Dear friends in Christ,
Our meditation this morning is based primarily on our Old Testament lesson from Ruth chapter 1, but also picks up on Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the discussion that led to his telling the parable. To get into it, let me ask perhaps an odd question – Who thinks that mothers-in-law get a bad rap? You chuckle. For a long time there have been “mother-in-law jokes”. You do occasionally hear someone say, “Ugh, gotta go over by ‘the mother-in-law”. About ten years ago a movie was produced starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez called “The Monster-In-Law”! The jokes and movies such as this are based on the stereotype of mothers-in-law that they often stick their noses where they shouldn’t be; meddling in the marriages and family life of her daughter and her husband or of her son and his wife. Stereotyped this way, mothers-in-law then get the bad rap of being hard to love.
But from God’s Word this morning we have a lesson before us about a mother-in-law who apparently was very “lovable” – Naomi; deeply loved by her daughters-in-law. Our Ruth reading is paired with our lessons that teach the “second table (section) of God’s commandments that are summed up in the general command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:13-25 and Luke 10:25-37). (Commandments 1-3 make up the “first table – tablet, and deal strictly with an individual’s relationship with God, summarized by the command, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength”. Commandments 4-10 – the “second table(t)” deal with an individual’s relationship with God and with the people around us [neighbor]). A clear truth for us from all these lessons is the lesson about biblical or divine love; that this love is more than a warm and fuzzy emotion. It’s more than words and emotion; love is attitude and action. It’s right there in the best known verse of Scripture: “For God so LOVED the world that he GAVE his one and only Son…”. The same concept is there when God through his Apostle Paul tells husbands, “Husbands, LOVE your wives just as Christ LOVED the Church and GAVE HIMSELF for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It is relatively easy to speak the words, “I love you” or “I care about you”. Putting action to those words becomes more challenging to sinners like us.
Love Your Neighbor – It’s More than Words!
What love Ruth seemed to have for her mother-in-law Naomi! To help us apply this to ourselves today, let’s get a little background on these people. The Holy Spirit inspired writer of this account (maybe Samuel) introduces us to a husband and wife, Elimelech and Naomi, who were Ephrathites 1 living in Bethlehem of Judah, with their two sons “during the time when the judges ruled”. This puts them living sometime between 1350 and 1050 B.C. About 1400 B.C. God led his people of Israel from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses (Exodus). After the 40 years of “wandering” in the wilderness and Moses’ death, Joshua led Israel across the Jordan River and into that promised land of Canaan, where after conquests won for them by the LORD the 12 tribes of Israel dispersed throughout the land. After Joshua’s death there was no central, unifying leader for Israel. In each tribe there were leaders and “judges” who advised and might serve as judges in disputes. When trouble came upon the entire nation, the LORD would raise up one of those “judges” to prominence to unify the nation and lead them in fending off enemies. Some of the “Judges” were Gideon, Samson, Samuel. Based on the little genealogy at the end of the book of Ruth, it’s possible they lived toward of the end of the time of the judges.
There was a famine in Judah, so Elimelech and Naomi moved their little family to the country of Moab, which was East and a little South of Judah, across the Dead Sea. Some major events occurred while they were there: Elimelech died, the boys married Moabite girls they met there; and then apparently rather soon thereafter, those sons also died. Naomi was left in a foreign land with no husband, no sons, and her two widowed daughters-in-law.
After being in Moab a little over ten years Naomi heard news that the famine in Judah was over. So, she decided it was time to go home to Bethlehem in Judah. Daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth left with Naomi, though it may not have at all been Naomi’s intent to have the “girls” actually move to Bethlehem with her. It was custom at that time and place to have a rather long “good-bye”. You didn’t say “good-bye” at the front door, and then close the door on your departing visitor. You accompanied them “out of town” as your “send off”. So, they apparently went far enough that Naomi thought it time to stop and send the girls back to Moab where they might stand a chance of “starting a new life”.
