Summary: God takes us on – just as Boaz took on Ruth – and he makes promises to us…and gracious provision. And he “works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:29).
You’ve heard the one, I ‘m sure, about the lonely frog who goes to see a fortune-teller. He’s told not to worry. She says, “You’re going to meet a beautiful young girl, and she will want to know everything about you.” “That’s great!” the excited frog says. “When will I meet her?” And the psychic says, “Next semester…in biology class.”
Life has a way of “going south,” doesn’t it? And we wonder sometimes: “Are we merely the victims of fate? Is there any point to the unfolding events of our lives?” The book of Ruth addresses this question, and what it tells us is: There is a heart at the center of the universe. It’s not just a cold, empty expanse, indifferent to us or to our lives. Nor is it a machine driven by some cruel, malevolent force such as chance. No. What’s behind everything – this is what the book of Ruth tells us – what’s behind everything is a gracious Providence that is purposeful and loving.
It doesn’t seem that way, does it? You and I have absolutely no problem understanding Naomi, who, like the Prodigal Son, “traveled to a distant country” (Lk. 15:13), where not only her husband died, but her two sons as well. When she returned to her homeland, she asked not to be called Naomi, a name that means sweet. “Don’t call me that anymore,” she said. “Call me Mara instead.” Mara means bitter. Why? Because, as she put it, “The Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty” – who can resist the Almighty? He – “has brought calamity upon me.” She had gone away “full,” she said, but now “the Lord has brought me back empty” (Ruth 1:21).
We understand how Naomi felt. We have, no doubt, felt the same way at times. Life was good. God blinked. And now life is bad. Or, maybe it has nothing to do with God. The rabbi, Harold Kushner, asks why bad things happen to good people, and he concludes: it’s because God is powerless to do anything about it. Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated atheist, says it’s because there is no god. Hitchens writes, “I suppose that one reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that…there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not.”
But it is just this that I think shows us the wrong turn that Naomi took in her understanding. She didn’t know enough to believe that God had abandoned her. She didn’t understand God at all, and, sometimes, neither do we. The evil in this world is due to the fact that we live in a fallen creation. Nothing works the way God designed it to work – not because God is powerless to do anything about it and certainly not because there is no God – but because each of us can say, in the words of the old hymn – and must say, if we’re honest with ourselves – I “thrust my willful hands across Thy threads, and marred the pattern drawn out for my life” (Sarah Williams, “Because I Knew Not When My Life Was Good”).
That’s what Naomi had done, and, having done it and tasted the bitterness of its consequences, she was done with God. But God was not done with her. There is grace to reckon with, and we see it from the start in Ruth, chapter 2. Ruth, remember, is the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi. She is a foreigner, previously among the “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12) – and for that, she may have been an embarrassment to Naomi, a living reminder of her sojourn in the land of pagan idolatry. But that was previously. Ruth was now – in the words of another hymn – “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home” (Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”). “Your God [shall be] my God,” she had said, “and your people…my people.”
It is Ruth, recently come to faith, who has come to know enough of her faith to know what to do in the face of Naomi’s extremity, which she now shared. She knew Leviticus 23:22, for example, which says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” This was a sign of God’s providential grace. His land, the Land of Promise, which he had given to his people, would be a place where the poor would not starve. They would have to work for their food, but there would always be a place to work. This was part of his covenant with Israel, and he ratified by signing his covenant name to the command: “I am the Lored your God.”