In the book of Ruth in the bible, we have a story of love, but this is a love story of women who live out true sisterhood. It is a story of the relationship between two widowed women: Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. The book of Ruth is special for many reasons. First, women are the major characters in the book. Second, it challenges us about the relationships between women, especially that of in-laws. Is it not stereotypical to view the relationship between a woman and her mother-in-law as rocky at best? Third, it challenges us to view our exclusionary practices and prejudices within communities. Over and over again Ruth is identified as a Moabite. This makes her an outsider, yet it is this outsider who exemplifies what it means to be loyal and worthy. While there are many themes we could focus on in this short book, today I want to look at Ruth 1 and the strength and courage Naomi had to admit that she was not ‘fine.’
I am bitter:
“Call me Mara, I went out full and the Lord has brought me back empty.” When Naomi returns to Bethlehem after being in Moab for at least ten years, the women of Bethlehem see two women coming and ask, “Is this Naomi?” They barely recognize her, and in reply Naomi asserts that she is to be known as bitter, she is not the same woman who left Bethlehem. Her life is no longer pleasant, she is overcome because of the bitterness of life due to losing everything. No, they should barely recognize her, life has been cruel, and she isn’t going to deny it. She isn’t going to lie and just say she is tired from the long journey, no, her countenance reflects her mental and emotional state. She is not fine. She has endured a drought, she has been a widow for the past ten years, and she has lost both of her sons! She has no means to support herself, she has no male heirs to care for her, and she has no grandchildren, her family line will end with her. She has been left on her own in a world where women are dependent upon men. It has taken what strength she has to return home, where now the weight of her loss is even more poignant.
As Naomi enters Bethlehem the memories of the past surround her, a constant reminder of what used to be. She sees the men meeting at the city gate and remembers times past when her husband Elimelech had taken part in many such meetings. As she walks through the market area she remembers the countless times she was selecting grains, vegetables, and various other items needed to prepare meals for her family. The smell of bread wafts through the air, the absence of which led to her family leaving Bethlehem so many years ago.
This feeling of loss continues to be heightened as Naomi hears the sound of children laughing. She turns her head toward the sound and sees several other women of the town surrounded by their children and grandchildren. One young woman is holding the hands of her small children and her heart aches for her sons that she has lost forever. The grief that has been lingering inside her for weeks on end seems to be chocking her and she can barely keep the raging sobs at bay. No, she cannot bear to be called Naomi anymore, her life is not pleasant, it is filled with grief and loss, and her future does not seem any better. The very air she breathes reminds her of the bitterness of her current circumstances. What joy she had of returning home has turned bittersweet.
Is admitting bitterness of life unfaithfulness?
We might look at this excerpt and immediately question Naomi’s faith. We might feel justified in condemning her for not remembering all the good that the Lord has done and focusing on that. We might assert that she just needs a deeper and stronger faith. We might say she just needs to pray more. Is Naomi lacking in faith, or is she just overwhelmed with grief and suffering?
What does Naomi mean when she tells the women to call her bitter? Is she stating that she is a bitter person or is she just describing the bitterness of her life’s circumstances? I believe it is the later, but let’s look at the scripture and see what it says. This is not the first time Naomi states that her life is bitter, she uses the same word for bitterness in her conversation with Orpah and Ruth while they are on their way to Bethlehem. When trying to convince Ruth and Orpah to return to their mother’s house she states, “Would you refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.” The word translated ‘harder’ is the Hebrew word mar, which in this context means more bitter. Naomi is not referring to internal bitterness; she is not saying that she is a bitter person, but rather that her life circumstances are bitter. There are external things which make her lived experience bitter.
When we look at the dialogue that occurs between Naomi and her daughters-in-law we see that Naomi is not acting in bitterness, she is attempting to convince the young widowed women to make a choice that will result in a better life for them. Naomi knows that in the society that they live in that a woman is not likely to survive without a husband or sons. Widowed women without sons would be completely dependent upon the generosity of others, they would not be able to survive on their own. She knows the best chance for a future for Orpah and Ruth is to remarry. Naomi is past the age of childbearing she is not able to provide additional sons for the women, and even if she was able, it would not be of much benefit for her daughters-in-law because by the time that any additional sons were grown and of age to marry the women would no longer be young themselves. Additionally, how would they survive the next twenty years while waiting?
