I speak to you about today’s topic with some hesitation because I only have second hand knowledge. Obviously, I am not a mother and can never hope to be one. But, like all of us, I have a mother, and I am married to a mother, and being in close relationship with these two wonderful people, both of whom are, in my opinion, great mothers, I have learned some things about motherhood. I have learned that being a mother includes times of wonderful, sweet joy. I have also learned that being a mother is sometimes very demanding and it can include times of great sorrow and grief. And what I hope to do today is to point mothers, and all of us, to the source of that joy and to the One who will carry us through those dark times of grief.
And to do that, as we continue our look at our Family Photo Album of Faith, the Old Testament, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the faith journey of one of the moms in the Old Testament: Naomi. Naomi’s story is told in the book of Ruth. Naomi lived during the time when the Israelites were led by a series of strong leaders called Judges. Some Bible scholars think that the drought mentioned in the book of Ruth was perhaps the devastation caused by the Midianites and, if that is the case, then Naomi lived during the time of Gideon, about 1170 BC. So this would be after the Israelites had entered the Promised Land, but before they began to have kings rule over them.
So let’s take a look at the life of Naomi through the pages of the book of Ruth, chapter 1. If you are familiar with the story, you know that Naomi left Bethlehem in Judah with her husband Elimelek and her two sons Mahlon and Kilion because of a famine and went to Moab. There both of her sons married Moabite women, which wasn’t really proper for a Jewish man to do, and then, after ten years in Moab, calamity struck: her husband and both of her sons die. Hearing that the famine is over, Naomi decides to go back to Judah and we pick up the story at the point where Naomi stops along the journey back to Bethlehem and tries to convince her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, that they should go back to their families of origin and stay in Moab.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them good-by and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!”
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” (Ruth 1:1-19 TNIV)
In the life of Naomi, we have a mother who is trying to do what is best for her family. Because of a lack of food in their homeland, they sell the family land and move to neighbouring country where the family can have a chance at a better life. And many of you have shared with me how you have done the same thing: left family and friends behind to come here for a chance a better life for your family.
And in Naomi, we also have a mother who is grieving. She is grieving the loss of her husband, and both of her sons.
Losing your spouse is not a totally unexpected event. The story is told of a farmer and his wife who were having a conversation one night about what might happen in the future, when the wife turned to her husband and said, “Bob, when one of us dies, I am going to sell the farm and buy a place in town and live there.” Death happens and when two people are the same age, either one could die and leave the survivor to grieve. But to lose a child, they say, is the most painful kind of loss that a mother can experience, and Naomi lost all of her children.
She is left with nothing and her grief, emptiness and sorrow extends through several different levels: She is grieving personally over the loss of her husband and sons. But she is also grieving over her financial loss, because she no longer has any means of supporting herself. In that time and place, there was no social safety net. Your children were your social safety net, they were supposed to provide for their parents in the old age. But now Naomi had no children to do that for her.
And Naomi is also grieving on a social level. As a widow, she is on the margins of society, and now she must leave whatever relationships she may have had in Moab to back to Judah, alone with nothing.
But in Israel, there was some hope for Naomi. For the God of Judah is a God who is full of compassion for widows, orphans and others on the margins of society. In Deuteronomy 10 we read,
17The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, powerful, and awe-inspiring God. He never plays favorites and never takes a bribe. 18He makes sure orphans and widows receive justice. He loves foreigners and gives them food and clothes. 19So you should love foreigners, because you were foreigners living in Egypt. (Deu. 10:17-19 TNIV) And God had given very clear instructions to his people that they were to care for those living on the underside of society. In Leviticus 24, God tells his people:
19This is what you must do when you’re harvesting wheat in your field. If you forget to bring in one of the bundles of wheat, don’t go back to get it. Leave it there for foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.
20When you harvest olives from your trees, never knock down all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows.
21When you pick the grapes in your vineyard, don’t pick all of them. Leave some for foreigners, orphans, and widows.22Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. So I’m commanding you to do this. (Lev. 24:19-22 TNIV)
These are called the Gleaning Laws and the principle is that farmers would not take every last kernel of grain or every last piece of fruit from the land and leave some produce behind for foreigners, widows and orphans to gather for themselves. So, in going back to Judah, Naomi had some hope that she would be cared for there.
And there was something else that was perhaps drawing Naomi back to Bethlehem, and that was the family land. The ancient Israelites had a totally different perspective about land and property rights than we do today. For them, Yahweh owned all the land but he distributed it amongst all of the Israelite families and each parcel of land was supposed to stay connected forever with the family who received it. The people were supposed to take good care of the land and use it to grow food for themselves and others. But they were not supposed to sell the land outside of the family. And if, because of poverty or debt, it became necessary for a family to sell their land, they always retained the right to buy it back whenever they could. They even had the right to have a rich relative buy the land back for them so it could stay connected with the family. This relative was called a kinsman-redeemer. And maybe, in her wildest dreams, Naomi allowed herself to think of the possibility of somehow having the family land near Bethlehem restored to her.
