“Mother’s Day in the Church” - on Ruth 1 – by Joe Ellis — May 8, 2022
The Bible is unapologetic about the fact that we live in a broken world. The fact that we live in a broken world seems to touch every aspect of our theology and is reflected on nearly every page of Scripture. For this I am so thankful. If it were not so, having Mother’s Day and Father’s Day land on Sunday’s year after year would be quite hard for many of us. If we had to pretend somehow that we all had ideal, perfect families because that’s what we saw in Scripture, few of us would bother showing up. But Scripture is not about perfect people. It’s about real people who are broken and fallen.
Each of our relationships with our mom and dad or with our children, are in some ways burdened with brokenness. Some of us have parents who have passed away. Some of us have children who are no longer with us. Some live far away. Some of us have very difficult relationships with our children. Some of us have trouble with our parents. Some of us have terrible memories from our childhood. Some of us long to be moms or dads with the deepest part of ourselves, but cannot. And some of us, by God’s grace, have lovely relationships with our parents, or lovely relationships with our kids. Yet, even there you are probably weird in some way. All of us are. We’re all mixed bags coming from families that are mixed bags — that means on Mother’s Day we can come to church, we can come worship together and see each other, and see that we are not alone. And then we get to hear something of our own story as we read Scripture. The Bible does not describe the world or families in idealistic, perfect terms. The Bible describes the world and families as we actually are.
The first chapter of Ruth is a perfect Mother’s Day text for any congregation. Meet Naomi and Ruth. For both of them, Mother’s Day would be an extremely complicated day. First there is Naomi. When we meet her, we learn that she and her husband left Israel for the nearby country of Moab. There had been a famine in Israel. The narrator does not tell us if they’re unfaithful in leaving Israel, but we’re left to assume they’re not a model Israelite family. So straight off the bat we see they’re something of a mixed bag. After their arrival in Moab, Naomi’s husband passed away. Our sympathy goes out to Naomi, but then we are distracted from giving her sympathy when we hear how weird she is. For some reason Naomi named her children “Mahlon” and “Chiliion” — which translate to ‘sickness’ and ‘destruction’ in English. An odd choice for names, ‘sickness’ and ‘destruction’? Seems like a recipe for disaster. You’d think someone should have taken her aside and told her so. Sure enough, the narrator tells us, “They dwelled there some ten years. And the two of them, Mahlon and Chilean, died as well, and the woman was left without her two children and of her husband.” Happy Mother’s Day, Naomi?
For her, Mother’s Day would not be a happy day. We see this throughout the chapter, Naomi’s faith has been shaken to the core. She encourages her daughter’s-in-law to go back to their mother’s house, because “the Lord’s hand has come out against me.” When she returns from Moab to Bethlehem, she returns a hardened, bitter woman. The women in the town of Bethlehem are surprised that she has returned and are shocked at what they see. They cry out, “Is this Naomi?” Presumably, Naomi has returned with her face hardened and lined with the troubles that have beset her. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi (which means sweetness). Call me Mara, for Shaddai has dealt great bitterness to me. I went out full, and empty did the Lord bring me back. Why should you call me Naomi when YHWH (God) has borne witness against me and Shaddai has done me harm?”
For Ruth, the Moabitess, Mother’s Day would be no less painful. For ten years she was married to her husband. Throughout those ten years she no doubt hoped to be blessed with a child. For ten years she hoped in vain, until whatever little hope remained died when her husband died.
When we meet Naomi and Ruth, we meet widows with no children. For this reason, Naomi and Ruth find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position. In addition to the mountains of grief they carry, the are without the financial support from their husbands who would traditionally be the bread winners in an economy dominated by men. Additionally, both Naomi and Ruth face the prospect that their family line will die with them. It is from this point of despair that Naomi encourages Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s home. “Go back, my daughters, why should you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb who could be husbands to you? Go back, my daughters, go, for I am too old to have a husband. Even had I thought “I have hope” and this very night I shall have a husband and bear sons, would you wait for them till they grew up? For them would you be deprived of husbands?”
This will become clearer later in the story, but it was the responsibility for a next of kin to financially provide, and perhaps help a widow have children so that the deceased’s family line might live on. Naomi says all this is impossible. There is no next of kin. There is no Plan B. There is no hope for Redemption this Mother’s Day.
Wouldn’t this be a depressing point to end the sermon? Yet the rest of the book shows how God quietly works his acts of redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people. Let me say it again — throughout the book of Ruth, we see how God quietly works his acts of redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people. In Ruth, we see how God faithfully acts through the unlikely heroes, Naomi and Ruth, to continue the line of King David, and ultimately the family line of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
If you were able to identify at all with anything that you’ve heard about this family — then perhaps you can also identify and trust that God can quietly work out redemption in your life, too.
