Ruth: an Unlikely Saint
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
All Saints’ Sunday
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in
the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the
country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.
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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her
two sons. These took Moabite
wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When
they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so
that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country
of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had
considered his people and given them food.
So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her
two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of
Judah. But Naomi said to her two
daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD
deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.
The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house
of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people."
But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do
I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?
Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a
husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a
husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown?
Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more
bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against
me." Then they wept aloud again.
Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and
to her gods; return after your sister-in-law."
But Ruth said, "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!"
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no
more to her (NRSV).
As you’ve heard, today is All Saints’ Sunday on the Christian calendar, and
since Baptists don’t really have any saints (at least, not like the
Catholics do) we use this day to focus on the saints in the way the Apostle
Paul used the word. He used it
to talk about ordinary Christians, people no different from those you see
here in the sanctuary this morning.
In fact, he used that word to talk about the Corinthians, and if
you’ve read the letters he wrote to them you know they weren’t all that
“saintly.” It was their faith in
Christ that sanctified them,
literally, “made saints” out of them. It wasn’t what they had done; it was
what He had done. Now that’s a
definition we can work with. But
from the earliest days of Christianity onward there have been some of those
ordinary, everyday saints who have lived extraordinary lives, or done
extraordinary things, and thereby become examples for the rest of us.
Think about Stephen in the Book of Acts, who was stoned to death for
his faith and said as he breathed his last, “Lord, do not hold this sin
against them” (Acts 7:60). That
story is still told to inspire us.
There were others in those early days who died for their faith, and
did it courageously. People
began to collect their stories and tell them in church and that body of
literature became known as hagiography,
which means, literally, “holy writing,” or (better still) “writing about the
holy ones,” or (best of all) “saint stories.”
One of the most famous collections of those stories is
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and if you
thumb through its pages even casually you can begin to see why All Saints’
Day and Halloween are so close together.
This book tells some pretty gruesome stories.
It tells the story of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who suffered under
the Roman Emperor Trajan, and who said, while he was awaiting trial, “‘Now I
begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things,
so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of
wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of
the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so,
only may I win Christ Jesus!’ And even when he was sentenced to be thrown to
the beasts, such was the burning desire that he had to suffer, that he
spake, what time he heard the lions roaring, saying: ‘I am the wheat of
Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be
found pure bread!’”
And then there’s the story of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who suffered under
Marcus Aurelius, and who “was carried before the proconsul, condemned, and
burnt in the market place. The proconsul then urged him, saying, ‘Swear, and
I will release thee;—reproach Christ.’ Polycarp answered, ‘Eighty and six
years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I
blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?’ At the stake to which he was only
tied, but not nailed as usual, as he assured them he should stand immovable,
the flames, as they began to leap up from the wood, encircled his body, like
an arch, without touching him; and the executioner, on seeing this, was
ordered to pierce him with a sword, when so great a quantity of blood flowed
out as extinguished the fire.”
Whereupon his enemies re-lit the fire and kept it going until his body was
It goes on from there, until it begins to sound like Hebrews, chapter 11,
where the author says, “There were others who
were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even
better resurrection. Some faced jeers and
flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
They were put to death by stoning; they were
sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins
and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the
world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living
in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35-38).
In all of this we are encouraged by the example of those who went
before us to live more fearless and faithful lives, and, honestly, I can’t
think of a better time to hear their stories.
Church attendance in America is falling off at a precipitous rate.
People are dropping out of church by the thousands, because they have
“better things to do,” because they’d rather sleep late on Sunday morning,
or head down to the river, or go to a football game.
In times like these we probably need to hear the stories of people
who would rather be thrown to the lions or burned at the stake than
compromise their faith in Christ.
They might inspire us to take our own faith more seriously.
Now, not all saint stories have a violent end.
Sometimes we point to the lives of ordinary, everyday Christians and
ask our children to follow those examples.
We talk about their wisdom, their loyalty, their devotion and
courage. We say, “Look at that!
Now, that’s the way to live a life!”
I remember leaving my daughter Ellie with a babysitter once—a young
woman in our church—and asking her to teach Ellie how to grow up just like
her. I’m sure you’ve told your
children the stories of beloved aunts and uncles, grandfathers and
grandmothers, Sunday school teachers and other saints.
We Baptists love to tell the stories of Lottie Moon (the closest
thing to a saint we have) and of Annie Armstrong, Luther Rice, and Lott
Carey. In this church I
sometimes hear the names of Baker James Cauthen or Theodore F. Adams.
So, on All Saints’ Sunday it seems fitting to hear the story of a
saint, and the one suggested by the lectionary is Ruth, who is—by almost
every standard of judgment—an unlikely choice.
But bear with me if you will for a little
hagiography, as we turn our
attention to Ruth, chapter 1.
It’s a story that takes place in the time of the Judges, after Moses and
Joshua have brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land but before
Saul or David have begun to reign.
It was that time when “there was no king in Israel, and every man did
what was right in his own eyes.”
And so begins the story of Elimelech (a man whose name means “God is my
king”), who lived in Bethlehem with his wife Naomi and their two sons,
Mahlon and Chilion. There was a
famine in the land—the crops had failed, there was nothing to eat—and so
Elimelech did what was right in his own eyes: he took his family to the land
of Moab, east of the river, where he heard there was food.
