The Making of Home
“Why have I found favor in your sight, . . . a foreigner?” asks Ruth, another of the women in Jesus’ lineage. She asks the question in amazement. Her question strikes a chord in me when I consider that God has taken notice of me and accepted me. Do you ever yearn to be completely known and at the same time completely accepted? I think most of us do. Yet we also live with the fear that anyone who really knows us fully—our weaknesses and our shortcomings—could not possibly accept us. No matter how many good traits we have, we tend to give more weight to what we see as our deficiencies. Many influences in our lives, from our parents’ and teachers’ admonitions (“Now I want you to be good little boys and girls”) to athletic and school contests, condition us to evaluate ourselves against an ideal of perfection. When we take that measure, we always see our flaws. And since anything less than perfect is unacceptable, we are unacceptable. This way of looking at ourselves can begin very early in life.
Most of us learn our basic stance toward self in the context of our closest relationships, usually in our families. I am no exception. I know that my family affected how I experience the world and how I see myself. I am the youngest of five children, with three brothers and a sister all older. I am the youngest by six years, and long before I read birth-order psychology about the traits of the child that was a “mistake,” I knew that I was different from my siblings in many ways. In fact, I often felt as if I had been dropped into the middle of a strange country—“Who are these people, and why am I being forced to live with them?” The fact that I looked nothing like the rest of my family didn’t help. I was the only one with blonde (yes I had hair at one time). As far as I ever heard or thought, I didn’t look like anyone except me. And, siblings being what they are, made sure that they helped me realize how different I was.
I wondered at times if I actually belonged with this group. My siblings had told me (as happens in many families) that I was adopted and not really related to them, I do remember thinking that my being adopted would surely explain a lot that puzzled me. I just didn’t belong. My brain seemed to work differently than that of anyone else in the family. I often fantasized about being whisked away from this family to one more to my liking, one where I would be appreciated for the wonderful creature that I was.
To make matters worse, I grew up in the time of the creation of science-fiction movies. Star Trek and Star Wars allowed me to wonder if I might in fact be an alien. Maybe I came not just from another family but from another planet. Could it be? My family watched Lost in Space (by-the-way has been remade on Netflix. Excellent in my opinion!) and Star Trek. Yes, that would explain it all! I was an alien, so different that I would never ﬁt in. I would never really understand these people, and they would never be able to understand me because we came from different worlds.
Years later when I began analyzing novels and short stories in literature classes, the concept of alienation felt familiar to me. For me, professors didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining what they meant when they spoke of a character dealing with alienation. Feeling disconnected from those around me and from their ways of thinking and behaving, feeling as if I had no place in the world as most people see it—I’d grown up experiencing that. I knew what it was to feel like an alien. I had personal insight into the feeling behind the literary theme. I yearned to feel that I belonged.
So when I read Ruth’s question in the Bible, I identified immediately with her wonder at being accepted. When she asked Boaz, “How have I found favor in your sight, . . . a foreigner?” she surely knew about being a stranger, an alien. She and her mother-in-law, Naomi, had come back to Judah as refugees. Ruth was not even an Israelite; she was a Moabite and had married into Naomi’s family.
THE STORY OF NAOMI AND RUTH
Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons, Chilion and Mahlon, leave Bethlehem in a time of famine. They go to Moab in search of food. Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi with her two sons. The sons marry Moabite women. Chilion marries a woman named Orpah, and Mahlon marries Ruth. Then tragedy strikes; both Chilion and Mahlon die. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law are left widows, all of them. As childless widows, they are doubly cursed: ﬁrst in having lost their husbands and then in having no sons to protect them and provide for them. As the famine continues, Naomi hears that there is food in Bethlehem. Naomi decides to return to her homeland and her husband’s family. Elimelech owned land there, and perhaps she plans to sell it in order to provide for herself. She urges her daughters—in—law to return to their families so they will have people to support them; she will journey back to Bethlehem by herself. Maybe she feels the odds of making the journey safely are poor, and so she wants the younger women to stay in Moab. Both the younger women protest, but Naomi repeats her advice that they return to their families.
Orpah listens to Naomi and does as she asks, but Ruth refuses. This is the point when Ruth makes a declaration that is often quoted (out of context) in marriage ceremonies: “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16-17, KJV). For some reason, Ruth is willing to cast her lot with Naomi. She is willing to leave her relatives, her country, her culture, and her religion to travel into an unknown future with this woman to whom she has no blood ties. And she vows to stay with her for the rest of her life.
