Listening to the book of Ruth being read at Morning Prayer recently, I was struck by how vulnerable Ruth and Naomi were. To start with, Naomi, Elimelech and their family arrive in Moab as refugees from the famine in Judah, possibly not the only ones to have made the journey. They were presumably left with only what they could travel with. Nevertheless, they seem to have settled, and both their sons married Moabite women. It might have seemed that their life was stable, until not only Elimelech but also both sons died, leaving Naomi alone with her two daughters-in- law. It must have seemed the logical next step to return home to Bethlehem. After all, Naomi would still have had kin there, and might have found more support; or maybe, also, she wanted to leave the place where she had lost so much. Having set off, she tries to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to their own families, where they may have had more chance of finding another husband, and would have had support from their own people. She may have realised the unlikeliness of anyone in Bethlehem marrying a foreigner. The first, Orpah, agrees, and returns home. But Ruth refuses to leave Naomi, and the two go on together. It strikes me as possible that even this journey may have been risky, for two women travelling alone, even if they were travelling with a larger group. Where they went on their return to Bethlehem isn’t stated; was Naomi’s original home still there, or did they have to find somewhere new? Elimelech had land in Bethlehem that now belonged to Naomi, so they were not completely destitute. But the Barley harvest was just beginning, and the land may not have been used for the ten years they were away. Initially, at least, they may well have been living on the breadline.
Ruth goes to the barley fields, to pick up whatever may remain, a practice allowed at the time. Going to the fields of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech, she ends up marrying him (read the full story in the Old Testament if you don’t know it). But while all ends up well, reading between the lines, there is evidence that it might not have done. Both Boaz and Naomi urge Ruth to only glean in Boaz’ fields. I have told the men not to touch you says Boaz; for, in someone else’s fields, you might be harmed says Naomi. Ruth, as a Moabite, would likely have been on the margins of society in Bethlehem; as a women without an obvious male protector in a patriarchal society, she was also in danger of whatever others might do to her. Coming back with Naomi meant leaving not only her own family and culture behind, but positively risking her self. All worked out all right, and the people of Bethlehem seem to have been impressed by her loyalty to Naomi, which may well have given her some protection. But that doesn’t stop the fact that her love for Naomi involved huge risk.
What of us? We have not committed ourselves to following our mother-in-law to a foreign land; but I, and many of those reading this blog, have committed ourselves to following our Lord Jesus. How vulnerable are we prepared to be in our following? I’m not suggesting that we should put ourselves physically at risk, or not keep ourselves safe from other people; but I do wonder how much of our selves do we protect from God? How much of that space within us which could be given to God, do we fill up with vain idols? Are we ready and willing to be truly vulnerable in our following of Jesus? This could be part of what it means when Jesus says that we can only follow him as little children: that we must be as vulnerable towards God as a little child would be. (Read Psalm 131 and Luke 18:15-17). Yet, too often, we come before God with our defences up (a waste of time, as God can see beyond them); with our hearts full, saying ‘look how much I have done for you’ (another waste of time, for God knows how much we have truly done); seeking to be perfect before we truly let God in (also a waste of time, as it’s impossible to come before God this way).
Do you fill yourself up, to avoid coming before God truly vulnerably? How? We each have our own ways of avoiding God, of avoiding the full power and glory of God’s love and compassion. Are you scared of what the all-seeing God might see? Are you certain of your own lack of worth, so that you need to prove it to a God who knows your worth far more than you do? Do you need to keep your pride before a God who accepts us in total humility? Is it power that keeps you from God? Or greed? Or selfishness? Or do you long for something else far more than you long for God? Do you need to prove your own likeableness by ensuring others like you, when God already loves you far more than you can imagine or deserve? Or are there other ways which come to mind, which I haven’t mentioned here?
In some ways, it doesn’t matter what your answer is; what matters is that you do answer, or, at least, are prepared to begin exploring your answer in so far as you are able. God knows the depths of your heart, and longs for you with compassion and mercy, ready to forgive and help you continue on your journey. For the life of faith is a journey, and it is one we will never complete, at least in this life; we will always have reasons for coming before God in sorrow when we have got it wrong. There may well be reasons why we cannot, at this point in time, come before God in total vulnerability; God knows what we can cope with, and will lead us gently along the way until we are willing and able to follow with our whole self, as humbly as a small child. What we can do is commit ourselves to the journey; continuing to follow as we can (and not aiming to do what we cannot, or cannot yet manage).
Jesus came to live among us as a completely vulnerable baby; it is what we celebrate over Christmastide. Maybe it is worth spending time with a crib or an image of the nativity, and allowing Jesus’ own vulnerability draw us to become more vulnerable before God ourselves. Maybe, as we reflect on the story of Ruth, and her love for Naomi, it can help us to explore our own love for God more, and how exactly that looks in our own context. Ruth left behind her family, her nation and her culture in order to follow Naomi; what do we need to leave behind in order to follow Jesus?