RUTH: A FAMILY’S HEART
May 14, 2006
The family of Elimelech and Naomi experienced tragedy. If you read the story in the early part of this little book, you can’t help but be impressed with the hard circumstances they faced. First, they lived during the days of the judges, a time known for its darkness, morally and spiritually. It was not an environment that was conducive to great family life.
Secondly, they faced economic hardship. A famine struck their homeland. Even though they lived in a town, Bethlehem (in our language, house of bread), there was no bread. They had to make a journey some 50 miles away into the land of Moab just to be able to survive. They sojourned there for ten years. It was a land which morally and spiritually was not conducive to strong family life. They worshipped a god called Chemosh, who was known for the immorality he produced in the lives of his followers. Life could not have been easy for them there in a strange land away from home.
Thirdly, loss struck this family. Over the course of time Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, died for some reason and left her a widow. Her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, married Moabite women named Ruth and Orpah. But the two sons died, and this poor godly woman, Naomi, was left with two young daughters-in-law in a strange land with no way to make a living. Even though her name meant “pleasant,” she decided that she should be called “bitter.” And even though she went away to that land full, she was now completely empty.
But this book of Ruth doesn’t end on a note of tragedy. This family came to a place of triumph, and the one who was empty became full and the one who was bitter became pleasant again because of the providential blessings of a god who loves. It is because of that triumph that this little story of Ruth has always spoken a note of hope to families, even in our time. This little short story is precious to everybody who reads it because of its tale of unselfish devotion. It reminds us that this mother became a source of strength to a family that had faced hardship and that the whole world has been blessed because of the relationship between her and her daughter-in-law Ruth. And that’s the reason this little story is so important to us. It tells us why families can triumph. It gives us a glimpse into the key elements in the heart of a family that allows pleasantness to replace emptiness and bitterness. This lesson is so badly needed because we so need families to be a blessing in our lives.
What are the elements of family that we learn from Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth? The first one is the importance of kindness. Here is a widow without any supporting governmental programs, without any existing structure for benevolent care to those who needed help so badly who has only the companionship of her two young daughters-in-law. She needed them. They could have been so much help to her, but Naomi out of her own unselfish kindness and consideration decides that if she is going to return back to Judea to Bethlehem from whence she had come, she would do her daughters-in-law the thoughtful kindness of setting them free to go back to their own families. Notice that she says in Ruth 1:8, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you, in the house of her husband! Then she kissed them.” She is letting them go out of kind consideration for them. She has been impressed, first of all, with these girls’ kindness to her. She knows that the Lord will deal kindly with them, and therefore she deals kindly with them. Kindness is basically just the consideration that practices the golden rule in everyday relationships. Kindness is the thoughtfulness that thinks of what would be best for that other person – not what’s easiest for me but what’s best for them. Kindness thought of these young women’s futures, of their desire to have families and children, and kindness was therefore willing to do the unselfish deed of letting them go.
Kindness is the oil that keeps the machinery of human relationships working in the family. It is basically a matter of consideration that says “What can I do today to make you happy?” Families that succeed even in the unfriendly circumstances of a society like ours are families where consideration and kindness can take the place of selfishness and insistence on having my needs met. Consideration, though, is a hard thing to come up with in a world motivated like ours.
Leno told on his headlines this last Monday night about a young fellow who had written in to one of these advice columns in the paper. He explained that it was his girlfriend’s birthday, and he, wanting to be a thoughtful fellow, had decided to get her an ear and nose hair remover for her birthday. He explained that she became unexpectedly hostile and he couldn’t figure out why and wanted to know what he should do next. He probably needed a little bigger lesson in consideration and thoughtfulness, didn’t he? The idea in our everyday lives gets a little deeper than that where unselfish love has to be practiced, and we depend on Moms so much for that to be the case.
Someone wrote a tribute to Mom in which the little saying ends with these words, “God gave the world stars and there was beauty; God gave the world sun and there was warmth; God gave the world rain and there was life; God gave the world Mothers and there was love.” The kindness that families so badly need comes from a Mom who sees what the little one is going through and comforts it, a Mom who takes time to be there for her teenager or for her adult child. A Mom who seems to know how the other one is feeling more than anybody else in the world notices that. A Mom gives up what would be easiest for her for the sake of what’s best for the family. In that way there is nobody else in the world more like Jesus than a Mom who shows kindness.
