Choose love

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12 Jun 2024

Ruth, in her commitment to her mother-in-law, is an exemplar of courage and faith.

It is as strong a declaration as one will find in literature. As impassioned. As boundary breaking. It is emotive even as it is clear sighted. Its strength rests in its intimacy, in the vulnerability it almost papers-over by being so resolute. It is a defiant act of freedom, yet that defiance is made possible by a freedom offered, and the defiance is not against any person but rather upholds a relationship of love.

When I am looking for words in scripture that convey the power of love, of fidelity and the care that persons have for one another, I often turn to the Book of Ruth.

Ruth is a Moabite, married to Mahlon, one of the sons of Elimelech and Naomi. This family she has married into are Ephranites from Bethlehem in Judah. They are Israelites, the Lord is their God. They moved to Moab in search of richer harvests, and soon after Elimelech died. Naomi marries her two sons to local girls, one of them Ruth. But the sons die sometime later.

LEAVE OR STAY?

Naomi decides to try her luck back in Bethlehem. She has no stature in Moab and has heard the Lord is being good to her people. Initially she sets out with her daughters-in-law but then suggests that they should stay with their own people in Moab. Naomi has no more sons to give. She is a woman; she has nothing to give them.

But Ruth clings to her. She says:
‘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!’
– Ruth 1:16-18

The commitment is total. Ruth will go where Naomi goes, lodge where she lodges. More than this, her very identity will be changed as her people, and her God, will become those of Naomi. It is hard to explain the reason for this commitment, there is nothing obvious in the text, other than as a beautiful, poignant act of fidelity.

PROTECTION

In Bethlehem Ruth finds herself working in the field of Boaz, a relative of her late husband. He offers to protect her because of ‘all that you have done for your mother-in-law . . . you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before’. (Ruth 2:11)

Even as Boaz wishes the Lord’s favour on her, Ruth is overwhelmed with gratitude because she is a foreigner. Her own sense of what is, or what is not, owed her in this land suggests the extraordinary risk she has taken for Naomi.

Boaz marries Ruth, moved by her loyalty to the family of her dead husband, and to ‘maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place’. (Ruth 4:10)

Ruth bears a son. In this way Naomi is not left ‘without next-of-kin’, she has a grandson to care for her in old age. This is so, the woman of Bethlehem say, ‘for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him’. This son of Ruth’s is Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. So, Ruth is the great-grandmother of the great king of Israel.

A WOMAN’S FIDELITY

Here in the very beginnings of the story of Israel, the third book after the Pentateuch, amid all the patriarchal trimmings, is the story of the fidelity of a woman. A daughter-in-law who is more than seven sons. A woman who is far from home, among a foreign people.

In her fidelity to Naomi, Ruth shows a fidelity to the people of Israel and Israel’s God. She is a convert and in the Jewish Rabbinic tradition much mentioned as such.

Ruth can be a model for all of us who grow in relationship with God through our growing commitment to others. The narrative of her life, and that of her descendants, who the biblical genealogies say includes Jesus, suggests the way those apparently at the peripheries, those who are ‘foreign’ can come to be at the very centre of the story of God present and in relationship with humanity.

I take great comfort from the conviction that each of us is invited to be at the centre of God’s story. In Ruth, a young woman from desert country, I find a model for fidelity and care in my relationships. And with her, I have a sense that if I am true to those around me, in ways that will surprise me, and in ways I will not fully understand, my relationship with God will grow.

This article first appeared in the winter 2024 edition of Madonna magazine, from which the reflections and many of the articles for Daily Prayer are taken. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, see www.madonnamagazine.com.au/article/subscriptions or if you would like to contribute to the Madonna winter fundraising campaign, consider buying a raffle ticket (if you live in Qld, NSW or Vic) or give a donation.

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