Ruth’s remarkable declaration is even more striking because a single woman is casting her lot with another single woman whose lot is as uncertain as her own. Ruth commits herself to a lifelong tie to Naomi and claims Naomi’s God and faith as her own. Then she says, “If I leave you, may the LORD do to me as to you, and even more” (Ruth 1:17, AP). In other words, “May God take my husband and sons as well, and even more, from me.” Independence and courage of this sort show Ruth to be no ordinary woman. She exhibits great strength of character. But she is still an outsider, not even a Hebrew, not one of God’s chosen people. Because Ruth is an outsider, her experience can be a window for each of us who also wonder how God can take notice of us and accept us.
The traditional theme of this second week of Advent is preparation, and usually we hear about John the Baptist, who quotes Isaiah, “Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3, KJV). We’ll consider John’s words later, but first let’s examine the story of Ruth and Naomi in relation to that theme.
When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, the town buzzes with the news. Naomi has come back! When someone asks if she really is Naomi, returning after all these years, she responds, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara” (Which means “bitter”), “for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.” Naomi blames God, saying God has afflicted her in the deaths of her husband and sons. Soon everyone knows that Naomi has returned, bringing with her a young Moabite woman who has claimed the faith of Israel.
The two women have no money and no way to support themselves, but in Israel, landowners followed the custom of allowing the poor to glean in their fields. The needy could come through the fields behind the owner’s harvesters, gathering the leftovers of the crop. Ruth goes into the barley fields outside Bethlehem to glean, in order to provide food for herself and Naomi. It happens that Ruth chooses a ﬁeld belonging to Boaz, a wealthy kinsman of Elimelech’s, Naomi’s dead husband. It also happens that when Boaz comes out to the fields to check on the workers, he sees Ruth and asks who she is. The servant in charge of the reapers tells him about Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and about how hard Ruth has worked “from early this morning until now” (2:7) with little rest. Impressed, Boaz invites Ruth to eat with the reapers. Then Boaz instructs the servant to allow Ruth to glean as much as she likes and to deliberately drop some handfuls of grain for her to find. He also warns the young men working in the fields not to touch Ruth, indicating that he recognizes her vulnerability. With no husband, brothers, or father to protect her, Ruth could be at the mercy of these men. But Boaz assures Ruth that she will be safe and commends her for honoring Naomi and for acknowledging “the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Boaz acts honorably, protecting and providing for this young woman who was married to his kinsman.
At the end of the day, Ruth has gathered a good deal of barley. When she goes home, Naomi asks where she has gleaned, in whose ﬁeld. When Ruth tells Naomi that she has gleaned in the ﬁeld belonging to Boaz and recounts how Boaz protected her and invited her back to glean with his workers, Naomi exclaims, “Blessed be he by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” In other words (translated into Texan), Naomi says, “The Lord bless his heart! He’s done right by his kin!” And he had. Naomi explains to Ruth that Boaz is one of their “nearest kin.” She instructs the young woman to follow Boaz’s crew until the end of the harvest so that Boaz’s workers never meet her in anyone else’s ﬁeld. Ruth does as she is told, working hard to gather enough barley to grind and sell, in order to support herself and her mother-in-law. And everyone notices. After all, the woman is young and a foreigner (and we can assume, apparently attractive, since Boaz takes care to warn his young men to leave her alone). But Naomi wants more than this for the younger woman. She says to Ruth, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” And so Naomi comes up with a plan.
At the end of the barley harvest comes a celebration. When the time arrives, Naomi tells Ruth to bathe and perfume herself, then go to the threshing floor, where she will find Boaz. But Ruth is not to make her presence known. She is to hide herself until Boaz “shall have done eating and drinking” and to note the place where he chooses to sleep. Then she is to “uncover his feet” and to lie down beside him and wait to see what happens. So when Boaz “had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry”-in other words, when he was drunk—Ruth “came softly, and uncovered his feet, and laid her down” (3:7, KJV). During the night, Boaz wakes with a start and finds a young woman lying beside him. He asks who she is, and Ruth tells him, saying, “Spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid, for thou art a near kinsman” (3:9, KJV). Asking Boaz to “spread his skirt over” her was probably an idiom for asking him to take her in, to take her under his protection. It is clear that Boaz takes Ruth’s words to mean this. He praises her for not running after the young men but instead coming to him, and he promises to do right by her as Elimelech’s kinsman, calling her “a virtuous woman.” But he also tells her there is another kinsman, nearer than he and therefore with a stronger claim, who must first be given the opportunity to fulfill the role of kinsman redeemer.
