Albert Tomei is a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. A young defendant was convicted in Judge Tomei’s court of gunning down another person execution style. The murderer had a bad record, was no stranger to the system, and only stared in anger as the jury returned its guilty verdict.
The victim’s family had attended every day of the two-week trial. On the day of sentencing, the victim’s mother and grandmother addressed the court. When they spoke, neither addressed the jury. Both spoke directly to the murderer. They both forgave him.
‘You broke the Golden Rule—loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You broke the law—loving your neighbor as yourself. I am your neighbor,’ the older of the two women told him, ‘so you have my address. If you want to write, I’ll write you back. I sat in this trial for two weeks, and for the last sixteen months I tried to hate you. But you know what? I could not hate you. I feel sorry for you because you made a wrong choice.’
Judge Tomei writes: ‘For the first time since the trial began, the defendant’s eyes lost their laser force and appeared to surrender to a life force that only a mother can generate: nurturing, unconditional love. After the grandmother finished, I looked at the defendant. His head was hanging low. There was no more swagger, no more stare. The destructive and evil forces within him collapsed helplessly before this remarkable display of humaneness.[i]
The power of a mother’s and grandmother’s love broke the hardness in the soul of a convicted felon. In a sinful, broken world, there is a great need for this kind of love to be demonstrated. One of the most moving stories in the Bible is the story of two ordinary women struggling with great loss. Both of these women had lost their husbands. For Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, the future looked bleak. All she could see was poverty and uncertainty ahead. She had no hope of a future home and family and became embittered by what God had allowed to occur in her life. She felt God had dealt harshly with her. In an alien culture and land, she decided to return to the home of her youth. She remembered with fondness the times of God’s abundance, the love of a husband, the delightful squeals of her children, but these carefree memories also reminded her of her losses. Death had claimed both her boys and her husband. She had left her home with her family, full of hopes and dreams. Now she returns mourning their loss. She had left full, now she returns empty. This is the setting for the relationship between Ruth and Naomi.
God, however, does not leave these two women to fend for themselves. All through the book of Ruth, we see that chance happenings are in reality the hand of God’s gracious provision. It is the story of going from emptiness to fullness, from brokenness to wholeness. What fascinates me is that though great losses happen to people, even God’s people, God is working out His purposes. Many times, we cannot discern what He is doing. What seems like disaster is one of the instruments in God’s hand shaping our lives and destiny.
In this life we will experience difficulties, losses, and great adversities. When they come, we generally ask, what have we done to warrant this situation in our lives? We may review our steps and we may question every move. We may even feel like Naomi, betrayed by God. I wonder how Naomi felt when the losses continued to stack up. She saw it all as an expression of God’s sovereignty and providence. She told the ladies of Bethlehem upon her return that it was God who was responsible for what had transpired in Moab. Yet in the drama of losses and human pain, the unforeseen gains of God are often overshadowed.
We find in the drama the moving story of love and devotion of a daughter-in-law. It is this devotion that is an expression of God’s provision. This relationship is the beginning of God’s restorative process. This relationship reveals that God is gracious and loving. What Naomi does not see in her loss is one of God’s greatest gifts, the gift of relationship. The relationship between Naomi and Ruth proves to be a glorious blessing in Naomi’s old age.
What we so often fail to see especially in our materialistic, things-oriented society is that the greatest gifts are the people that God brings into our lives. The etymology or history of the name Ruth means ‘friendship.’ In light of what unfolds, this is a most appropriate name, for Ruth is brought into a family where grief becomes the pattern. It is out of this relationship that God brings forth a distinguished genealogy which includes King David, and finally the Messiah, the Lord Jesus.
When we evaluate relationships, there are some that bring people from brokenness to wholeness, and emptiness to fullness. In our world today, the family can be a place of refuge or part of the pain that people are enduring. Yet, God uses people to bring blessing to our lives. There are some characteristics or qualities that facilitate transforming relationships. Through the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the Lord produced a transformation in their lives that neither thought possible. So, what are the qualities that empower and transform relationships?
THE FIRST QUALITY THAT EMPOWERS AND TRANSFORMS RELATIONSHIP IS A COMMITMENT OF LOVE AND DEVOTION
The greatest agent that facilitates change is love. Love can change us where everything else has failed. It is the ingredient behind the first steps in a new direction. It strikes me as ironic that one of the most moving verses of devotion and commitment in the Bible has to do with the devotion that Ruth exhibits towards her mother-in-law, Naomi. Here is the context that led to those immortal words of commitment. Naomi has discovered that God has provided for His people in her hometown of Bethlehem and she determines to return home. Her daughters-in-law decided to follow Naomi. Though Naomi values the sentiment, she entreats them to return to their own family.
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 —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!
