A shared death can knit people together as much as a shared life. That’s the case in one of today’s texts, the snippet of Ruth’s story that records her words of love, such a beautiful expression of faithfulness that they have been long used by couples of various genders and orientations to express their own commitments.
The Ruth story actually begins with her mother-in-law, Naomi. In a time of famine, she and her husband leave Judah and migrate into Moab, where they are able to make a life among the Gentiles, even though Moab and Judah have been at war. Their sons find Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth.
But then Naomi’s husband and sons all die, and she and her daughters-in-law are knit together – not just by family ties – but by shared loss and grief. I imagine a lot of nights around a kitchen table, with questions and tears and wondering where the strength to choose life will come from now.
When Naomi hears the famine has lifted in Judah, she decides to go back home. Her daughters-in-law want to follow her. Naomi lets them come a little way, but then – perhaps traveling near their homes – tells them to go back to their mothers’ houses.
Orpah has ears to hear Naomi’s admonition to go home, and – kissing her mother-in-law goodbye – she turns to go. Sometimes the best love can do is say goodbye.
But Ruth … Ruth will not let go. She sticks tight as a sticker-burr, and pours out her poet’s heart in a hymn of chesed, of committed faithfulness:
“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. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Ruth, the young woman of great heart who welcomed the alien, the historic enemy, into her community, now commits to becoming an immigrant herself. Home, now, for Ruth, is where Naomi is. For love of this woman, she will live in a different place, among a different people, with a different God.
When I think of God’s call to Abraham, and how Abraham’s response was reckoned to him as righteousness … in this case, Ruth steps out on an even thinner branch: the recollections of a broken woman who believes her God has turned against her. If Abraham, who talked directly with God and received God’s promises, if Abraham is reckoned righteous, what must we reckon Ruth?
We reckon she’s a woman who knows how to love with her sandals on. She doesn’t just empathize with Naomi’s plight. No, she walks into it with her. She says, “Whatever you go through, you won’t have to go through it alone. I’m going with you.” That’s what a woman made in the image of God does … because that’s what God does. God goes with us, and goes through with us everything we go through.
We can also reckon Ruth a woman who loves her own self. She’d have to, to be able to love Naomi like that. We can see this connection in the words of theologian Mary Hunt. Hunt separates the definition of a woman-loving-woman from the question of sexual partnering, so that she can construct a broader definition that goes to the heart of the command to love self:
A lesbian is a woman who in the face of heterosexist patriarchal messages not to love women – indeed not to love herself as a woman – in fact does both. She loves other women as friends, that radical relationship of laying down one’s life that has always been valued in Christianity. And by loving other women she comes to authentic self-love … To be a lesbian is to take relationships with women radically seriously, opening oneself to befriend and be befriended, so that by loving, something new may be born. When all women are free to have this experience, then, and only then, can we say that any women are free.
What I take from Hunt’s words is this: the quality of a woman’s relationships with other women is a good indicator of how she feels about herself as a child of God made in the image of God. An ability to see another woman as made in the image of God and to love that woman comes out of having accepted one’s own imaging of God, one’s own self as beloved of God, who is therefore worthy of being loved by self and others.
Conversely, an inability to see someone like yourself positively can be a sign that you are unable to see yourself positively.
Love God. Love neighbor. Love self. And arrive at the place of being not far from the realm of God.
Ruth’s faithfulness was never forgotten. The author of Matthew, that most Jewish of gospels, lists her in the genealogy of Jesus, among several Gentile women — all of whom showed courage, ingenuity, and a willingness to break the rules for love. I’m sure Mary told her young son the story of his great-(insert more greats here)-grandma Ruth. A woman who knew how to love with her sandals on. The ancestor of a boy who learned to love with his sandals on.
May we all walk with such chesed.