[Texts: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; 12:38-44]
Please accept my sincerest apologies, dear readers, for getting this (last) week’s lectionary reflection to you so late. If you will indulge me, I’d be happy to explain myself. It has been my intent since last weekend to speak to you about this week’s lectionary, extrapolating from its readings the theme of expressing love in ways that may not always make sense. My original hope was to have it written by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.
That didn’t happen. Life got in the way. On Tuesday morning, I had a conversation with my friend Cynthia that rattled me to my core. Because of the conversation’s sensitive nature, and to protect both Cynthia’s privacy and the privacy of the third person indirectly involved, I can’t go into the specifics. But, suffice it to say, it shook my faith in love as force capable of conquering all things.
I was left wondering whether the love I feel in the situation Cynthia and I were discussing is because of God’s grace or simply a sign of childish idealism on my part.
I was left wrestling with what formed the core of not only what I had planned to say this week, but also the core of what I believe about love, and about God.
I was left wondering whether love makes sense, in this specific situation in general.
Does love really win in the end, or am I just young and stupid for thinking so?
I come to you now, dear readers, dear friends– two days later– charged with the task of talking to you about love.
This week, our readings begin with the story of Ruth and Naomi. I must confess that this is probably my favorite story in the whole Bible.
Do you know the story? Elimelech (uh-LIM-uh-leck) and his wife Naomi had two sons: Mahlon and Chilion. They were Jewish, and they were from Bethlehem– the same Bethlehem where Jesus would be born many centuries later– but they had to leave home. They moved to a Gentile area called Moab. Shortly after the big move and the death of their father, whose name I’m not going to try to spell again, both boys married women who were Moabites. These women were named Orpah and Ruth.
Orpah and Ruth were not Jewish, unlike their husbands, their mother-in-law, and their now-deceased father-in-law. That’s important to note.
Well, as the story goes, within a decade, both of these young men had also passed away, leaving Ruth and Orpah young, widowed, and childless. Now, it was the custom that, in such a situation, the two women would return to their respective fathers’ households in hopes of marrying again. That was the way things customarily worked. Although they were obviously heartbroken over the deaths of their first husbands, the future didn’t look too bad for Ruth and Orpah– they were young, and there was no reason why they couldn’t each find a nice guy, get married, settle down, and have some kids someday.
You know who things did look pretty bad for, though? Naomi. Her husband was dead, her only two sons were dead, and– unlike her daughters-in-law– she did not have the hope of remarriage and more children. She also didn’t have any living children whose responsibility it would be to care for her.
We’ve talked about widows before, right? We’ve talked about how being a widow was one of the worst possible circumstances a person could find themselves in as a woman in this society. Naomi was a widow past marrying and childbearing age with no living sons. We’ve talked about how the ultimate end for a person in her situation was doomed to a life of destitution and probably an untimely death, being unable to work or own property, forced to rely on the charity of others to support herself. To put it bluntly, Naomi was kind of screwed. But she didn’t want Orpah and Ruth to be screwed too, since they didn’t have to be.
“Go on home now,” she probably told her daughters-in-law. “Things will be okay for you. Go home to your parents, find someone nice to marry, and have the lives you deserve. You’re young. It’ll be alright. I wish you both the best.”
Orpah did just that. By going home, she did what was customary, what was expected. It wasn’t a bad thing– in fact, it was the most sensible thing she could have possible done. We don’t hear much more about her, but we can only assume she made it safely home to her parents, and that she found a great husband who provided for her well, and they had a house full of children, and that she was happy with the choice she made. That’s what I like to imagine, at least. (But I’m just young and idealistic, remember?)
Ruth, however, had a little bit of a temper tantrum. It’s one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, but it’s definitely got a distinctly “hissy fit” flavor to it. “Don’t you dare tell me to go home,” she says. “I’m going wherever you’re going. We’re in this together. If you’re going back to Bethlehem, I’m coming too.” (For some reason, Ruth’s little speech in 1:16-17 always makes me think of the song “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie.)
Ruth’s behavior defies convention, tradition, logic, and frankly, any modicum of self-preservation on Ruth’s part. This choice that Ruth makes doesn’t make a bit of sense– what Orpah did makes sense. What Ruth did, honestly, looks more than a little bit insane. And perhaps also more than a bit naive or idealistic.
I mean, really, Ruth? You’re going to give up your whole life just to follow someone you’re not related to back to a country you’ve never been to, and live an impossible life completely at the mercy of others when you don’t have to? Unfortunately for Naomi, she doesn’t have any other options. She’s stuck, and that sucks. But you’ve got options. Good options. And you’re choosing… this?
Doesn’t Ruth’s decision seem kind of… I don’t know… stupid… to any of y’all, or is it just me?
Fast-forward to the story of another widow, whose name we don’t know, whom St. Mark tells us about in our Gospel reading. This story is frequently referred to as “the widow’s mite”, because a mite is a very small amount of something– in this case, money.
Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem– that whole hosanna-laden business we celebrate on Palm Sunday every year– and he’s currently in the temple, doing what he does best: calling folks out. Specifically, folks in power. He’s telling the scribes and Pharisees and other leaders exactly what they’re full of and how full of it they are. He says, “I know how much y’all love walking around looking important, being treated like the sun shines out your rear ends, acting like you’re God’s gift to humanity. And you know what? You are what’s wrong with society. You walk around putting on airs, enjoying wealth, while the most vulnerable members of your community– people like Naomi and Bartimaeus– can barely eat. You love to be seen praying and acting pious, but where’s all that religion you’ve supposedly got when you see a widow or an orphan or a beggar and look the other way?” Jesus is not in a word-mincing kind of mood today.
Jesus watched people as they made their contributions to the treasury– the equivalent of us passing the plate in church– and he saw all the people with big money making big contributions. There was a widow who came and dropped in the equivalent of two pennies– she literally put in her two cents. Jesus gathered his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor woman has out of her poverty put in everything she had.” He praised her– not the rich people with the impressive pledge cards– because she gave everything she had.
Wait a minute– this is a widow, condemned to the same fate Naomi had to face– who made her whole living off of begging anyway, and probably didn’t even have a roof over her head or enough to eat.
And she put in everything she had?
That doesn’t seem any smarter than what Ruth did, does it? If anything, it may even be a mite crazier, if you’ll pardon the pun.
And I guess that’s the point. Love– real love– doesn’t look logical, or sensible, or smart. The love we’re called to as Christians defies any attempt to make sense by the world’s metrics.
It’s outrageous, extravagant, even nonsensical love.
And we’re going to look thirty-one flavors of crazy doing it, at least if we’re doing it right.
We’re going to look naive and idealistic when, even at the grave, we make our song “alleluia”.
We’re going to look like we’re out of our minds when we proclaim that love wins.
And we may even feel like we’ve lost our minds sometimes.
We may– scratch that, we will— have moments, like the conversation I had with my friend Cynthia on Tuesday, where everything we believe about love, and its power to dispel darkness and cast out fear, is challenged. Shaken. Perhaps even broken.
But here’s the thing– we’ve read the end of the story. We know love wins eventually. We know darkness doesn’t get the last word– not pain, not suffering, not fear, not even death. We know wounds will be healed. We know what is broken will be made whole.
We know all of this, and we stake our lives on it as Christians. Right?
So, yes. Sometimes love looks naive. Sometimes love looks crazy. Sometimes it looks downright stupid.
And sometimes the darkness is so great that it seems not even the greatest love will be able to penetrate it.
But.. spoiler alert: love really does win, whether or not we can see it in the moment.
Keep loving. Keep hoping. Keep the faith.
Better yet, God promises.