“A Commitment of Love”

February 10, 2019


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 10, 2019

“A Commitment of Love”
Ruth 1:16-17

Once upon a time, Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons lived in Bethlehem in Judah. Then came a famine in the land. Bet-Lechem—House of Bread—had no more bread. So this refugee couple fled to a foreign country: Moab – a place the Israelites hated. While in Moab, the sons married. Elimelech died. Then both the sons died. Only the women were left.

They had lost the men in their lives. They lost their social status. They lost their economic security. How could they survive on the edges of society like this? Then Naomi heard that back home, in Bethlehem, the famine was over. Bread had returned to the House of Bread. Naomi hoped there might be some distant relative back home who might help them. But she knew that Ruth and Orpah, young Moabite women, would probably not be welcome.

The daughters-in-law began the journey with her. But at a certain point on the road, Naomi told both to return to their own mother’s home. They were still young women. Marriage and children were still possible for them. For Naomi, the time of marriage, of fertility, of children, and status were all over. The best she could hope for was some kind distant relative to take her in, back in Bethlehem. Death had changed Naomi’s life. Suddenly, she was faced with change she did not ask for, change she did not plan for, change she did not like. Yet there it was: unwilled change.

Ruth and Orpah faced a big decision. They could return to their mother’s home, to comfort and the possibility of other husbands and children who would continue the circle of life in a home tribe. Orpah made a logical, socially correct, traditional decision. She turned to go back home. For Ruth, the world had shifted. For reasons we are not told, Ruth decided to cast her lot with her mother-in-law, Naomi. She chose to go and live in Bethlehem, “where race and religion [would] marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she [would now profess] faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she [would opt] for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her.”

In the ancient world, Ruth’s choice was astounding, unusual and scary. Yet in every generation, there have been women—and men—whose growing consciousness of God and God’s intended order have disrupted, interrupted and transformed the world.

These are Ruth’s powerful words as recorded in the Hebrew Bible…
“Do not press me to leave you
Or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.
Where you die, I will die –
There will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
And more as well,
If even death parts me from you!” Ruth 1:16-17

Last year, one of my extended family members called me on a Tuesday morning here at work. This is a young woman in my extended family that I dearly love. She does not live in Wichita, but we are close emotionally. She has never called me during the day at work out of the blue. In fact, she doesn’t call me, well, ever. She sometimes texts. It is unusual for her to initiate contact at all – so I knew the call was important! Although I was in a meeting, I took the call and went left the meeting to talk privately. She said, “I need to tell you something I have wanted to tell you for some time. I am bi-sexual. I told my parents a few months ago and I have decided it is time to tell a few others. I am dating a woman right now and I think I am falling in love with her.” I immediately told my family member that I loved her and that her call was a blessing to me, that it did not change anything except that I loved her even more and that I couldn’t wait to meet her significant other. We also talked about how others in our family might respond. Over the last several months, our suspicions have been confirmed. Some family members have responded positively and others have not. Some of the things that have been said have been hurtful. And some of the views expressed have come from Christians who believe in “loving the sinner but hating the sin”.

As a pastor, I am privy to the on-going pain of families in our church and our community who are LGBTQ or have family members who are and the angst they face. In addition, there are many questions about the ever evolving nature and complexity of relationships in the 21st century…
• What about heterosexual seniors who live together but do not marry so that they can stay on their deceased spouses’ benefit plans?
• What about young couples who live together before marriage?
• What about couples who have children before marriage?
• What about divorce?

Some of you may know that I taught Christian ethics at both Friends University and Newman University. As an ethicist, it is important to apply a universal principle to relationships. What is a Christian response to relationships and marriages that is reasonable for the 21st century and yet Biblically based? Some say that the universal ethic is simple: marriage is between one man and one woman. Personally, I find that ethic lacking for many reasons. It has taken me years to find a single Biblical ethic that could be universally applied and I think the one in Ruth may work all these centuries later….
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.
These words are often used in weddings as vows. And it is interesting to note that the same Hebrew word (dabaq) is used to describe Adam’s feelings for Eve and Ruth’s feelings for Naomi. In Genesis 2:24 it says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” The way that Adam “cleaved” to Eve is the way that Ruth “clung” to Naomi.

Ruth was neither legally required nor customarily expected to remain with her mother-in-law. Her commitment – her vow – must be understood as an act of dabaq, showing love and loyalty over and beyond what is considered normal or expected. It is an act of love, not logic.

What if we used this vow – this cleaving, or clinging to another – as our Christian ethic for love? What if our response to people when they told us that they loved a person (regardless of the gender or circumstance of that person) was an unequivocal statement: “I love you and I will love the person you love”?

According to the commentators, the story of Ruth is parallel to the story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus told. Jesus knew the implications involved in making the hero of the story a Samaritan. Jews considered themselves morally superior to Samaritans. Ruth’s country Moab was similarly looked upon with distain. For Naomi to be dependent on a Moabite, or for a Jew to find herself relying on a Moabite was to find herself in a horrible predicament! The story begs the reader to ask ourselves “What are the things we think we despise until we are forced to turn to them in times of crisis?”

A Wichita family we have known for more than 25 years has children the same ages as ours. Their son and our daughter grew up going to school together from grade school through high school. Their son was extremely bright, musically talented, out-going, a whiz at school, and one of those young people that adults like from the start. When he was in high school, he came out to his parents as a gay man. His parents were religious and could not reconcile this with their faith. But, they loved their son and did not want to turn their back on him. They struck a deal with him that was painful for all concerned. They asked him to go through a program to reverse his sexual orientation. After he completed the course, they said, if he still thought he was gay, they would accept that and would affirm him. He agreed. He took the course and was not changed. They kept their part of the bargain and became his most vocal supporters. They changed their opinion and their church. He married a man. His parents stood up with him with pride and love on their faces. They love him and they love who he loves. (By the way, I am sharing their story as it happened, but I do not advocate asking someone to take the conversion class.)

Let me say a few more things about Ruth.
1. She was, in her day, no one important. She was a woman. That’s shorthand for property. She was a widow. That’s shorthand for destitute. She was a Moabite. That’s shorthand for an alien and a heathen. The Moabites were seen as a people who descended from an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. They were seen as disgusting people.
2. Ruth is one of two women for whom a book of the Bible is named. The other is Esther, who was a Queen.
3. Ruth ends up being a Grandmother to King David and listed as one of the Great Grandmothers to Jesus.

It makes sense to use this woman’s faithful vow of love to Naomi as a universal ethic of love. She became the great-great grandmother of a man who was, according to legend, an illegitimate son of a young woman in Nazareth. Yet, a man named Joseph agreed to love her and take her son as his own. “I love you and I will love who you love”.

What if we respond with Ruth’s words whenever we have the chance? Even when the news is difficult?
• When our parent who has been recently divorced decides to remarry far too soon for our comfort? I love you and I will love the person you love.
• When our child comes out as gay? I love you and I will love the person you love.
• When our friend tells us he is transgender? I love you and I will love the person you love.
• When our grandparent decides to live with someone instead of marrying in order to keep finance benefits? I love you and I will love the person you love.
What if, when faced with difficult decisions about relationships, we echo the wise words of Ruth from so many centuries ago?
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.

Resources Used:
Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton, “The Story of Ruth Retold”. Preacher1.wordpress.com. Nov. 9, 2015.
Kittredge Cherry, “Ruth and Naomi: Biblical women who loved each other”
qspirit.net/ruth-naomi-loved-each-other. Dec 20, 2018.
“The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary” volume II. Abingdon Press. 2015.