Pursuit

But 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.

 

—Ruth 1:16

 

Women are, unusually, prominent throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  Unlike many of the people’s histories around them, regularly, Hebrew women positively shape the trajectory of their people’s narrative, guiding the story of God and God’s people toward a destiny of purpose and promise.  This story from the book of Ruth continues that exceptional tradition.  Like Sarah, Rebekah, and Tamar before them, Ruth and Naomi are not passive or demurring.  Rather than receding into the background of the story or subtly working to influence the narrative written about God’s people, Ruth and Naomi move to the fore, demonstrating the passionate intentionality characteristic of God’s people and the God they pursue. 

 In this scriptural landscape of women of mountainous character, Ruth and Naomi stand out as two of the most prominent peaks.

In this story from the book of Ruth, Naomi, her husband, and their two sons leave Israel during a famine.  They settle in the land of Moab.  There, Naomi’s sons marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.  Early in the story, all three men die, leaving three widows whose futures have turned rather bleak.  In a culture where women generally achieved the security of power and prosperity through their relationships with men, these women seem out of luck.  Yet, undaunted by their circumstances, Ruth and Naomi move within and through their relationship to change their futures and move toward God’s.  As the above excerpt from scripture attests, their profound relationship defines the character of their story. 

Formally, Ruth and Naomi’s relationship exists by virtue of the men in their lives.  Ruth marries one of Naomi’s husband’s sons.  When the men die, the formal connection linking them breaks.  According to custom, Naomi should return home to Israel and Ruth (and Orpah) should return to their father’s homes in Moab.  Naomi makes plans to encourage her daughters’-in-law return.  Naomi encourages both women to go to their fathers, to return to what little security they had available to them.  Orpah takes Naomi up on her offer, but Ruth refuses.  Ruth declares that the formal obligations that have held them together to this point are only an external expression of a deeper fidelity, a deeper loyalty she has toward Naomi, her people, and her God.  Legally, the women have no further obligations to each other.  Yet, Ruth will not let something as limiting as “formal obligations” define their lives. 

Going beyond custom, we discover that Ruth’s commitment is not based on legal expectation but upon something more lasting than laws.  Through her words and actions, Ruth reminds us that behind any formal relationship of value a deeper value sustains.  That value is love.

Repeated throughout the book of Ruth is the Hebrew word chessed. Chessed means loyalty or faithfulness and is clearly a theme emphasized within and promoted by this narrative.  Ruth displays chessed to Naomi.  Naomi displays chessed to Ruth.  Later in the story, Boaz exhibits chessed to Ruth and Naomi.  And, ultimately, God demonstrates chessed to everyone by returning prosperity to Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz. 

Chessed weaves its way through the narrative as a common thread, telling us about God and the derivative character necessary of God’s people. 

Yet, as Ruth’s actions portray, chessed entails more than just simple loyalty.  Chessed describes a way of living that goes beyond expectations incumbent upon participants in a relationship.  Such incumbent expectations are always externally driven and only prove effective to the degree to which those in a relationship care about the fidelitious pressures accompanying custom and convention.  In such circumstances, once those external pressures are removed or those participating cease to be concerned about the pressures, then the binding character of the relationship ends.  (Do not get me wrong, positive external pressure can be a great incentive and produce commendable results.  Internal pressures just offer something more.)  As Ruth’s actions exhibit, her degree of commitment far exceeds those bonds secured by external expectations.  Her commitment is much stronger.  Her commitment does not have its origins in outer legal obligations but an inner passion of love. 

Giving our relational bonds their depth and substance, love—as Ruth’s narrative purports—demands more and presses us beyond our personal and our culture’s limits.  Laws, on the other hand, when based on obligation lack potency and permanence.  Jesus, a descendant of Ruth, makes a similar claim when challenged by the Pharisees centuries later. 

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment or law.  There, he refuses to offer a law—other than the unwritten law of love—and claims that all laws within scripture ultimately derive their potency and efficacy not from their legal stature but from their loving origin.  Love, he says, always has the final say because it is love that (in the end) begins, maintains, and remains.  In the end, love pursues us, and we must pursue it.

This reliance upon love by Ruth is good news because it reminds us that our lives of faith are not limited to obligations and legal commands.  Our lives of faith press beyond such trivial conventionalities.  As such, the gospel according to Ruth is a declaration of victory over a faith defined by legalism and literalism.  Such a victory grants us the intellectual and spiritual freedom to be nimble and adjust to the various and unpredictable circumstances that confront us in lives rooted in the eventualities of the real world.  Like Ruth, lives of faith emergent from a passionate, pursuant love will always press beyond the limits of expectation toward the boundless, open possibilities of the transformative life with God within God’s kingdom.  Like Ruth, love boldly and in unexpected ways because you are boldly loved.

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