Naomi had hope that, somehow, someway, she would be cared for in Judah, but in terms of the reality of her own resources, she had absolutely nothing. She had nothing but the God of her ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who had revealed that his name was Yahweh. Naomi is grieving, empty and full of sorrow, but she has God. And somehow, this mother knows that having God is enough for her.
And then God begins to do some incredible things in the life of Naomi. First, God reveals the loyalty of Ruth towards her mother-in-law. Instead of going back to her own mother, Ruth stays with Naomi. And when they get to Judah, Ruth gleans in the fields to provide for Naomi and herself. Then God brings Boaz into Naomi and Ruth’s life. Ruth just happens to start gathering food in the field of Boaz. Boaz was a wealthy man, significantly older than Ruth, but he just happens to be a relative who could possibly serve as kinsman-redeemer who could potentially buy back Naomi’s family’s land on her behalf. And then, on top of all that, Boaz also just happens to be unmarried, which means that Boaz could also be the one to help keep the land in the family by providing an heir for Naomi through Ruth.
So Ruth goes to Boaz late at night while Boaz is sleeping on the threshing floor, and when he awakes, she tells him that he is her kinsman-redeemer. Boaz knows what this means: It means not only buying back the land of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. It also means taking Ruth, a foreigner, as his wife, trying to produce an heir for Naomi who will inherit Naomi’s land, but will also inherit all of Boaz’s land too. Now, there is someone else who is more closely related to Naomi than Boaz, but that other relative is not willing to pay the cost. He is willing to buy the land but he is not willing to pay the cost of marrying Ruth. He is not willing to pay the cost of losing the land he will be buying to any future son that Ruth may bear. So he refuses to act as Naomi’s family guardian. Boaz then agrees to carry out his role as kinsman-redeemer. He buys back Naomi’s land, he marries Ruth, and they have a son, whom they name Obed.
Because of God’s gracious action in her life, all of Naomi’s circumstances have changed. Now she has a grandson and an heir. Now she will be well-cared for in her old age, the family name will live on and the family land will remain in the family. Naomi has undergone a complete transformation: Her emptiness has been transformed into fullness. Her sorrow has been turned into joy. Her grief has changed into rejoicing.
And God continues to act graciously towards Naomi and her family even after Naomi has died. For Obed ends up becoming the grandfather of David, the greatest King that Judah ever had and the ancestor and forerunner of King of the Universe: Jesus the Christ.
In the biblical account of Naomi and we have displayed before us the best qualities of motherhood: The loyalty, the dedication and the servanthood of Ruth; and the striving of Naomi to do what is right and best for her family even in the midst of very challenging times.
But we also have before us other realities go along with being a mother, realities like grief, sorrow, and emptiness. There are women who feel empty because they would like to become mothers but can’t. There are women who are experiencing great sorrow because of the great distance between what they dreamed that their life would become and the reality of what their life is. There are women who are grieving, grieving the loss of a child, grieving the loss of a husband, grieving the loss of the family home. Just last night on the CTV news channel was a news items about some mothers who wish that Mother’s Day did not exist because it only reminds them of their sons who were murdered.
And for a mother in a Naomi experience, there is nothing that they can do. They could excel in loyalty, dedication and servanthood, and while those things are important in life, being good at those things will not lift a woman out of the grief, the sorrow and the emptiness that they may be experiencing in the here and now.
But whether we are male or female, married or single, there is always hope, even in the midst of emptiness, sorrow and grief. For many years ago, there was someone like Ruth, who left their family homeland, far, far, away and in loyalty, dedication and servanthood, attached themselves to us, saying “I will go wherever you go, Your people will be my people.” This foreigner has gone out of his way to serve us by providing for our needs. This same person, like Boaz, has spread his cloak over us and said, “I will be your kinsmen-redeemer. There is someone else who has a closer claim over you than I do, but I will go and talk to them and if they aren’t willing to pay the cost of buying you back, I will. This other person would not pay anything to buy us back, but this foreigner named Jesus certainly did. Jesus gave up everything he had for all mothers and everyone else in this world. He gave up the riches of heaven. He gave his body to be beaten and bruised and he gave up his life for us on the cross.
Jesus also rose from the dead and he is alive and with us right now. And Jesus has joined himself to us in a relationship that is more intimate than marriage. He will love us forever, he will care for us forever and he gives us an inheritance that we have not earned and we do not deserve. And that inheritance is this: Our life with Jesus will make an eternal difference in our lives and in the lives of others.
And Jesus changes our circumstances in the here and now. Sometimes he miraculously pulls us out of the pit we find ourselves in. Sometimes he gives us the strength to endure. And sometimes he works through circumstance to help us learn and grow and change gradually over time. And it is only later that we look back and realize that I am not where I was before and I am not the person I was before.
And so, if you are finding that grief, sorrow and emptiness are overwhelming your life, I invite you to trust in Jesus. Let him carry you through the tough times that you are facing. Let him be all that you really need. Ask him to be your kinsman-redeemer and he will give you give you a fulfillment, a joy and a purpose that will not change when your circumstances change. Yahweh, the God of Ruth and Jesus are One and this God does not change. His steadfast love endures forever! He is all we ever need. So let us trust in him and let’s share the good news of his love with others as we live, work and serve in our every-day lives. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC Canada on 8 May 2011.)