Summary: Authentic relationships are enhanced when I am faithful to others regardless of what’s in it for me

We live in a culture where loyalty seems to be an increasingly less valuable commodity. We see that reflected in many areas of our lives:

• We see that in our jobs. In my father’s generation, most people worked for one company for their entire adult lives. Although the average job tenure has risen slightly during the recent economic downturn, the average job tenure is still only 4.6 years.

• We certainly see that in the sports world. For the most part, fans may stay loyal to varying degrees, but free agency means that most athletes are not loyal to their owners, teams and fans. I am a lifelong diehard Cubs fan, but to be real honest, I can now only name a handful of players on the team. When I was younger it was certainly much easier to keep up with the rosters of my favorite teams.

• We see that in our neighborhoods. I lived in the same house from the time I started school all the way through college. And during that time, much of our neighborhood remained unchanged. But today, the average American moves once every 5 years.

• We see that when it comes to customer loyalty. In our desire to get the best value most people are no longer loyal to one brand or one place of business.

• We even see it in the church. According to a recent survey, each year 1 out every 7 adults will change churches.

I think that we would agree that these trends certainly make it more difficult to develop authentic relationships with others. So this week as we continue our series on Building Blocks for Authentic Relationships, we’re going to focus on the building block of loyalty.

Before we talk about that third building block, let’s take a moment to review the first two building blocks:

Two weeks ago we looked at the relationship between Abram and Lot and developed the first building block of selflessness, which we summarized like this:

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I yield my rights in order to prevent unnecessary fights

Last week we develop the second building block of forgiveness from the account of Joseph and his brothers and summarized that building block like this:

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I give up my right to hurt you for hurting me

This week, we’re going to be looking at the relationship between Naomi and Ruth. So go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Ruth chapter 1. In that chapter we’re going to find that…

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I am faithful to others regardless of what’s in it for me

As we read through this chapter, I’ll pause occasionally to make a few comments. Then we’ll close our time by identifying 3 characteristics of Biblical loyalty and think about how we can apply them in our relationships.

[1] In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. [2] The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. [3] But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. [4] These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, [5] and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

We are told that these events occur during the time of the judges. We also know that they took place three generations prior to the birth of David since we learn later in the book that Ruth is David’s great-grandmother (Ruth 14:18-22).

There is a famine in Bethlehem, which is quite ironic given that Bethlehem means “house of bread.” So Elimelech takes his family and goes to Moab in order to get food for his family.

Moab was the son who had been born out of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his oldest daughter (Genesis 19). He settled in the land which came to bear his name, a land which was located about 50 to 80 miles southeast of Bethlehem across the Jordan River. There, Elimelech’s two sons married Moabite women, which was a clear violation of God’s commands not to intermarry with foreign nations who served other gods.

While they are in Moab, Elimelech and his two sons all die and leave three widows – Naomi, Ruth and Orpah.

Let’s continue reading in verse 6:

[6] Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food. [7] So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. [8] But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.

Upon learning that the famine is over in Judah, Naomi decides to return home. At first both of her daughters-in-law accompany her on that journey. But knowing that she has little to offer them in Bethlehem, she urges them for the first time to return to their mothers’ house, where they would at least have a chance of remarrying and carrying on a normal life. And in verse 8, we find the first of three uses of a key Hebrew word that is found in the book of Ruth. Here it is translated “kindly”, but the Hebrew word that is used there actually has a much deeper and profound meaning and in many ways it is the key to understanding the kind of loyalty Ruth demonstrates in her relationship with Naomi.

The Hebrew word – chesed – that is used here really has no English equivalent. Various English translations most frequently render that word “steadfast love”, “lovingkindness”, “kindness” or “mercy”. Chesed describes God’s loving loyalty toward His people. It is not about how God feels about His people; it is an action word that describes how God chooses to obligate Himself to His people regardless of how they respond to Him. That action is the overflow of God’s love for His own creation. God’s chesed toward His people is given because we need it, not because we deserve it.

We’re going to come back to this word again when we discuss how to exercise loyalty in our relationships with others. But for now, what I’d like you to note is that Naomi’s desire for God to exercise chesed in the lives of her daughters-in-law ends up being reflected back upon her through the actions of Ruth.

Let’s continue reading in verse 9:

[9] The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. [10] And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” [11] But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? [12] Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, [13] would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” [14] Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

For the second time, Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to go back to the families of their husbands in Moab. Again she points out that is their best chance of carrying on a productive life. Although her own faith held to the practice of Levirate marriage in which the brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow, Naomi was too old to bear more children, and even if she could, Ruth and Orpah would not want to wait around for those boys to grow up so they could marry them.

