Ruth: Foreigner with an Inheritance from God
Text: Book of Ruth
One of the great short stories of the Bible is the Book of Ruth. It is a love story about people from different backgrounds and countries whose lives come together and are fused by God’s gracious provision for a love that endures. It declares to us that God loves the world long before John tells us in his Gospel. It reminds us that people’s lives are not only affected by war and famine, tragedy and disaster, but also by a love that never fails, even across ethnic and religious lines.
There are lots of “mother-in-law” jokes and there probably always will be. But today’s lesson tells the story of a remarkable relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law that illustrates that people can be “loved into” the kingdom of God.
Naomi was the wife of Elimelech. Because of a famine in and around Bethlehem during the time of the Judges, Naomi and her husband were forced to leave and to live for a while in the country of Moab in the company of their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. Tragedy followed them when Elimelech died. The two sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then, after ten years, tragedy again–both of the sons died. Naomi was alone in a foreign country. When she heard things had improved in her own country she decided to return home along with her two daughters-in-law. Halfway there she felt compassion for Orpah and Ruth and said, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband. So they wept, and Orpah departed for home, but Ruth changed her mind saying, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Her words give testimony to a bonding that transcended even that of her own natural biological family.
Naomi being a good Jewish mother, we soon find her working out a plan for the marriage of her daughter-in-law to a family relative named Boaz, who said to Ruth,
I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband–how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.
And richly rewarded indeed she became as step-by-step Naomi worked out a plan that seemed blessed by God. Soon Naomi’s daughter-in-law was safely married again and adopted into the family she came to love.
In the past when people who were not raised in the church came into the church, they were taught the faith and they “believed their way into belonging.” But today more and more people are “belonging their way into believing.” It seems like more people are “loved into” the kingdom of God, and later they learn what to believe.
In either case, God is the author of true faith and belief and his Spirit will find a way. But as people who represent the God and Father of us all, we need to realize that one of the most important ways others are drawn into the community of faith is through loving relationships.
In his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George Hunter Jr. writes:
The Celtic model reflects the adage that, for most people, “Christianity is more caught than taught.” Years ago, I began discovering the Celtic approach in my field of research with converts out of secularity into faith. In interviews, I usually ask new believers: “When did you feel like you really belonged, that you were wanted and welcomed and included in the fellowship of this church?” More and more converts, including a majority of “boomer” converts and a large majority of “buster” converts, comment that they felt like that before they believed, and before they officially joined. Indeed, many new believers report that the experience of the fellowship enabledthem to believe and to commit. For many people, the faith is about three-fourths caught and one-fourth taught.
Quoting John Finney in an empirical study, Hunter concludes that, for most people, “belonging comes before believing.”
In my ministry as a parish pastor, and more recently as one who works with pastors almost every day, I have discovered that while salvation comes instantaneously at times, for most people it comes gradually. Maybe that is another reason why over the last thirty to forty years the statistics of our churches show that while the number of “members” continues to decline, the number of those who are listed as “adherents” has more than doubled. Could it be that people are more impressed by the quality of life within the church and the relationships it spawns or doesn’t spawn than they are about theological beliefs? If what we believe doesn’t make a difference in the way that we relate to people, will they be drawn to commit themselves to our churches?
A young man who keeps my computer running smoothly told me that the reason he has not formally joined a congregation is because he doesn’t see much difference between those who are churchgoers and those who are not. He is impressed with people who relate to other people in loving ways and care about them. That is what will bring him into the fellowship of the people of God. “Love covers a multitude of sins,” said Peter in the first century (1 Peter 4:8). And some are saying that people in the twenty-first century are more like people in the first century.
The relationships that God gives us are the best thing we have going in evangelism today. When I conduct evangelism workshops, I often ask people who influenced them in such a way that they decided to follow Jesus Christ and commit themselves to become members of the church. It is really interesting to hear their responses. They talk about Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, pastors, teachers, and friends.
The short story of Ruth, the daughter-in-law of the believer Naomi, who had a very tragic life, reminds us that who we are is at least as important as what we say. Loving relationships have an influence upon others and their faith journey that can’t be overemphasized and must not be neglected. No one knows when your love for them and your care of them will be used by the Spirit of God to bring someone on the outside to the inside. Are you one of those influential people characterized by loving relationships?
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!” He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth. Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son.” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
- Describe some of the loving relationships that helped bring you to faith in Christ.
- Who do you identify with in the story: Naomi? Ruth? Boaz? Orpah?
- How does the end of this story illustrate the providence of God?
- How can our churches provide for more loving relationships that draw and nurture people in their faith?