Ruth and the subversive work of God’s Holy Spirit

Struggling with the Scriptures, some thirty years ago I found myself in a crisis of faith, or was it an awakening to faith? As we looked for a new church, Connie needled me to “just visit” a Methodist church. I quipped, “We will go; I’ll hate it, and that will be that!” Spiritual growth takes time. Grace works its magic over the years pop the  more than minutes. The book of Ruth with four short scenes may conceal Ruth’s longer struggle. Faith is not reducible to a one-time decision to follow Jesus, but flows through a steady application of Jesus’ ways, truths, and life to our daily living. Forgiveness, justice, joy, gentleness, generosity, peace, or patience rarely rule our hearts after one prayer. We become Christian through the consistent imitation of Christ. Thirty years ago, I reluctantly honored Connie’s wishes. That one right next step put me on a path to my spiritual home. Faith is a “letting go,” and taking the next right step trusting God will be in the journey. 

As we navigate Ruth’s journey, we may need some cultural frames and a few cautions to help us understand the story and hear a word of hope from God. Ruth’s spiritual journey navigates a national climate disaster, immigration, the death of her spouse, poverty and a sick misogynistic system. How does Ruth overcome bitterness, passivity, cynicism and systemic injustice? Ruth’s persistence is a good word for all of us struggling through this pandemic. 

Our heroine Ruth is an immigrant. Immigration may be the deepest “letting go.” Immigrants let go of familiar language, culture, hangouts, foods  and friends. From Abraham and Sarah to the Holy Family, God seems to call us to leave the familiar to go to a “place I will show you” only once we have begun our spiritual travels (Genesis 12, Matthew 4). Perhaps God is calling us to let go of some comforting positions, possessions, or privileges so we might find our own spiritual promised land?  Where have we traveled with God? What have we left behind?

Ruth reminds us to let go of our tendency to judge (Matthew 7). Ruth does what she needs to do to save herself and her ex-mother-in-law, even uncovering Boaz’s feet, whatever cringeworthy act that entailed. We church folks can miss where God is really working. Jesus warns church folks that “tax-collectors and sex-workers are entering God’s kingdom ahead of us.” (Matthew 21) Let us be careful to not exclude those very people, the unexpected redeemers like Ruth, who God may be using to heal and correct the church!

So let’s go with Ruth whose story begins with an ancient kind of “once upon a time.” Beginning “during the days” of the judges, there was a famine in Israel. To set the stage, “during those days” women were systematically oppressed by a legal and religious culture that kept women from starting a business, taking public work, opening a bank account, or owning property. In fact, women were considered property. There was a “bride-price” and Exodus 21 sets terms as to how one might sell their daughter as a slave. What do we do with that? Do we ignore it? Should not such passages shatter our literalism and moderate our traditionalism? Boaz will ask, “Who does this young woman belong to?” That was and is sinful. We believe God’s Holy Spirit is with us and still speaking. Now, if you believe there is a “New” Testament you are already a bit of a progressive. We do not need to defend these Levitical laws. Slavery and subjugation of women has always been wrong. Reason, the Holy Spirit, and the gathered community make that clear. (If you need a verse for that try Galatians 3:28; 5:1.) Indeed, Ruth The Book may be subversive holy poetry designed to expose and shame the oppressive dehumanizing patriarchy. Perhaps Ruth’s heroic story puts Biblically sanctioned oppression in the crosshairs of her own humanity.  Does not the Cross come as a poetic act that undoes legislative faith? (Colossians 2) Can we accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, even when we see oppression inside Bible verses?

Now, the story begins with Naomi (whose name means ‘pleasant’) and Elimelech (meaning ‘my God is King’) and a famine. This young couple leaves Bethlehem or “the house of food” to migrate to Moab. There is no mention of swimming the Rio Grande, climbing a border wall, or running from the Border Patrol — only their desire to build a better life in Moab. In Moab, they raise two sons, who grow up and marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then tragedy strikes with Biblical proportions. Naomi’s husband and two sons die during a famine. She decides to go back home to Israel having nothing left in Moab. 

