Gormless, uncouth, inept and ruthless… we’ve lost their kinder, gentler opposites gormful, couth, ept, … and ruthful – full of ruth. What does ruth mean? You have to make a leap from ‘ruthless’ somewhere into the territory of care and concern. Ruth is that piercing sorrow you feel when you can’t dodge someone else’s distress. It’s the ill-defined opposite of hardness of heart.
We need so badly to flesh out that tender term that its such a pity Ruth’s book gets such short shrift today and tomorrow. But those few lines on Ruth’s lips tell us a lot:
‘Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God’.
Pity is a paltry word for it. Compassion hardly cuts it. Sorrow says too little. Ruth gives her name to something essential.
Ruth is the model disciple. In the gospels the disciples all get called in a flurry of upping and leaving. We know their dedication by what and who they leave behind—wives and nets, families and futures. Even Jesus says of himself he has no place to lay his head.
Yet Ruth’s discipleship is written in an altogether richer thread. Her journey is hard and she does leave her home and comfortable culture to be a stranger in a strange land. But her discipleship isn’t about leaving but about staying, not about letting go but holding fast.
She makes her vow to stay, to stay with Naomi, wherever Naomi goes. To belong with her. And she makes it not because she is strong enough to face the challenge but because she is too weak to harden her heart against Naomi’s sorrow and suffering.
There’s a strange Greek word that is always being used in the gospels to describe Jesus—and the translators all differ over its meaning. Jesus had pity one says. Another he was moved. Another he was angry. Another compassion. It is ruth he feels. Faced with poverty, faced with corruption, faced with religious hypocrisy, faced with disease and dying and death. Ruth. Like Ruth, Jesus is too weak to harden his heart.
And that’s a family resemblance. The only time Ruth is named in the gospels is in the genealogy at the start of Matthew. In among the mind-numbing litany of fathers a few mothers are smuggled in. And there’s Ruth. On Ruth’s weakness depends the salvation of the human race.
But that’s not exactly the family I’m thinking about. I read that genealogy with all its twists and turns and I hear the lengths that God has gone to to keep the story going. Against the odds and better judgment God has stayed with us. God is pretty bad at this hardness of heart thing too. And that’s where Jesus gets it from. He takes after his Dad.
And it’s his father, God, I hear saying those words to us here this evening: wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live I will live.