Celebrating Ruth – a Sermon on the book of Ruth

But Ruth said, “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. (Ruth 1:16-18)

Today is ‘All Saints Day’ (or ‘All Hallows Day’) and while I appreciate that this day is not as celebrated in our broader culture as is the day that precedes it –  ‘All Hallows Eve’ (or ‘Halloween’) it is nonetheless a significant day of celebration in the church – a day when we celebrate our connection with the great saints who have gone before us in the faith and when we get to sing my favourite hymn, “To all the saints, who from their labours rest”.

And so I thought that today might be a good day to talk about some of the great heroes of the faith who have been a part of our faith community in Dulwich Hill, such as those who have served in far-flung areas of the world as missionaries, or most obviously, I suppose, my most famous predecessor here, the Reverend George Chambers, rector of this parish from 1911 to 1928.

The Reverend George built our church building,  started a mission to British immigrants, foundedTrinity Grammar School, and went on to become the first Bishop of Tanganyika – a great saint indeed.

And yet I decided in the end to focus my sermon this morning on another great saint from the past – Ruth, whom we read about today in the first chapter of the book that takes her name.

And that might seem like an odd choice, as what level of connectedness can we be expected to have with Ruth as compared with more contemporary figures such as the Reverend George?  And what level of connection can I, in particular, expect to have with a person like Ruth.  At least the Reverend George was male, middle-class and white like me. Ruth is none of the above!

I’m not going to say any more, at this stage, about why I’ve chosen to speak on Ruth rather than on some of the more obvious choices, but I will say now that I’m not sure that my lack of connectedness with Ruth is really much greater than anybody else’s here, for this woman lived at such a different time in human history in such a different part of the world that I suspect that none of us can readily identify with her.

Ruth lived a long time ago, even by the Bible’s standards.  She lived in the time of the Judges – way before Jesus, way before King David, before all the kings and queens of Israel, in the days of great Biblical warriors such as Samson, Jephthah, Gideon and Deborah.

Ruth was born in an ancient time in an ancient land that no longer exists – Moab – whose ancient borders were roughly the same as modern-day Jordan, and which, like Jordan, had a very volatile agricultural economy, as the land was subject to prolonged periods of drought

Surprisingly though, as the book of Ruth begins, it is Israel that was experiencing drought, and so the family of Elimelech and Naomi, residents of the familiar town of Bethlehem in Judea, decide that the rolling plains of Moab look far more promising than their homeland, and so they up and leave – a move that was most probably perceived by their neighbours as something akin to rats deserting a sinking ship.

And if indeed there were residents of Bethlehem who cursed and spat as Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons walked away from Bethlehem in its time of need, they may have found some grim satisfaction in the fact that both Elimelech and both of the boys died in Moab, leaving behind them three widows – Oprah and Ruth and their aging mother-in-law, Naomi.

As I say, we are dealing with a very distant time and a very distant culture, and the future prospects for three single women in those days were not good.  I’m not suggesting that the plight of widows is ever going to be one that is envied, but in that time and in that place single women had no property rights (or if they did, they were rarely respected).  Rather, they were generally regarded as property themselves – part of the goods and chattels of their men-folk.

And there was no social security system to fall back on either, of course, meaning that a single woman would be entirely dependent on her family for support, and if she were an older woman without sons, she might well find herself with no way of sustaining herself at all.

Of course no civilised society simply discards its vulnerable members, and in Israeli law at the time (and in many of the surrounding countries) there was the institution of the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ who was responsible for saving bereaved women such as these from destitution.

The way the system worked was that when a man died his brother would become responsible for the dead man’s widow. He would take her on as an extra wife and, ideally, provide her with a son who would both carry on the name of his dead brother and provide for his mother.

Of course in this case there were no surviving brothers and, as Naomi points out to her daughter-in-laws, she was incapable of providing them with further husbands, for she herself was a widow, and even if she somehow were to fall pregnant that very day and give birth to twin boys, the girls would be beyond child-bearing age themselves by the time the boys were able to marry them.