Judging from the events that follow, Naomi and Boaz apparently understand each other. Both are clever and know how to use circumstances to their advantage. Boaz gives Ruth a present to take to Naomi, which suggests that he sees Naomi’s hand in what has happened or at least that he desires her good will. When Naomi accepts the gift, she tells Ruth to sit right, that before the day is over Boaz will act. Then Boaz goes to the city gate, where business is conducted, to wait for the nearer relative with the stronger claim on the land.
Selling the land owned by Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, would be a last resort. A family held on to its land at all costs. If land had to be sold, it was offered ﬁrst to family members. At the city gate, Boaz hails his relative when the man appears and gathers ten other men as his ofﬁcial witnesses. He says to the relative, “There’s a parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. It is being offered for sale. If you want it, you have first claim. But if you don’t want it, I’m next in line and I’m interested.”
“I’ll redeem it,” the relative says.
Then Boaz adds, as if it were an afterthought (but of course we know it was not), “Oh, I forgot to mention that there’s also the matter of the widow, Ruth the Moabite. Whoever buys the land must marry her so she can have a son to carry on the name of our relative. That son will inherit the land later, of course.” As you might imagine, this consideration changes the picture for the prospective kinsman redeemer. Apparently he is concerned about how a levitate marriage (remember this tradition from the story of Onan in chapter 1?) and children from it might complicate his life. Realizing that the property would not go to his existing heirs, the relative publicly relinquishes his claim on the land and on Ruth, stepping aside in favor of Boaz.
Here’s where the story becomes like a fairy tale: Boaz marries Ruth, and soon they have a son, Obed. Naomi now has a grandson, heir to her sons’ property, and she becomes Obed’s nurse. The women of Bethlehem say to Naomi, who had called herself “Mara”—the bitter one—that this child shall be “a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for thy daughter—in—law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him” (Ruth 4:16). These two women, who have no home and no status, who have barely scraped by on the leavings of kind people, become a cherished wife and a cherished grandmother in a happy and honorable household. Can you see the difference in the two pictures of their circumstances? Naomi, the woman who declared that God had afflicted her, becomes a beloved grandmother with a daughter-in-Iaw so loving that she is called better “than seven sons.” Ruth, the stranger and outsider, the childless widow, becomes a chosen wife and mother.
Boaz finds love in his old age and becomes a father. Ruth and Boaz’s son, Obed, becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes the father of David, and Jesus was “of the house and lineage of David.” In fact, generations later Joseph will bring Mary to this same little town of Bethlehem to be counted in the census. But that’s a story for another chapter.
PREPARING THE WAY
Returning to the theme of preparation, the machinations in the story of Ruth always ]make me think of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz trying to trick Ricky and Fred—and being found out and loved anyway in the end. Naomi is the scheming Lucy, and Ruth is the less astute but compliant and pure—hearted Ethel. Of course the story of Ruth is much more serious than an episode of I Love Lucy, but when I think of this week’s Advent theme of preparation, I see these events in new ways.
Some interpreters of Ruth’s story sanitize it, making all that goes on seem a part of a holy plan above mere human motives and needs. I don’t see it quite that way. Naomi doesn’t tell Ruth to hide herself on that threshing floor and wait for Boaz to pass out because Naomi believes God is up to something miraculous and is about to change their lives. Naomi thinks God has turned against her. The two women have been left on their own, and Naomi intends to do something about it by sending her daughter-in-law into the night. Ruth doesn’t slip into bed alongside Boaz because she has heard heavenly voices telling her to do so. She does it because she knows Naomi well enough to know that this woman is a survivor, and she has cast her lot with Naomi. Boaz doesn’t forget about Ruth in breaching the matter of the land sale to his relative; he has been flattered by the attentions of the young woman and wants her at least as much as he wants the land (which has never been offered for sale before that morning).
Then there’s the matter of the euphemisms in Naomi’s directions to Ruth. She tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s “feet.” Hebrew writings often employ “feet” as a euphemism for genitals. Saying that Ruth slips under the covers alongside Boaz and uncovers his “feet” had a double meaning that would not have been lost on hearers of this story. When Boaz wakes and, startled, wonders aloud who the woman beside him is, the scene resembles a scene from a romantic comedy more than a biblical epic. These people do not seem to be aware of playing a role in a divine plan. They are simply being themselves. And there is nothing wrong with being completely human. So far in my life, I’ve yet to be anything more than human, and I don’t know anyone else who has been so, either.