Can you picture him loading up his donkey with all his worldly goods,
and then starting out with his wife walking beside him and his two little
boys following along behind?
They probably went up the road to Jebus (present-day Jerusalem), some seven
miles away, and then up over the Mount of Olives and down the hill to
Jericho, another eighteen miles.
They would have crossed the Jordan there and climbed the hills of Moab on
the other side before finally coming to a place where they could pitch their
tent and start their new life.
I don’t know how long they were there before it happened, but it
did—Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two sons, a single parent.
Somehow they managed to get by, and
when the boys were old enough they married a couple of the local girls—Orpah
and Ruth. I won’t even tell you
how their mother must have felt about it.
There was a lot of bad blood between the Israelites and the Moabites.
And Moabite women, in particular, had a bad reputation (cf. Numbers
25:1). But the boys didn’t have
a lot of options. Moabite women
were the only women there were.
They married Orpah and Ruth and ten years later both of those boys died.
Maybe we should have seen it coming: one’s name was Mahlon, which
means “sickly,” and the other one’s name was Chilion, which means “weak.”
All the same there they were, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law,
left alone in the world to fend for themselves.
And don’t forget, it was a man’s world.
As one commentator has said, “there was no possibility of them
finishing a degree, entering the workforce, and sharing an apartment.”[ii]
The best they could hope for was that their family would take them in
again. And so, since the famine
is over, Naomi makes up her mind to return to her relatives in Bethlehem.
It’s all she’s got left.
Or so she thinks.
When she packs up to leave Ruth and Orpah pack up to go with her.
They start down the road with her toward Bethlehem and at first Naomi
doesn’t say anything. Maybe
she’s glad for the company. But
eventually she turns and says to these two: “Go home, both of you.
Go back to your mother’s house.
Maybe the Lord will look kindly on you.
Maybe he’ll give each of you a new husband and a new life.”
But they said, “No, we’re not going back.
We’re going with you.
We’re going to make our life with you in the land of Judah.”
And if Naomi could have laughed she would have.
“Daughters!” she said.
“What have I got to give you?
Nothing. Nothing at all!
I’ve got no home to give you, no husbands to give you.
Why, if I met a man this morning, married him this afternoon, and
conceived twin sons this evening, would you stick around until they grew up,
until you could marry them? I
don’t think so. No, go your way,
daughters. Go home.
And may God bless you.”
She kissed Orpah goodbye and Orpah started down the road toward home.
But when she went to kiss Ruth goodbye, Ruth clung to her and said:
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
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
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
death parts me from you!" (Ruth 1:16-17).
Can you imagine the look on Naomi’s face?
On one hand, shocked and surprised that Ruth would say such a thing,
but on the other hand grateful to tears that she wasn’t going to be left
alone? Ruth was clinging to her.
The Hebrew word is the same one used in Genesis 2:24 where it says,
“a man shall leave his father and mother and
cleave unto his wife.”
Ruth is willing to leave her father and mother and cleave unto her
mother-in-law, which is almost unheard of.
There must have been a long moment of silence, and then weeping and
embracing. But this is all the
Bible says, that “when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her she
said no more to her” (Ruth 1:18).
And that’s as far as we’re going to take the story today.
Don’t worry; we’ll hear the rest of it next week.
But for today we’re going to leave it there, with Ruth and Naomi
starting down the road toward Bethlehem, arm in arm.
I was having coffee with some of my colleagues on Tuesday morning of last
week and I asked them about this story.
“Where’s the good news here?” I asked.
“Where’s the gospel in this passage?”
And Rachel May, the pastor of Boulevard United Methodist Church,
said, “I love that part where Ruth says ‘where you lodge I will lodge.’
I love it that Ruth is not going to let Naomi be alone.”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
I’ve been thinking about it especially as we approached this All
Saints’ Sunday when I knew that Lynn was going to read the names of the 56
or 57 church members we have lost in the last year.
I thought about those of you who would hear the name of a close
friend or family member read aloud.
I thought about how alone some of you might feel and I pictured
Naomi, standing on that road, saying to her daughters-in-law, “I’m all
alone!” And I could almost hear
Ruth roaring back: NO, YOU’RE NOT!” and that’s when I thought, “There it is!
There’s the Gospel!”
Because we are not alone, not even when our last loved one dies.
There is someone who loves us still and who will not leave us, no
The people who have written commentaries on the Book of Ruth seem to agree
that this is a book that shows us what
chesed looks like.
Chesed is one of those special
Hebrew words that belongs to God and God alone.
We usually translate it “loving kindness” or “steadfast love.”
But in this little book Ruth shows us what
chesed looks like in human form.
It’s the look on her face when she says to her mother-in-law, “Where
you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my
people and your God my God.” In
other words, “I am going to be with you from now on.
I refuse to let you be alone.”
I don’t know. Some of you
may not want a daughter-in-law like that.
But on this All Saints’ Sunday the story of Ruth reminds us that when
we are feeling most alone we are not.
God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Somerville, © 2012
Both of these stories are from “The Ten Primitive Persecutions”
(Chapter 2 in Foxe’s Book of
From a 2006 sermon by Jim Mueller, Pastor, Austin City