Orpah “agreed”, kissed Naomi good-bye and headed back home. However, Ruth vehemently said that she would go with Naomi to Bethlehem, and would stay there with her. Her statement of love and commitment is beautiful. It has on occasion served as a Scripture reading for weddings. “Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.” But these were the words of a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law! What was involved in her statement was much more than some beautiful and pious words. Ruth put those words into action; action that required incredible sacrifice. Ruth would be living in a foreign land as a widow. Naomi by her own admission was an older woman who would soon need help. By our “standards” she may not have been that old – 50’s – but in that time and culture she was probably in the last decade or so of her life. A widowed foreigner in a foreign land caring for an aging mother-in-law appeared to be how Ruth would spend much of the rest of her life! But Ruth’s words were also the words of a daughter-in-law who had come to know and love, probably through her in-laws, the LORD, the God of Israel, the God of all the earth! Ruth’s love for this “neighbor”, her mother-in-law, was much more than just words!
Similarly, Jesus’ answer to the Jewish law teacher’s question about who is my neighbor shows the same truth, that “neighborliness” commanded by God – “love your neighbor as yourself” – is more than mere words. And, such love of neighbor is to be poured out on more than just people we “like”. The two men you would expect to have been “neighborly” to the beaten Jewish man on the side of the road perhaps “loved” in words only. One was a Jewish priest, a representative of the LORD to his people, and the other was a Levite, a worker in the temple of the LORD. Perhaps through their minds ran some words like, “I hope he’s OK” or “I wish there were something I could do for him”. But there actions had no love for that “neighbor”. The Samaritan man, however, even though Samaritans and Jews were somewhat enemies, saw a fellow human being created by God who needed help. And he knew he had the abilities and resources to meet his need. So he acted. He was a “neighbor”.
This brings us again to the biblical and divine concept of love. It’s more than words. Love is more than a fuzzy, warm emotion. Divine love is ATTITUDE and ACTION! Look at the attitudes Paul lists in our second reading (Galatians 5:22): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. Ruth had the attitude and the actions. She was a “neighbor”; she loved her neighbor as herself. If you read on in the book of Ruth, when they got back to Bethlehem it was barley harvest time. Relatively soon after arriving Ruth was in the barley fields “gleaning”, picking up stalks of grain that the harvesters had accidentally allowed to fall to the ground and, by God’s command to Israel, were to be left for the poor to pick up (Leviticus 19:9, 10 – God’s “welfare program” for Israel!). The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable – the same. He used his time, abilities and resources to meet the need of a man in need.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”. How are you doing in keeping this command of our God? Let’s really narrow down for just a moment to whom we should be a neighbor. While we are to be a neighbor to EVERYONE with whom we have contact and beyond, let’s just focus on the Ruth – Naomi relationship: family; elderly family. How well do you do at “being a neighbor” for your family members who are elderly? I’ll make a confession in this matter that still nags at me after 43 years, about this time of year as a matter of fact. My grandmother had been living with us for several months, and became ill and weak and was hospitalized. It was summer and I was home from college, 20 years old. Grandma was in the hospital for 5-6 days. In those 5-6 days, how many times did her self-absorbed, 20 year old grandson go to visit her, even though the hospital was only 2-3 miles away? Once. She died in that hospital. We Pastors find the same thing when we make our private communion visits to members of our congregation who are homebound, usually elderly. Our hope is to be with a person for maybe a half hour; 5-10 minutes of chit-chat, a devotion, and Lord’s Supper. But with so many of them we Pastors are one of the few people who visit them, especially in the nursing homes. And they just want to talk with someone. Family visits them rarely – maybe Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. How greatly some of their needs are met when someone just gives them some time and a conversation! So, to whom are you a neighbor when it comes to your family, especially your older family members? To whom are you a neighbor when it comes to your Christian Church family, especially some of the older ones who used to sit near you at worship?
