Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gloom Despair and Agony on Me

Growing up as a child, and especially with family in the South, we used to watch of a lot of a show called Hee Haw. It was a variety show depicting life in a fictional town of folk in the country and their shenanigans and their sorrows. And at some point in the show they’d cut to a scene of guys in their overalls and their moonshine jugs, lamenting their troubles and singing  a song that went like this-“Gloom, despair, and agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me!” And they all wail.

That’s pretty much how the Book of Ruth opens

The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows starting with a time “In the days when the judges ruled” which refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. At the end of the book of the book of Judges it reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. (Judges 21:25). {Katharine Schifferdecker writes) Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.

God regularly raises up "judges" -- military and political leaders -- to save Israel from their enemies, but they fall back into mayhem every time. The book of Judges, which comes right before Ruth, ends with inter-tribal conflict and these ominous words: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes"

Doing "what was right in their own eyes" is a direct denial of the Law given to Israel, those words for life we studied earlier this summer.  The Law is given to promote life, life with God and life in community. Israel, in the book of Judges, fails to fulfill that Law and so falls into chaos.

And this is how we end up with the women in the story today.

Famine hits Bethlehem. Literally the city who name means “house of bread” has none. Naomi and her family migrate to Moab. There, the deaths of her husband and two sons leave Naomi bereft, empty. They left Bethlehem, the house of bread, because of a famine, she and her husband and sons. And at first it seems it went well, but then she lost her husband. And under the law of Israel, this meant that her sons must provide. And she probably wasn’t exactly delighted that they married foreign girls, but the bigger problem is that those marriages produced no children. So when after ten years, those two sons have also both died, these women are stuck. Naomi and Ruth and Orpah are stuck. And they’ve now given the land they had to pay bills and survive, but whatever they had is all gone.

If the book of Judges is largely about the people of Israel not keeping the Law, then Ruth is about people going above and beyond the requirements of the Law. Ruth, a foreigner, a Moabite (a fact we're reminded of often even though she is living in her own land in the beginning, is not required to follow the laws of Israel. She has married an Israelite, but when he dies, the expected thing is that she will return to the home of her parents. That's what her sister-in-law, Orpah, does. That's what Naomi, her mother-in-law, urges her to do.

And we don’t know what kind of relationship they had, whether her mother in law was kind or friendly before this. But Ruth chooses to demonstrate faithfulness, lovingkindness, covenant love instead. She chooses to enter into the covenant of Israel and Israel's God, saying, "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" (1:16).”

Ruth chooses to join her story to the story we've been hearing the last several weeks; she chooses to enter into Israel's covenant with God. She chooses the life of being a stranger in a foreign land. To leave all that she has known and to go to a place she's never been, with no assurance of security.

And it might not turn out well. No one is looking for a childless widow to marry. Certainly not one who in 10 years had no children.  A childless widow in ancient Israel had to rely on the kindness of those around her. In this story, Naomi relies on Ruth, and Ruth herself has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

If we stay focused on the gloom and despair, Naomi, we don’t appreciate Ruth. But Naomi is arguably the main character in the book. In some way we may know the pain of her loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness. She speaks honestly. We too know places like that.

Naomi knows that these foreigners will not provide for her. She also knows that even going back to Bethlehem she has only the slightest of hopes. Because only if the people follow the law God gave to care for the widow can she live. And remember they aren’t doing that- the people are doing what they please. The reality is that most such women died of starvation or of the consequences of prostitution, their only other way to survive. Orpah is sad, but can go home and hope for the best from her tribe. Ruth could as well. But Ruth chooses two things that we shouldn’t expect. She chooses to stay with her kvetching mother in law, regardless of what their relationship was like before, and she chooses the God and people of Israel.

The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story.

We don’t know anything about the journey in between but we do know that poor Naomi, now has a traveling companion and indeed a partner for whatever may come. Yet when they reach Jerusalem, my heart breaks for Ruth for a moment, because after all this Naomi wails to her own people and says, “just call me Mara”-

Bitter. And stands there with Ruth at her side and proclaims her life is empty and she has nothing. Wow! Really?

Sometimes we do that too. We are Mara. Perhaps…where ever that place is for you, God is speaking. We claim we are empty or the people around us aren’t who we want them to be.  

Ruth goes above and beyond what the law would ever expect of her, a law she doesn’t have to be bound by. To show the heart of God and of the law- God’s heart of steadfast loving faithfulness.

Our God loves us steadfastly- even when we sing of gloom and despair and discount the ones around us, God clings in love and won’t let go. And promises the story goes on.

Ruth’s loyalty and love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi is empty (1:21), but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.

And the harvest coming whether Naomi is bitter or not.

The harvest is coming still. May God fill the places of emptiness in our hearts, and open our eyes to see the wonder and faithfulness of those around us in God’s story of love.


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