At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.[ii]
Naomi reminds them that she has nothing to offer them, and that there is no future in this relationship. Orpah decides to return to her family. Here we have the contrast between the two daughters-in-law. Whereas Orpah decides to follow what in the natural appears to be the sensible path, Ruth follows after Naomi. Orpah represents the normal response. She is obedient to her aged mother-in-law, but what Ruth does is extraordinary. It is a path of no apparent gain. It is a path that reveals her loving devotion to her aging mother-in-law.
The same cause induced Orpah to go and Ruth to remain, the fact, that Naomi had no longer either son or husband. The one wished to become a wife again, the other to remain a daughter.[iii]
Naomi urges Ruth to follow after her sister-in-law, Orpah. She applies the issue of peer pressure. Look what your peer is doing. Naomi is trying to look out for Ruth. However, the heart of Ruth reveals a loving heart. It is a heart that is very foreign in our society which is often self-centered. We would easily dismiss Ruth as being foolish. She doesn’t seem to be making any provisions for her future. Yet as we shall see, she is making the greatest provision possible. She is making a commitment not only to an aging woman, but even more importantly, she is entrusting her future into the hands of the true and the living God.
‘Look,’ said Naomi, ‘your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.’[iv]
Then we have these immortal words, expressed by a loving and devoted daughter in law.
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.
Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’[v]
How many wedding messages have taken these stirring verses to help describe what real commitment to another person is like. The author uses a contrast to bring out how unusual Ruth’s love and devotion is towards her aging mother-in-law. When Naomi sees the intensity within Ruth, she sets her heart towards home, and stops trying to dissuade Ruth from following.
“When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her (Ruth 1:18).” The word for determined is the idea of steadfastness. Ruth had set a course. In a day where commitment means little, what we are witnessing here is the power that commitment brings in transforming a person’s life.
THE SECOND QUALITY THAT EMPOWERS AND TRANSFORMS RELATIONSHIP IS SACRIFICIAL SERVICE TOWARD OTHERS
A transforming relationship is one where sacrificial service is demonstrated. In a time of self- fulfillment and self-expression, we find very little self-denial. Yet it is this quality that the gospel challenges us with. It is this characteristic that brings about change in people’s lives. Ruth was willing to provide for Naomi, the only way she could. She worked in the fields, collecting the leftovers that were missed by the harvesters. This was part of the law’s provision for the poor. Though there were some who were unable to work and needed care, many of the poor were given the opportunity to gather provisions from the gleanings in the harvest fields. Work brings about a sense of self-worth and dignity and simple handouts destroy.
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor. Naomi said to her, Go ahead, my daughter.
So she went out, entered a field and began to glean behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she was working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.[vi]
It is easier to see in hindsight that commitment is aptly rewarded but we often do not see it in the present moment. Here we find God’s provision in a man by the name of Boaz. When Ruth left her country and entered the Israelite community, she entered a world of different customs and culture; she had no idea where this would ultimately lead. This is certainly true of each of us that surrenders our life to Christ and begin the journey of learning a new value system. We know that we will spend eternity with God but have no idea the road ahead that God has planned for us, with some of its challenges and many amazing blessings.
Ruth’s commitment was to her aging mother-in-law, but even more importantly, her commitment was to the true and the living God. That commitment was expressed in her willingness to serve unselfishly.
One of the challenging areas for some of us in this place is the way we will care for our aging parents. Without taking their freedom away, what are we doing for our parents? The Bible teaches that we are to honor them. That word honor includes with it the idea of providing for them when they have aged and are unable to care for themselves. Every culture must address this issue. We are challenged by what to do with aging parents. It is one thing to place our parents in a convalescent center. That is not the issue. It is our involvement with them thereafter that counts. Some in our society are all but forgotten. The Bible gives us clear cut instructions regarding parents and grandparents.
But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
If anyone does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.[vii]
What is God telling us? Love begins at home. We need to support those that God has put into our lives, who at one point cared for us. When we do what God bids us, that is where God’s blessings flow back to us. In Ruth’s case, we find a very caring relationship flowing from Naomi. Notice, the expression of Naomi, she sees Ruth as not just her daughter-in-law, but as a daughter. She treats this young Moabite woman as her own daughter. In this relationship we find, God directing their steps. We find His plan unfolding before us. Naomi is not jealous, trying to keep this young woman totally to herself. She desires the best for her daughter, Ruth.
In our willingness to serve others, we release the grace of God to work mightily through us and on behalf of the other. Most of the miracles found in the Bible occur as people were ministering to others. Ruth finds herself working the fields of Boaz, and favor is being extended to her by this gracious, godly man. This was providential. God was watching over the drama of these two ordinary women, these two seemingly obscure lives. They seemed to matter to no one. Yet God was overseeing the events of their lives. How many of us wonder why He would bother with us? Yet God is concerned for each of us. Ruth’s service to her aged mother-in-law is being observed by the community. She is a woman of character. She is being regarded highly by others. Not that this was her intent, yet God is about to reward her diligent, and loving service.
Boaz replied, ‘I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.