Naomi also knows that since the women are Moabites, it is unlikely that they would find men in Bethlehem that would be willing to marry them. Moabites were seen as undesirables. In Genesis 19, we find out that Moabites are the descendants of Lot from the incestuous encounter with one of his daughters. Throughout the Old Testament there are accounts of hostility between Moab and Israel. In Numbers 21-22 the King of Moab is seeking to destroy the Israelites. There are many accounts of conflicts and fighting between the groups: Judges 11, 2 Kings 3, 13, Isaiah 14, Jeremiah 48, Zephaniah 2, and 2 Chronicles 24. In Deuteronomy 23 the Moabites are excluded from the Israelite community after the Moabites refused water to the Israelites. As such Naomi knows that not only will the women be seen as outsiders, but their Moabite status would prevent anyone from willingly marrying them. Therefore, she encourages them to return to their mother’s house so that their family can find Moabite men for them to marry.
Naomi is not only focused on seeking the best for her daughters-in-law, but she also prays a blessing over them. She is concerned about both their physical and spiritual well-being. Naomi is clearly not exhibiting the actions of someone who has embraced bitterness in her heart, but rather is a woman who is defining the circumstances of her life as bitter. When she says call me Mara, she is not showing a lack of faith, she is saying I am not fine because my life situation is almost more than I can bear, it is weighing me down, and I am overcome with grief and unsure about how I am going to survive.
Finally, I believe Naomi’s strong faith is illustrated in Ruth’s commitment to her. Ruth’s famous oath says, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back 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 I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB). Most studies on these verses focus on the character and commitment of Ruth, which is important, but I think we often miss the significance of Naomi in discussions of Ruth’s commitment.
Ruth makes a huge sacrifice here, one that is done out of love for Naomi. Ruth is willing to chance a future without a husband and children, leave her family, her culture, and the religion in which she was raised to commit the rest of her life to her mother-in-law. We need to notice that Ruth makes an oath that this commitment will extend beyond the life of Naomi, she says where you die I will die and there I will be buried. Ruth will stay in the land of Naomi even after Naomi dies. She is leaving everything she knows, and everyone she loves for the rest of her life!
The question, that needs to be asked, is what would cause her to make such a commitment? What would it take for us to make such a commitment to another person, knowing that doing so would not be perceived as the ‘best’ path for our future? I posit that not only does Ruth truly love Naomi, but Ruth has been drawn to Naomi’s faith in God that she has personally witnessed the past ten years while living with Naomi and her son. When Naomi encouraged the women to return to their mother’s house and their gods it is clear that Ruth and Orpah were not worshiping their own gods while they were part of Naomi’s household, it seems evident that Naomi insisted on her household remaining faithful to the worship of the God of Israel. Furthermore, in Ruth’s declaration of commitment, she binds herself to Naomi’s God. She does not say her husband’s God. Ruth had seen Naomi’s faith in action for ten years as she struggled in a foreign land as a widow yet remaining a faithful witness to God. This is what Ruth is committing herself to, she wants the same type of faith and devotion to God that Naomi has, and she is willing to leave everything she has ever known in order to be a part of the community of God. Ruth would not make such a commitment to Naomi unless Naomi had a faith that was strong, steadfast, and secure. Naomi was a woman of great faith.
The strength and courage of Naomi:
I want to talk about vulnerable strength. That might sound like an oxymoron, but it is not. We most often identify vulnerability as a weakness and something to be avoided, but instead the willingness to be vulnerable with others takes great courage and strength. Even in grief Naomi displays great strength and courage in her honesty, and I believe her great faith is what fuels this strength. It is not easy to acknowledge to ourselves much less others that we are not okay and that we are struggling. I believe this is particularly true for women today as we fight the need to be seen as superwomen. We want to be seen as successful and able to manage all areas of our lives. Capable in our jobs, the mom who is always there, and still able to fix the meals, clean the house, and conquer the never-ending pile of laundry!!!
Admitting that we are not able to handle everything that life throws at us is a humbling and difficult task. We fear being seen as weak, inefficient, and lacking in faith if we are not continually putting on a brave face and successfully conquering all of life’s trials. Is this a healthy way to work out our faith in Christ? I don’t believe so, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asked his disciples to pray with him. He sweated blood as he agonized over what needed to be done and asked God is there was another way. If Jesus, who is God incarnate can admit vulnerability then so too can we.
In fact, to correctly understand God, is to know that the Triune God, is a perfect loving relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is a relationship between the three persons of God who experience a supreme perfected love, where there is nothing hidden from one another, and complete vulnerability with one another. Yes, God who is love, is a vulnerable God. Without vulnerability there is no true love. God is love because it is not just a way in which God acts, but who God is. The Triune God is comprised of a flowing and loving relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—God exists as love, and that is why God acts in love because God’s loving actions flow from who God is. Mystics accurately described the Trinity as a divine dance of love.
It is this perfect love relationship of the Trinity—this divine dance—that we are invited to participate in when we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ by the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, to grow in Christlikeness and learning to love God and one another, which are the greatest commandments, means learning to be vulnerable with one another. To be vulnerable is an act of love toward God and others.
