Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
We’ve been making our way through the Bible. And every week since the beginning of September we’ve been wading in to the book of Genesis. Genesis is the second longest book of the Bible, second only to Jeremiah. But Genesis is also filled with the most well-known biblical figures—Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Esau, Joseph. It’s a star-studded cast.
Genesis is the second longest book, filled with some of the most important people. But this week we make a bit of a detour. Skipping over a few chapters. And we move from the second longest story in the Bible to one of the shorter ones, from the big names of the Bible to a few unsung heroes. The book of Ruth.
Here’s the book in a nutshell: During a time of famine in Israel, a woman named Naomi comes to live in the country of Moab, one of Israel's enemies, with her husband and two sons. Her sons marry women from Moab—locals. One’s Orpah, and the other’s Ruth. Ten years pass, and by this time not only does Naomi’s husband die, both of her son’s die. Leaving all three women as widows. Orpah decides to stay in Moab, but Ruth sticks with Naomi. Together, they make the journey to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem. With Naomi’s help, Ruth—an outsider—is taken in by a well-to-do farmer named Boaz. Long story short, Ruth and Boaz have a child together, and this child’s the grandfather of yet another Bible big name: King David, God’s chosen King. And if you trace it all the way to the New Testament, you find Ruth in Jesus’ family tree. God works through the actions of a widow, a foreigner, and a wealthy farmer to bring about renewal for God’s people. To bring about a new future.
This is often told as a lovely story of family devotion, and God’s use of ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Which it is. Don’t get me wrong. But something we often miss is just how hard it is just to get this whole thing started. Especially when it comes to Naomi. Whose journey this is in the first place.
If you remember, Naomi’s the one who decides to head home to Bethlehem. And it’s all about marriage customs. Her husband dies. And in Israelite marriage custom, the brother of the husband’s supposed to marry his sister in law. Seems primitive to us, and outdated. Also gross, for sure. But basically in the world of ancient Israel women have no way to make a living on their own. Luckily, she has sons who’ll take care of her. But ten years later, those sons are gone. But now it’s even trickier. Naomi has no more son, so no more men in the family to marry Ruth or Orpah. So basically they’re all in the same boat. And now that the famine in Bethlehem’s over this is why Naomi decides to head back home to her family. No husbands. No livelihoods. No future.
But the thing that really sticks out here is how she fights the offer of help. All three women are in the same boat. Both Ruth and Orpah offer something like that classic TV line: “we’re going with you!” But Naomi pleads with them to take care of themselves and to return to their family homes where they might have a chance of marrying again and having a family. If they go with her, Naomi says, they’ll be throwing their lives away. “I’m too old to get a new husband,” says Naomi. She’s too old to get married again, or to have sons to marry. Besides that, even if she could they’d all have to wait for them to grow up. “No, my daughters,” she says. “it has been far more bitter for me than for you. Because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
Basically, says Naomi, your chances are better if you leave me. She’s too old to have any more children. She’s too old to have any more use in her society. And if her daughters join her, they’ll be throwing away their own chance for having a life. Naomi refuses help, because she sees herself as a burden.
Naomi would rather go it on her own and suffer rather than being a burden. Sound familiar to you? Sounds like grandma and grandpa, to be honest. Not my grandma (who reads these sermons—love you Soph). But any number of grandparents I’ve known. Any number of grandparents I know. Some are younger, some are older. But their fear tends to be the same: the worst thing they could ever imagine is becoming a burden on other people. Or depending on other people. Especially family members.
But really, it’s not just an attitude of the elderly. It’s cultural. Really, we live in a culture that prizes self-sufficiency and independence above all else. I remember the week that Medical Assisted Death (or Physician Assisted Suicide) became legal in Canada. I was visited by a woman with terminal cancer. A woman who I’d never met before. But she was hoping to get me to sign a form saying that she was mentally able to make the decision to choose to end her life. I couldn’t, of course. First because I have reservations about it to begin with. But also because I didn’t really know her so couldn’t say. But one of the reasons she cited was an image relayed to her by her physician (believe it or not): that not only would she would be in pain in a hospital bed. That she would also be a burden on an already overtaxed healthcare system.
I’m not sure this is what the doctor told her, but this is what she heard. Like Naomi, we fear being a burden the most. And we’ll do anything to avoid it. Even suffer alone.
But the good news is that we don’t have to suffer alone. The story of the Bible, one after another, isn’t a story of self-sufficiency. Or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Where ours is a story of independence, the Christian story is one of interdependence. Mutual dependence on one another. And on God.
One daughter-in-law, Orpah follows Naomi’s directions and stays home. But Ruth… she sticks around. In fact it says Ruth “clung” to her. And here’s what she says:
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
I mean, I love what one commentator says about this.[i] They say that Ruth’s response is basically “You can’t tell me what to do. I’ll live where you live. We’ve got the same God, same faith commitment. I’m here to care for you. You can’t tell me to turn my back on you!” And frankly, she says “it makes me angry that you want me to blow my commitment.” Somewhere else somebody translates the last thing as “and that shut Naomi up.”[ii]
It’s not that Naomi isn’t a burden. She is. It’s gonna be a tough journey. Especially two women alone through the desert. But Ruth knows that to be one of God’s people means to bear the burdens of other people. Naomi’s a burden, but that’s okay. When she finally receives help, life begins all over again. They journey together. The God they serve is all about bearing burdens. In fact, early church commentaries talk about Ruth as a “type” of Christ.[iii] Ruth’s commitment points us towards Jesus. And towards the church. On the cross, we see a God who clings to us, bears our burdens, our sins, our suffering. And a community that Jesus has created by the Spirit, to carry this work in this name.
The truth is that we can’t do this thing called life alone. The truth is that we’re dependent on someone else at some point for something no matter who we are. As we grow older, it’s just a fact of life. We can’t do things for ourselves anymore. Or if you’re a child and need your parents. Or it’s being someone with a disability, or someone whose sick. Whether it’s being a grown man who has trouble dealing with his emotions. Or whether it’s just plain old asking for help when we need it. If you’re burdened by hatred, or anger, of disappointment. Burdens of addiction. Burdens of your past. No matter who we are, we’re somebody’s burden. We can’t do this thing called life alone.
No matter who you are, you’re gonna be somebody’s burden. You’re a burden. But according to the gospel that’s okay. Because God is all about bearing our burdens. God has created, and is creating a community just like this one just for that purpose. A community of the cross. One that clings to one another like Ruth to Naomi. One that clings to once another like Christ on the cross. One where we can journey together, taking on eachother’s suffering and pain. A journey towards Bethlehem. A journey towards fullness of life in God. One that can only be done together.
So, as Jesus says. “Come, all ye who are weary and heavy laden. Come, all ye who are weary and heavy laden I will give you rest. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We’re all burdens, we all have them. But with God’s help we can carry them together.
[i] Kathleen Farmer, “Ruth,” in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.
[ii] I think I read this somewhere. I’m not sure where, so just to be safe.
[iii] Isadore of Seville, On Ruth.