Based on Ruth 1: 14-22 and Hebrews 11:13-16
We live in unsettled and unsettling times. Does anyone doubt it? Although exact numbers are hard to determine, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees says that “70.8 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.” Even people who have remained in the same place for generations feel it, as the ground has shifted around them and left them wondering where they can safely stand, as jobs have gone, strangers have come, and as the pace of everything seems to have left them on the sidelines. In one way or another, it seems as though everyone everywhere is in transit.
The story of Ruth, which we have before us this morning, was told for unsettled times. After a half century of exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE, Israel faced the challenge of rebuilding their nation and their culture quite literally from the ground up. The Temple in Jerusalem, which for them had been the center of everything, had been destroyed. Jerusalem itself lay in ruins, and “Jerusalem” in any real sense, the Jerusalem they remembered and longed for, existed only in their hearts and in their memories. They even had to begin by rebuilding the city wall to keep hostile foreigners from doing the job all over again.
But the threats they faced weren’t just external. There was an internal one as well. During the time when the upper crust of the city had been captive in Babylon, the social mores among those left behind had become a little loose and lax, and many of the locals had intermarried with people from the surrounding ethnic groups. The fear was that “Israel” would come to exist in name only as purebred Israelites diminished in numbers, to be increasingly replaced by hybrids and half-breeds. In response, Israel’s leadership, under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah, declared that there simply was to be no more intermarriage, and, further, that all foreign wives and the offspring of such marriages were to hit the road for…wherever. No exceptions. To us, such a policy may seem cruel and arbitrary. They saw it as a matter of national survival.
Now, if you wanted a poster child for “bad foreigner,” you couldn’t have chosen a better candidate than the people of Moab. As biblical scholar Robert Alter puts it, “Readers should note that for biblical Israel, Moab is an extreme negative case of a foreign people. A perennial enemy, its origins, according to the story of Lot’s daughter in Genesis 19, are in an act of incest. The Torah actually bans any sort of intercourse, social, cultic, or sexual, with the Moabites.” (The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, v. 3, p. 622)
And into to this setting comes the story of Ruth…a Moabite, which is a fact that the author just won’t let us forget. Chapter 1, v. 22 reads: “Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab.” She is again called Ruth the Moabite three times in the next chapter. There’s clearly something about Ruth’s being a Moabite that’s supposed to ring a bell with us. Did I mention that Ruth is a Moabite?
The back story, you may recall, is that Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, had moved with her husband Elimelech and sons Mahlon and Chilion, from Bethlehem, which was experiencing a famine at the time, to Moab, where they could start a new life; and they do, for ten years. But even there, misfortune strikes; Elimelech and the two sons, who had married Moabite women, die. With few prospects in Moab, and hearing that things had improved at home, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, and urges her daughters-in-law to go back to their own families, where they can find a measure of safety and security. After some argument and not a few tears, one of them, Orpah, returns to Moab, and at this point the original audience was no doubt thinking about Ruth, the other, “You go, girl! And good riddance.”
But Ruth says to Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Stop. Wait. No! That’s not how the story is supposed to go. And it gets even worse. It turns out that Naomi has a relative, a “man of worth” named Boaz, through her marriage to Elimelech. He has heard of Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and care for her, and, to make a long story short, he becomes Ruth’s advocate, protector, and, eventually, husband; and they have a son, about which more in a moment. To us, it’s a fairy tale ending; to its first hearers, it would have been a scandal.
What had Ruth left behind? Everything – her people, her country, her language, her religion… everything but Naomi. What she had kept through it all was her simple humanity, her love, her loyalty, her devotion; and it was on the basis of these qualities that she made her home in the future. It wasn’t so much where she had come from or where she was going, in a geographical sense, that charted her path; it was where she was “coming from” as a human being, and where she was headed in hope, that carried the day.
The last verse in our reading today, 1:22, is weird in the Hebrew and almost untranslatable into English. Your pew Bible renders it, “So Naomi returned together with Ruth, the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.” Robert Alter puts it this way: “’And Naomi came back, and her daughter-in-law with her who was coming back from the plains of Moab.’ He goes on to comment, “Ruth is ‘coming back from the plains of Moab,’ which is her homeland, because she is united in purpose with Naomi and has in a sense already made the land of Judah, to which she comes for the first time, her new homeland.” (p. 628) Ruth is making her home in the future.
