The book of Ruth has always been one of my favorite books in the Bible. It is one of only two books named after women (the other is Esther, whose faith saved the children of Israel from a devious, genocidal plot). The story of Ruth is not big and heroic and dramatic like that, though—instead, it’s all about plain and simple goodness, devotion that arises from love, and the idea that on balance life—and, we might also say, God—brings restoration, peace, and even joy back to those who have suffered loss and hardship. Weeping may endure for a night, this story reminds us, but joy comes in the morning.
The setting for the book of Ruth is also unlike the landscape of other Old Testament books. There are no big, cataclysmic events, no wars, no giants or evil villains, no angelic visitations or heavenly mysteries. Rather, the writer paints a quiet picture of a lovely and peaceful village town, where crops are planted season by season and the peasants tend the land and harvest the grain. Life seems peaceful. There is a natural rhythm to their simple life. But there is real and painful tension in this story, and it all stems from something readers and hearers of all ages know intimately—the loss of someone dear in their lives, and the despair and hopelessness that often follows.
We learn as the story opens that there was a famine in the land of Judah and so a man took his wife Naomi and their two sons to live in the country of Moab in search of a better life. Not long after they arrived, Naomi’s husband died suddenly. So she raised the boys herself and they grew and each married Moabite women, but unthinkably, after about 10 years, both of Naomi’s sons also died. She was heartbroken and bitter, as you might imagine, believing that the hand of the Lord had turned against her somehow—otherwise, why would such terrible things happen in her life? She decided to send her daughters-in-law home to their families—they were young enough to marry again, after all–and she would go home to Bethlehem. Her daughters-in-law try to object, but Naomi insisted. One daughter-in-law, weeping at the point where the road divides, kissed Naomi goodbye and did as she asked. But Ruth remains resistant, resolute, and she says,
“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!”
The scripture tells us that Naomi saw Ruth’s determination and said no more to her about it. She knew when she was beaten. So the two women make the trip to Bethlehem—hurting, grieving, defeated, but together.
Coming home means something different for each of the women in this story. Naomi, who has been an outsider in Moab for many years, seeks the place she knows well, the home of her upbringing, a place of comfort and family and memories that may help heal her heart and give her peace. Coming home in such despair and bitterness, though, would feel like a defeat, a shame, as in that day—and sometimes still, in ours—crisis and tragedy is interpreted as meaning that God has turned his face from us and is no longer bringing blessing and protection in our lives.
We know Naomi felt shamed and disgraced—and not just a little anger—because when she arrived home, she told the townspeople who came to meet her,
“Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
In Ruth’s case, coming home means letting go of all she knew in the past and being open to whatever a new life would bring. She gives up all she has known—her family home in Moab, her memories and connections there, the place that held the roots of her identity and upbringing—and she chooses instead to honor her bond with Naomi. She will let Love be her guide, come what may. Now she would take on a new culture, a new religion, a new people. And if you remember the rest of the story of Ruth, you know this is the right choice, because all turns out well. Ruth’s goodness of spirit—her insistence on choosing the leading of love above all else—is the hinge on which the rest of the story turns. For a good man named Boaz, who was a wealthy landowner, learned of Ruth’s choice and was drawn to her goodness. And by the end of the story, Ruth and Boaz are married and Naomi—who is allowing herself to be called Naomi once again, for her bitterness has healed—has a home with them and joy is restored for all. A new and hopeful future lies ahead.
So Ruth, in a nutshell, is a simple and good story about a simple and good choice: letting love be our guide as we come home to God.
We live in a modern world of such seeming complexity that we might be tempted to think that no answer is ever that simple, no resolution so complete, no problem solved that easy. And yet Jesus often teaches that what grows on the vine and bears fruit is a logical and natural outcome of the life within the branch. When we act in accord with Love, goodness must result. It is not about what we do or how hard we try or how many times we pray (with just the right words) but rather Who we are devoted to—and listening to—and following, in love.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower,” Jesus says. “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Where is the effort in that? Where do we say those magic words to make the right things happen? What is God asking of us here? In fact, there is nothing there that indicates we have any heavy lifting to do at all, beyond abiding, which doesn’t sound hard. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus said. The definition of abiding, according to Merriam-Webster’s, is “to wait patiently” or “to remain stable or fixed in a state.” I especially love that last possibility—the idea that knowing who we are in Christ, living in touch with the loving Light within us, enables us to find a stable inner peace that radiates outward to others if we let it. It is how the Light shines.
