Saints Among Us
Texts: Mark 12:41-44; The Book of Ruth
On this All Saints’ Sunday, we have just read about an unlikely saint, a widow who is now penniless, having given her last coin to the Temple treasury. Jesus does not praise the Temple leaders for draining the widow of her last resources, but he does praise the widow for her sacrificial life. And yet, despite her generosity and faithfulness, we are not told her name.
We know the name of some saints like Augustine and Aquinas and Teresa of Avila, like King and Tutu and Parks, but most saints are ordinary women and men whose names we will never know, but who lead extraordinary lives of faith. The widow in the Temple is one such unnamed saint.
The next saint we will hear about is named, but it is a name that easily goes unnoticed. If you flip quickly through the pages of the Old Testament, you will miss her story entirely. Told in four short chapters, Ruth’s is a story that is not only easy to miss but even easier to romanticize.
The story of this most unlikely saint is actually an extended parable, not unlike the parables that Jesus would later tell. Ruth is a parable told in response to a fierce anti-immigration, xenophobic time after the Babylonian exile, when the exiles had returned home to Jerusalem. It was a time when religious purity came to matter more than almost anything else. It was a time focused on moral purity and devoted to driving out all foreign influences, like foreign wives, from Israel during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The story begins:
Ruth 1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
Once upon a time long, long ago is how the parable opens. It was a time before kings, like David and Solomon ruled Israel, a time when local rulers held sway. Once upon a time, a crisis hit Bethlehem. The “house of bread” was out of bread and famine covered the land. So, like his ancestor Jacob, Elimelech left his home to look for bread. He was so desperate that he even went to Moab, the Iran or North Korea of the day. There he, his wife Naomi and their two sons settled as aliens in a far country.
There are times in life when momentous decisions must be made. Long ago, “in the days when the judges ruled,” Elimelech made just such a decision. He and Naomi packed their bags, prepared their sons, and left Bethlehem in the distance. It was in hated Moab that Elimelech and Naomi found bread and their good Jewish boys found wives, but mind you, though, they found Moabite wives!
The story continues:
3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
The book of Ruth begins with “once upon a time,” but this is no “once upon a time” tale for Naomi. It is more like an ancient tragedy. Not only does she bury her husband, but she buries her two sons. Naomi means “pleasant” in Hebrew, but her experience in Moab mocks her name.
Some suggest, and rightly so, that these were much more rugged times than ours and what Naomi experiences was not all that unique. Maybe so, but tell that to any husband who has buried his wife or to any parent who has buried her child. There is something timelessly painful about Naomi’s story that refuses to be lessened by time.
As the famine in Israel finally subsides, the now widowed and childless Naomi decides it is time to go home. The story continues:
7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me."
Seen through the religious, ethnic purifying eyes of Ezra and Nehemiah, Naomi is a grieving Jewish widow who is further afflicted by being stuck with two foreign daughters-in-law. Ezra and Nehemiah, the purifying prophets of post-exilic Jews, would have led the parade for Naomi if she chose not to bring these Moabite women back home with her. If Israel was going to remain strong, they would argue, it was time to build new walls and enforce strict religious laws to keep foreign influences from corrupting the faith.
That is how Ezra and Nehemiah might want to tell this story, but it is not how the story is told in the book of Ruth. Orpah and Ruth are not miserable foreign women that Naomi was forced to accept by marriage. No, in the words of Naomi, they were “my daughters.” Naomi loves these two widowed, Gentile “daughters,” loves them enough to let them go back home to Moab.
Neither daughter gives up easily. They are willing to leave their country, their family, and to go with a destitute, Jewish widow to a land where they will be about as welcome as we would welcome a family of the Taliban as neighbors today.
Naomi insists that they no longer are duty bound to tend to her. She tells her two “daughters” to go home:
14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16 But Ruth said, "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. 17 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!" 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
Sometimes people judge Orpah harshly in this story. How could she leave her widowed mother-in-law? The story itself, though, suggests no such harsh regard. Orpah listens to Naomi, respects her judgment, weeps with her, and gives her not the betraying kiss of Judas, but the tearful kiss of a daughter saying a final goodbye to a mother.
It is actually Ruth who is the confounding character in the story. What we know about her is that she is “a foreigner, a woman, a widow, and, perhaps of most importance, she is an enemy of Israel . . . ‘Ruth the Moabite’.” (Kathleen O’Connor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, p. 244).
This widowed Moabite widow “clings” to her widowed, Jewish, mother-in-law, doing the exact opposite of what Naomi has instructed. Later in the story, as Naomi holds her grandbaby in her lap, we learn that Ruth will not only be kin to King David, but also to Jesus. She is a forerunner of what Jesus will ask his disciples to do: to “cling” to him by letting go of all that “clings” to them, including all their ethnic-racial-religious-gender presuppositions.
The story of Ruth tells us that this enemy woman has become an unlikely saint, a model of loyalty, devotion, and steadfast love. “The God for whom Ruth abandons everything,” writes Kathleen O’Connor, “is the god of the lowly, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy. Ethnic purity is not what God demands or desires . . . This God does not belong to one people alone but gathers peoples into this wide family” (ibid., p. 245-246).
To read the book of Ruth is to remember that within the family tree of the Jew, Jesus, is a Gentile woman, a Moabite widow, a hated outsider who could have taught Peter a thing or two about steadfast love and unwavering devotion. To read the book of Ruth is to come to the Lord’s table not as the privileged few, careful to make sure only the entitled feast here and everyone else is kept away, but as a grateful community of those indebted to unlikely saints, some we know by name, some we will never know, who lift us over longstanding religious walls to give us a glimpse into the gracious country of God.
So, today, only you can finish this sermon. Who are the saints of the faith who have given you a glimpse into the glory and welcoming grace of God. Name those saints aloud by voice or in the quiet confines of your hearts. They deserve a moment of outright celebration.
Friends, who are those saints like Ruth and an unnamed widow in the Temple, for whom you give thanks this day? Name them now!