One of the things that a priest friend and I like to talk about is the choice that is inherently involved in each moment. We can choose joy, we can choose to be kind. We can choose love. Or, as he likes to say, we can choose to be “bitter” or “better.”
This little saying stays with me as I go through my days. I think after hearing it enough, it starts to seep in. I try hard not to be bitter. I try not to take things personally. Wherever possible, I try to leave the negative emotions out of the picture. They don’t serve me or anyone well.
Tonight as I am getting ready for the retreat I’m leading this weekend, I was reading the Book of Ruth. It’s a story of friendship, between to women.
Naomi is an older woman, married and living in a foreign land. One of her sons is married to Ruth. Within the span of a year, Naomi’s husband and her two sons die. Naomi is left, alone, in the midst of terrible grief. She tells her daughters in law to return to their families. The one daugher in law, Orpah, goes back to her family. But Ruth, oh Ruth. She has a heart of gold, and her response goes something like this:
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God my God.
What’s remarkable about this, in many ways, is everything that Ruth is actively giving up. She’s been given the “legal” blessing to return to her family, to go home. It’d be really easy for her to leave Naomi and start over, and no one would think less of her for doing so. Instead, Ruth has said that she will stay with Naomi, that she will cling to Naomi’s family, and that she will take up Naomi’s religion (which had not been the same as Ruth’s religion).
Out of love, Ruth has chosen to stay with her mother in law. So the two women travel back to Naomi’s family, back to Bethlehem. And upon seeing and recognizing Naomi, someone says “Is this Naomi?” To which she replies, making a pun in Hebrew, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
Or in plain English, “Don’t call me the pleasant one, call me bitter.” Poor Naomi, She who was once pleasant is now bitter because of the unfortunate turn of events that has occured in her life.
In this story, there is a great contrast between Naomi, who’s heart has turned bitter, and her daughter in law Ruth, who has chosen friendship and love.
In the Hebrew, though, the term that’s used for Ruth’s acts of compassion is hesed. Or “Loving Kindness,” which is generally reserved for describing God and His kindness to faithful people.
In staying with Naomi, Ruth has shown her own brand of hesed. Ruth has extended human loving kindness to both her mother in law and her deceased husband. Ruth has gone above and beyond the Judaic legal requirements, and she has remained faithful to her husband’s family.
Once the ladies are back in town, Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz takes notice of Ruth. He’s been told of her faithfulness to Naomi, and because he recognizes the goodness of Ruth’s heart, he allows her to glean the fields he owns. Later, Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, and in doing so he extends hesed to Ruth. He’s showing loving kindness to his dead relative (Ruth’s deceased husband, this act of marrying a deceased kinsmans widow is considered the right thing to do by Judaic law), and he’s extending loving kindness to Ruth.
Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, which in turn makes the sad events of loss right again. The people of Bethlehem recognize Ruth’s love for her mother in law, and declare that she is “greater than seven sons.” And, in the end, Obed is the great grandfather of David, who is later in the lineage of Jesus.
What is truly amazing about this story is the unusual love that is displayed by one woman, and the ripple effect this choice has on an entire family, and later an entire lineage of people. Ruth could have easily left her mother in law and returned home. Like her mother in law, Ruth could easily have been bitter about her situation. Instead, Ruth chose love, and she shared this love with others. In doing so, she changed the hearts of many.