The story of Ruth and Naomi is a story about family. A broken family with empty places in the family photos. It’s about grandma Naomi without grandbaby pictures in her purse. No husband in the armchair next to her as they grow old in a comfortable retirement village. The visits from her sons are unfulfilled memories and broken dreams. The spaces in her life that she imagined being full of joy and love, are now empty of everything but sorrow and bitterness. It’s a terrible irony for a woman whose name means “pleasantness” and “delight”.
And what is even worse is that this lonely woman finds herself in the company of two other women in a similar plight. Her daughter-in-laws, widowed and childless are with her in the wreckage of what was their happy life. Naomi decides to return to Judah and expects that her daughter-in-laws will go back to their homes to their families and to find new husbands. The girls may still have a chance at family if they leave this empty place. Through teary eyes the girls refuse to kiss her goodbye. They hold onto fragments of family and travel the lonely, difficult way with Naomi. The three widowed, childless and broken women struggle in tandem, together but alone on their way.
Naomi can not find her worth without the relationship of husband or son. She urges her daughter-in-laws again to leave her to her bitter life and find new husbands of their own. She certainly is not going to have more sons for them to marry, but if they go back to their own families, they may have a chance of starting again without the bitter burden she bears. One kisses her and leaves. Her story is not recorded any further.
The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, clings to Naomi. The word cling is used in the way that people making marriage vows leave their own families and cling together. Ruth has chosen to cling to Naomi, and regard her as family. Here is how the scriptures record this event, “16 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. 17 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!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
When the two women arrive in Bethlehem they are greeted by the women, who say, (plain speech) “Is this Naomi?” (excited) “Is this Naomi?” (sadness) “Is this Naomi?” We can not tell from the text if this is a joyful recognition or a shocking discovery of an old empty woman where there were was once a vibrant young wife and mother. Perhaps both are true, Naomi is now older, widowed and childless, yet she has gained a daughter-in-law of extraordinary loyalty and commitment. There can be a positive and a negative view of Naomi’s current situation. But, Naomi is interpreting her situation as the Lord bringing calamity upon her and leaving her empty. She even states that her name should be Mara to reflect the bitterness of her situation.
I imagine Ruth silently standing beside her mother-in-law. Her companionship is a blessing to Naomi and even though this “family” doesn’t see it now, there is a potential for their story to take a positive turn. After all, it is the beginning of the barley harvest.
The barley harvest is good news for Ruth and Naomi. When the barley is being harvested not every piece is taken up by the workers and the less fortunate are allowed to glean after the workers have gone through. Ruth fits all three of the categories of needy people give permission to glean in the fields of others: the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. So Ruth goes out to glean.
As chance would have it she happens upon the field belonging to Boaz. Not only has Ruth chanced upon the field of Boaz but also, he happens to come to the field. Ruth “finds favor” with Boaz. Which in Bible speak means, she’s cute and he would like to have her for his own. And we get hints that she might be thinking the same of him.
Boaz sets Ruth up for gleaning success. She is able to glean in one day many days worth of grain. He also allows her to eat with him and his servants and normally those who are gleaning would not be part of this meal. Ruth eats till she is satisfied and has leftovers to take to Naomi.
When Ruth comes home with a huge amount of barley plus food prepared for Naomi to eat, Naomi realizes that something more than gleaning happened today.
When Naomi finds out that it is Boaz’s field (a relative of her deceased husband), she tells Ruth, he is one of our relatives. More specifically, the kind of relative that could help them, the kind of relative that has some role in family legal affairs, the kind of relative that has the power to make things right. Ruth might be able to provide Naomi with something more than food. There is a hope for their family to be redeemed.
Naomi reminds Ruth to stay with the women so that she remains eligible for marriage, specifically marriage to Boaz.
But then, Naomi provides a plan to make this marriage a reality by having Ruth make Boaz an offer he won’t refuse, at night, after she has bathed and anointed herself with oil.
When Boaz finds her at his feet that night, he is glad that Ruth did not go after the young men and is happy she wants to be with him. But he knows of another relative that is a closer connection that would buy land from Naomi. If that relative will not, Boaz will provide for Naomi and marry Ruth. Either way, Naomi and Ruth will have a home. Boaz gives Ruth a large measure of barley seeds, which she brings home to Naomi. Their little family is full of seeds, full of promise. But they still need a man, Boaz, to completely restore them (remember they live in a different time than we do). There is nothing left to do but wait and see if Boaz is able to pull of his part of the plan in the public sphere, before the town elders, as well as Ruth was able to pull off her part of the plan last night in the darkness.
