Today's passage shows us three women, and three reactions to calamity and suffering. We begin first with Naomi.
(A) Naomi’s Reasoning: despair in the face of calamity (Ruth 1:6-9)
In order to make sense of the three women’s decisions at the opening of this short story, we must understand Naomi’s point of view. In her interactions with Ruth and Orpah, she repeatedly refers to them as "my daughters" (Ruth 1:11,12.13), revealing her fondness and love for these girls. Certainly she wasn't sending them away (Ruth 1:8) because she did not like them. In fact, we also see how she was thinking of their interests above hers.
So, why does she ask them to leave? Perhaps, though she was too old to remarry, she believed that the girls were still young enough for prospective suitors. Perhaps she also considered the realities of a patriarchal economic system that worked against them, and by sending them back to their household, at least they would be care for. Yet, from verses 6 to 13, we also see three reasons that she gives that are based on the Lord's character.
- The kindness of God ("May the Lord deal kindly with you", Ruth 1:8).
She sent them away, in hopes that God would deal as kindly with them as they had dealt with her and her family. At this point, they had all left Moab and was on the way to Judah. Naomi was fully aware of the prejudices and problems of a Moabite living in Israel.
- The provision of rest ("The Lord grant that you find rest", Ruth 1:9).
This rest was rather specific, and she hoped that this would be "in the house of her husband". She hoped that Orpah and Ruth would remain in Moab, remarry and have someone provide for them for the rest of their days. What, then, is the Bible's definition of rest, as we can see from here? It is more than sleep, but carries with it the idea of peace and security, and the ability to cease from labour and toil.
- The judgment and punishment of God ("for it is exceedingly bitter ... that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me", Ruth 1:13). Naomi did not want them to suffer the same bitterness that she felt she was experiencing. She hoped that God would show them kindness if they were away and apart from her.
From these verses. it is not difficult to see that Naomi thought herself cursed by God, with God against her. She considered the death of her husbands and sons, her current circumstance and her future prospects and considered herself beyond hope (Ruth 1: 12). Naomi pains for us a picture of great despair, and she is not alone. The Bible has many examples of despairing people -- Job, Jeremiah (who also wrote Lamentations), the Psalmist of Psalm 88 etc. Have you ever felt this way? The Bible reminds us that we are not alone.
What can we learn from here? How can we not despair like Naomi? Many of us are familiar with the words in Proverbs 3:5-6:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:5-6 speaks of trusting God wholeheartedly and not relying on our own understanding. In some sense, Naomi in Ruth 1 gives us a picture of living a life completely opposite that of Proverbs 3:5-6. She trusted God partially or not at all, and leaning on her understanding and assessment of the situation. These verses in Proverbs, and Ruth 1 serve as a warning to us, that in an uncertain and complex world, relying on our own understanding and opinions may not be the wisest and most steadfast anchor in the face of calamity. This is the cause of despair.
Is this a picture of us today?
(B) Orpah’s Realism: pragmatism in the face of calamity (Ruth 1:10-14)
We switch our focus to Orpah. How did she respond to Naomi's speeches? After Naomi's first speech, Orpah weeps and pledges faithfulness together with Ruth (Ruth 1:9). Together with Ruth, she appeared to be determined to return to Israel with Naomi (Ruth 1:10). This is helpful, as it shows Orpah's real love for her mother-in-law. However, Naomi gives a second speech and outlines the logic of her bitterness and the reality of their situation in verses 11 to 13. Then, we are told that Orpah wept and kissed her mother-in-law, and her departure was hinted at.