Orpah finally relents and heads back to Moab. But Ruth choses to remain with Naomi.

Lets’ continue in verse 15:

[15] And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” [16] But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. [17] Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Naomi urges Ruth to return to Moab for a third time. It is from this experience that the Jewish rabbis developed the practice of refusing a potential proselyte three times before that person could become a Jew. Naomi points out that Orpah has chosen to return to her people and her gods and that Ruth should do likewise.

But Ruth responds with her well-known words that demonstrate her loyalty toward Naomi:

For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.

With these words, Ruth makes a remarkable commitment to Naomi in which she is willing to leave everything behind for the sake of their relationship. It means leaving her own family and her land in order to live as a foreigner in a land in which she would likely remain a widow and childless, since, as far as she knew, Naomi had no man to give her to in marriage. This was a lifetime commitment that would not be broken even by Naomi’s death.

But most amazing of all, Ruth was going to forsake her own religious heritage in order to make the God of Israel her God. She was willing to make that commitment even after Naomi had claimed that the hand of the Lord had gone out against her.

Once Naomi saw Ruth’s determination, she no longer urged Ruth to return to Moab. And the two of them returned to Bethlehem together. And there God rewards Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law by providentially orchestrating an improbable plan to bring about the birth of the Messiah through Ruth’s offspring.

In many ways the account of Ruth creates more questions than it answers. We are left to wonder why Ruth chooses to remain faithful to Naomi when Orpah does not. I can’t imagine that Naomi had treated the two women differently so there must have been something different about their character and makeup that caused Ruth’s loyalty to be so much deeper than Orpah’s. But we’re never really given enough information that would help us to understand why Ruth was so willing, and even eager, to follow the God of Israel and give up her family, her homeland and her gods in order to serve Naomi’s God.

About all we can conclude with any degree of certainty at all is that in the ten years or so that Ruth had lived with her husband Mahlon and her mother-in-law Naomi, she had seen God extend His chesed toward her family on a consistent basis. So even when Naomi claimed that God’s hand was against her, Ruth’s own observations and experiences led her to believe that was not true at all and that God was completely faithful and worthy of her trust.

But even though that is about all we can really conclude from the text, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t enough in the text for us to learn from Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and draw some practical applications that will help us to develop that kind of loyalty in our own relationships. What we discover here is that the kind of loyalty that Ruth showed toward Naomi is actually very consistent with the idea of “agape” love that we find in the New Testament. It is, as I mentioned earlier also consistent with God’s chesed toward His people.

So with that in mind let’s look at…

3 Key Characteristics of Biblical loyalty

All three characteristics that we’ll look at this morning are completely consistent with how we summarized our text at the very beginning of the message:

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I am faithful to others regardless of what’s in it for me

1. Genuine loyalty to others is a response to God’s loyalty to me

Even though we don’t know all the details, we have seen that in her time in Moab, Ruth had seen God’s chesed toward Elimelech and his family demonstrated time after time. At a minimum God had certainly provided for their physical needs there. And undoubtedly He had been faithful to them in many other ways as well.

So it is not surprising that Ruth found God’s chesed to be so attractive that she was willing to leave behind everything that was familiar to her to serve a God who treated His people like that. Naomi’s God was certainly was quite a contrast to Chemosh, the god worshipped in Moab, whose idolatrous worship included child sacrifice.

This characteristic of loyalty has important implications for me if I want to become a loyal person in my life. If I am going to develop the same kind of loyalty toward others that God has for me it means that I have to understand God’s chesed for me. And there are two essential ways for me to do that:

1) The first way is to learn about God’s chesed from His Word. One of the things I have been doing in my Bible reading is to highlight all the verbs that describe God’s actions toward His people. I’ve always known that God is faithful to His people, but by focusing on all the things He does for us as I read the Bible I know I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for His chesed to me.

2) The second thing I can do is to consciously focus on how God is working in my personal life. Every day God is demonstrating His love toward us in so many ways. And if we’ll just slow down enough to see how He is working in our lives and thank Him for that, we’ll develop an even deeper appreciation of His chesed.

As we develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of God’s chesed toward us, the natural outcome of that process will be that we will desire to be more like that in our relationships with others.

2. Genuine loyalty is unmerited

God’s chesed toward us is completely unmerited. Aren’t you thankful for that? If God’s faithfulness and loyalty toward us was dependent on our loyalty to Him we’d all be in big trouble.

In the case of Elimelech and his family, God treated them with His chesed even though they had consistently disobeyed God. They had left Bethlehem to go to Moab during the famine, even though there is no evidence that God commanded them to do so. Apparently they weren’t willing to trust that God would provide for them if they stayed in the land He had given to Israel. And there is no doubt that when Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite women they were violating the clear instructions of God. And yet God still exercised his chesed in their lives.

