In the introductory passage to the book of Ruth, which we heard a few minutes ago, we learn of the strong bonds of affection and respect between Naomi and her daughters in law. Naomi was a refugee woman, fleeing the famine in Judah, when she went to Moab with her husband and sons. She was a stranger, alien in race, culture and religion to the people amongst whom her family found refuge. It is striking that in a foreign land, she has made such an impact on the people who lived most closely with her that the younger women are determined to stay with her, even ready to undergo their own experience of being strangers in a strange land without men to protect and support them.
We learn, as the story unfolds, that Naomi is a competent, clever and far-sighted woman, able to protect and direct Ruth in ways that give her an unexpected chance at a future, a life that enables her to fulfil her potential as a wife and mother, the two respected roles available for women at that time. But all of that seemed totally unlikely at the time the young widows clung to Naomi. It was not what she could offer them that attracted Ruth and Orpah to Naomi, but something in her character.
We know that in all her time in Moab, Naomi has held fast to her Judean religious practices and has continued to worship Yahweh. She has not been swayed by cultural or social pressures or practices around her, or matters of expedience in fitting in to her adopted community. She has not turned away from Yahweh even as her menfolk have died, and she has become increasingly vulnerable to hardship, poverty and marginalization. Perhaps Naomi was always a woman of unquestioning faith, or perhaps her faith has grown deeper over the years and through her trials. We dont know.
We do know that in the process of remaining focused on Yahweh, Naomi has matured into someone whose faith is so central to the person she has become, that Ruth identifies Yahweh as the inspiration of that faithfulness, and expresses her desire to emulate Naomi, to model herself on her mother-in-law, even to following in her spiritual footsteps. And this at a point in her life when there appears to be no hope for Ruth of fulfilling the roles of wife and mother so central to the identity and welfare of a woman of her times.
As the story develops, we learn that Naomi is also a clever and capable woman, who directs and guides Ruth into a protected relationship that results in her becoming part of the most important aspects of Israels heritage great grandmother to King David.
The story of Ruth was written to remind the Hebrew people, in the post-exilic period when their memories of being strangers, slaves and refugees were fading, of Gods concern for those who find themselves strangers, slaves and refugees.
It brings this foreign, childless widow who appeared to have nothing to commend her to their society, into the spotlight as someone through whom God works out his plan for the nation, and ultimately, through Davids descendent Jesus of Nazareth, for the whole world.
This is a story, and a message that never loses its relevance, because our world is still subject to the pressures, decisions, fears and prejudices that both Naomi and Ruth were vulnerable to all those centuries ago. The message is still, very simply, to keep our focus on God, and what we know of Gods will; to be obedient to Gods expressed commands, and to humbly accept that we have no greater claim to Gods favour than anyone around us.
Jesus expressed this message in what we call the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Mk 12:30
How do we need to hear this message today? I would suggest we need to hear it as the one voice among many which has a clear and uncompromising claim on us. Its right to be heard and obeyed rests on Gods own faithfulness, justice and goodness. Its authority comes from Jesus, who knows what the Kingdom of God looks like and feels like, and tells us that this is the way to bring it into being, even among the clamour of other voices that try to pull us along other paths; voices that exploit our fears and insecurities, that pander to our pride and selfishness, and try to put a wedge between us and the neighbour that God calls us to love and care for.
Staying focused on God and the Great Commandment given to us through Jesus is an ongoing, life-long process. It requires that we make difficult, sacrificial choices and decisions that will translate into providing hope where there seems to be none, as Naomi, that focused, faithful woman, did for Ruth.
It requires that we keep before us a clear vision of our duty as servants of God to the whole wide range of people God loves. It requires that we commit the future to God, and not limit it to the confines of what we can manipulate and control.
God still calls us to be focused and faithful; to be the means of bringing into being the kingdom of God in our own community, amid all the conflicting and distracting voices, to reveal its surprising grace and power.
May God strengthen us in our resolution to obey the Great Commandment, and to him be all glory, Amen