Orpah was rational, and responded to Naomi's logic. In fact, her pragmatism was also a form of obedience to the words and desires of someone she loved and respected dearly. Most of us can identity with Orpah pretty easily, because we have been wired to do our cost-benefit analysis and to consider the long term benefits of our decisions. But what does the Bible have to say about this way of thinking and living? Certainly, we are not told to suspend our logical processes and be passive. Orpah wasn't condemned and the writer presents her decision as a rather normal human respond to circumstances. But, it is clear that her pragmatism was not lifted up. Why does God not care about pragmatism? The logic of pragmatism hinges and is based on the self, and as we have seen above, depending on self is the way to great despair. From the lives of both Naomi and Orpah, we see how the road to despair, and the road that leads to pragmatism ultimately lead to self, and away from God.
(C) Ruth’s Road of Resolve: faithfulness in the face of calamity (Ruth 1:15-18)
We have seen how the text does not condemn Orpah, but it actually serves to exalt Ruth’s example. The text contrasts Orpah's departure with Ruth's fervent clinging on to Naomi (Ruth 1:14) This simple, understated description reveals to us a certain sense of desperation. After all, we only cling to that which we want dearly, and are desperate for.
Once more Naomi tries to persuade Ruth and in verse 15, she introduces another element. Naomi tries to convince her to follow Orpah, who has "gone back to her people and to her gods". Naomi's return and Orpah's departure was not merely one of returning to community and family. They were both aware that it was also about identity and a return to God. Ruth picks up on Naomi's words, and pledges herself to Naomi's people, home and lodging, God and this commitment even extends to death, in her burial (Ruth 1:16-17). In doing so, Ruth was taking a huge step. It wasn't just about moving to a new place, giving up the comforts and security of a home and family. For a Moabite to move to Israel, it meant giving up her gods and identity. It essentially meant giving up everything.
Ruth was faithful to Naomi, to the extent of moving back to Israel with her, and believing in the same God as Naomi. Ruth teaches us important lessons in faithfulness. It begins with deciding who we are, and what we are chasing after. Faithfulness is not an inspiring characteristic we take on, but is a quiet resolve that stems from our identity. The amazing thing for Christians is that this commitment and faithfulness is not something foreign. Baptism is a symbolic demonstration of this promise! Baptism is a declaration of our union with Christ, as a response to all that He has first done for us, and declaring "for I am His and He is mine".
Ruth's resolve and determination, clinging on to Naomi to the end despite all the difficulties that they have already faced, and in spite of more that is to come makes her the hero of the story. But that's not all, for she shows us faithfulness and foreshadows the way of the cross. Iain Duguid has this to say:
“Ruth embraced that emptiness and trusted that Naomi’s God would be her God also. This road necessarily passes through the way of the cross, the way of dying to self and to our own interests…putting the needs and desires of others first, whether or not their response is one of gratitude and thanks. It means pouring out our lives for others, even in the face of their bitterness of spirit.”
We all want to be like Ruth, but how was she able to be so faithful and resolute? The secret to Ruth's faithfulness was simple -- she found someone worth being faithful too. And yet, as we live in this fallen world, we realise that there really is only one person worth being faithful to. Any other human -- friend, spouse -- will break our hearts and break their promises. There is only One who has been that good and worth us giving up our identity and security to follow -- our Lord and Savior. If we pause and consider His goodness, we will indeed find all the faithfulness that we need. Has not the Lord been good to us, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us? Gal 2:20 reminds us that because of what He did, it is no longer us who live, but Christ lives in us! It is only then, when we meditate and think about His faithfulness first displayed, and who we are now in Him that we will be able to take up our cross faithfully and daily.
How does this faithfulness change our lives? Does our commitment to God extend also to loving His people? Do we love all whom He loves and died for, or do we pick and choose and judge? Do we remember His promises for His people, or are we so fixated on His promises for me? How many of us have gone where He has called us to (c.f. Matt 28:19-20)?
Ruth's faithfulness shines in these opening verses, and it serves to point us back to Jesus. Though we are often despair like Naomi, or are tempted to be pragmatic and rely on ourselves like Orpah, 2 Tim 2:13 has these words of comfort for us -- "if we are faithless, he remains faithful".