Seeing that must have had a tremendous impact on Ruth. She was clearly under no obligation to care for Naomi. As a Moabite, she was not bound by Israelite law nor was she obligated by any social laws or customs of her own people. And it must have hurt to think that Naomi really didn’t want her loyalty and tried to convince her three times to return to her own family, even though in her mind Naomi was her family.

But Ruth didn’t let any of that deter her from being loyal to Naomi. She made a choice to be loyal even though Naomi’s treatment of her, at least on this trip, certainly didn’t merit that loyalty.

Now obviously there is a balance here. I’m not suggesting that we remain completely loyal to others regardless of what they do. When Jesus sent His disciples out to minister, He told them to wipe the dust from their feet and leave town if the people there rejected His message. So clearly, we have no obligation to be completely loyal to those who consistently reject God and who might hinder our loyalty to God in some way. However, that doesn’t mean that we are not still to love those people and treat them accordingly.

But, on the other hand, genuine loyalty means that I will stick with someone else even through difficult circumstances and even when they might not deserve my loyalty.

3. Genuine loyalty is an action, not a feeling

When we defined chesed earlier, we said that it is an action word that describes how God acts toward His people, not how he feels about them.

That is certainly true of Ruth’s loyalty toward Naomi. She consistently demonstrates her loyalty by what she does, regardless of her feelings. As I mentioned a moment ago, it must have hurt when Naomi tried to get her to go back to Moab rather than stay with her. And when Ruth and Naomi arrive back in Bethlehem Naomi says something that must have also hurt Ruth deeply. If you still have your Bible open to Ruth 1, look at verse 21:

I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

(Ruth 1:21 ESV)

Can you imagine how that must have made Ruth feel? Here she has made a lifelong commitment to Naomi and Naomi accuses God of bringing her back empty to Bethlehem.

But in spite of that Ruth consistently demonstrates her loyalty to Naomi by her actions. In chapter 1, she clings to Naomi and returns to Bethlehem with her. In chapter 2, she takes the initiative to provide for Naomi by gleaning in the fields. In chapter 3, she carries out, without question, Naomi’s instructions concerning claiming Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer.

Loyalty, like “agape” love is not a feeling. It is a conscious decision to act in a manner that is in the best interest of the other person, regardless of our feelings toward that other person.

Let’s close this morning by thinking about:

What does this kind of loyalty look like in my life?

Obviously loyalty is going to look a bit different for each of us. And in the short time we have, we can’t possibly even begin to scratch the surface of all the different places where…

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I am faithful to others regardless of what’s in it for me

But let me throw out a few ideas for you to consider:

• In my marriage

Think of how our marriages could be enhanced if both husbands and wives would practice this kind of loyalty. What if we acted with loyalty toward our spouse even when he or she didn’t deserve it? What if we acted in a way that was in the best interest of the other person, even when we didn’t feel like it? I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate in a tangible way how much my spouse really means to me. Just think of how that kind of loyalty would enhance our marriage relationships.

• In my job

It may very well be that God calls us to change careers or employers from time to time. I know I’ve certainly done that in my life several times. But I’ve also witnessed firsthand a number of people who are always switching jobs because they have no loyalty whatsoever to their employer. They are always looking for the perfect job, which will never exist because usually the problem is with them and not their employer.

On the other hand I have seen people who are loyal to their employers even when that loyalty is unmerited and even when they don’t necessarily feel like they should be loyal because of the way their employer has treated them.

I don’t want to embarrass her – at least not too much – but that perfectly describes my sister, Sally. She has worked for the same employer since high school, through several mergers and name changes, through some bosses that were really hard to work for, through multiple changes in policies and pay structures. But in spite of those difficulties I know that every day she has done her very best to give her very best to her employer. That is the kind of loyalty that honors God and enhances relationships.

• In my church

Next month, I’m going to preach a series of messages titled “I Love My Church”, and we’re going to cover this topic in much more detail. But for now, I want you to imagine how our relationships within this local body would be transformed if all of us were loyal to our church.

What if we decided to be as loyal to our church as God has been to us? What if we determined to be loyal to our church even during those times when we might feel like we aren’t being fed or when we don’t feel like our preferences are being taken into consideration properly? What if we made the decision to attend, and give and serve regardless of our feelings? What if we decided to stick it out and work through difficult conflicts rather than flee?

Authentic relationships are enhanced when

I am faithful to others regardless of what’s in it for me

What are you doing to develop that kind of loyalty in your relationships?