If we put ourselves into this story, we may see our lives and “preparing the way” this Advent in new ways. If we think of all that Naomi and Ruth experience and do as preparation for what God is going to do in the world, perhaps we can begin to see the events of our own lives as part of God’s work too. We do not have to be conscious of a high and holy plan in order to be part of what God is doing. We may make poor and unwise choices and still be used by God.
Consider that Elimelech and Naomi leave Israel, the “Promised Land,” and move to Moab. The land of Canaan was God’s special gift to the people Israel, a land “ﬂowing with milk and honey.” Having milk meant raising dairy herds, and having honey meant keeping beehives, neither of which are highly portable. In other words, a land ﬂowing with milk and honey was a settled land, a land where people stayed put. For the nomadic Hebrews who had wandered for forty years, such an image represented a great change. The name Hebrew (eevri or ivri or heevri) comes from the Hebrew root word afar (havar), which means “to wander.” So God’s people are identified as wanderers by their very name. To be given a land, therefore, meant a change in their identity. In Canaan they had been given a place. They had permanent homes; they belonged. They would become a nation and be a light to other nations as those who worshiped the one true God. Going into the Promised Land meant receiving the good that God had promised and offered, and staying there meant experiencing fullness of life and God’s blessings.
Moab, on the other hand, definitely is not the Promised Land. It is a place just outside the Promised Land. Moses stood and looked into the Promised Land from Moab. Although Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt, because of his disobedience he never entered Canaan. He was allowed only to see it from a distance. When we think of Moab in contrast to the Promised Land, Moab can represent all the times and ways we stop short of what God wants for us. It can represent all the times we leave what God wants or asks and settle for something less. In leaving Bethlehem and going to Moab, Naomi and Elimelech may have been attempting to satisfy their needs by their own efforts rather than trusting God. Moab could symbolize our chasing after what we think will satisfy us and leaving behind God’s best for us in the process. Like Naomi and Elimelech, some people become Moabites by choice. That is, they consciously leave God behind and choose another way for themselves, ending up far from where God wants them. Other people, like Ruth, are Moabites by birth. They are born into settings where God is not worshiped or honored, and fullness of life is tough to find. I take great comfort in the fact that both Naomi and Ruth are welcomed into Bethlehem. Ruth the eager convert willingly leaves Moab and embraces God. Naomi the embittered widow returns reluctantly, having few options. Yet both find new life and hope. God embraces them both and transforms their lives.
All of Naomi and Ruth’s experiences and all their actions become part of preparing a way for God to break into their lives and into the lives of Others. I want to be clear: God does nor send the loss, heartache, and shattered dreams that make their lives difficult. God does not operate in that way. God wills only good for us, and God wants fullness of life for each of us. But in this fallen and imperfect world, God acts as both an opportunist and an efficiency expert. God the opportunist uses our smallest desire for more, the tiniest Chink in our armor of self—sufficiency to reach into our lives in love. God the efficiency expert lets nothing go to waste. Nothing that happens to us is ever lost. In God’s ecosystem, everything in our lives, even the worst experiences, can teach us about eternal love and draw us toward God’s purposes. Those episodes can prepare us to be where we need to be and mold us into people whom God can use.
Circumstances and relationships prepare these two women, and generations later, others who have roles in the Christmas story. Someone and some set of experiences mold Joseph into a man of kindness and compassion who resolves to put Mary away quietly rather than to disgrace her by a public divorce. Someone teaches him to listen to God so that when the dreams come, he changes his mind about divorcing Mary. In a similar way, someone helps Mary to grow into a young woman willing to say yes to God. Someone nurtures in her a faith strong enough that she can believe God will perform miracles. Years before Jesus is born, God is preparing people and circumstances. God is preparing Mary and Joseph to make the journey to Bethlehem.
In a similar way, all our experiences are part of preparing us for our journey toward God. The moment we turn toward our Bethlehem, toward what God is calling us to be and to do, God’s power cooperates fully with our desire. Even before that moment, according to John Wesley’s theology, God works in us to create the desire that launches us on the journey. Before we are even conscious of God’s activity in the world and in us, God the opportunist uses our every impulse toward wholeness to inch into our thoughts and our lives. God is at work preparing us and “preparing the way” before we even realize there’s a journey to be made.
