When Someone Tells You There Isn’t a Future
First in the series Ruth: A Handbook for Christians
By Rev. Robin Yim
This story begins with a famine. There is no bread in Bethlehem, a town whose name means House of Bread, which means you might not be able to make your home there anymore. Without bread, you can’t make home.
So, what are you going to do?
Well, I hear tell that Moab has fertile fields, that the famine has skipped over that place, and that a person can make some bread there and a home.
So, why not pick up sticks and move to that place, move there so you can make a home? Why not?
You see, home is a fragile thing; lose a piece of it and the whole of it just begins to fall apart.
At least, that’s the way it seems to the family we meet in the first moments of this story: Elimilech and Naomi and their two sons. They head off to Moab because a famine has robbed The House of Bread of its bread and has robbed them of their home. So, as our story begins, this family leaves the House of Bread that doesn’t have any bread and they become economic migrants in Moab.
Once they get there, they make a go of it. You see, they do what people do, what people have always done, no matter where they are or where they are from: they get to work, their children marry, and they put down roots right. In other words, they settle down and make a home for themselves just like people do. They, perhaps more than their Moabite neighbors, know that home is a fragile thing, and precious.
But, as you know, human life is fragile, also, no matter where you live. No more than three paragraphs into the story, Naomi is robbed of her husband and her two sons—a different kind of famine—and she’s left on her own in the company of the other women of her household, her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.
Bereft, Naomi knows she has nothing to offer them; not protection, not a way to bring babies to their breast, nothing which two young women of marriageable age might expect when yoking themselves to their husband’s household. Without a husband, without sons, without a way to keep either her husband’s or her son’s names alive into the future through children, Naomi’s life seem to her as barren as the famine-wasted fields of Judah she left behind years ago.
A few years ago, in talking about the task of interpreting scripture for the purposes of proclaiming good news, a preacher I admire said to pay attention to the verbs. Start with the verbs, she said, because when you find the verbs of a story, you find your life.
The first verb I’d like you to notice is Naomi’s verb: turn back. This is famine-talk. This is the verb of amnesia. This is the verb which, in the face of adversity and an uncertain future wants to stir up in us that which can only be called nostalgia: the sentimental longing and wistful affection for the past which we selectively remember for its happy associations with a place or people.
With her, she tells her daughters-in-law, there is no future. Her only advice, their only choice, is to go back, go back to where they came from.
Naomi imagines her daughters-in-law would be better off going back to the homes they came from and forgetting about her and her barren future. “Turn back!” Naomi tells them. “Return to a simpler time. Return to the place and the people with whom you can be at home. Forget about me. I have nothing for you.”
Orpah buys Naomi’s verb after wavering for moment. She decides she would be better off going back and forgetting about Naomi whose future is as fertile as a sun-scorched field of barley.
Ruth, on the other hand, has another verb in mind. Here, in the translation we heard, it is stay, but in most others, it is cling. Ruth stayed with, clung to, Naomi. The Hebrew word here means to remain steadfast, to abide, to embrace another human being whose life is at risk. Instead of buying into Naomi’s famine-talk, Ruth intervenes with language of steadfast love.
And, as we will see in the coming weeks, Naomi’s redemption from a barren future begins here, with Ruth, the Moabite, the one person in the story most foreign to the Israel’s faith, faith which is founded on the steadfastness of God’s love for God’s people, on God’s decision to abide with and cling to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Well, this is all well and good and makes for a nice story, but what does it have to do with us, who also are, through Christ, children of Abraham?
Well, there is this: someone will always tell you there isn’t a future. Whether that future is your future or their own future or the church’s future, someone will come into your life who is now devoid of the imaginative resilience she once had and say, “Turn back, there is no future here.” She may be as bitter as Naomi is bitter, unable to see a way forward for herself and others, count herself, even, accursed by God. Her conversation will be filled with famine-talk. She’ll want you to forget about her and move on with your life. She’ll want you to pine for those good-old-days which may or may not have ever existed. All she will see for herself is a barren life. Perhaps you’ve already encountered Naomi? Perhaps you already know her name?
So, as Christians, what are we to do when we come face to face with Naomi-by-another-name? Do we take her advice? Do we turn away from her? Forget about her? Go back to our past and try to start over? Do we leave her on her own, barren and bereft of hope?
I say, no. No, we do not.
Follow Ruth’s example and cling to the ones like Naomi we encounter. Remain steadfast to them, embracing them, abiding with them. Cling to, do not turn back, from those whose lives are most at risk.
First, begin by clinging to them with the Word. Use the stories of our faith to recharge your imagination of what God can still do in this person’s life. Second, as disciples of the resurrected Christ, practice resurrection faith in front of them; live and act as those who know the tomb did not have the last word over Jesus’ life, that even from a stump can spring a new branch. Third, speak to them with words of compassion and courage so they may come to know for themselves the resurrection promise of life defeating death, of good overcoming evil, of light driving out the darkness.
You see, like Ruth, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, are called to be agents of restoration and redemption to the Naomis we find in our homes, neighborhoods, and towns. Equipped with our faith, we are called to facilitate the restoration of life among those who feel their future is without hope. Charged with holy imagination, we are sent to those who will say there is no future. Cling to them. Become to them agents of God’s steadfast love.