It takes strength to be vulnerable. To expose our true hearts, thoughts, and feelings to others takes great strength and courage because we risk rejection and ridicule. Naomi exhibits the strength of vulnerability when she speaks to Orpah and Ruth, and when she is greeted by the women in Bethlehem. I think this is interesting in that in two different situations Naomi is vulnerable with others, and it continues to support the claim that she is a woman of great and abiding faith in God. First, she is vulnerable with her daughters-in-law. Naomi was the elder and leader of the family, and for her to admit that she was not okay to two women who have seen her as a rock and fortress in their family for the past ten years must have been very difficult, yet she does it for their own benefit. Then, when she returns to Bethlehem, Naomi again is publicly vulnerable with a group of women that she has not seen in over a decade. Naomi is courageous in both close personal relationships and with society in general. She is a woman whose utter vulnerability with others is to be admired.
Naomi allows her hurt and grief to be seen and vocalized. She is honest in her question of how God can allow her to experience so much pain and loss. She is not hiding her feelings, she is an example of mature faith that allows one to be vulnerable, open, and truthgul, even if that means one might question her faith. She risks how others may decide to view her vulnerability in order to be true to who she is as a child of God.
God does not expect us to manage in only our own personal strength, but to rely on God’s strength and the strength of those who are part of the community of God. Faith is not an individual journey; it is a journey that we collectively travel together as we seek corporately to becoming more Christlike in all areas of our lives. To grow as the church and to grow in love for one another, we need to learn to be more vulnerable with one another and confess when we are truly not fine. We need to learn to have vulnerable strength if we are to ever experience the fullness of the abundant life that God desires for us. We will not experience the joy and healing power of a community working together and depending upon one another if we are never courageous enough to admit that we are not fine.
Putting on Fig Leaves
Instead of being vulnerable, most of us put on fig leaves. Let me explain what I mean by this. In Genesis chapter 3, we have the account of the fall. After eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we find that the man and women become aware of their nakedness and therefore cover themselves with fig leaves. We do the same thing. There are parts of ourselves and areas of our heart that we want to keep hidden from other people for fear that if they truly knew everything about us, they would reject us. However, our own metaphorical putting on of fig leaves damages our relationship with others and with God. Referring again to the flow of love that I spoke about when speaking of the Trinity, this same love is to flow freely through us. To grow in our relationship with God and others, we must grow in God-like love. Therefore, we are to continue learning to participate in the supreme perfected love of God, holding nothing back from others and fully accepting others. It is a love where we learn to share all of who we are and open ourselves to that vulnerability of being metaphorically naked before one another.
Our response to that vulnerability:
That brings us to a final reflection on this passage of scripture. How will we respond to the vulnerability of others? Will we criticize, or will we console? We are called to grieve with those who are grieving, and to offer comfort to those from the comfort that we have received from God and the those who belong to God.
A few years ago, I was standing in front of the congregation on a Sunday morning giving announcements and getting ready to lead a corporate prayer. I remember looking down at the bulletin which listed the prayer requests at the top of the page and scanning all the names of families who were listed, my own family was on that list as well. I had not shared publicly why my family was on the prayer list, but I was particularly burdened in my heart that morning and I as I felt tears start to well up in my eyes, I reiterated how important it was for us to be praying for the names on this list. I tried to pull myself together, but I felt my lungs becoming heavier with each moment and I said that my family was going through a very difficult time, because just this past week, my youngest son had been diagnosed with autism.
This was not a new experience, as Bob and I had been through this two years before my when oldest son was diagnosed with autism, but the news had devasted me. I was trying to talk, but now that I had started sharing my vulnerability, I was only capable of standing up there and crying. The next thing I knew, my pastor came over to me and asked the congregation to gather around and lay hands on me and pray. The strength and love that I experienced in those moments of prayer is something I have never forgotten.
I could have tried to put on fig leaves and pretend that I was okay and that I was able to handle the situation all on my own, but it would have been a lie. It also would have denied me and those around me to be part of God’s healing process. Moving toward restoration must start with the faith and strength to be vulnerable with one another. If we read on in the book of Ruth, we see it ends with Naomi being restored. She who came back to Bethlehem empty, is once again full. This is possible because of her faith and vulnerable strength. Being honest with where we are allows us to begin the process of healing. It is okay for us to say, “Call me Mara!” because doing so creates the opportunity for the community of God to gather around and support us as we together walk the path towards renewal. When we know someone is going through a rough time and they cry out, “Call me Mara,” we are to be a Ruth to them. To walk with them, to be committed to them, to care for them. Let us be women who have the strength and courage to admit that we are not fine and women who surround and support others then they too have the courage to admit that they are not fine.