Once we decide to begin the journey, once we realize that we want to clear the road between us and God—well, then, things really start to happen. The call to make that decision is the call to preparation we hear during Advent. On the second Sunday, we usually read in worship John the Baptist’s words, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23), and Isaiah’s call to “make . . . a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3). A pastor friend of mine told a story about his father that helped me to think of this call in a new way. HIs dad could improve my friend and his brother’s behavior by looking at them and saying quietly and directly one simple phrase: “Straighten up.” That in essence is the message of John and Isaiah: “Straighten up. Mend your ways. Clear away anything that stands between you and God.” Clearing the path is sometimes clearly necessary.
Psalm 85:13 speaks of righteousness going before us to prepare the way. We receive and perceive God more easily—the way is smoother and more direct—when we are trying to live rightly. It’s sort of like walking through a ﬁeld of tall weeds (and life sometimes is a veritable thicket) and having someone go before us to mash down the grass. Progress is simply easier when someone has gone before and prepared the way. Similarly, God can get through to us more readily—to reach us and speak to us—when we position ourselves to listen and look for God’s coming. We position ourselves to hear and see God when we read the Bible, worship, pray, and just pause in our busyness during this hectic time of year.
Even if there are no “big” sins standing in our way, we can still make the way smoother. Activities like reading blog and attending study groups can help us clear a path to God. Spending time with the reflection questions and journaling can help us to clear out a space in our minds and hearts by making time in our schedules for God. Sitting quietly in God’s presence can help us to experience God’s welcoming love in the midst of a world that sometimes is not so welcoming.
The prophets remind us of our part in preparing for God’s coming this Advent. They ask us to look at our lives and clear away anything that stands in the way of our giving attention to God. This Advent, calls us to come back from all those places where we have settled for less than the fullness of life promised to us in Christ. God calls us back from all the ambitions and possessions we have pursued, thinking they would satisfy us. God calls us to let go of any bitterness and resistance to forgive that block the light of love from warming us. Preparing for Christmas means looking deep within ourselves and asking if our hearts are truly at home in the lives we are living. God calls us to come home and to rest, to be embraced by one who loves us as we are. God offers us a place where we are fully known and also fully accepted.
God has been placing this offer before us since before we were even interested. God has been at work not just in what we would call overtly religious ways but also through ordinary actions and embedded traditions in our lives. For instance, Israel’s tradition of the kinsman redeemer was a vehicle of grace in place long before Ruth and Naomi made the journey to Bethlehem, and the tradition of gleaming laid the groundwork to keep them alive day by day. Ruth’s willingness to work hard and take risks characterized her personality, but they also expressed God’s intent to supply Naomi’s needs. God had shaped Boaz’s honorable character to make him a man of compassion who protected Ruth and who, by following tradition, allowed the childless widow to have a home. Ruth’s relationship with Naomi brought Ruth from another country to warm Boaz’s life. Their son became the means for God to melt the bitterness in Naomi’s heart. God used all these circumstances. Even if the people involved thought they were acting completely on their own initiative, God was at work.
In a similar way, God is also at work to prepare us to open ourselves to love. God uses all that happens to us, all our less-than-what-God-wants choices. The One we seek is at work in ways we can’t even recognize, guiding us toward the path by which to make our way home.
The answer to Ruth’s question points to a deep truth of Advent. “Why have I found favor in your sight?” she asks. Why indeed? The amazing truth for all of us is that we have “found favor” with God not because of who we are but because of who God is. As Peter wrote, we who were “not a people” have become “God’s people” (1 Pet. 2:10). We have been claimed by God, from whom, the Letter to the Ephesians tells us, “every family in heaven and on earth takes its [true] name” (Eph. 3:15). We who did not have a place, we who were the last ones chosen for the team, we who looked longingly at those in the “in” crowd, we who never quite measured up, we who were outsiders, have “found favor.” God claims us, and we have a part in what God is doing. From the beginning of time, according to Romans 8, God has been preparing us and preparing to meet us in this relationship. God takes notice of us in whatever ﬁeld where we are gleaming, calling us from whatever we are doing to “get by,” and makes us a member of the family. And it is not just any family; it is the family through whom God comes into the world, again and again. As amazing as that seems, Ruth’s story shows us that it is true.