Friday, May 25, 2007

Ruth, Pt. 1: "Love That is Better Than Seven Sons" (Ruth 1)

Sunday school teacher Tom and his family had been facing trials and tests that cause him to feel unworthy to be an adult Sunday school class teacher. Week after week he felt he was a total failure and kept wondering if each week was his last Sunday before announcing his resignation.

Then one Sunday a young woman stayed after class to speak to Tom. She was a friend of his family, so she knew what they had been going through. “Tom,” she said, “I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but you're a much better teacher when you're going through tough times.” (Our Daily Bread, January 16, 2003)

It’s been said, “A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain.”

The three principal characters in the book of Ruth are Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. The book began with the down and out, the bad to worse and hard to swallow account of Naomi’s life. Naomi was the grief-stricken widow who had the misfortune of losing his two sons after earlier losing her husband Elimelech. The tragedy struck after she had sojourned in Moab for ten years to escape the famine in Israel. To compound her misery, her sons had not given her any grandchildren. She felt that life was a bitter pill, a cruel joke and a continuous torment. The widow took her circumstances very hard. The family of four from Israel was cut to one; from Naomi the wife, she was now Naomi the widow; from Naomi the pleasant, she was now Naomi the bitter (Ruth 1:20).

What can turn around the life of a bitter person? What gives us hope in the midst of despair? What transforms one’s experience from bitter to pleasant again?

Love Lends a Hand
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me-even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!” 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:11-18)
14 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! 15 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.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

One upon a time there was an island where all the feelings lived: Happiness, Sadness, Knowledge and all of the others, including Love. One day it was announced to the feelings that the island would sink, so all repaired their boats and left. Love wanted to persevere until the last possible moment.

When the island was almost sinking, Love decided to ask for help. Riches was passing by Love in a grand boat. Love said, “Riches, can you take me with you?” Riches answered, “No, I can’t. There is a lot of gold and silver in my boat.” Love decided to ask Vanity who was also passing by in a beautiful vessel, “Vanity, please help me!” “I can’t help you, Love. You are all wet and might damage my boat,” Vanity answered. Sadness was close by, so Love asked for help, “Sadness, let me go with you.” “Oh…Love, I am so sad that I need to be by myself!” Happiness passed by love too, but she was so happy she did not even hear when Love called her.

Suddenly there was a voice, “Come, Love, and I will take you.” It was an elder. Love felt so blessed and overjoyed that he even forgot to ask the elder his name. When they arrived at dry land, the elder went his own way. Love, realizing how much he owed the elder, asked Knowledge, another elder, “Who helped me?” “It was Time,’ Knowledge answered. “Time?” asked Love. “But why did Time help me?” Knowledge smiled with deep wisdom and answered, “Because, only Time is capable of understanding how great Love is.”

As a song from Andrew-Lloyd Weber aptly said it, “Love changes everything.” Love changed Naomi and transformed her life from bitter to sweet (4:15).

A lot of things had changed for Naomi but one thing remained unchanged – the love of Ruth, her stubborn daughter-in-law (4:15). In Ruth Naomi had the love of over seven sons (4:15). With Ruth present, Naomi was devastated but never destitute, aggrieved but never abandoned, lost but never lonely. Ruth was Naomi’s light when she was in the dark, her anchor when she was shaken and her compass when she was lost. Her status as Naomi’s daughter–in-law did not and would never change. Ruth loved Naomi just the same, if not more, when Naomi was troubled. Naomi was never left by herself, left with nothing and left to despair. Ruth was her most valuable asset, gift and belonging. From chapter 2 onwards the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship grew and blossomed, took flight and took center stage. Eight times in chapters two and three, Naomi is described as mother-in-law to Ruth (2:18, 19, 19, 23, 3:1, 6, 16, 17) and twice in those chapters Ruth was described as the daughter-in-law of Naomi (2:20, 22). Note how they were described each time as “her mother-in-law” and “her daughter-in-law.” Ruth taught Naomi never to give up and never to give up on each other when things were not right, smooth or well.

