Naomi had lost everything. I mean, everything. It is just too hard to imagine, to think about Naomi’s loss. When she came back to Bethlehem, she wouldn’t even answer to her given name. When her old neighbours recognized her and called out to her on the street, she shrugged them off and said, “Don’t call me that. Call me Mara, which means bitterness, because my life has become one of bitter tears.”
Yet, by the end of the book of Ruth, Naomi has her name back, and she is the toast of her neighbours, and she is the proud grandmother of a brand new baby boy. Where there’s life, there’s hope, they say, and Naomi has found her hope restored in the new life she holds in her arms.
It had all begun some years previously. There was a terrible famine in Judea. Bethlehem, which means in Hebrew the house of bread, was instead empty of food, and in order to feed their sons, Naomi and her husband left their home, their extended families, their culture and their community. We see them today, on the news, on our television screens, Naomi and her family: refugees carrying all that they can muster the energy to bring along out of the war zone, the famine and drought-blighted landscape, the floodwaters and the earthquake debris, the hurricane damage. You have even met some of them. Some of you might even have been there, standing where Naomi stood, walking in her footsteps. They left practically everything, except one another, just so that they might survive.
It’s not easy being a stranger in a strange land. Naomi’s sons were young enough to adapt, though; after their father died they each married a local girl and they seemed happy enough. But then it all started to fall apart. First one died, then the other, and that was that: Naomi was left alone, with the two girls her sons married, widows all.
She indulged in some bitter jokes. “You might as well go home and start over,” she told the two younger women. “It’s not as though I can give you two new sons to marry, at my age, in my condition.” Oh yes, she was bitter. She was angry, and she was spiky with grief and hurt.
The younger women got it. Orpah took her mother-in-law’s advice and went home. We don’t know how that worked out for her; I hope it went well, though.
Ruth refused. Ruth was not afraid of Naomi’s grief, of her anger, of her bitterness. Ruth saw through her brittle jokes and her stony-faced stoicism. Whether it was for the sake of her own lost husband, for the sake of kindness or of duty, or simply out of love for her mother-in-law, Ruth refused to leave her.
“Where you go, I go,” she said. “Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God. Where you die, I will die.”
So they set off together, for Bethlehem, the house of bread, in the land of Judah, beloved of the God of Israel.
If leaving home is hard, coming back has its own problems. Everything was changed from when Naomi left; she was changed. Her position was compromised by the loss of her husband, her home, her status. She came back with a foreigner in tow, and that would turn some heads. She changed her name. Naomi means pleasant, and Naomi wasn’t feeling very pleasant these days. She called herself Mara instead.
Ruth never gave up. She went out to glean food. She cared for her mother-in-law and tended her wounds, her hunger, her grief; she bound up her broken heart and held it tenderly. And she herself was now a stranger in a strange land, and Naomi knew what that was like, and at last her own compassion was awoken, and she looked at this girl who was caring for her and knew that she needed to return the favour. She decided to matchmake for Ruth with her cousin, Boaz.
Here’s one of the interesting aspects of this story which rarely gets told: Naomi, under the laws and mores of the society in which she lived, had a claim on the inheritance of her husband, including his relatives. Boaz was one such relative, but there was another closer than he, and the part that we miss out of today’s story is the horsetrading that goes on at the city gate to make sure not only that Boaz is free and clear to marry Ruth, as Naomi’s adopted daughter, but that her offspring will inherit Naomi’s husbands land, too; that Naomi’s name and fortunes will be restored through this alliance. And, honestly, it’s all a little complicated and I am no lawyer, but it is clear that Naomi and Ruth and Boaz are willing to risk almost everything in order to come out as they do, as a family, with an inheritance, with an heir.
And at the end of the story, Naomi, who has declared that she left Bethlehem full and came back empty, has a bundle in her arms again. Naomi, who had renamed herself Mara, Bitter, is once again Naomi, the Pleasant One. She who had lost everything and everyone has a full heart and a growing family.
What brought her back to life? It was love. It was the love of Ruth, a devoted foreign widow who would not let her give up and go away. It was the love of a covenanted friend, partner, daughter, who promised never to leave her. It was the love of family, expressed in the new life of Obed; a family which included and sustained her. It was the love of the God of Israel, who never let her out of sight, who raised her up instead to be the matriarch in the line of King David, Obed’s descendant.
Many centuries later, not very many miles away, another of Obed’s descendants watched as a widow placed two copper coins, worth about a penny, in the offering box for the temple treasury. He turned to his friends, and said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”
He has just warned them against the long robes and fancy ways of the rich and those in authority, who devour the homes of widows to bolster their own bank balances, and then give back what they figure they can spare out of their own lifestyle, their own largesse.
They have forgotten what it is to give everything for the sake of love, to take a risk, to stake it all on the love of anyone, let alone God. They believe that their security, their safety and their status is bound up in keeping enough stacked up, accruing enough acclamations, impressing enough impressive people to stay above the storm, to save themselves from trouble.
They think that they can save themselves from trouble.
The widow, meanwhile, is willing to give everything to the worship of God. It is not, I don’t think, because she might as well because she has nothing much left to give anyway. If two copper coins were all I had, one penny, you can bet that I might be very tempted to hold onto them as tightly as possible, much more tightly than the rich folks held onto their gold, if that were all that I had left. But the widow lets them go.
Like Naomi, like Ruth, she must have known what it was to be loved, to be loved so deeply and truly that she was able to give out of her gratitude and trust, instead of bitterly hanging on in fear and misery.
We do not know who loved her so well, where she learned such faith in the healing power of love, in its sustaining promises. Whether it was a husband, or a child, or a parent, or a friend; whether she knew Jesus, and he knew her enough to know, when he saw her, just how much she was giving away.
We do know that she thanked God for that love, because where she went was to the house of God, where she understood God to be seated – if you visit Jerusalem today, and approach the temple mountain, you will see at its base admonitions from the chief rabbis not to go up the hill in case of accidentally entering the Holy of Holies, the earthly dwelling place of the Spirit of God. The widow went to the place where she knew God to be and to see her and hear her most clearly. She gave all that she had to God, because she knew that God had given her all that she had, and all that she was.
She gave, not out of her poverty so much as out of her faith; not out of fear, but out of love; not out of grief, but out of gratitude.
In the end, the story of Naomi, in the book of Ruth, is not that you have to lose everything in order to find out what is valuable. It is that finding out what is valuable – being loved well, and loving well in return – is everything. When we know ourselves to be loved, truly loved, we can give more of ourselves than we ever thought possible. We can give it all.
When we know ourselves to be truly loved by God, then we can truly boast of great faith, and act boldly, and with abandon, and wholeheartedly; and who knows what will come of it.