This is a very different culture from a distant time, and yet we understand I think, why Naomi releases her daughters-in-law from their obligation to continue to look after her as she returns to Bethlehem to take her chances there – encouraging them instead to return to their family homes and seek husbands for themselves there.  One of the girls, Oprah, understandably accepts Naomi’s offer of release and leaves. The other, Ruth, refuses the offer and chooses instead to stick it out with her mother-in-law.

“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!”

This is a story from a very alien culture, set in a distant land in a time long past and yet there is something wonderfully timeless about Ruth’s pledge of loyalty to Naomi.

Ruth knows that her prospects with the old woman are not good.  She knows indeed that her best chances for a future lie with her parental family in Moab. She must have known too that there was not likely to be a party held for Naomi when she returned to Bethlehem but that she would most likely be left to scrounge out an existence on the begrudging good will of the family that she had left behind there.  And she was most probably entirely aware of the fact that the Israeli communities at the time generally hated Moabites.

Indeed, for the Israelites at the time, this was more than just an issue of racial prejudice.  It was actually written in to their law!   Moses had said (In Deuteronomy 23:3):

“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

And a few verses later::

‘You shall never promote their welfare [ie that of the Moabites] or their prosperity as long as you live’ (Deuteronomy 23:6)

Ruth’s decision to stick it out with Naomi must be recognised to be something of a kamikaze mission.  Ruth was not likely to survive this commitment, which may be why there is so much talk of death in her pledge:

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!”

In choosing Naomi’s welfare over her own, Ruth chooses death over life in a sense, and so reflects very precisely the love which Jesus spoke of when he said, “No one has greater love than this, that a person lay down their life for a friend.” (John 15:13)

Why does Ruth do this? There is no other answer for this except that she loved her mother-in-law, Naomi.  She loved her!  She loved her enough to die for her (or at the very least, to die with her). She loved her so much that she refused to abandon her, and because of that we’ve ended up with this book named after her.

As I say, it’s a very ancient book from a very ancient time about an alien woman in a far-flung land, and it’s a story that takes place in a community we barely understand, with customs and a culture we find it almost impossible to identify with.  And yet we find in this story something that penetrates time and distance and custom and culture. We find here the love of Christ!

And it’s only a small act of love really.  On the great stage of life’s dramas it may seem surprising that this pledge of loyalty and self-sacrifice gets a mention.  And it’s not as if the Biblical writers had nothing else to write about at the time, for indeed this is not the only historical story to be recorded from this period.

On the contrary, as we said at the beginning, this story is placed in the time of the Judges – a time that is written about extensively in the book of Judges.  It was a time of great heroes – of larger than life figures such as Samson and Gideon, Jephthah and Deborah.  It was a 200-year period of violence, drama and bloodshed, where great battles were fought and great deeds performed.  And it was also the time when a young widow from Moab made a pledge of life-long loyalty to a much older widow from Israel, saying:

“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.”

And that’s why I chose to focus on the story of Ruth this morning, rather than on one of the more obvious greats from our own more recent history.

Because in the history of great deeds performed by the great mothers and fathers of the faith who have gone before us, yes, there have been any number of amazing battles won, great mission-fields conquered, wonderful schools founded and monumental buildings built, and yet we must also honour with equal pride the countless acts of loyalty and devotion performed by those who have gone before us – promises of love and faithfulness made from life-partners to each other (husband to wife and wife to husband), from parents to their children and children to their parents, from parents-in-law to their children-in-law and from children-in-law to their parents-in-law, from friends to each other, who have pledged to stand by each other come what may, from individuals to each other and from individual to their community – acts of devotion such as that performed by this great saint, Ruth, the widow of Moab.

To all the saints, who from their labours rest – Hallelujah!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill November 2009. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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