Our Jewish kinfolks placed Ruth within a grouping called “The Writings”, along with books like Ester, Jonah, and Job. The Christian editors placed Ruth in the history section between Judges and 1 Samuel. Friends, Ruth is more of a play than a history. Ruth begins with a kind of “once upon a time”, “during the days when...”! Ruth has no passages like 2 Chronicles 20:34, “Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat,… are written in the Annals of Jehu…recorded in the Book of the Kings of Israel.” Stories can bear deeper truths than factoids and dates. Someone once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Did Jesus trot out a well-reasoned definition of social boundaries? No, Jesus told the story of a Good Samaritan. I think Amy Cooper and Christy Perkey got it exactly right when they wrote The Truth about Ruth. You will see that when the children get to share the musical with us. So this morning, I invite you to consider Ruth as a Broadway show. The commentators assure us that Ruth in the original Hebrew is as tragic, clever, redemptive and salty as any big budget Broadway production! I spent hours in the commentaries this week, and maybe because of that study, I will be taking poetic liberties with my adaptation, so double check the Scripture Text!
When you see a play do you imagine yourself as one of the characters? Most of us want to be Ruth. Ruth is brave, bold, and heroic. And this musical is named after her. Commentators tell us those first Hebrew audiences identify with Naomi. The book opens with the lights shining on Naomi. She experiences an unspeakable tragedy, losing her husband and both of her children. Naomi boldly challenges God singing: “the Lord’s will has come out against me.” Naomi gets the first big number: “Turn back, my daughters, God bless you, go home.” And the final curtain falls with Naomi center stage holding her grandbaby as the Bethlehem Town Chorus sings, “May the Lord bless you, Naomi, the Lord has not left you empty, for Naomi, you hold in your arms our redemption, you hold in your arms our future! Naomi, you are blessed, you are full, your name again is sweet!
The character of Orpah is delightful. Orpah heeds Naomi’s advice, deciding to stay in her homeland. Orpah weeps deep healing tears with Naomi. Those who truly lend their tears to our suffering offer the deepest comfort. To be vulnerable and open to another’s pain bears evidence of our humanity. Orpah weeps as Naomi sings, “Turn back, my daughters, why would you stay with me?” “Sometimes it’s hard to know what direction to take. But if we are present to the experiences of those around us, we can trust God’s Spirit to show us the compassionate way. Naomi showed compassion to Ruth and Orpah by encouraging them to return to their families. Ruth showed compassion to Naomi by going with her. Orpah showed compassion by supporting Ruth’s decision while making the choice that was best for her. All gave compassion in their own way, showing us there are many ways to follow the Spirit’s leading to love and care.”(Compassion Camp VBS) “How does compassion help us be present?”
To lovingly take another road is very grown-up behavior. So often young adults feel pulled by their families of origin back into the role of child, even as they graduate and become leaders. Parents can pressure children to be like us, like what we like, vote like us or .worship with our tradition. Orpah compassionately takes another road. She deserves a solo, too!
At times we may want to be something heroic, or different, or like someone else, but it is important to be who God made us to be. To be present and compassionate with ourselves. Our children at Camp Compassion spent some time considering “what you love about you” or “what you love to do” . They made paper chains. Parker’s wrote: “I love my life!.” Ila, a tad younger, drew a picture celebrating how she loved to play in the rain and jump in muddy puddles! Let us celebrate who we are, being present and compassionate with ourselves. Let us celebrate that God used Ruth, Orpah, Boaz, and Namoi. God can work through all of us.
Now, before we hear Ruth’s stopping solo, we must know that those first Hebrew audiences did not easily root for Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite. You can’t really understand Ruth The Musical without understanding the deep-seated yet unnamed systems supporting racism and creating poverty. Ruth The Musical uncovers Boaz’s feet and Bethlehem’s unspoken supremacy and hidden Moabite loathing. Deuteronomy 23:3 made a rule that even someone whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Moabite could become part of “the Lord’s assembly”. You might say, that’s just a rule: But that is ten generations of racism. Amy-Jill Levine reminded our combined Sunday School last week that the Old and New Testaments weave stories of mercy for all, compassion for immigrants, and God’s loving-kindness. Ruth, Jonah, and the Good Samaritan lance unnamed cultural and religious biases reminding us God loves and uses everyone.