The second element of family life that you and I will notice from this story in Ruth is loyalty. Remember that Naomi kisses her daughters-in-law and they weep together. But they say to her, “No, we will return with you and go back to your people” (1:10). She reasons with them and explains to them what she cannot do for them that their own families could do, and she gives them the opportunity again. This time Orpah, the wife of the younger son, decides that she will go. But Ruth shows a faithfulness and a loyalty that goes way beyond what could have been expected. She clings to her mother-in-law. By the way, this word is the same one that is used in talking about a husband and wife cleaving together, being glued together. That is the thought here. And remember that Ruth makes the great statement, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (1:16-17). That has to be as beautiful statement of loyalty as has ever been heard from a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. Notice that Ruth is saying that she is willing to leave the place she was in order to be in the place where Naomi would be. She is willing to leave the people that she has loved in order to be with the people of Naomi. She is willing to leave the god that had been worshiped in Moab to worship the Lord of whom she had learned from Naomi and her family. Naomi had done a good enough job representing the Lord God that Ruth was impressed with the Lord. Naomi had been somebody who had shown the kind of a disposition and the kind of a life and the kind of treatment of those around her in her family that Ruth wanted to worship the Lord that Naomi had taught her about. She even uses the Lord’s name in making the vow that nothing but death would part her from Naomi. There is the loyalty again that comes from a Mom. Maybe the best definition of a mother ever offered is that she is someone who is on your side. And that certainly is the kind of loyalty that is being shown here. There is a strength to this kind of loyalty that can outlast even the selfishness of our age. There is the kind of statement that this is a person I can count on; this is a person who will be faithful; this is a person who will practice fidelity. That is the heart of a family that survives and triumphs.
I read a little fable. It illustrates the kind of a reach that this kind of loyalty can have in a person’s life. It is titled “The Apron String” and written by Laura Richards. It says, “Once upon a time a boy played about the house, running by his mother’s side; and as he was very little, his mother tied him to the string of her apron. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘when you stumble you can pull yourself up by the apron string, and so you will not fall.’ The boy did that, and all went well, and the mother sang at her work. By and by the boy grew so tall that his head came above the windowsill; and looking through the window, he saw far away green trees waving and a flowing river that flashed in the sun, and rising above all, blue peaks of mountains. ‘Oh, mother,’ he said, ‘untie the apron-string and let me go!’ But the mother said, ‘Not yet, my child. Only yesterday you stumbled, and would have fallen but for the apron-string. Wait a little, till you are stronger.’ So the boy waited, and all went as before, and the mother sang at her work.
But one day the boy found the door of the house standing open, for it was spring weather. He stood on the threshold and looked across the valley, and saw the green trees waving, and the swift-flowing river with the sun flashing on it, and the blue mountains rising beyond. And this time he heard the voice of the river calling, and it said, ‘Come!’ Then the boy started forward, and as he started the string of the apron broke. ‘Oh! How weak my mother’s apron string is!’ cried the boy; and he ran out into the world, with a broken string hanging beside him. The mother gathered up the other end of the string and put it in her bosom, and went about her work again; but she sang no more.
The boy ran on and on, rejoicing in his freedom, and in the fresh air and in the morning sun. He crossed the valley … and came to the brink of a precipice, over which the river crashed in a cataract, foaming and flashing, and sending up clouds of silver spray. The spray filled his eyes, so that he didn’t see his footing clearly; he grew dizzy, stumbled and fell. But as he fell, something about him caught on a pointed rock at the precipice edge, and held him so that he hung dangling over the abyss; and when he put up his hand to see what held him, he found it was the broken string of the apron, which still clung by his side. ‘Oh! How strong my mother’s apron string is!’ said the boy. He drew himself up by it, and stood firm on his feet, and went on climbing toward the blue peaks of the mountains.” That is a way of saying that a mother’s loyalty and what she teaches us has a way of keeping hold of us in places we never expected. That has been proven true in many of our lives, hasn’t it?
The first element is kindness; the second one is loyalty, and third we learn from this precious little story the place of faith in a family’s life. Faith is not always real strong. Because of life experiences we end up feeling beaten sometimes and low. And when they got back from Moab to Bethlehem, that is how even Naomi was feeling. Even though she had spoken of the Lord’s kindness to these people, she comes back saying in verse 20 of chapter 1, “Don’t call me Naomi (Naomi means pleasant). Call me Mara (Mara means bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Notice that she doesn’t speak of the Lord by his personal name here as if she feels close to him. She speaks to him as El Shaddai, the Almighty, as if she believes he is still there but she sort of speaks of him based on what he can do and not based on how close she is to him. She says, “I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.” She says, “The Lord has testified me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me.” The point I am making is that faith is not just feeling close to God. Faith is believing he is there and keeping on with him no matter what happens and going on dealing with life with the Lord being present. Naomi’s faith was such that she could spot the providence of God when she saw it at work in Ruth’s life a little bit later. In chapter 2, verse 20 she could say, “Blessed be the Lord whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead.” And then she could still point Ruth to how to obey the Lord and to follow him in her life. If anyone is the anchor of faith in a family, it will be the mother. She will be the one who will help us see the brighter side so often. She will be the one who will help us keep trying to do what the Lord wants. She will be the one, so often, who will help us to live the way God wants us to live.
