WONDER WOMAN 3: RUTH, LOYAL, FAITHFUL, SUBVERSIVE
July 16, 2017
First Congregational UCC of Minnesota, University Baptist Church
Clyde Steckel, Emeritus Professor of Theology
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
Text: Ruth 1:15-18; 2:5-13; 4:13-22
First a show of hands. Raise your hand if you have checked your ethnic background on one of the websites like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me. Was it worth it to you? Their commercials make it sound like it could be a revelation.
I must confess I have not done that yet. I have two reasons, one I don’t like about myself, the other I do. I don’t like my knee-jerk frugality. As a child of the Great Depression, I am appalled at how much everything costs. Only buy necessities. Always pay cash. Those lessons I learned too well. So, the price of analyzing my DNA is way too high. If it ever drops below fifty dollars I might try it. But the second reason I support: DNA testing plays into the myth that biology determines everything, A person’s genetic composition clearly sets limits and opens possibilities. Truly we cannot be anything we want. We can decide what to do with those limits and possibilities, however. Our decisions matter. This dangerous myth of biological determinism infects the biological sciences and increasingly the social sciences and materialistic philosophy. Be on guard!
These ruminations about biology as destiny take me to genealogy, where the book of Ruth in the Older Testament is anchored. I bet you thought I would never get to Ruth! You’re right, I’m not there yet. What is it about genealogical research? Two weeks ago I was drawn into a Sunday afternoon conversation with two of Eleanor’s cousins, Marjorie who lives in South Minneapolis and Alice, who was visiting from Connecticut. (Some of you know that my wife, Eleanor, has dementia so is unable to participate in such a conversation.) After I was able to fill in a few blanks in the history of their grandparents, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of their genealogical shrine. There they were; twenty volumes of letters and clippings, boxes of old photos, some framed and hanging on the walls. Alice and Marjorie and Bob, Marjorie’s husband, spoke in hushed tones. I kept looking at my watch. Surely it was time to leave.
Driving home I asked myself, what is it about genealogy? I’m not sure. Maybe it is this: In a digitized and commercialized world, it is easy to imagine I am nobody except when I am on the Internet and when I am an agent of the economy, buying and selling. Against that, genealogy says, “Look, these were real somebodies back then, and I am from them and one of them I am somebody after all. I am not a nobody!
So that brings me, at last, to Ruth who was a definite somebody because she was an ancestor of King David and eventually of Messiah Jesus. More than that, Ruth was a bridge figure between the time of the judges of ancient Israel and the creation of the monarchy. And for us today, Ruth stands as a model to be emulated, loyal, faithful and subversive. Especially these days, as we live in a frightening time of transition from democracy to a quasi-monarchy, Ruth’s example can inspire our courage while deepening our loyalty and fidelity.
How does Ruth’s story demonstrate loyalty? That word, loyalty, needs to be rescued from its fate in our present discourse, where loyalty is used to mean blind, unthinking, unquestioning support. Loyalty is far deeper and more complex than that. Ruth was loyal to Naomi, her mother in law, even though that was not the usual practice. Ruth should have gone back to the land of Moab, but she refused out of loyalty to Naomi. “Wherever you will go I will go,” Ruth declares.
Then Ruth is loyal to Naomi’s instruction about working in the fields for Boaz and how to lie with him so that he could become her redeemer. That was a role assigned to the next of kin regarding inheritance. The man assigned to do that because Ruth would come with the field. So, Boaz is next in line. He steps up and buys the field and Ruth. She then became pregnant and gave birth to Obed, who became David’s grandfather. By loyalty Ruth entered into the genealogy of David and eventually becomes an ancestor of Jesus.
We all need, I think, to recover Ruth’s kind of loyalty, purging that word from its tainted usage. Loyalty to nation, to the family, to ethnic origin, to race, to class, to gender definition, or to the self can become a corrupting orientation. We need instead a loyalty that is generous, embracing and hopeful. Here’s how I would state my own loyalty: I want finally to be loyal to the God I know is Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and loyal to the community of his followers. If I can be loyal that way, I may yet be adopted into the family of Jesus, not as an ancestor but as a descendant. That’s a genealogy to celebrate! How would you state your most basic loyalty?
Next question: How does Ruth’s story demonstrate fidelity? You might think that loyalty and fidelity sound about the same in Ruth’s story. But I’m thinking about fidelity as a faith orientation, as a religion. In her declaration of loyalty to Naomi, Ruth leaves her Moabite gods and says, to Naomi, “Your God will become my God.” Ruth was taking quite a risk there. The Moabite god was Chemosh, who was a blended figure, part male and part female, part human and part animal. Sounds good to me! Ancient images of Chemosh show a seated human figure surmounted with the head of a bull, resembling ancient Egyptian deities. Chemosh seemed like a better religious deal than Yahweh, the god of Israel. Chemosh was a deity of a settled farming people blessing fertility and the harvest. Yahweh was a desert God, wandering, warlike, a surly and unpredictable clan chieftain, who might fight on your side but might not. Why would Ruth take up with Yahweh? Well, you might say it was family loyalty, of course. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe Ruth saw possibilities in Yahweh, that the god of Israel might really be a loving and compassionate parent down deep, yearning for love and justice. I think that’s it!
Last question: How does Ruth’s story show that she was subservice, and how does her life help us be more subversive? Ruth was subversive in three ways: subverting norms of family loyalty, subverting norms of cultural intermarriage, and subverting traditional religion for a new religion. She was one gutsy woman! How does her story help us? Here’s how it helps me: My religious life is dedicated to following Jesus, because in him I see glimpses of the divine and have hope. But I have my own little religion getting in the way. It’s not the Moabite god Chemosh, but it’s little gods suited to my life. These little deities are scattered all around my apartment and embedded in my soul. Over there are cabinets of foods I like that are not good for me, too much salt, sugar and fat. Next comes my computer, which I call Yahweh because sometimes it’s there and sometimes gone. I rant and rave at my computer, which does no good. I could write a psalm of lament like those in the Older Testament, saying, “Wake up, Yahweh! You helped us once. Where have you gone?” Next comes my small piano, where I noodle around with Bach and Scarlatti. I once bought a book of world music, a gesture toward being inclusive. But my fingers, my soul, and the piano itself prefer Bach and Scarlatti. Then there’s the television, where the little gods of consumerism and entertainment smile out at me and I am helpless in their grasp. They offer absolutions like wonder drugs and fast cars. Then I look within, where my comfort with white privilege, with the privilege of being highly educated, and the privilege of consuming far more than my share of the world’s resources all weigh on my soul.
The story of Ruth inspires me to hope that, like her, I can find a way of being Christian that sets me free from those deities enshrined in my apartment and in my soul. How would you relate your story to Ruth’s story?
Maybe it is all in the DNA after all. Maybe by adoption we connect with the DNA of Jesus, of David, of Bathsheba and Ruth and Rahab and Tamar, all those wonder women. Then you and I would be somebody, not nobody. I keep trying to live into that hope. I hope you do as well.