Boaz meets with the next of kin (who isn’t given a name in our story) and tells him about the land that Naomi is selling. The next of kin is interested in the land but is not interested when Boaz adds that the marriage to Ruth would be part of the deal. The marriage to Ruth would not customarily be linked to the land. However, when Boaz mentions that he would marry her to maintain the name of the dead, he is saying that the child he and Ruth will have will have rights to the land in question. By linking Naomi’s land to the marriage of Ruth and carrying on the dead man’s name, Ruth and Naomi are able to maintain their close relationship. Which is what Ruth and Naomi wanted Boaz to do. The other relative gives up his right to the land, allowing Boaz to buy the land, marry Ruth and keep the family together. Boaz has filled the role of redeemer and “Mr.what’s his name” is out of the picture. Ruth and Boaz are married and have a son.
Naomi is a real grandmother now, and in her arms is a baby boy who will take care of her in her old age and provide for her a hope and a future. They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. Naomi has a baby album, that grows into a family album that will grow to include her great, great, great (you get the idea)…grandson Jesus.
At the beginning of the story, Naomi is “empty” and at the end she is “full”. The women praise her for having a daughter-in-law that is worth more than seven sons.
It is hard for me to imagine someone “getting over” the loss of a husband and two sons; or being able to replace 7 sons with a loving daughter-in-law. But some how, there are people in our lives that help us through those losses. They don’t replace those we have lost but they help us to love again and to be in relationships again, and to be family again.
I have a fish story for you. Not the usual, “it was this big” fish story. But, like the great stories where the fish gets bigger, I believe that in this fish story, the family will grow.
Like our scripture today, this story begins with three heartbroken people. There are three men, between the ages of 29 and 32, who are not bound together by blood but by a common experience, the experience of loosing their fathers too soon. The first man lost his father at the angry age of 16. The second, as he joined his father in the family sales business, sharing his father’s crowded office, which now feels empty. The third, just after the birth of his first son, the only grandchild his father would hold.
There are traditions, which are passed from father to son just as there are from mother to daughter. There is fatherly and motherly advice that goes through several generations. But you see, there are some father-son traditions that aren’t the same even if mom tries to fill in for dad. And besides, mom doesn’t like to fish.
These three men fish together. It’s not the same as fishing with their dads. Two good friends do not replace dad. But, having these friends to fish with does bring fullness to a place in their life that was empty.
They can share “fish stories”; best places to get bait, how to tie knots, traditions for the first catch and other man-stuff.
They can be in touch with a time and place that they ache to go again. Hearts twinge as the first line is cast on the cold misty morning. No one talks. They don’t need to. Everyone feels the ache from the old wounded heart as they remember the first time they fished with dad, the fish stories he told, the way he showed them how to bait their hooks, and tie knots.
Its good to fish in the morning rain, the fish are more likely to bite, and if there are tears, no one notices or at least they can pretend not to notice.
As the sun rises, so do the hopes that these new memories will help dull the ache for the past.
Lunch breaks the silence with talk of another fishing hole that might be better luck today and which local diner to have dinner in later tonight. It is a good thing that there are a few of those in town because the place Dad loved best is still too hard to go to, maybe next time.
The friends understand instantly without much discussion.
Two friends that understand are worth their weight in gold.
You see, if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime, but if you fish beside a man, share the stories, the adventures and traditions, you will fill some of the emptiness in his heart.
How can we be daughters to the daughterless or fathers to the fatherless? How can we fill the emptiness and relieve the ache of loss for someone else?
We do this when we are present with those who are daughterless or fatherless. When we sit beside those who mourn and offer a comforting hug. When we adopt a grandparent and visit them at the retirement home. When we tie a shoe for a preschooler who’s mom couldn’t come on this field trip. When taking the boys fishing includes more than your biological sons.
When we love as Ruth loved Naomi.
When we love others as Christ loves us.
*I know the men in the fishing story. My camera and I tagged along for that adventure. My husband writes more about that in his blog, Scratch N’ Dent Life. His Instagram has pictures from that trip too. We were reminiscing about this trip on the first day of fishing season this year.
**I suggest “Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry” Editor: David W. Cotter. The section on Ruth was written by Tod Linafelt and the section on Esther was written by Timothy K. Beal. I will put a link up for it on my resources page. I didn’t use enough of the text to feel like it needed sited in the sermon, but I loved reading it in preparation for this sermon. It seems to me that when someone asks for a Women’s Sunday sermon or Mother’s Day sermon, Ruth and Naomi are often suggested and it’s nice to have a great resource at your finger tips.
***This sermon was originally written for Gifts of Women Sunday at Third Presbyterian Church in 2015. I used materials provided by Presbyterian Women for the worship liturgy. It was important to include thoughts about being in mother-daughter type friendships as well as father-son type friendships at the time it was written.