Boaz gets it. When Ruth asks him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”, he responds, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Boaz understands that Ruth is coming from a place of radical compassion and unshakable trust. I came to understand something about where she was coming from when, several years ago, I had the privilege of visiting an agency called BorderLinks that has offices in Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, and deep connections with the Presbyterian Church. For thirty years or so, BorderLinks has worked with people seeking to come to the US and has provided educational opportunities for the rest of us who are trying to make sense of the thorny issues surrounding immigration in our time.
To give the delegations that visit them from churches, colleges, and other organizations a “boots on the ground” sense of the challenges many immigrants face, BorderLinks staff will take their guests into the Sonoran Desert where, at certain times of the year, temperatures can reach 120 degrees in the day and plunge into the 20’s at night. They often take along blankets, medical supplies, and containers of drinking water that can make the difference between life and death for people seeking refuge in this country. Often those they find have been simply abandoned by the “coyotes” who promised them safe passage but took their money, stole most of their possessions, and left them to their fate. With little sense of where they were, miles from human habitation, and only a vague notion that they were generally headed north, hundreds of such persons have died from hunger, thirst, and exposure.
Rev. Gene LeFevre, who has worked with immigration ministry for decades, told us of taking a delegation out on a very windy night to make a run with relief supplies. They stopped on a mesa to reconnoiter, and in the distance they spotted a campfire on another mesa. Thinking that they had spotted a group of people who had been dumped by their “guides,” they shouted, “Stay where you are. We’ll bring help.” When they reached the spot, they found several families cooking up the last of the rice and beans they had brought for the journey to share with the new arrivals. All they had heard through the wind was the single word, “Help,” and, thinking that the other people were in even worse shape than they were, they were prepared to share it all. And Gene told us that this story was not atypical.
It is highly doubtful that those folks marooned in the Sonoran Desert were thinking of the story of Ruth at that moment, but they were definitely members of her tribe. They, like Ruth, had left everything behind, and were headed into a most uncertain future; but they knew where they were coming from. They were coming from here (heart).
Over the past couple of months, as you may know, a group of us at this church have been studying the immigration issue. You’ve heard that it’s complicated. I’m here to tell you, it’s complicated. But one thing I hope we never forget as we try to sort it all out is where, as people of faith and followers of the one who emptied himself of his divine prerogatives and embraced our humanity, we’re most fundamentally coming from. Amid all the current talk of citizenship and identity politics and so on, may we keep in mind that our primary identity is “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” This afternoon (and I hope you can join us) we’ll be hearing stories from people who have come from a variety of places to make their homes in this country, reminding us that behind all the statistics and debates are real names and faces and voices that need to be heard, and stories that are yet to be lived.
There’s a coda to the story of Ruth, as Robert Alter notes. When Boaz says to Ruth that he has heard about “how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before,” Alter tells us, “These words are the most significant literary allusion in the book. They explicitly echo God’s first words to Abraham in Genesis 12:1, ‘Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house.’
Now it is a woman, and a Moabite, who reenacts Abraham’s long trek from the east to Canaan. She will become a founding mother of the nation as he was the founding father.” (p. 630) One of the greatest “Oh by the way” moments in all of literature comes right at the end of the book. We have just learned that Ruth and Boaz have had a son, and the verse reads, “He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather.” In other words, oh by the way, David’s great-grandmother, and so one of Jesus’s ancestors, it turns out, was a Moabite. In leaving behind everything she had known and trusting her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law’s God, this most unlikely candidate became a part of our future.
So, where you comin’ from? In a way, as people of faith, we are all coming from the future, living in anticipation, as we wait and work for God’s new heaven and new earth. The author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way, speaking of our ancestors in God’s great family:
All these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. People who say this kind of thing make it clear that they are looking for a homeland. If they had been thinking about the country that they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return to it. But at this point in time, they are longing for a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God isn’t ashamed to be called their God—he has prepared a city for them.
God has prepared a city for us, too – for all of us. And if we find ourselves plagued with a godly restlessness and dissatisfaction with things as they are in this world, scripture reminds us that we’re in good company with those who have preceded us in faith, for they were “unsettled” too. And let us, with all our fellow “immigrants and strangers” on the earth, never stop longing for that better country, a country we can envision and realize in part through our compassion and caring and creativity here and now, and that we will one day realize in all its fullness through the boundless grace and sure provision of our God. Amen.