First Mennonite Church
March 16, 2014
Profile of a Needy of God’s Redeeming Grace: Naomi
Text: Ruth 1: 19-22
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20 “Don’t call me Naomi” she told them. “Call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
In our Bibles, the book of Ruth appears between the books of Judges and 1Samuel. This is in an attempt to place the book in chronological order in light of the reference that the story of Ruth takes place “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1).
In the Hebrew Bible the book of Ruth is placed after Proverbs, possibly to illustrate the noble woman commended in Proverbs 31:10-31.
The Book of Ruth is one of two books of the Bible named after women. Esther is the other one. The story of Ruth has as its context the period of the Hebrew judges. That period was characterized by chaos and social instability and when “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
So there was fratricide, gang rape, idolatry, and constant unrest, not to mention the cycle of apostasy and return to the Lord.
If you read the story of Ruth, you will find lots of symbolisms, ironies, and extreme narrative economy. For instance from the beginning of the story it becomes obvious by the name of Naomi’s sons that they will not live long: Mahlon sounds like the Hebrew word for “disease” (Exodus 15:26), and Chilion uses the root word for “perish” in Hebrew.
The ironies: Naomi means “pleasant” or “sweet”, yet the death of her husband and sons while living in a foreign land turns her bitter. Another irony is that famine and hunger in the land of Bethlehem (the house of bread), is what causes Naomi and her family to move to the land of Moab.
The story is dotted all over with literary silences and gaps which allow the readers and interpreters to fill in creatively.
Very often the book of Ruth has been used to encourage listeners to adopt the noble character of Ruth. Ruth is the perfect example of survival, whole-hearted devotion, and true conversion. Ruth not only endures loss, but transcends it; thus her pain is transformed into unimagined joy. Ruth who comes from a despised people, which was even banned to be among the congregation of the Lord to the tenth generation, according to Deuteronomy 23:3, not only is included into the household of God, but becomes the prime agent of God’s glorious and eternal redemption story. The story of Ruth is a story of redemption and the first to be redeemed was Naomi, who I would like us to focus on this morning.
The book of Ruth opens by telling us about the great famine in the land of Judah. Naomi, her husband and children from the city of Bethlehem moved away to survive the hunger and went to the land of Moab. But shortly after their arrival in Moab, Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. And Naomi’s two sons found wives locally for themselves. But not long after their marriages and before they could even have children, Mahlon and Chilion died. Naomi was crushed by grief, loss, and loneliness. The writer summarizes this pain and grief in the voice of Naomi, who said: It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (1: 13)
I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1: 21).
Naomi expressed her pain, frustration, and sense of helplessness in light of what had happened to her. She had lost her husband and children, and added to her pain was the fact that she was in a foreign land.
Any bad news, any degree of loss, any personal or family difficulty is multiplied if support from the extended family is not available and close by. For those of you who have gone to other countries to live for some time, for those of you who have come to this country—and I think of persons like Mitzie and my family and me, we know how heavy the burden of any loss can be.
Therefore, when Naomi heard that the Lord had visited his people in the land of Judah and that the Lord had given them food, Naomi prepared herself to return. Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah decided to stay back while Ruth chose to follow Naomi, her mother-in-law. Our passage for today tells us what happened when they arrived back in Bethlehem.
Verse 19 tells us that when the Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem the whole town was stirred because of them. The women openly wondered: “Can this be Naomi?” The text tells us the women in Bethlehem were those who expressed surprise at Naomi. The question, “Can this be Naomi?” is open to interpretation. Were they talking about her physical looks? Did Naomi show signs of physical exhaustion due to her loss and bitterness? Was it because the men of her family were out of the picture? Or was it because she was with the foreigner Moabite woman, Ruth? It is not easy to determine the reason for the women’s puzzlement.
But in the heart of Naomi lay a deeper crisis. Naomi saw in her life the ruins of what it used to be. Instead of the pleasant and sweet life that her beautiful name implied, there was bitterness. Instead of fullness of joy, love, and security she had as when husband and sons were still alive, emptiness and dark shadows filled her life. Instead of concrete evidences of grace, mercy and kindness from the Lord, Naomi claimed the Lord had afflicted her and brought calamities upon her. “Therefore, call me Mara because El Shaddai has made my life very bitter,” Naomi said. Bitter Naomi is a contradiction of who she should be. But life has not been sweet to her. And she does not act as she should as a faithful and trusting woman of God. Naomi does not hesitate to blame the Lord for her emptiness and misfortunes. She does not ask nor expect God to come to her aid, it seems. She feels defeated, bitter and empty. And she admits it before all the city women who had come to welcome her.
Can you remember your “Mara” moments and experiences? Have you experienced moments in which you have wondered where God is in all that was going around you?
Naomi reminds us that grief can make us blind, if not only shortsighted, to many other blessings. You see, Naomi complained of her situation and blamed God for her emptiness. Naomi spoke as if Ruth had not given her support nor was standing next to her.
My dear friends, we too can have pockets of bitterness in our lives. It could be because of something we never got to realize. And we have hung our lives on that single unfulfilled wish. It could be that we carry a lament: if I only could have gotten this or that…. If I only had been given that chance…. If I only had not gone there or done that, my life would be a different story.
I personally have one lament. In the month of July of 1997 I went to Honduras to take one of my last courses of Bible and Theology and to attend the Central American Anabaptist Mennonite Consultation (CAMCA). That week Lilian went from Orange Walk, where we lived, to our hometown August Pine Ridge in Belize. That week while I was gone she visited our families and there she contracted rubella, not knowing that she had just become pregnant with Emmanuel. I have wondered, on countless occasions, what if I had not gone to Honduras! What if Lilian had only stayed home while I was gone? If we only had known what would happen that week! But we give thanks to God who has sustained us and guarded our heart from getting bitter. He is indeed the Great Redeemer, my Redeemer.
If the story of Ruth is a story of the grace and faithfulness of God, the story of Naomi is the story of our need of that grace and faithfulness of God. Naomi needed redemption. Naomi needed healing and comfort. Naomi needed to experience fullness of joy once again. And the story in the book of Ruth does not fail to give it.
We read at the end of the book of Ruth:
13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”
16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David (4:13-15).
The Headline text in the worship program for today is taken from the Complete Jewish Bible. It certainly reflects a literal translation of the words used in the Hebrew. When Ruth had given birth to her first son and the baby was designated the legal owner of Elimelech’s property, which his sons would have inherited, the women said to Na‘omi, “Blessed be Adonai, who today has provided you a redeemer!
Naomi who had undergone severe hardships, loss, and who had become the contrary of what her name implies-bitter instead of sweet, finally come full circle. Her life is turned around and redeemed of all her pain and hopelessness. Her old age will not be lived in despair, loneliness, and bitterness, but full of hope, family once more, and sweetness.
Naomi’s life is a bitter-sweet life, not much different from our lives. When everything seemed to be lost, Ruth bears a child who finally redeems Naomi for her pain and bitterness.
Ruth never knew she would become an important link in the line through which the Messiah would come. Today, we have been redeemed also. Jesus is our redeemer. He takes away the bitter parts of our lives and fills us with his sweetness, which the Psalmist says it is sweeter than honey.
Let the love and sweetness of Jesus transform you. Amen!