome, that Ruth was walking into?!

Naomi explains everything – the way she looks … well, life has not treated her well; and Ruth “clinging to her” … well, such is Naomi’s situation, that she is going to need help. And it is Ruth who has showed the loving-kindness that is currently required! Perhaps despite Naomi’s cutting estimate of God, the townsfolk may actually conclude that God has lovingly provided for Naomi nonetheless … through the kind ministrations of Ruth. This is “stirring” stuff!

6.     The Place of Grief

When Naomi spoke about the way she had felt abandoned and afflicted by God, these words came from a deep place of pain and grief. I don’t think we would doubt Naomi’s faith, just come to further understand the power of loss. We sense that Naomi with her husband had trustingly followed God’s leading previously into the unknown foreign territory of Moab and settled there. We know that Naomi believed in a God of “loving-kindness”, and that this graceful consideration would even be available to Moabite women such as Naomi’s daughters-in-law (v.9). Naomi had shown such great character in being willing to relieve Ruth and Orpah of any responsibility to her, and give them their freedom to find security (in Moab). Such selflessness comes from a deep connection to God.

Naomi, through her loss, was in pain, but could yet be restored to full health and faith! And it was Ruth who could provide the radical kindness and solidarity to be God’s channel of care and blessing. It was actually in the safety of her relationship with Ruth that Naomi was able to divulge and verbalise the way she was really feeling. With Ruth’s friendship, and God’s nearness, Naomi would be able to work through her grief at her own pace, toward a satisfactory outcome in time.

One could imagine that Ruth would have avoided the use of trite clichés, like: everything happens for a reason, or, all things work together for good, or, keep your chin up, or, count your blessings; rather just being there and listening to Naomi’s pain, anger, and feelings of emptiness. Naomi and Ruth would weep together. One could also imagine Ruth gently speaking into Naomi’s life at appropriate times, helping Naomi guard against any further bitterness building up. This was a heavy commitment being made by Ruth (vs.16-17), especially given the depth of Naomi’s grief. This could involve Ruth in supporting Naomi through a long period of depression, and possibly significant care through Naomi’s elderly years. Who knows!?!

What happens for Naomi? We will see in chapter four.

7.     Conclusion – The Source of Grace

God has been at work raising up Ruth to be a supporter for Naomi. We, like Ruth, can be supporters of others, whether they be suffering grief or struggling in any other way. There are plenty of opportunities where kindness to others will make a significant difference. We are able to love our neighbour because God has first loved us. Sometimes we love our neighbour because they have already been kind to us. Sometimes we will love our neighbour because no one else is being kind to them. Sometimes we will be kind to another because they have been nasty to us! We know that we prove our love for God, through our activities of kindness. Kindness is often sacrificial. Kindness is expressed in solidarity. Kindness crosses boundaries of race, religion and social status. Kindness sometimes involves risk.

God must have been preparing Ruth ahead of time, given Ruth’s radical and intuitive response to the situation of Naomi. Ruth may not have had much background in the Hebrew religion, but it is clearly evident that there was a vital goodness seeded within her. It may have appeared that Ruth needed to find God in Judah, but it seems God had already found Ruth in Moab. How is God preparing us for future acts of kindness? Are we aware of such preparation happening? Are we more liable to be like Ruth now, than we were previously?

We look at the outstanding faithfulness of Ruth here, and are caused to praise God. And Ruth actually points towards the loving-kindness of God. Ultimately it is God who wants to comfort us, encourage us and restore us. Often God does this through other people, but as God is personal – we can go straight to the source. When we can no longer walk, we can be carried in the arms of Jesus. Jesus will cling to us, just as Ruth clung to Naomi.

I am carried in the arms of grace and love Divine,
I am held by hands of healing, washed by water pure;
Lifting up my heavy heart, held in grace scarred hands,
I am carried in the arms of grace and love Divine (Geoff Bullock).

Don’t miss an opportunity of connecting with the ultimate source of loving-kindness!

The broken mended, night has ended, lost and lonely, lost no more;
For I am carried in the arms of grace and love Divine.

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