Quaker Isaac Penington is one of my favorite Early Friends and he has left us many beautiful and inspired writings that are full of love and spirit. He had a very tender soul and great capacity for communicating how God led and loved him. He and his wife Mary became convinced Friends after hearing George Fox speak. In his own words, Isaac describes how it felt to “come home” to Christ as he listened to George Fox speak in 1658:
"I felt the presence and power of the Most High among them, and words of Truth from the Spirit of Truth reaching to my heart and conscience, opening my state as in presence of the Lord. Yes, I did not only feel words and demonstrations from without, but I felt the dead quickened and the seed raised, inasmuch as my heart (in the certainty of light and true clearness) said 'This is he, this is he, there is no other, this is he whom I have waited for and sought after from my childhood, who was always near me, and had often begotten life in my heart, but I knew him not distinctly, nor how to receive him, or dwell with him.' And then in this sense (in the melting and breakings of my spirit) was I given up to the Lord.'"
In that tender and sacred moment, all that was blocking the way to the truth of God’s presence simply melted away, and he knew he was home, safe and sound with the One he recognized deeply, in the quiet of his own heart. That moment of arrival for Isaac Penington was like the moment of decision for Ruth, when she stood at the fork in the road with Naomi as she headed back to Bethlehem. Both Ruth and Isaac recognized the truth of Love’s eternal bond—and they would not, could not let it go. For Ruth, that choice would lead to healing and blessing for them all, and one day make her a part of the greatest story ever told, because the son she had with Boaz was the grandfather of King David, who of course was a forebear of Jesus of Nazareth. A blessed and divine, and human, lineage.
For Isaac Penington, that moment drew him into a life of ever-deepening spiritual gifts and demonstrated truths. He traveled extensively with George Fox, wrote many epistles that continue to inspire us today, was imprisoned six times, and was a general force for good in the midst of all the pretense and religious puffery of his day. When he died in 1679, George Fox wrote a testimony for him, which ends with this:
“I do know that he is well in the Lord, and in peace with him through the Lord Jesus Christ. I could desire, that all were in that innocent life that he departed out of this world in: and I know that he died in the Lord and is blessed. So let his works follow him, who is well, and at his rest with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the rest of all his faithful people. To him be glory and honor, thanks and praise, now and forever. Amen.”
Throughout his life as a Friend, Isaac Penington stayed very close to the home that he found in Christ that day he heard George Fox speak and his heart was so moved. Although he was hounded and persecuted and harassed by those who would have him jailed, he kept his heart pure and made sure to extend grace to all, carrying malice against no one. He saw the hope of God’s unity among people of all types, simply because we are all branches of the same tree. He knew that if we truly stay close to our inward guide, our faith will bear fruit—not because we’re doing it right, but because of who God is and the promise we are given through Christ. About for his own practice of faith, he wrote,
“Therefore the main thing in religion is to keep the conscience pure to the Lord, to know the guide, to follow the guide, to receive from him the light whereby I am to walk; and not to take things for truths because others see them to be truths; but to wait till the Spirit makes them manifest to me; nor to run into worships, duties, performances, or practices, because others are led thither; but to wait till the Spirit leads me thither.”
After meeting for worship today, when each of us arrives home, we’ll walk up to the door, put our hand on the knob, turn it, and walk into the space we know so well. We may feel a rush of relief or gladness, a feeling of calm or peace, maybe gratitude or perhaps a little pressure (if we have chores to do). We may feel some sadness, if we’re missing someone we love. But we know this space so well and it knows us.
In a very real and similar way, Divine Love has a home with each of us at the very core of our beings, deep down beneath all the stresses and struggles of everyday life. Coming home—weekly, daily, hourly–is no more difficult than breathing in and remembering God. Spirit is already present, like sunlight streaming through the windows, waiting in that quiet place within where that of God in us always abides. And we can trust and look forward to the goodness that Love continues to bring into our lives—it has to, like Jesus said, as the natural fruit of the living vine.
Like Isaac Penington, let’s do all we can to stay connected to that. Like Ruth, at every fork in our road, let’s let Love lead the way. The rest is up to God, which means our wholeness, our healing, our joy is in good hands, the best hands. God will do it perfectly. Our part is simply to abide—and say thanks, and shine.
- OT Ruth 1: 16-18
- NT John 15: 1-8