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Unlikely Saints

Texts: Mark 12:41-44; The Book of Ruth

On this All Saints Sunday, Mark tells of one unlikely saint, a widow, who gives her last dollar to the Temple. Jesus points out this anonymous widow not principally to point out the moral failure of the Temple leaders to watch after the needs of the most vulnerable but to highlight an unlikely saint who gives with a glad and generous and sacrificial heart.

Even Protestants know the names of such saints as Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa. Most saints, though, are ordinary men and women like Mark’s widow, ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives of faith and faithfulness.

The person we will focus on today, though, is an even more unlikely saint than Mark’s widow. If you flip through the pages of the Old Testament too quickly, you will miss her story entirely. Told in four short chapters, the story of Ruth is easily overlooked and even easier romanticized.

The story of Ruth is actually one extended parable, not unlike the parables that Jesus would later tell. Ruth’s story is told in response to a time of growing anti-immigration sentiment in Israel. It was a time when those who had returned from years in exile were told to send their foreign wives back to Babylon. Read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and you will hear about this xenophobic time, a time when religious purity came to matter more than almost anything else.

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. 2The 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 is how the book of Ruth opens. The story is set in a time before there were kings in Israel, like David and Solomon; it was the time when local rulers held sway. In this particular “once upon a time,” a crisis has hit Bethlehem. This little town, literally, this “house of bread,” is out of bread and famine rages across the land. So, like his ancestor Jacob, Elimelech leaves his home to look everywhere and anywhere to find some daily bread. He is so desperate that he even travels to Moab, the Iran or North Korea of his day. There he, his wife Naomi and their two sons settle as refugees, aliens in a faraway country.

There are times in life when momentous decisions must be made. Long ago, “in the days when the judges ruled,” Elimelech makes just such a decision. He and Naomi pack their bags, prepare their sons, and leave Bethlehem in the distance. It is in the hated land of Moab that Elimelech and Naomi find bread and their two good Jewish boys find wives, though, they are foreign, Moabite wives!

The story continues:

3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These 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, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

The book of Ruth begins on fanciful note of “once upon a time,” but this is no “once upon a time” fairy tale for Naomi. It is more like living in 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. There is something timelessly painful about Naomi’s story that won’t be lessened by time.

As the famine in Israel finally subsides, the now widowed and childless Naomi decides it is time to go home to Bethlehem:

7So 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. 8But 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. 9The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11But 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? 12Turn 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, 13would 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."

Looked at through the anti-immigrant and ethnic purifying eyes of Ezra and Nehemiah, Naomi is a grieving Jewish widow who is further afflicted with the unwanted baggage of two foreign daughters-in-law. Ezra and Nehemiah would have applauded Naomi for not polluting Israel by bringing Moabite women back home with her. They believed that if Israel were to remain strong after years in exile, it was time to build strong walls and enforce religious laws to keep foreign influences from corrupting their faith again.

And yet, read on in Ruth and it is quite another story than the xenophobic one being told by Ezra and Nehemiah. Orpah and Ruth are not foreign women who Naomi was forced to accept by marriage. No, in the words of Naomi, they were “my daughters.” Naomi loves these two widowed “daughters,” loves them enough to let them return to their home in Moab.

Neither of these “daughters” gives up their loyalty to Naomi easily. They are willing to leave their country, their family, and go with a destitute, Jewish widow to a land where they will be about as welcome as you and I would welcome a family from Hamas today.

Naomi insists that they no longer are duty bound to tend to her. She tells her two “daughters” to go home.

14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16But 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. 17Where 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!" 18When 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, harbors no such harsh regard. She listens to Naomi, respects her judgment, weeps with her, and gives her not the betraying kiss of Judas, but the tearful kiss of daughter saying a final goodbye to a beloved 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 woman “clings” to her widowed, Jewish, mother-in-law, doing the exact opposite of what Naomi says and what Ezra and Nehemiah instruct. Later in the story, we learn that Ruth – this outsider, alien, refugee, immigrant – is in the lineage of King David and also of 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 and prejudice.

The story of Ruth tells us that this enemy, immigrant 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 of us . . . 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 devotion. To read the book of Ruth is to come to this table not as the privileged few, careful to make sure only the entitled feast here, but as a grateful community indebted to unlikely saints who lift us over longstanding religious walls to catch a glimpse into the gracious country of God.

As war rages in Israel today and sharp lines are drawn between tribes of people and tall walls are built to keep the feared other outside, may Jews and Christians remember the story of Ruth, remember that God does not color within our sharp segregated lines of who belongs and who does not. May the profound faiths of two unlikely saints, an anonymous Israelite widow in the Temple and a Moabite widow named Ruth, guide us to live lives worthy of God’s hospitality and steadfast love.

On this All Saints Sunday, we pray repose and peace for all the saints from whom their labors rest, and especially for these two unlikely saints, we give thanks.


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