Ruth and Orpah do not abandon Naomi even as she begs them, “Go, turn back, each of you to your mothers. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have dealt graciously with my sons and now me. May the Lord provide for you.” Thoughts and prayers don’t end hunger. They all weep. Ruth and Oprah tell Naomi, “No, we will return with you!” Naomi replies, “Turn back, my daughters. I can not help you find husbands! This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.” Remember, the rules about widows, work, and property. They wept even more. Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye. Ruth does not abandon Naomi. Naomi pleads, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.” Let’s linger in Ruth’s pledge, “Don’t urge me to leave 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.” Absorb that spiritual covenant between two female friends. 

Ruth invites God to solemnize their shared journey, “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. May the Lord do this!” Ruth and Naomi are not lovers or getting married. God created us for deep spiritual friendships, but marriage is not the only avenue for deep life commitments. Ruth names commitment out loud, pledging love to Naomi. This is a compassionate gift. Not everyone is called to be married. Jesus and Paul were not. We all need community — shared humanity. Ruth will marry Boaz and keep her covenant with Naomi. Let us celebrate the sacred beauty of non-sexualized, non-marital spiritual friendships.

When the two covenant partners arrived in Bethlehem, the town’s chorus excitedly asked, “Can this be Naomi?” Naomi snarled, “Don’t call me Naomi, (pleasant) but call me Mara (bitter), for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty. Why would you call me Pleasant!”  Maybe you have snarled some lately?  Any authentic spiritual journey will have some raw patches. Jesus wept and grew frustrated at times. Naomi asks to be called Bitter, but the town gives Ruth an unwanted name, “Ruth the Moabite.”  Do you feel the sting? Ruth is a widow, an immigrant, and poor — three conditions of humanity the ancient Levitical law calls the whole society to protect. Ironically, Leviticus 19 demands that farmers leave the edges of their fields for the widows and the poor, while not addressing the culture that denied women the right to own the means of production! Naomi, it turns out, owned land but needed a male redeemer to marry her so she might claim it. Nevertheless, Ruth persists. 

There are creepy, cringeworthy, and unholy moments over the remaining three acts. We might long to rewrite Ruth with a “me too” lens. The writer seems to be saying, even during oppressive days, “look what the laws subject women to”! Stories teach. Story can undo oppression. We reject the disempowering laws that grew a culture where both Naomi and Boaz must warn the younger Ruth about potential workplace sexual abuse. But, let us celebrate Ruth whose persistence exposes systemic injustice. God is working unexpectedly through Ruth, a widow, an immigrant, and a poor person. Ruth the Moabite’s faith, hard work, and ingenuity save her and Naomi from a pandemic and the patriarchy. She saves the day in her own quiet, hardworking, subversive way. 

Ruth ends with the town’s chorus line delivering a big closing melody sung to Naomi who is gently holding Ruth’s baby sitting on Boaz’s porch. The townsfolk chorus sing: “May the Lord be blessed, who today has saved you through Ruth your redeemer. May God’s name be proclaimed as we sing of Ruth the Moabite who outmaneuvered oppressive systems. Hear how God restores life and sustains us. Oh Naomi, your daughter-in-law, Ruth — Ruth the Moabite — loves you. Ruth the Moabite has redeemed you. Be bitter no more, for she is better than seven sons. Oh sing of Ruth the Moabite, your Redeemer.” (adopted) The curtain falls and the narrator tells how Ruth the Moabite, the redeemer, was the great(est) grandmother of Israel’s greatest king — King David! 

Could we, inspired by God’s Spirit, write another verse- an encore melody?

God of our Mothers, Of Ruth the Moabite, Rahab, Mary, and Magdalene

God of the immigrant, the grieving and the poor person

God of the journey, struggle and fight

 help us see your people crushed by systems stacked against them

Free us from our tendency to judge

 Help us notice the subversively movement of your Holy Spirit

And to let go of our positions, power, and privileges 

Forgive us when we do not see You in others

Open our eyes, hearts and hands

So we might resist injustice, evil and oppression. 

 Defend immigrants,

stand for women’s rights,

 fight patriarchy,

end poverty, 

And covenant together

to build Your abundant community 

On earth as in heaven . Amen.

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