Today as we conclude our series on the Old Testament women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy, we come to a woman in a most desperate situation. Yet the thing that characterises Ruth is not her helplessness, but her kindness.
This story starts in Moab: outside Israel, beyond the promised land, far the land of God’s blessing at this time. Moab was a country of curse. They are people rejected by God because of their actions in the past (Deut 23: 3-6).
However, a man called Elimelech leaves Bethlehem for Moab because of a famine (1:1). He takes his wife and sons with him, and his sons marry Moabite women (1:4). Ruth was one of these — not an Israelite, and, moreover, one of the people cursed by God. Outside of the country of blessing, the family of Elimelech passes through many struggles. The two sons, including Ruth’s husband, die and Elimelech does too (1:5). Ruth, her sister-in-law Orpah and their mother-in-law Naomi are on their own. They’re all widows, without husbands to protect them or provide for them. As well as this isolation, they’re outside of the country of God’s blessing. There appears to be little hope.
However, there is news that God has come to the aid of his people in Bethlehem (1:6) and Naomi wishes to return. She is unable to provide for her daughters-in-law there and urges them to return to their mothers’ houses. At that point Ruth makes a stunning promise: ‘Wherever you go I will go, where you live I will live, your people will be my people and your God will be my God.’
We soon learn the nature of this promise. Where Naomi is unable to provide for Ruth, Ruth will provide for Naomi. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth immediately asks Naomi for permission to go to the fields to gather the leftover from the harvest to provide for Naomi. Ruth is a foreigner in this place and yet her first thought is for Naomi’s sake instead of for herself. She works hard and the owner of the field called Boaz notices her. He asks his foreman, ‘Who is that girl?’ He’s told that she is a Moabite and that everyone is amazed because she does not act like a Moabite who doesn’t share with others. She is like a good Israelite, caring for her mother-in-law and helping her, and so Boaz ensures she will receive her share of the grain.
Later on, Ruth and Boaz marry and they restore Naomi by giving her a grandchild called Obed, the grandfather of King David and the ancestor of Jesus Christ. So, what shall we learn from Ruth?
Ruth is distinguished by her kindness. Her first thought in every situation is not for herself but for Naomi. The amazing thing about Ruth’s actions is that she has plenty of reason to feel that she has nothing to give others. Remember that she is a widow, a foreigner, youngand poor. She is marginalised, outside of the blessing of the society of Israel. You could easily think of her as helpless, but that’s not how Ruth views herself. She asks for help in the way of permission to gather from the leftover harvest, and she receives that help as someone who is active in her own fate, determined to care for her mother-in-law. From the time she committed to leaving Moab, Ruth’s dignity has been expressed in her kindness to Naomi.
I have a friend who is a bit like this. She struggles to hold down a job, to pick up on social cues, and to manage her money. Wearing her problems on her sleeve, she could easily be an object of pity. And yet, she offers to bring meals to others (despite not having enough to make ends meet), and to visit the sick (though it would take several changes of public transport to get there.) Perhaps she seems foolish to you, but what she is reaching for is the dignity of being allowed to express kindness to others. The greatest kindness I have seen anyone do to her is to accept her offers. They allow her to be not only a recipient but a giver.
In this story in the Hebrew, there is a word used to describe Ruth, ‘hesed’ and it means steadfast love, the kind that endures. This word is used of God as well. Ruth is being like her God in her kindness. Remember these words from Exodus 34: ‘The Lord the Lord the kind and compassionate one.’ Ruth is reflecting something very deep about humanity: that we are made for kindness because God is kind.
We see this kindness most fully in Jesus, the ultimate grandson of Ruth. Born poor, he fed the hungry. Rejected by others, he extended the hand of friendship. Cursed as he hung on a cross, he won for us every spiritual blessing. And powerful beyond all reckoning, he allowed a woman to anoint his feet. This is our Master, the one we follow, the one who shows us what it means to be fully human. Whatever our situations, we remember that we have been created for kindness, and as we show kindness to others, we are strengthened by receiving the care of our Father who never lets us go.
Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here