A couple of months ago, I was talking to a youth director from our district and I was telling him that up to that point, the most spiritual sermon I had ever given in my whole life, the one that broke my heart and made me cry as I preached it, was back when I was in seminary and I was preaching out of Judges 19. I told him how, as I described the story, tears began to stream down my cheeks and I felt the weight of its grief and the power of the Holy Spirit to use even the most horrific of tales to change human hearts.
He had a bit of a blank stare because wasn’t immediately familiar with the story of the Levite and his concubine. So, in a few minutes, I outlined the tale of woe that begins with an abusive ‘husband’ and ends in the sacrifice and death of the ‘wife.’
He paused and then said, “If I taught that story to teenagers, I would be fired.”
He said it as a bit of a joke, but there is some truth the fact that we tell our children the Bible stories that we want them to hear, not the ones that even we struggle to hear.
And so, because the kids are here today, staying with us in worship, we’re going to need to translate an “R” rated Bible story to be a “PG” rated story, but we’re still going to have to do the work to admit the trouble that exists in its words.
For us to admit the trouble, we have to begin with verse 16, the end of the story. Ruth has done the thing that Naomi told her to do. She has been with Boaz in the place where they separate the wheat from the chaff.
What symbolism that provides! The place where the nourishing part of the wheat is separated from its garbage. Is Ruth going to be healthy or is she going to be thrown out like the trash?
Ruth arrives home before morning, careful not to be seen, and Naomi hears her come in and asks, “Who are you, my daughter?” It’s the same question that Boaz asks in the dead of night on the threshing floor, “Who are you?”
We keep finding dubious translations as we go along in the story. This is no different. The NRSV does some interpretation here and assumes that the words that literally mean, “Who are you?,” actually mean, “How did it go?” Because, of course, Naomi knows who this is. She’s the one who told her to stay out all night. She’s the one who told Ruth to seduce Boaz. And, when Ruth obeyed and comes home late (or early, depending on which way you want to see it), she asks, “Who are you?”
There are a few of ways to understand that question. The first is easy: Naomi wakes up confused, forgetting where she is and what is happening. Perhaps she was in the middle of a good dream, a dream in which her husband and sons were still alive and none of this deception was needed, a dream from which she doesn’t want to wake up. Maybe she’s confused.
Another option is that she was covering for Ruth. The likelihood is that these women lived in a tent or shack house near many other people living in similar situations. They were not landowners. Everyone in their area would have known what was happening in each other’s homes. So when someone comes home late, everyone knows. Naomi could be covering for Ruth because, if she had been caught, coming out of Boaz’s home before they are married, she could be killed, could be stoned to death.
We hear a very similar story in the Gospel of John. A woman had been caught doing this very thing, caught in adultery, and those gathered wanted Jesus to condemn her and he wouldn’t. Knowing that Ruth is Jesus 29th-great-grandmother adds some depth to this story. Maybe now we better understand why he so easily showed compassion.
So, maybe, Naomi is covering for Ruth. Even now, at this point in the story, she is in grave danger. If someone accuses her before she can marry Boaz, she will be brought to the elders and condemned to death.
The third option, though, is that Naomi asks Ruth, “Who are you?” because Ruth is changed. Maybe something happened that changed Ruth forever. Maybe she’s glowing. Maybe the weight of responsibility and the fear for what might happen next are visible upon her. Maybe Ruth is changed – because there are things in life that happen that, afterward, we are never the same.
For some of us it may be that love-at-first-sight type moment that people like to push when teaching this story of Ruth – maybe we had a moment like that with our spouses. For others, that life-changing moment is when you first held your child. Or moving across the country to make a life in Southern California – having no idea what you were getting into.
But maybe your life-changing moment is far less happy. Maybe, when you hear life-changing moments, you think about the moment that you lost your spouse or lost your marriage. Or maybe your moment is like my friend who said his life would never be the same after he lost his house in 2009. He didn’t lie. His family still can’t afford a home and retirement, it all feels like it is impossible for him.
Research shows that the top ten most stressful life events are (count how many Ruth experienced): Death of a spouse (or child); Divorce; Marital separation; Imprisonment; Death of a close family member; Personal injury or illness; Marriage; Dismissal from work; Marital reconciliation; and Retirement. These are all life-changing events. Some of them good. Most of them bad. But all of them stressful. Ruth had like six of these in just a few months.
For Ruth, she had a half-dozen of these moments in three short chapters. First she marries. Then she loses her husband. Then, by choosing Naomi, she loses her homeland. Then she meets Boaz in the field. Then, listening to Naomi, she puts her life on the line to seduce Boaz on the threshing floor. Then Boaz agrees to marry her. Any one of these major moments changes a life. Ruth experienced six in (what feels like) a month of her life. But, the truth that we take from her is this: There are moments in life that happen that, afterward, we are never the same, but God can use any moment to redeem us, to change our lives for the good, and to draw us closer to him.
Our church has now been going to provide meals on first Thursdays at Christ United for eight months. There is a woman there that many of us really love. She is so generous. She pushes a stroller around Normal Heights and North Park, giving food to anyone who will take it. And her spirit is evident from fifty feet away. You can tell that she loves Jesus from across the street. I’ve not seen anything like it before.
For months, she’s been asking me to pray for her daughter who is diabetic and an alcoholic. It’s not a good combination. I missed last month’s dinner. But I immediately went up to her and asked about her daughter. Her looked shocked, all the color drained from her face, and she said simply, “She died.”
And we cried together. This mother had poured herself out for her daughter and could not save her and this mother’s life will never be the same.
When I hear stories like this, I want to protect God in the same way that Naomi protects Ruth with her partial truth, a lie, asking, “who are you, daughter?” I see suffering and stress and death and I know that we don’t have a good answer for why. The best answer that I have ever come up with is I don’t know, but I do know that God cries with us. God hears our prayers and our pain and cries bitter tears with us.
But in my grief, I think that’s not good enough, and I ask, “Who are you, God?” Just like Naomi, the answer is in the question. I know that God is God, but I don’t recognize him in my sleepy confusion; I don’t recognize him in my grief and the ways that life has changed me since I first chose Christ.
So my question, “Who are you, God?,” is a question that knows the answer, but also knows that I don’t recognize God in my life sometimes. I don’t see how God could possibly be working when everything is falling apart. I want to defend God.
But God doesn’t need to be defended. I ask who God is because if I say to you that God is in control, and our lives are a living hell, then that says something about how unjust God is. But then the answer comes to my question: “I am a God who can take a woman who might have died a criminal, in the dead of night, and makes her the mother of Jesus, a woman to applauded for generations. I am a God who can take the death, of even my son, and use it to change the whole world and all the history that follows. I am a God is in control… and you ask me, ‘Who are you?’” “I am who I am.”
I hear the answer and I still wonder because Ruth thought she was in control. Boaz thought he was in control. Naomi even looked like she was the puppetmaster behind the scenes and in control. But God says, “I am in control;” yet, of course, we don’t fully understand how.
So as we leave today, we may be more confused than we were. We may be even more protective of God than before. But, we may also realize that God has been using the things that happen in our lives (both good and bad – not that God caused them or willed them, but God will use them) to draw us closer… closer… closer.
When we feel the tug for closer, may we walk toward God, seeing the face of our creator, crying with us and for us… and may we point our lives in God’s direction, through Christ, and live our lives in God’s grace.