First Mennonite Church
May 14, 2023
Portraits of Three Women
Text: Ruth 1:6-18
According to a study done by Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman, an Episcopalian priest, there are 93 women who speak in the Bible, but of these, only 49 are named. The stories of women in the Bible reveal the fullness of the human experience, not only from the perspective of women but of humanity as a whole. It is in these stories of women in the Bible that we encounter the agony and despair of childlessness. It’s in these stories that we find bravery and trust in the face of severe adversity. It is in these stories of women in the Bible that we find the unbreakable bond of love for a child, loyalty, wisdom, grace, and faith.
Today is Mother’s Day and it is not only proper for us to take the time to reflect on the stories of women in the Bible, but to honor the women and mothers in our family of faith. I am choosing the women at the center of the Book of Ruth.
Read Ruth 1: 6-18
The Book of Ruth is a story rich in symbolism, ironies, gaps or silences, repetitions, ambiguities, word plays, and double entendres. This story touches on various topics regarding 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 married couple. The book of Ruth is used to reinforce the importance of embracing the religion of the other, especially Jewish proselytism. Although family bonding and loyalty are central to the story between Ruth and Naomi, we should notice that much of the contents in the book, if not all of the story’s elements, have a value and beauty of their own. We should also take notice that the story in this book is not intentionally presented as prophetic or didactic (teaching) material. The story between Ruth and Naomi is a description of what happened and not a prescription for intra-family relations. In that regard, we should not take Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi as the only model of intra-family behavior or relations, or the only correct manner in which in-laws should measure their relationship.
Here is the story’s backdrop. Ruth and her family had fled the hunger plaguing Bethlehem in Israel. Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” but there is no bread. You can see the first irony. The family moved to Moab, a foreign and pagan country, where Naomi’s husband died shortly after they had settled. Then Naomi’s two sons married two Moabite women: Ruth and Orpah. But these men, Mahlon and Kilion also died.
Verse six 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 again. So, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law set out to return to Bethlehem, but on the road, Naomi suddenly stopped. She addressed her two daughters-in-law and asked them to return to their “mother’s house.”
In patriarchal societies, the “father’s house” commonly refers to the realm of authority of the head of the family. In that context, women are bound by the authority of the “father.” But here, Naomi sent 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 Naomi insisted they should return to their families of origin; thus, she invoked the Lord’s blessing upon them for a new husband. After a lengthy discourse, Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye 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 is the model of a woman with determination. Ruth is the model not only for women but also for men, who follow their convictions. Ruth is the model of people with self-determination.
Ruth is also 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.
Ruth is also a model of true conversion: “Your God, my God.” Through this expression, Ruth reveals a commitment she 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 Jehovah as her God.
Ruth’s story has repeated itself in the life of many women. And most often stories of such women appear in the newspapers, women’s magazines, TV shows, 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 like insurmountable obstacles. These other Ruths are the brave women who followed their dreams. Modern stories of the Ruths are of those women who have crushed the cultural “glass ceiling.”
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. But 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 like the stories of countless women who also have chosen to obey authority figures in their lives or to follow the social norms of their societies, the storyteller did not present to us the story of Orpah. 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 are countless 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. There are many Orpahs today whom we should honor and their stories. To them belongs the blessing of Naomi, “May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to those for whom you chose to remain in silence.” Some, if not the majority of us, have or had moms who were like Orpah. They stayed at home and humbly and silently fulfilled the traditional expectations of 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 mothers, it is a joyous day. It is a day in which we celebrate our moms. Today, we take time to call to tell them how much we love them. But Mother’s Day might not be as joyous for every mother and every child. There are mothers who have lost their beloved children. There are children who are at odds with their moms. There are children who are not and cannot be with their moms. And there are mothers longing to hear words of love from their children. Naomi was a woman who experienced loss, extreme grief, and even 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 there are among us today. The brave and determined women who work hard, the trailblazers who trod the unbeaten path. Let us honor those mothers who chose to live in silence out of love and devotion. And let us not forget the many Naomis we know. Those 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 so that they might also experience redemption, new life, and love even from those who are not of their flesh or people.
May the Lord bless each of you sisters, and Moms! Amen!