First Mennonite Church
May 10, 2020
Three Different Women: Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah.
Text: Ruth 1:6-18
Today is Mother’s Day. For that reason, I want to invite you to consider three different women whose lives were interwoven. Let us take a look at Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah. The Bible story in the book of Ruth begins by telling us of Naomi’s family move to the land of Moab to survive a famine in Bethlehem. After settling in Moab, Naomi’s two son married Moabite women. But shortly after, not only did Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, die, but also her two recently married sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Our passage begins after we have been told about the deaths of Naomi’s, Ruth’s, and Orpah’s husbands.
Read Ruth 1: 6-18
The book of Ruth is a story rich in symbolisms, ironies, gaps or silences, repetitions, ambiguities, word-plays, and double entendres. This story touches various topics about Israel’s identity as God’s people and the way God works in the world. The story in the book of Ruth is like a photo album where we find pictures of human movement, survival, determination, pain, love, and grace. It is also like a photo album where we find pictures of God, actively working with and through human agents.
In the Christian church much of the story’s appreciation centers on the remarkable bonding between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Many wedding sermons use this passage to illustrate the remarkable power of family bonding, even between the two families of the marrying couple. The book of Ruth is used to reinforce the importance of embracing the religion of the other, especially in Jewish proselytism. Although family bonding and loyalty are central to the story between Ruth and Naomi, we should realize that much of the contents of the book, if not each and every element in story, has a value and beauty on its own. We should also take notice that the story in this book is not prophetic or didactic (teaching) material. The story in the book of Ruth is a description of what happened and not a prescription of what intra-family relations should be. In that regard, we should not take Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi as the measuring stick for intra-family behavior or relations.
Let us see the story’s backdrop. Ruth and her family had fled the hunger plaguing Bethlehem, which means the “House of Bread.” The family moved to Moab. There in Moab, Ruth’s two sons married two Moabite women: Ruth and Orpah. Shortly after, the husband of Naomi and the husband of Orpah and the husband of Ruth all died.
Today’s passage begins by telling us that after the death of the three men, Naomi heard that the Lord had come to aid his people by giving them “lehem,” bread. So, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out to return to Bethlehem. But as they headed out, Naomi suddenly stopped and addressed her two daughters-in-law, asking them to return to their “mother’s house.”
In a patriarchal society, the “father’s house” is a common expression used to refer to the realm of authority of the head of the family. In this context women are bound to the authority of the “father.” Naomi was sending her two daughters-in-law to their mother’s house, which implies that they would become eligible for marriage again. (See a contrast in Genesis 38, verse 11.)
Orpah and Ruth wept aloud and offered to go with Naomi, but she insisted that they should return to their families of origin. Naomi even invoked upon them the Lord’s blessing of a new husband. After a lengthy discourse, Orpah kissed Naomi good-bye and returned. But Ruth pledged allegiance to her mother-in-law. Ruth said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Since then Ruth became the model of women with self-determination. Ruth became the model not only for women, but also for men, who pursue their goals with conviction. Ruth became the model of women who succeed despite the challenges they have to face.
Ruth also became the model for family loyalty: your people will be my people and where you die, I will die and be buried. Living in the 21st century and in an individualistic culture, the need and urgency for family unity cannot be stressed enough. In a time when family values and traditions face challenges on all sides, Ruth’s pledge of allegiance to remain with Naomi and her people is so important.
Still yet, Ruth became a model of true conversion: “your God, my God.” Through this expression, Ruth revealed a commitment had already made. While she committed her future life to go, stay, and die with Naomi, Ruth’s embrace of Naomi’s people and her God was a “done deal” from the start. Ruth could not be deterred or dissuaded from following Naomi. She had already identified herself as one of Naomi’s people. She had already embraced the faith of Naomi in the Jehovah as her God.
Ruth’s story has repeated itself in the life of many women. And most often the stories of such women appear in the news, women’s glossy magazines, and other media. These are stories of women who have succeeded in life because of their determination. These are the stories of women who have overcome what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. These Ruths of today are the brave women who followed their dreams. Modern stories of the Ruths are of those women who have crushed the cultural “glass ceiling,” opening new paths for women to follow.
But what about Orpah and her story? What about the story of Naomi? These are women whose stories need to be told also. Orpah loved her mother-in-law just as Ruth did. And it could be that out of her great respect for Naomi that she obeyed and returned to her “mother’s house,” weeping as she did. Yet, just as the stories of countless women who also have chosen to obey authority figures in their lives or to follow the social or traditional life styles according to the norms of their societies, Orpah’s story never saw the light of day. Because Orpah obeyed the voice of Naomi and followed the established role of women, her story faded at the very moment she chose to return to her “mother’s house.”
There is a vast number of mothers, today, who can identify very closely with the story of Orpah. Generally, nobody tells their stories of love, sacrifice, and heroic silence. Their stories are often forgotten or at times even criticized. Countless mothers today have become schoolteachers, tutors, caregivers, besides their usual selves of being mothers, spouses, and homemakers. There are many Orpahs today and we should honor them and their stories. To them belongs the blessing of Naomi, “May the Lord show you kindness for choosing silence and anonymity for the sake of those you love.” Some, if not the majority of us, have or had moms who were like Orpah. They stayed home and filled the traditional expectations there were for women. These moms chose to remain silent, not because of imposition but out of love and devotion toward their families. And we should honor them and their stories.
What about the story of Naomi whose name means “sweet” or “pleasant”? Again there are many Naomis today whose lives are everything but sweet or pleasant. Naomi went to Moab “full,” meaning she had a loving husband and two children, yet there she experienced pain, loss, and what she called, “the Lord’s hand against her.” Today is Mother’s Day and for many it is a joyous day. Despite the challenges we have today, many will find ways to celebrate their mom. I will call my mother today and once again tell her that we love her. But this day might not be as joyous for every mother or for every child. There are mothers who have lost a beloved child and are mourning. There are children whose mother has passed away or are at odds with their moms. There are children who are not and cannot be with their moms, for other reasons than social distancing. And there are mothers longing to hear words of love from their children. Naomi was a woman who experienced loss, extreme grief, and bitterness. But in the end, Naomi was a woman who experienced great joy, a different kind of motherhood, and a deep sense of redemption through a foreign Moabite woman, who took her as a mother and gave her a grandchild. When Ruth had given birth to her first child with Boaz, the women of Bethlehem blessed Naomi, saying: “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer . . . . He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”
As we celebrate our mothers today, let us rejoice for the many Ruths we have today. Let affirm the women who are working hard pursuing their sense of call in life. Let us remember those mothers like Orpah who chose to live in silence out of love and devotion. Let us not forget the many Naomis we know. These are mothers who have been forgotten, abused, and hurt. These are mothers whose heart aches with loss, grief, and even bitterness. Let us pray for them the blessing Naomi was given. Let us reach out to them that they might also experience redemption, new life, and love.
May the Lord bless each of you Moms! May the Lord bless all the girls and women in our families and church. Amen!