It’s not unusual these days for us to see pictures in the newspaper of women and children are trying to rest on an over-crowded, rickety boat, escaping from the war or sexual violence or famine or political instability of their home country.
When I look at these pictures, hundreds a day crossing the Mediterranean, looking for new homes in Spain or France or Greece, I’m overwhelmed by their numbers. Their faces are lost in a sea of desperation. There are so many faces.
But I know that each one carries with her a story. These are stories of women who learned that it would take radical action simply to survive. It would take leaving everything and facing death in the hope of being able to keep on for a few more years.
We read about one of these stories in the book of Ruth. In Ruth I imagine zooming into one of the lives of those nameless women clinging to a boat on the Mediterranean. We get to break open the devastating details of those whose lives are considered disposable by their leaders and by the powers of this world. We get to draw close to those whose vulnerability makes them victims of the calamities of political regimes and natural disasters.
The story of Ruth begins with hunger. Naomi and her family flee Israel during a famine, and settle in the land of Moab. They integrate themselves into the community, taking wives from the Moabites for their sons. And, as so often happens for those who are barely clinging to life, one disaster begets another. The Bible is blunt about the catastrophe. First Naomi’s husband dies. Then her sons – gone – over the course of two verses.
It is one thing to grieve, but it is another to have death disintegrate your life. And this is what happens to Naomi. She is a foreigner, an old woman in a society where her life is dependent upon men. And she is poor. She has no relatives, no wealth, no property, no skills, and no recourse. There is nothing left.
Naomi has two daughter-in-law and she does everything she can to persuade them to return to their families of origin, to try and rebuild their lives under the protection of new marriages and new male households. Naomi turns away her daughters-in-law three times. To this day, Jewish converts are turned away three times before being received into the faith community in honor of Naomi’s plea to her daughters-in-law.
It is impossible for us to understand why Ruth chooses instead to follow after Naomi, to leave everything she has and bind her life to an old woman with no future. There is no calculation of goods, nothing to be gained. There is no benefit to Ruth.
Ruth chooses Naomi not at a moment of hope, not after Naomi has begged her for help or tried to lure her in with elaborate promises. Instead, Ruth chooses Naomi at her most raw, when she is torn open, her grief fully on display. Something about Naomi’s profound sorrow draws Ruth to her.
We don’t know much about gods of the Moabites who Ruth leaves behind, not much about the prospects she gives up to go with Naomi back to Israel. What little we do know is that Moab was kept in check by a cruel god named Chamosh, a stone idol who was appeased by child sacrifice, demanding the blood of the vulnerable. Ruth has lived her whole life among these gods of strength, gods of stone and fury. And now, in the face of disaster, she chooses to follow after a god she only knows in the grief of a friend.
There are a lot of stories in the Bible about people being called to faith. And biblical scholars point out that the best parallel to the story of Ruth, the other person in the Hebrew Bible who so thoroughly divests to follow after God is Abraham.
Like Ruth, Abraham leaves behind his people and his gods, travels away from all he knows to be a part of God’s story. Phyliss Trible points out one significant difference between these stories. God speaks directly to Abraham. God shows up with promises and hope and visions for a future. God reassures. In the story of Ruth there are no words from God. In Ruth, the voice of God is silent.
I’m drawn to the Old Testament because it’s easier to find myself here. These complicated stories make room for me and for my faith. And the story of Ruth feels close to me, and maybe it does for you, too. Because Ruth is drawn into faith bound up in a community of friendship.
There are stories in the early church of Desert Mothers and Fathers who go out into the wilderness alone to meditate and pray and study. Some of these early Christian monks would live on top of pillars where their food and water was hoisted up to them. They were completely isolated from the world, free for the presence of God.
I read those stories with wide-eyed wonder because I cannot imagine faith without other people. I don’t know what or how I would believe in anything without others, with friends, and I’m grateful I’ve never been asked to try.
The story of Ruth shows us faith that happens in this way, faith that looks like choosing another person. The womanist scholar Renita Weems makes an observation about the story we heard today:
In the darkest moments of the story—when Naomi was bereft of her husband and children, when Orpah and Ruth were bereft of their husbands, when the women had to decide whether or not to abandon one another—no angel of mercy came to the women’s defense. No divine messenger offered counsel to the bewildered. No God came with words of wisdom and assurance. Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth were left with the integrity of their faith and the strength of their relationship with one another. The women had to make their own decisions, with the help of intervening powers.”
God takes the form of another life, a vulnerable life, someone who has come to the end of all things, someone undone. And Ruth decides for her. Ruth chooses Naomi and her god.
It’s that line – “your gods will be my gods” that sticks out to me as I read this story. We don’t usually articulate faith in this way. It sounds a bit like picking out a type of detergent at the grocery store, or deciding which fitness class you’re planning to take at the YMCA.
Instead, Ruth chooses a person, and in choosing that person she chooses a life among a people. She chooses a friend and in that friend she understands that God is something like that, something vulnerable, a god unlike the gods of Moab, a god for those who have nothing. Ruth chooses Naomi.
Ruth’s pledge to Naomi is careful to emphasize that the young Moabite woman chooses her friend rather than simply following the duty of her husband’s family. “You,” the verses repeat over and over. “Do not ask me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, the people of you will be the people of me, the gods of you will be the gods of me.”
You. You. You. I am choosing you.
God has never spoken directly to me. I don’t think of myself as a particularly spiritual person. I don’t put a lot of stock in coming up with rational answers that are going to talk someone into believing in God. But I do have friends. And it is when I look at them that I can see the fragile hope of God in a body. I witness the space God has made for their grief. I look at them, the extravagant, ceaseless and unmerited care they offer me, and this is how I know what God is like.
And that makes me want to be a better friend, to let my life say “I’m here in this with you, and I’m not going anywhere.” It makes me want to stop pretending everything is fine, to let my life say that I’m not sure things will get better, but I’ll be there with you, no matter what. It makes me want to say yes to the church even when it’s a place where I get hurt, a place where I am at my most vulnerable and easiest to wound, but to stick with it because my friends are here. And whatever I do, I’m going to work out my life among them, work out my faith with them, because they are the same, and I couldn’t imagine pulling one out from the other. Their god is my god.
In the Christian tradition, we’re in good company if this is how we build a life of faith. Because, in time, another Naomi will come, bearing God in the body. This Naomi will be God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.
And people will find they want to be with him. This Jesus will call them friend. He asks people to be with him, to eat with him and talk with him and learn from him, and they will say yes. These friends of Jesus are confused and bumbling. They get things wrong and they don’t understand. But they’ve chosen him. They’ve chosen their friend who feeds them and heals them and tells him that no matter what, they will never be alone. They choose him. We choose him. And that is enough.
 Renita Weems. Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible, chapter 2.