Summary: 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. Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried. May the Lord
Today is ’All Saints Day’ (or ’All Hallows Day’) and while I appreciate that this day is not as celebrated in our broader culture as is the day that precedes it - ’All Hallows Eve’ (or ’Halloween’) it is nonetheless a significant day of celebration in the church - a day when we celebrate our connection with the great saints who have gone before us in the faith and when we get to sing my favourite hymn, "To all the saints, who from their labours rest …".
And so I thought that today might be a good day to talk about some of the great heroes of the faith who have been a part of our faith community in Dulwich Hill, such as those who have served in far-flung areas of the world as missionaries, or most obviously, I suppose, my most famous predecessor here, the Reverend George Chambers, rector of this parish from 1911 to 1928.
The Reverend George built our church building, started a mission to British immigrants, founded Trinity Grammar School, and went on to become the first Bishop of Tanganyika - a great saint indeed.
And yet I decided in the end to focus my sermon this morning on another great saint from the past - Ruth, whom we read about today in the first chapter of the book that takes her name.
And that might seem like an odd choice, as what level of connectedness can we be expected to have with Ruth as compared with more contemporary figures such as the Reverend George? And what level of connection can I, in particular, expect to have with a person like Ruth. At least the Reverend George was male, middle-class and white like me. Ruth is none of the above!
I’m not going to say any more, at this stage, about why I’ve chosen to speak on Ruth rather than on some of the more obvious choices, but I will say now that I’m not sure that my lack of connectedness with Ruth is really much greater than anybody else’s here, for this woman lived at such a different time in human history in such a different part of the world that I suspect that none of us can readily identify with her.
Ruth lived a long time ago, even by the Bible’s standards. She lived in the time of the Judges - way before Jesus, way before King David, before all the kings and queens of Israel, in the days of great Biblical warriors such as Samson, Jephthah, Gideon and Deborah.
Ruth was born in an ancient time in an ancient land that no longer exists - Moab - whose ancient borders were roughly the same as modern-day Jordan, and which, like Jordan, had a very volatile agricultural economy, as the land was subject to prolonged periods of drought
Surprisingly though, as the book of Ruth begins, it is Israel that was experiencing drought, and so the family of Elimelech and Naomi, residents of the familiar town of Bethlehem in Judea, decide that the rolling plains of Moab look far more promising than their homeland, and so they up and leave - a move that was most probably perceived by their neighbours as something akin to rats deserting a sinking ship.
And if indeed there were residents of Bethlehem who cursed and spat as Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons walked away from Bethlehem in its time of need, they may have found some grim satisfaction in the fact that both Elimelech and both of the boys died in Moab, leaving behind them three widows - Oprah and Ruth and their aging mother-in-law, Naomi.
As I say, we are dealing with a very distant time and a very distant culture, and the future prospects for three single women in those days were not good. I’m not suggesting that the plight of widows is ever going to be one that is envied, but in that time and in that place single women had no property rights (or if they did, they were rarely respected). Rather, they were generally regarded as property themselves - part of the goods and chattels of their men-folk.
And there was no social security system to fall back on either, of course, meaning that a single woman would be entirely dependent on her family for support, and if she were an older woman without sons, she might well find herself with no way of sustaining herself at all.
Of course no civilised society simply discards its vulnerable members, and in Israeli law at the time (and in many of the surrounding countries) there was the institution of the ’kinsman-redeemer’ who was responsible for saving bereaved women such as these from destitution.
The way the system worked was that when a man died his brother would become responsible for the dead man’s widow. He would take her on as an extra wife and, ideally, provide her with a son who would both carry on the name of his dead brother and provide for his mother.