In Don Deffenbaugh’s book on Rue Porter I read the story of Bell Porter. This little paragraph is important to me because it happened about four miles north of where Kay and I used to live. “In the year 1904 Belle Porter moved with her two sons Rudolph and Aubern from Prairie Township near Berryville to the Yocum community just north of Green Forest. The 1905 tax records show that Belle Porter possessed one pleasure carriage valued at $10.00, two horses valued at $40.00, and seven hogs valued at $5.00. Her interest, though, was on spiritual things, and it was to this community that she invited H.J. Hood to come and preach. This was the first gospel sermon heard by Rue Porter.” He baptized somewhere around 10,000 in his life through his preaching. But it started with this widow in poor circumstances who had gotten hold for herself of a little New Testament that she carried in the side pocket of her skirt and had gotten accustomed to talking about what she could read in her Bible and had invited someone to come and preach the gospel in the community around Yocum Creek. It started with a mother, the faith of a mother in particular.
And then I want you to notice the need for unselfish work. In order to keep her mother-in-law from the humiliation or from the difficulty of having to gather up in the field, Ruth goes out and engages in the process of gleaning. According to Leviticus 19:9-10, gleaning was what God provided to allow people to care for themselves when they had nowhere else to turn. The widow, the orphan, the strangers passing through were allowed to go out and follow the reapers in a grain field picking up the stalks that might have been dropped or left behind. And this lady Ruth goes out and does that in a dangerous situation. She does it all day; she beats out the grain and ends up with an ephah of grain, which was about two-thirds of a bushel. That was hard work, and she worked from sun up until the end of the day and then took home and shared with her mother-in-law. The hard work that we may have to do in families may involve the chores of survival. It may involve communication with each other. It may involve the things we have to do to make a living. But it is a part of family’s lives.
Let me remind you that from these two women we learn the importance of respect. Respect for each other, which they certainly showed, respect for other people which gave them the name of being noble women or worthy women (according to 3:11), but especially respect for the Lord and his way. Naomi guided Ruth in the process of what was called “the kinsman redeemer.” The closest male kinsman of a widowed family would have the privilege of redeeming what had belonged to the lost relative. In that way if someone had been sold into slavery, he could buy them back. If someone had lost a piece of land, he could buy it back. And if there was a widowed wife and he was inclined to do so and was willing to do so, he could marry her and bring up children even in the name of the lost relative. There was a good man at Bethlehem named Boaz, and with Naomi’s careful instruction Ruth approached him in an honorable way and asked him to fill the place of the kinsman redeemer, which Boaz was willing to do, and a beautiful marriage came from these tragic circumstances and Ruth the Moabite woman becomes the great grandmother of King David, who becomes the king through whom Jesus descends, to be our kinsman redeemer – to give his life, to shed his blood to buy us back from slavery to make us his own and give us a hopeful future – to bless our lives.
We have the opportunity because of a family like this to be God’s children. A family in which kindness was practiced, loyalty was demonstrated, faith was lived out, unselfish service occurred, and respect was always practiced. The writer of the old spiritual song, Revive Us Again, was Dr. W. P. MacKay, a Scottish doctor. I want to conclude our study with something that he said about his own experience. “My dear mother had been a godly, pious woman, quite often telling me of the Savior, and many times I had been a witness to her wrestling in prayer for my soul’s salvation. But nothing had made a deep impression on me. The older I grew the more wicked I became. One day a seriously injured (laborer) was brought into the hospital for my care. The case was hopeless. He seemed to realize his condition, for he was fully conscious, and asked me how long he would last. I gave him my opinion in as cautious a manner as I could. ‘Have you any relatives whom we could notify,’ I continued. The patient shook his head. His only wish was to see his landlady, because he owed her a small sum, and also wished to bid her farewell. He also requested that his landlady send him what he called ‘The Book.’ I went to see this man on my regular visits at least once a day. What struck me most was the quiet, almost happy expression constantly on his face. After the man died, some things about the deceased’s affairs were to be attended to in my presence. ‘What shall we do with this,’ asked the nurse holding up a book in her hand. ‘What kind of book is it?’ I asked. ‘It’s the Bible of the poor man,’ she said. ‘As long as he was able to read it, he did so, and when he was unable to do so anymore, he kept it under his bedcover.’ I took the Bible and - could I trust my eyes? It was my own Bible! The Bible which my mother had given me when I left my parents’ home and which later, when short of money, I sold for a small amount. My name was still in it, written in my mother’s hand. With a deep sense of shame I looked upon the precious Book. It had given comfort and refreshing to the unfortunate man in his last hours. It had been a guide to him into eternal life, so that he had been able to die in peace and happiness. And this Book, the last gift of my mother, I had actually sold for a ridiculous price.” Can you see why he wrote “Revive Us Again?”
Are you here today needing to revive the faith that your mother taught you? Are you here today needing to revive the qualities of kindness, loyalty, faith, service and respect in your family? Are you needing to give yourself to the Lord in gospel obedience? If that is the case and we can help you, step out and let us know this morning while we stand and sing together.