Naomi still had at least one person in the world that loved her. Hope is alive and life is worth living when there is at least one person who loves you or is kind to you. Ruth thought of Naomi all the time, followed her everywhere and did everything possible to help Naomi get back track, back on her feet and back to her old self. It was, however, almost in vain. The caustic Naomi did not appreciate or notice it initially. Naomi’s world was spiraling out of control, falling apart at the seams and breaking up in pieces, but she rejected the only person closest and dearest to her. Naomi tried to drive and push Ruth away. She hinted at remarriage, pleaded four times for Ruth to return (vv 8, 11, 12, 15) and twice to go back (vv 8, 12), but Ruth did not budge. When Naomi knew that Ruth was not going away, she did not leap with joy, breathe a sign of relief or feel grateful in her heart. In fact, Naomi was not left speechless, but cheerless. Now she had one more mouth to feed, another person to shelter and an unwanted memory of the past. Slowly and surely, Ruth’s love for Naomi touched, troubled and transformed the mother-in-law and Naomi began to show an interest in Ruth’s welfare and well-being (2:19).

Love Lives in Honor
2 And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (Ruth 2:2)
17 So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. 18 She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough. 19 Her mother-in-law asked her, “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!”
(Ruth 2:17-19)
3:1 One day Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?
(Ruth 3:1)

Jerry West, the NBA’s top executive who signed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to Los Angeles, walked away from the Lakers after 40 years with the organization as a player, a coach, then an executive. He could not even watch his team win the championship in 1999 after a long drought. He could not stomach fronting the organization and the maneuvering behind the scenes, the players performance and attitude, the narrow wins and the losses, and the stress and demands and pressure of the modern game. According to West, the first year away from basketball was the probably the best year of his life. Two years later West became the unfashionable Memphis Grizzlies’ new executive. How could that be?

West explained from Tennessee, “I need to work. I’m not good when I sit around all the time. Retirement is terrible for a Type-A personality. I’ve got to work. I didn’t realize how badly I needed it. After this one year, it has been very challenging for me to find enough things to do in my life. You just need to find things in your life that are challenging for you. I’d like to think I’m still capable of working hard and doing something that will really whet my appetite. More importantly, there are a lot of things that need to be done here.” (Los Angeles Times 5/1/02 & USA Today 4/30/02)

After Ruth loved Naomi back to health, Naomi responded in kind and started to make something of herself. Naomi used her knowledge, experience and insight for the benefit of Ruth.

The Chinese said, “No sorrow is greater than the death of one’s heart.” The old Naomi previously discounted Ruth’s loss, saying ridiculous and heartbreaking things like, “It is more bitter for me than for you.” (1:13). She discounted Ruth’s pain, snapped at her neighbors upon arrival in Bethlehem (1:20) and spoke only when spoken to in their first conversation upon arrival (2:2). Before, she wanted to live by herself, without any attachment, especially to the past. Now the new Naomi started living again. Their second conversation was a turning point, this time after Ruth had properly fed Naomi. Naomi initiated the conversation this time: “Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!” (2:19) Finally, Naomi had something to think of, talk about and hope for; in Ruth Naomi had someone to wait for, fuss about and giggle with; and someone who would listen to her, confide in her, lean, count and depend on her.

The third and fourth conversations found in chapter three were all initiated by Naomi. Her transformation was complete from now on. She could not wait to instruct Ruth and wait for Ruth to update her on the latest news of Boaz (3:1, 16), if any. Before they were barely speaking to each other, did not know what to say and had less to say as days passed, because Naomi’s misery and pain consumed, haunted and trapped her. Naomi was hard to live with, get close and talk to as her grief turned inward, loomed large, defined and trapped her. She closed her life to human contact and interaction. Naomi had probably not gone outside, received visitors or seen anybody for a while, including her relatives (2:1).

