Written by: Rev. Nathan Hill
This past week a student reminded me of an important lesson that we can learn from the book of Ruth. The student wrote about the contrasting perspectives of Naomi and Ruth when they both faced an identical situation—the death of their husband and an uncertain future.
This tragic story begins like the stuff of a fairy tale. Naomi and her husband Elimelech had two sons—Mahlon and Kilion—who were wed to Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. I am not sure how the ancient Jewish culture viewed this particular stage of life, but I know that in our culture it is a time of new beginnings and new journeys for both children and parents. There are new freedoms, there are new challenges, and there is a sense of excitement in the air.
All of this changes abruptly, however, when Elimelech dies. The text does not speak of the reasons for his death, but I know families who have lost a parent too early from cancer, heart attack, or other illnesses. Such a tragedy causes an abrupt halt to life as you know it and initiates a completely new trajectory. While the natural progression of life stages (i.e., marriage, raising children, empty nesting, old age) might have their share of sadness when reminiscing about the years that have gone by, at least there seems to be a sense of logic and justice along the pathway. When death, however, robs a family of several stages of life, it seems as though the path of their life takes a sharp left and never again returns to what it was. Thankfully the redemption of God can take what the enemy means for destruction and turn it back into life.
We quickly realize when reading the book of Ruth that not only does Elimelech die, so do his two sons—the husbands of Ruth and Orpah. What is interesting at this point is the divergent reactions of both Ruth and Naomi. Having weathered this difficult season of life Naomi returns to Bethlehem in an unrecognizable state. Not only was her physical presence displaying the depth of her pain, she refused to be called by her name, preferring instead to be called Mara, which means bitter. Ruth, on the other hand, was given the opportunity to return to her land and take a new husband, thus enjoying a full and prosperous life. Despite these prospects, Ruth does something unexpected (something her sister-in-law did not do): she pledges allegiance to the God of Naomi and declares that she will be with Naomi until death separates them!
Why is it that Ruth—a Moabite women with only very recent ties to God’s covenant people—would have such faith in Israel’s God to provide for her in the midst of this tragedy whereas Naomi—someone who had lived her entire life in covenant relationship with God—became so bitter and withdrawn from life. It is conceivable that Naomi was familiar with Abraham and Sarah having a child in old age, with Joseph and his mistreatment being used to save Israel from famine, and also with God using Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Is it not also possible that Ruth knew very little of this? Why, then, do they have such contrasting and perhaps even surprising reactions?
Perhaps the longer we are in the faith the more we take it for granted. Is it possible that longevity can dull our senses to what God can do, remembering only what he has done? Some statistics have suggested that after just one year in the church you will no longer have any significant friendships outside of the church. Shortly after that you begin to have conflict with the friends you do have inside of the church. Soon after that you might wonder what the difference really is anyways with those inside and outside of the church.
John the revelator reminds us that we ought not forsake our first love (Rev 2:4). We ought to remind ourselves often of what God has done for us and in us, and have a healthy expectation that he can and will do it again. We also must realize that the capacity to mess things up in us is also preset in other people—even people of faith. Nevertheless, there is nothing more encouraging in our lives than to see God initiate someone new into his kingdom. So, expose yourself to those new in the faith—be a mentor and an agent of change in their lives. Constantly be on the watch for what God is doing in the lives of others, and you will find that you can have faith that he will do it in your life as well.
Age like Ruth, not Naomi. Chose John 10:10 life, not bitterness.