Today’s Text from the Hebrew Scripture…, Proper 27 (B) – 2003
November 09, 2003
Today’s text from the Hebrew Scripture is appointed for use from the Common Lectionary used by many ecumenical partners and offered for optional use in the Episcopal Church. Most readings are the same as those noted in the Prayer Book lectionary. From time to time an alternative text is suggested in order to include texts which have not until now been part of the three year cycle. The story of Ruth, from which today’s sermon text is taken, is just such an example.
In the current political atmosphere of restriction and racial suspicion, the story of Ruth and Naomi is more relevant than ever; their lives together cross boundaries at every level. Often quoted as a wedding text (“whither thou goest, I will go”) as the symbol of marital loyalty, the story is actually about the friendship of two women ( mother- and daughter-in- law) whose traditional enmity is the brunt of contemporary jokes. Even more remarkable is that their loyalty crosses national and racial boundaries, even then the subject of tension. Their story offers deep lessons about the Gospel call to inclusion, the conviction that the people of God do not have to look alike or think alike to belong to each other.
In the days of the ancient Hebrews, such a conviction was not self-evident. The roots of racism go far deeper than slavery, than 20th century segregation, than 21st century injustices or the current questions of civil rights or ethnic cleansing. Race prejudice and the desire for racial purity to preserve culture is as old as history. We have only to read the Old and New Testaments to know that tribal and race issues were only too often the cause of war and strife.
God, however, as recorded by the prophets and evangelists in this same Bible, had quite a lot to say about the desire for racial purity imposed by national and tribal boundaries. None of it was in favor-which is where the story of Ruth and Naomi is so illustrative.
In this wonderful story of Naomi from Bethlehem of Judea and Ruth, the Moabite woman, the foreigner who would become the great-grandmother of David the King, ancestor of Jesus. No doubt you know the story well. During a great famine in Israel, Naomi and her husband and two sons moved to the fertile land of Moab in search of food. The Moabites were hated in Israel. Rumors spread that claimed that theirs was a race perpetuated by incest, descended from Lot. But hunger often causes one to break traditional boundaries, and it was necessity that drove this family from their home in Israel. They prospered in Moab. The sons married Moabite women — Ruth and Orpah. In time all three women became widows, Ruth and Orpah at a young age. Bereft of family and full of bitterness, Naomi prepares to return to her native land. Orpah, as was the custom, remains in Moab, perhaps to remarry and rejoin the fold of her people. Ruth on the other hand, despite entreaties by her mother-in-law, determines to stay by Naomi, to be her companion in the journey.
In so doing Ruth chooses her love and care for Naomi over what is expected, chooses to risk rejection rather than getting ahead among her own people. She travels to a foreign land with no guarantee of acceptance. Blessed by God for her courage, Ruth eventually marries Boaz and has a son in the line of David. But she does not know this outcome when she starts out.
Crossing the boundary of her homeland, of safety, of the known world, Ruth becomes the instrument of salvation. It is she, the stranger, who fulfills God’s covenant of faithfulness. Not officially bound to Naomi by marriage laws, Ruth’s actions broaden that covenant beyond the law, beyond the borders of Israel. God’s covenant is kept not through lineage or credentials, but through simple acts of faithfulness and love. Ruth is an outsider who belongs to God’s people, not by birth but by actions. A stranger, she is the healer of wounds, the companion of Naomi’s old age. And she bears the son who is in the line of the savior.
This remarkable story is all the more so for its historical context. Written in an age when all who did not belong were outcasts, there were prohibitions against mixed marriages. Yet, the prophetic writer of Ruth reminds believers that the great King David was descended from a foreigner, the product of a mixed marriage. There is no room for ideas of racial purity among the people of God. And often it is the one who does not belong who is God’s very instrument of healing and salvation.
Again and again, the biblical witness proclaims that God’s people have no tribal boundaries, do not have to be alike to belong to each other. Again and again, the lives of our forebears in the faith are 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 and not blood.
Why is it so hard to hear that message, that good news. The seeds of fear are deep, whether manifest in an English Only Movement, or the Patriot Act, among Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, or Muslims and Christians and Jews in this country, in the fear of nuclear stockpiles or terrorism abroad or Episcopalians of differing opinions at home. Yet, such fear, real as it is, disclaims the roots of a tradition and faith that proclaims that all are to love one another as neighbors.
What can Christians do? A first step is to face the fear of difference and name it. Talk about it. Allow difference in opinion and ideas to be a sign of rich diversity rather than dissonance. Labels only divide, be they racial or economic or political or religious. The biblical story is a reminder that those who may appear to be “different” are often chosen to illumine the Gospel-Ruth who is loyal, the Samaritan who comes to the aid of a broken man, the foreigner who praises God for healing, the Centurion who recognized Jesus on the cross. . Pray that in these times people of faith may learn to listen, to hear, to talk, and to act together — not in conformity, but with unity of Spirit and the courage to cross into lands unknown.
Sometimes boundaries are crossed by necessity — like Naomi and her family during the famine. Other times it is done for love, as Ruth did when she followed her mother-in-law to a new land. Either way, a path is made which turns strangers into neighbors and friends to love. There is no greater challenge than this — and no greater reward. Amen.
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