The renewed and resourceful Naomi told Ruth who Boaz was, what a kinsman-redeemer was, where to find Boaz, how things work and when to act. After all, Ruth had insufficient knowledge of Jewish culture, customs, tradition, society and attitudes, but Naomi was a wise, discerning and perceptive old hand. Naomi suggested little things to Ruth, like washing up, using makeup and dressing well.

The transformed Naomi woke up to the realization that it was better to give than to receive. For one full barley season (2:23), Ruth had worked hard and provided non-stop for her mother-in-law. Before, Naomi wanted to get rid of Ruth, but now she wanted to find Ruth a date, a husband and a home (Ruth 3:1).

Love Leads to Hope
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don't call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:19-21)

When USA played its opening match against Portugal in the 2002 World Cup, like most pundits, I did not expect much from USA. A respectable loss or, at best, a draw. USA was the worst performing team at the last World Cup and Portugal was ranked fifth in the world. Due to the time difference. I decided to tape the game rather than watch it live at 4 a.m. Los Angeles time. I did not want to sacrifice sleep, torture myself or work half asleep next day.

Before I could warm my seat to watch the recorded tape, USA had taken the lead in the 4th minute. I was at the edge of the seat, nervously waiting for the mighty Portuguese onslaught that never was, and the response was another USA goal in the 29th minute. This time I was urging USA to play defense, to be conservative and to be on the defensive, but USA scored another in the 36th minute. With an hour to go, Portugal woke up and scored in the 39th minute and the 79th minute. The last 10 minutes or so were torture. I waited for the worst that did not happen. The American team and defense did not crack, and USA hanged on for its dear life for a historic 3-2 win.

It did not matter to me that the game was recorded, that the commentary was in Spanish. It was as good as live. I had avoided the radio and Internet in the morning, though I was tempted to find out the final score from the Internet each time USA or Portugal scored a goal in the recorded tape. The thing was that the final score was not known and the battle was just as exciting for me.

Naomi did not know God’s plan for her life. Her despair gave way to hope because she eventually realized that the Lord was actively working in her life all along. It was not a cruel twist of fate that brought her back to Israel. It was the Lord’s gracious feeding of her children. Just as she ran out of resources news filtered to her that the famine in Israel was over.

The final score was known to God alone, as Naomi sweated it out bitterly, sourly and impatiently. At the end of chapter two Naomi’s life began to turn around for the better. Naomi recognized it and shared with her daughter-in-law: “The LORD bless him! He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” (2:20) The Lord’s kindness did not leave the dead, the dying or the surviving. The Lord’s kindness was always with Naomi from day one, but she just did not recognize it. Her daughter-in-law was a wonderful gift of the Lord. She was never empty (1:21) when she had Ruth. The three times she described what the Lord had done for her, with sarcasm, skepticism and selfishness: “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!” (1:13); “The LORD has brought me back empty” (1:21); and “The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:21) Naomi said that the Lord did not just make her life bitter, but very bitter (1:18).

The Lord blessed Naomi though she did not know, acknowledge or understand it initially. Naomi thought that blessings were meant for others and never for her. She invoked God’s blessings on her daughters-in-law in Moab (1:9) and Boaz for treating Ruth nicely (2:20), but deep in her heart she did not believe that God’s blessings could happen to others, but not to her. The victim in her declared that God’s hands were against her (1:13, 21), but the last words of the whole book were given to the same neighborhood sisters who reminded Naomi that the Lord had always watched out for her, more than she imagined or deserved: “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.” (Ruth 4:14-15)

Conclusion: Tragedy, disaster and misfortune strikes when we least expect it. God does not send evil, but He corrects and overturns it with faith, hope and love. The world is a bitter place without God, without faith and hope in God or grace and mercy from Him. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Praise the Lord, our attitude, behavior and language does not drive God away when we need Him. When we keep on persevering we will see the light at the end of the tunnel, the sunshine after the rain and the calm after the storm.

Do you have hope in God, in people and in the future? Do you trust in God’s promises or are you tired of God’s promises? Have you given others a shoulder to cry on and a heart to strive on?


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