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Naomi and Ruth walk back to Bethlehem, and I want to feel the dust they felt under their feet

by davesandel on August 20th, 2021

Friday, August 20, 2021                                 (today’s lectionary)

Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

Naomi and Ruth walk back to Bethlehem, and I want to feel the dust they felt under their feet

At last, a story from the time of the judges that doesn’t turn my stomach.

After her husband died, Naomi was left with two sons who married Moabite women, one named Orpah and one named Ruth. Then her sons died. She made ready to return to Bethlehem of Judah, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth stayed with her.

When we lived in Waynesville, Illinois in the late 1980s, leaders at our growing church asked to help Baylor University’s Lyman Coleman with his new project, which he called the Serendipity Bible. Mr. Coleman pioneered small-groups in churches around the country. His Bible would be filled with “thousands of penetrating study questions,” along with 60 course plans for ten different kinds of groups.

Ruth said to Naomi, “Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” And they arrived back in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

We were invited to develop “penetrating” questions for the book of Ruth. For several days, off and on, Margaret and I sat around a church conference table with several friends, reading the book, asking each other questions and trying to answer them, sorting out what we thought were the best questions for each section of each chapter. We had a great time, and when finished we were invited to a banquet held in St. Louis for the many churches that supplied Mr. Coleman with his questions.

We drove down (about three hours from Waynesville) with our pastor Gary Johnson. He introduced us to Garrison Keillor’s Saturday night radio variety show hosted by Garrison Keillor in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Prairie Home Companion. The book of Ruth and the show’s Minnesota accents have been forever blended in my mind. What a happy time that was.

Now the Serendipity Bible has been “upgraded and updated,” although it no longer shows any vestiges of our scribbled questions, penetrating as they might have been. The new book is similar, though, and now that I know it exists, I think I will enjoy using it.

I recently finished Francine Rivers’ version of the book of Ruth, part of her stories of women in the lineage of Jesus. It is unreasonable for us to read these stories and not imagine ourselves into them, as Ms. Rivers does so well. Naomi grieves before she and Ruth leave Moab:

Secretly she prayed that Ruth and Orpah’s hearts would be softened toward the God of Israel.

Poor Ruth, poor faithful, loving Ruth. How many nights had the girl sought to ease Mahlon’s pain and ended up weeping over her helplessness? Sometimes Naomi wished she could escape the city and run out into the fields and scream and tear her hair and throw dust over herself. Ruth had been sitting with her son and holding his hand when he died. She let out a long, anguished cry when he stopped breathing. Then she wailed and covered her head.

Lately I have loved reading these stories again, as the lectionary made its way through the first few books of the Old Testament. Next week we’ll be reading 1 Thessalonians, and while Paul has many good points to make, he doesn’t tell stories. Like Ruth, I think I’ll sigh, let out a long, anguished cry, and cover my head. I will miss the storytelling, yes I will.

Praise the Lord, O my soul. The Lord gives sight to the blind, loves the just, protects strangers, sustains the fatherless and the widow (that’s Ruth and Naomi both!). But he thwarts the way of the wicked.

Still, even the psalms tell tales, when I stop to think about it. And of course the gospels are full of the stories of Jesus and his three years of wandering across Israel – preaching and healing and outfoxing the Pharisees.

The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” So Jesus told them. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”

The Pharisees expected that. But Jesus kept talking.

“The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Good answer, Jesus. More than they expected to hear. This is one of just a handful of times when Jesus actually answered the question, rather than asking a second question himself. In the very next story he asked questions that, for the Pharisees and probably for the rest of us, were unanswerable.

(Ruth 1, Psalm 146, Psalm 25, Matthew 22)

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