But, why? Why go to the “extra” and sometimes sacrificial effort to be a neighbor and help someone in need? For Ruth was it simply the fact her mother-in-law had been good to her? Perhaps partially. But totally it was because of the God to whom she’d been introduced by her in-laws! She had been brought to know His love and the great help He provides through the Savior to come from Naomi’s people.
The reason for “loving your neighbor as yourself” is wrapped up in the discussion between Jesus and a Jewish teacher of scriptural law which led to the Good Samaritan parable from Jesus. The man asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus could have given a short, definitive answer: “You are by nature sinful and unrighteous before God; there is NOTHING you can do to inherit eternal life! You need a Savior! You need me! But that was not how Jesus so often taught. He wanted the man to learn. So, Jesus tried to lead him to that answer by asking him what God’s law says about being right with God and having eternal life: “What does the law say? How do you read it?” As the man quoted the simple two-part summary of God’s law / commandments, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself”. In telling the man, “You’re right! DO THIS and, you will live” Jesus must have hoped the man would see his own failure to have this attitude and to do what the law said. But no, the man just felt foolish for asking a question that had a simple answer which he already knew. Desiring to lift himself up (“justify himself”) in front of Jesus and whoever else was listening, he then asked, “And who is my neighbor?” In all of this, including the parable that followed, Jesus’ ultimate goal was not to teach the Jewish law teacher to be a nice guy to everyone. His goal was to lead this man to see his failure to perfectly obey God’s law, his inability to earn God’s favor and eternal life with him, and to see and trust Jesus as the Son of God who had come to be the perfect “Neighbor” to him and to give him a home in God’s eternal “neighborhood”.
Our God loves us the unlovable! And his love is more than words, it’s attitude and action. He has done what was necessary to meet our greatest need, to be right in his sight. He (Jesus) has been the perfect neighbor for us. He “moved into our “neighborhood”, our world of sin and death. He met physical needs of people around him. Jesus allowed himself to be beaten, robbed of his life, punished in hell for us. In him our wounded and dying soul is healed and made whole for eternity with him.
Being such a perfect “Neighbor” to each of us, he and the Holy Spirit give us the will and abilities and resources to meet the needs of those around us for their good. It starts in our own families – call Grandpa/Grandma, Mom/Dad – visit! Do you know a church member in nursing home or homebound, maybe someone who not that long ago sat not far from you here in God’s house. Give ‘em a call; pay ‘em a visit! Be a neighbor! Love your neighbor as yourself – it’s more than words!
One final thought on “Christian neighborliness”. When we become a neighbor to someone whose need we can meet with our time, abilities, or resources, Jesus may use you for even more, namely to meet their greatest need, the need the law teacher who came to Jesus had: to show that Jesus meets their need to be perfect and righteous before God and to give them an eternal home with God. It happened with Ruth! In Bethlehem Ruth married again, a relative of Naomi’s by the name of Boaz. Boaz and Ruth had a son. He had a son who was named Jesse. Jesse had a son whom he named David! Ruth’s great-grandson was King David, from whose family came our great “Neighbor”: Jesus our Savior. God put Ruth, a non-Jew, into his plan of eternal rescue for all sinners! When we offer that Savior to others, even remind believers of that Savior’s love and sacrifice for them, God has you in his salvation plan, too! Amen.
1) “Ephrathites” – “Elimelech belonged to the clan of Ephrath, which was the name of Bethlehem when Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (Genesi 35:19). Old Testament genealogies tie Ephrath to Caleb, the good spy, and to Bethlehem. A well-known reference to both Bethlehem and Ephrath is Micah’s prophecy of the Savior’s birthplace (Micah 5:2 – ‘But you, Bethelehem Ephratha, though you are small among the clans of Judah, yet out of you…’).” From “The People’s Bible: Judges & Ruth“, John C. Lawrenz. (c)Northwestern Publishing House, 1997.