In the Book of Ruth, the Narrator only mentions God’s direct action twice. First, Ruth 1:6 which explains why Noami wants to return to Bethlehem, because the “Lord singled out His people to give them bread.” The Lord provides the nation of Israel relief from the famine. The second time we hear about God directly acting comes at the climax of the story in the last chapter. The rest of the time the narrator doesn’t tell us about God doing anything. Although the characters speak of God, pray to God, and bless others in the name of the Lord — the narrator does not explicitly tell us that God is doing anything throughout the story. The book of Ruth is not like the Book of Exodus where we hear about the Lord speaking, causing Plagues, splitting the Red Sea, or causing water to gush out o a rock. Yet, as you read the book of Ruth, you can’t escape the sense that the Lord is constantly at work. Even though the narrator doesn’t say, “the Lord does this, that and the other thing” — the narrator fully intends for us to see the hand of God at work consistently and quietly throughout this story. Just as the Lord works in our normal lives.
We don’t have a narrator for our lives, telling us that “this came to pass because the hand of the Lord was upon us” — we are invited to see and trust that the Lord’s at work, consistently, quietly, and faithfully, as he is in the Book of Ruth. Like Naomi and Ruth, we might be living in the midst of struggle, working out how to live faithfully in very hard situations — and it isn’t until we reflect back on our life’s story that we see the Lord’s hand at work, quietly and carefully bringing about a new act of redemption in the story of our life. So, wherever this Mother’s Day finds you, the story of Ruth greets you with an invitation to trust. To trust that the Lord is at work, quietly working his way of redemption in your life, and perhaps even in the life of your family.
Throughout the book of Ruth, God quietly works redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people. This is especially true of Naomi and Ruth. We’ve touched a bit on how Noami is an unlikely character. Running from God, naming her kids ‘sicknesss’ and ‘destruction’. Yet, the Lord works through unlikely people to bring about redemption. Ruth is no less unlikely — she is a Moabite, a people described in Genesis 19 as the product of incest — Mother’s Day probably was always a bit weird for the Moabites for that reason. As you read Scripture, you learn that Moabites were the poster child of a people you don’t want your kids to have anything to do with. Yet, God quietly works redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people — even Ruth, the Moabitess.
For me — this becomes a picture for the church. In the church, God continues to quietly redeem families, communities and nations through the faithfulness of the most unlikely people, like us. Naomi and Ruth offer us two examples of how to be the church this Mother’s Day.
Our first invitation comes from Ruth. We’ve talked about how when Naomi was determined to return to Israel, she bluntly told her daughters, “Go home. Go back to your mother’s house.” The one daughter-in-law, Orpah, returns home. Yet Ruth, in one of the most beautiful passages in all Scripture practically sings: “Do not entreat me to forsake you, to turn back from you. For wherever you go, I will go. And wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people is my people, and your God is my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. So may the Lord do to me or even more, for only death will part you and me.”
In Ruth’s response, we begin to glimpse a theme that comes into full flower throughout the New Testament. In the church, God is creating a new family, and this new family runs deeper than family blood lines. So with Jesus, the importance of family is marginalized. In Matthew 12, we read “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”’
Ruth’s posture towards Naomi, anticipates Jesus’ words — there is something deeper happening in the church than family blood lines. When we enter the church, we are entering a new family, we are developing new ties, with a new purpose. Together, we are learning to be disciples in the family of God. We are learning how to do the will of our Father in heaven. This Mother’s Day, let’s take note from Ruth and be intentional about journeying with our spiritual Mothers and our spiritual Fathers in order to grow deeper in the faith.
Throughout the book of Ruth, God quietly works redemption through the faithfulness of unlikely people. We also see this in that weirdo Naomi. Even in her struggle to be faithful, even as she wrestles with God in her bitterness, we see glimpses of her faithfulness shine through. This comes through particularly in her opening words to her daughter’s in law. She says, “Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. (Here comes her act of faithfulness.) May the Lord do kindness with you as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord grant that you find a settled place, each of you in the house of her husband.” Did you hear it? Did you hear Naomi’s invitation for how we can follow her example this Mother’s Day? She didn’t do it perfectly, but she begins here and continues learning this lesson throughout the rest of the book. We see Naomi blessing the younger generation. She said to these young women, “May the Lord do “hesed” with you as you have done with the dead and me.” She blesses these two women. No single word captures the Hebrew word “Hesed “— it means something of love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness and loyalty. With this word, Naomi blesses Ruth and Orpah. Then, in spite of herself, Naomi takes Ruth under her wing and helps her to discover this blessing in life. Naomi takes Ruth under her wing and helps her to live into this blessing. That’s the call and challenge we need to hear this Mother’s Day, and we need to hear it again on Father’s Day. The call to bless the generation younger than us, and teach them how to live into this blessing.
That’s Naomi’s role through the rest of this story — she doesn’t choose it. God chose her for it, and she spends the rest of her days empowering a woman a generation younger than herself. She adopts Ruth as her daughter. She empowers Ruth to live into the life that God is calling her. I think that if Naomi had heard her life framed in that way, she would have laughed. But through the quiet hand of God, she was faithful to that work. Let’s follow her example. This Mother’s Day, let’s hear and take seriously the charge to be a blessing to the next generation. Let’s reach out beyond our bloodlines, beyond our family ties, and be a mother and a father to those in need of blessing of love, faithfulness, mercy, grace kindness and loyalty.