Ruth 1:16-17 But Ruth said, "Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you."
When I observe life and what it has to offer, I wonder if the great majority of us end up settling for mediocrity due to our own limited perspectives. The amount of self help and self actualization books and seminars that are available are unprecedented. If you want financial mastery, inner peace, relational bliss, or anything else for that matter, there is a how-to manual in order to achieve it. If you don't believe me, just go to the bookstore. When I look at what is out there, I wonder if they lead us to mediocrity in their promises of wealth in 10 steps, happiness in 3 decisions, and freedom in 5 easy payments of $29.99.
As I have been studying the book of Ruth to prepare for a preaching engagement I have coming up at a retreat in Michigan, I have been confronted with a terrifying reality that Ruth did what most people in our contemporary society (and throughout all of history) wouldn't do.
[If you are going to be attending the retreat in Michigan and happen to stumble across this, please don't read it or else you will fall asleep during my sermon]
The setting of the book of Ruth is during the time of the Judges, known as a 400 year period where "every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25)" It was a period marked with rebellion against the God who rescued them out of Egypt through grand gestures that made God undeniably real. People quickly forgot how God had been faithful to provide for them in the wilderness for 40 years. As they settled into the promised land, they quickly became comfortable and made their plots of land their world and became the gods of their own existence.
At the time Ruth was written, there had been a great famine in the land and in order to survive. Elimelech (Naomi's husband/Ruth's father in law) decided to move to Moab, where people whose heritage traced back to Sodom were. Moabites were known as wicked people and Israelites were not to associate with them. In Deuteronomy 23:2-3, the law decreed that "no one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD. 3 "No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever..." These were serious words from God so why did Elimelech move there?
As with anyone, the reason we pick up and move our entire lives around is in hopes for a better life. This is what Elimelech was in search for as he moved his family from Israel to Moab; to be foreigners amongst a people group that were considered wicked by his community's standpoint. But the hints that we are given about Elimelech are that more than just leaving his community and going to Moab in search of a better life, he had actually departed from his faith. His two sons, named Mahlon and Chilion did not possess Hebrew names. They possessed Canaanite names. This was a significant symbol of the departure from faith at least among the men of Naomi's family - something common even today.
Then within a ten year span while living in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons died leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi, faced with an astronomical loss, hears that the famine is now over in Israel and that a harvest is going on. Again, with nothing to lose, and only hope to gain, she returns to Israel with her two daughters-in-law. As they began their journey however, she realizes that she was sentencing them both to a life of poverty and misery. Since Naomi had no son, no land, and no family, she was pretty much an elderly grandmother left to fend for herself. She knew her two daughters-in-law would not find acceptance in Israel and would very likely be ridiculed, hurt, or even killed. She also knew that if they stayed in Moab, they could start over: their family, their friends, a potential suitor, and everything that was familiar was in Moab, not in Israel. If they left Moab, they would be leaving a promising future of comfort, acceptance, and security for a life of uncertainty, despair, poverty, and a high chance of death. At this, Naomi's daughters-in-law made divergent decisions: Orpah went back to her family while Ruth said, "Where you go I will go, your God will be my God, and may only death separate us."
We are all faced with decisions on a daily basis. Few of us are faced with life altering decisions like Orpah and Ruth were. For Naomi, her only hope was in returning to Israel, but not Orpah and Ruth. Once they weighed out the pros and cons however, the logical choice would be to return to their homes since the very thing that tied them to Naomi - their husbands - were no longer there. However, we see something that we don't often see today; Ruth made the difficult choice. Ruth's decision reveals a few things about our relationship to God and our relationship to people that we often overlook due to our immense social networks and busyness. It is something that resonates more with the small rural towns of America (or China) and not with the urban centers that is driven by efficiency and the philosophy that time=money.
Here are a few things that Ruth's decision reveals:
1. Believing in God requires Trusting God.
I think that there is a HUGE disconnect in modern society that makes people believe that if you believe in God, then it means that you trust God to truly provide. Ruth made it very clear that she trusted God through her decisions: she had no one to turn to beside God in this new land she would enter. It was, for her, the confirmation of her conversion to the faith of Naomi. Ruth was literally forsaking all safety in order to pursue the faith of Naomi. She knew that if she remained in Moab, she would quickly forget the God of Naomi and re-adopt the cultures, customs, and beliefs of the Moabite people. As she accepted God, it dictated the decisions she made, which led her to "cling" to Naomi and return in an act of pure sacrifice. Trusting God is the true indication that we believe in Him.
2. Trusting God leads to a deeper relational commitment with people.
Its a gloomy thought that when we come to know God, we find living this life utterly meaningless, while simultaneously filled with more meaning that we could've ever imagined. Thoughts of an eternity with God make this world seem bland in comparison, yet we are filled with a vigor for life to share the "love" we have received with others. It confronts everything we believe about relationships from being consumer-based, to be based on commitment through love. We see this clearly in Ruth. She had every right to be a consumer and return to her parent's home to start life afresh, but instead, love motivated her to cling to Naomi and to suffer if she suffered, and die if she died. In her decision to follow Naomi, she gave up her hopes for a stable life, a happy marriage, a complete family, everything that determined the worth of someone in that context. For modern times, it would've been as if she gave up an Ivy League Scholarship, a prestigious career, and the perfect husband to serve the poor in Skid Row or Sub-Saharan Africa.
I live in LA, the most relationally consumerist city in America (possibly after New York). People here are always weighing their options before committing to a social event, loosely accepting invites with the option to opt out, and if you look at any weak social group, the amounts of "maybe attending" on evites and Facebook is laughable. The sweeping culture is rooted in how can I benefit from this person instead of how can I serve this person. The motivation isn't love, but the reward gained from association. Sure, I'm being a little negative, but I know what I'm talking about; I was once a part of the problem.
3. What we think is great, is actually mediocre unless if they are of God.
The more I study the scriptures, the more God shows me that my desires are too small. Comparatively, people will say I have ridiculous standards for what life should look like, but as I continue to let go of what I want God to give me, I see that I held onto things because achieving and gaining those things defined what a "worthy" life was to me. When I stepped back from my decisions of giving those things up, I saw that my entire definition of what a worthy life looked like was actually pathetic, small, and limited compared to the reality of knowing God.
What God seems to do over and over again is to tell us that unless if we desire Him above all things as He is objectively most desirable, that we will always trade in the real deal for a knock off. Everything outside of God will lead to disappointment, sadness, and frustration because they will not satisfy. If we find satisfaction in them, they will lead to an immense amount of stress and anxiety as we will always be afraid of losing them.
But as we let go of things, God shows us that knowing Him is enough and from being fully satisfied in Him, he shows us that there is something better to live for. At the end of Ruth, we see that someone refers to Ruth as being better than 7 sons. Culturally, this signifies that Ruth was better than perfection to Naomi. Having a family with 7 sons was having the ideal family, one that had enough labor, would bring in many grandchildren, and could carry on the name proudly. To Naomi, God blew her expectations away through Ruth and her child. To Ruth, God blew her expectations away through Boaz. To us, God blew our expectations away through Jesus and will blow our expectations away as we continue to get to know Him until we are glorified with Him in eternity.
What God wants for us may not be what we want for ourselves, but it will always be better than we could ever hope for or imagine.
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