May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’[viii]
Our unselfish actions are observed by our Heavenly Father with delight. Unselfishness brings about the greatest changes in marriages, homes, and the environment of work and school. This is a key to transforming relationships. It is not just about us.
THE THIRD QUALITY THAT EMPOWERS AND TRANSFORMS RELATIONSHIPS IS CONCERN AND RESPECT FOR OTHERS
A transforming relationship facilitates mutual concern. It is demonstrated by respect for others. Naomi is awakened to the needs of her young daughter-in-law. She is concerned about Ruth’s future. In a society that left little for a young, widowed women to be engaged in, to find rest or, as the NIV translates it, a home, becomes the mandate of Naomi. She wants the very best for this young woman who had demonstrated such love and commitment, and such unselfish service towards her. Naomi has moved beyond her grief. She has a reason for living. She has a desire to see her daughter-in-law, Ruth provided for. When we serve others, we discover one of the real purposes in our lives.
One day Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, ‘My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?
Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor.
Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking.
When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.[ix]
Some have taken these verses that follow as an expression of immorality. However, as biblical scholar, John Davis disagrees and rightly points out:
In the fullest historical and cultural context, the events described in these verses take on a note of ethical and moral beauty. According to Hebrew law, Ruth was entitled to call upon her nearest of kin to fulfill the various duties of a responsible kinsman. Ruth’s actions were, therefore, in accord with previous revelation of Scripture and well-known customs.[x]
Ruth was requesting that Boaz take responsibility to marry her, and restore the lands of her dead husband, and keep the name of her husband alive through the children that they would have. We notice Ruth’s obedience in Naomi’s counsel. She realized that this aged woman was concerned about her well-being. She was also aware that Naomi understood the customs and the culture of the Israelites. She knew what was best. Sometimes as young adults we want to make our own choices and our own way in life. One of the great tragedies that I see is the poor selections some young men and women make in choosing a spouse. The warning signs are all there, but they take it as a challenge or they feel loved, in a special way for the first time, and they don’t see the problems that this particular relationship will bring. What is often overlooked in making a marital commitment is the need for certain qualities in a suitor that will sustain a life-long relationship. Many times an older, godly and more experienced person can see what a young, inexperienced and emotionally driven young man or woman lacks perception to see. Ruth was a wise young woman. She knew that Naomi wanted only what was best for her. Naomi, knew that Boaz would make a good husband for her daughter-in-law.
Relationships that transform people bring great blessings not only to themselves, but also to others. Good is seen in the final outcome. God works mightily through people who exhibit unselfish love and devotion to others. It is interesting that the women of the town were speaking to Naomi regarding what the result of the union between Boaz and Ruth. It is as if Naomi is restored. The greatest grief in the Hebrew culture was for a woman to have no children. When we discuss the issue of children, there are those who have felt keen disappointment, even as Naomi did. Here we find the gracious hand of God, providing a family to Naomi through the life of a woman that was not her flesh and blood.
The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the LORD, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!
He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.[xi]
For Naomi who had suffered in the Hebrew mentality, the ultimate tragedy was that she had no lineage, but was now experiencing a second opportunity. Her daughter-in-law Ruth was going to bring about the family blessings. Notice that it was to Naomi that they stated her life would be renewed and sustained. As far as the community was concerned, they could see that Ruth had proven to be better than a complete family. What she had done for her mother-in-law was incredible. She was truly a great provision and blessing in Naomi’s life. God had not forgotten, nor forsaken Naomi. He had brought blessing out of calamity. God had given fullness out of emptiness. There is one thing that we cannot control and that’s our ability to reproduce. Granted we have made some strides medically, but still there are those who are unable to have children. Let me encourage all of us; we can befriend people to such a degree that one day they become family to us. We can have spiritual children, people who God enables us to bring to faith and then nurture in the faith.
The ultimate dream of every Hebrew girl was to have the deliverer, a savior, a messiah born to them. It is interesting, that Ruth’s son is the grandfather of King David. It is from David that we have the genealogical line of Jesus, the ultimate messiah, the ultimate deliverer of His people. The impoverished women leaving Moab, are the means that God used to bring such fullness to all future generations. As we look around in our lives, the real blessings are not found in what we have achieved or received; rather it is the people that God has brought into our lives. It could be parents, a mother, a child, a friend. People are the real treasures. Cherish them for they are God’s gift to you. It is as we give our lives to others that lives are transformed!
[i] Touching the Heart of a Killer, New York Times (3-7-97).
[ii] Ruth 1:12-14, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] Paulus Cassels, from Lange’s Bible Commentary; quoted by Leon Morris, Judges and Ruth, T. O. T. C., (Downers Grove: IL: 1968), 259.
[iv] Ruth 1:15.
[v] Ruth 1:16-17.
[vi] Ruth 2:2-3.
[vii] 1 Timothy 5:4, 8.
[viii] Ruth 2:11-12.
[ix] Ruth 3:1-4.
[x] John Davis, A History of Israel, 166.
[xi] Ruth 4:14-15.