Just consider the scene where Naomi arrives safely back home in good ol’ Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Town Chorus excitedly sings, “Can this be Naomi?” “Tell us of your travels, let the story unravel, how was Moab- must have been bad!” Naomi sings, “Don’t call me Naomi, my name is no longer sweet, but call me Mara, call me bitter, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away to Moab full, but the Lord has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?” The Bethlehem town chorus and first audiences likely thought, yes, Naomi, what did you expect seeking comfort in Moab! Your sons took Moabite women for wives, did you not read Joshua, Judges or Ezra? Did you forget the ten-generation rule?
If we neglect our own sense of my-group superiority, we may miss the truth uncovered in Ruth! Yes, we all want to be Ruth; she is our hero! She sticks with her mother-in-law who tells her, “I have it worse than you.” Ruth gleans behind the harvesters; Ruth feeds Naomi. Ruth risks the sketchy threshing floor late at night. Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz- she is shocking- powerful! Ruth reminds Boaz of his duty and privileged position to do something about poverty! But Ruth is also a bit salty. Kathleen Robertson Farmer warns us that if we play Ruth too prudishly, we may turn Ruth into an unexamined patriotic tale touting a phony “American Dream” that never mentions the patriarchy, white supremacy, entitlement, hunger, fear, desperation, day laboring, and scandalous uncoverings within Ruth’s story. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2) If we celebrate Ruth’s triumphant rise too quickly, we may forget to ask ourselves “who is the Moabite, in the eyes of our community of faith? Who do we despise on the basis of their origins or blame for the decline in our own morals? To whom do we deny admittance into the Lord’s assembly?”
So, mindful of all that Ruth The Moabite overcomes with saintly and salty maneuvers, let’s hear her show-stopping solo that still appears in weddings to this day! The commentators ask us to listen for God’s loving-kindness, incarnate in Ruth’s song: “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. 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. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”
Naomi does not repeat that promise back to Ruth! We are like that a lot with God and each other, and Yet God’s Grace, “hessed”, loving-kindness comes to us like Ruth’s vow. God’s loving-kindness is not dependent on our loveliness. Love sneaks up on us, loving us when we are unlovely. Love sticks with us as we desperately glean fields. Let all who have ears note: the Moabite is our redeemer. The Messiah comes by way of the Moabites and Canaanites, and children conceived in scandal. This musical slips that subversive message right under our pious noses.
And just in case ancient or modern audiences miss it, the closing number begins with Boaz accepting Ruth’s marriage and land-grant proposals, (the commentators tell us of complexities that separate the redeeming of Naomi’s land and the proposed marriagel for marriage. These are perhaps lost to history) as the Bethlehem Town Chorus sings a blessing to Boaz who awaits Ruth under a wedding canopy: “Boaz, we are your witnesses. May the Lord grant that the woman, that Moabite woman, Ruth, who now is your wife! May she like Rachel and Leah, who built up our lands. May the Lord preserve Bethlehem through her. May your household be blessed by this Moabite just as Tamar, the Canaanite, improved our people!”
And the music swells from the orchestra pit, the grand finale begins with Ruth returning to the stage holding her baby, Obed. She hands Oded to Naomi who sits in a rocking chair throne, the child in her arms as Bethlehem Town Chorus belts out, “Naomi, may the Lord be blessed, who has taken away your bitterness, Naomi, the Lord has not left you alone. Naomi, this child is named Obed. The name means ‘one who serves the Lord’. May your name be ‘Bitter’ no more. May this land fill your hand; may you be empty no more. May your name be as sweet as the child dancing at your feet. And you never forget, let us never forget that your daughter-in-law, your daughter-in-law, yes that Moabite daughter-in-law, Ruth, who loves you, who pledged not to leave you, who sustained you, Ruth, has filled your arms and made your way sweet. Be bitter no more for your Moabite daughter, is better for you, is better for us, is for all, is better than seven worthy sons.” The curtain should have already fallen, leaving us longing for the encore’s big cast reprisal of “where you go I will go”. However, the playwright adds a tag to drive home their point! So Ruth ends with the narrator recounting the ancestry of King David and for us who follow Christ- Jesus. The Messiah traces right back to Ruth- the Moabite! Now Naomi’s grandson, Obed through Ruth the Moabite, became Jesse’s father, and Jesse was the father of King David- the Great, and the ancestral of all redeemers! Friends, never forget, The Moabite is our Redeemer. Amen.