loving kindness (hesed)

The first sermon in a 5 part series on the Book of Ruth. In this sermon I largely follow the interpretation of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, from the Interpretation series.

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As we begin taking a look at the story of Ruth this morning, I’d actually like to begin by drawing our attention to something that happens with some regularity in the Old and New Testaments – specifically, I’d draw our attention to the numerous times that God changes somebody’s name. 

On quite a number of occasions, God comes to some person and brings a dramatic change to his or her life.

God sets him on a new path of life.

God invites her to a new way of being.

God calls him to a particular ministry

God invites her to a specific task.

And as God does so, he announces a change of name that will both symbolize and help actualize that change of life or vocation.

Even as I’m speaking there are probably examples coming to your mind.

Think of Abram, to whom God said: “You will no longer be Abram, but you will be called Abraham, for I will make you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.”

Think of Sarai, about whom God said: “She will no longer be called Sarai, for even in her old age I have blessed her and will give her the gift of a son.”

Also, think forward to the New Testament and to the example of Simon Peter. After his amazing confession of faith in Jesus as the messiah, recorded in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to him: “Simon, Son of Jonah, you are Peter, and on this rock (on this petros), I will build my church.”

There are other examples we could have given. But why do we begin this morning with the reality of the name change? Why is our attention drawn to this common and remarkable activity of God?

This morning we begin our consideration of the book of Ruth. But doing so we look first at the person of Naomi, whose own story is vital to the wider narrative of Ruth…

And the rather peculiar thing we find at the end of Chapter 1 is that Naomi invites a name change for herself. The word Naomi, the name Naomi, means pleasantness or sweetness. But this is what Naomi says at the end of our reading for today:

            “Call me no longer Naomi (sweetness); call me Mara (bitterness), for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”

With these words, Naomi turns the tradition of name-change on its head. Here we have an entirely different instance of name-change. This is not God calling someone to a new and hopeful future – this is not God giving a change of name to symbolize that new and hopeful future. No, in Naomi we have an anti-God name change.

Yes, a change has taken place in Naomi’s life, but it is negative change – what’s more, she lays responsibility at the feet of God. Don’t call me sweetness any more– call me bitterness. And blame God for it – he’s the one who did this to me.

To understand how Naomi comes to this place of hostility toward God we have to consider her story, a story that is given in very compact form at the outset of the book of Ruth. Naomi’s story can be summarized under three headings.

First of all Famine. Naomi and her husband Elimelech live in the town of Bethlehem, in the land of Judah – they are members of God’s people. But during their early years of marriage, famine strikes the land.

            They find themselves at wits end.

            They don’t know how they will feed themselves.

            The situation inclines toward the desperate.

 And what do they do? Well, Naomi and Elmelech do what peoples through the history of the world have done. They pick up and leave. They migrate. Famine leads to Migration. They go to the land of Moab. And we do well to remember that there was always hostility between the people of Judah and the people of Moab. So not only do they leave their homeland, but they set out for a land where there is no guarantee of a warm reception.

And then, beyond the experience of famine, and beyond the reality of migration, there is for Naomi, a profound experience of loss. First her husband Elimelech dies, and then both of her sons die. She is left without her husband and without her sons, in a foreign land. Beyond the deeply personal nature of this loss, beyond the very personal disruption, we remember that in that ancient, patriarchal culture, a woman without a husband or sons was left in a precarious situation – she has no status, no obvious source of protection, and no financial security.

On account of this dire and difficult situation, Naomi returns to the land of Judah. And upon returning, this is what she says:

“I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”

“When I migrated to Moab my life was rich and meaningful – on my return my life is empty. Everything that brought meaning and security is gone. So don’t call me Naomi (sweetness) any more, but call me Mara (bitterness) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”

Naomi turns the biblical pattern of name-change on its head. God has not set her on a new path in service to his good purposes. Rather God has taken away her family, has brought bitterness and grief to her existence – and she blames God. She wants her name changed on account of the bitterness God has caused.

In the context of our broad human experience, no doubt Naomi’s experience makes some sense to us.

We can easily imagine a child who’s name mean’s beautiful, who all her life is told that she’s ugly – all her life is treated as if she’s ugly – and we can imagine her saying later in life, “Don’t call me beautiful, call me ugly.”

We can imagine a child whose name means success, but who has often failed and has been told he’s a failure – we can imagine him saying later in life, “Don’t call me successful, call me loser.”

We can imagine a child whose name means laughter, but whose life has ended up full of tears – we can imagine him or her saying later in life, “Don’t call me laughter, call me sadness.”

And we can well imagine them placing the blame for their ugliness, their lack of success, their tears, at the feat of the Almighty. The almighty has dealt bitterly with me.

Naomi, of course, is not the only one who faces a difficult situation. We should not forget the two Moabite women who married her sons, and who have now lost their husbands. Of course these two women are named Ruth and Orpah. For all three there is a deep personal loss and also the loss of status and security according to the customs of that ancient culture.

As the narrative moves forward, Naomi begins the trek home to Judah. And it seems that Ruth and Orpah begin the journey with her – although they are Moabites, they are on the road with Naomi toward Judah. But at some point Naomi begins to make it clear that they will be much better off if Ruth and Orpah stay behind in Moab. Naomi makes it clear that she cannot provide for them, cannot give the security that they so clearly need. Three times Naomi tries to convince them to stay behind. She weeps for them as she urges them to leave her and remain in Moab.

After Naomi’s second appeal, Orpah decides to remain behind in Moab – but Ruth will not relent. Even after Naomi’s third appeal, Ruth refuses to give in. Indeed, it is in reply to the third speech of Naomi that Ruth offers some of the most beautiful words in scripture.

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.

With these words, Ruth gives expression to an astonishing commitment to Naomi.

“Naomi – you are without a husband and without security – and you cannot guarantee my security.”

“Naomi, as a Moabite I may be treated with hostility in your land.”

“But, Naomi, none of that matters. I am committing myself to you, to you as my mother-in-law and as my friend.

I will go with you to Judah.

I will become a part of your culture and society.

I will commit myself to you and to the worship of your covenant God.

So committed am I to you, that I will even go and die with you in your land.”

With these wonderful, beautiful words, Ruth gives expression to a concept that is central to the whole of the Old Testament, and which is particularly important to the book of Ruth. It is Hesed – a Hebrew word that cannot easily be translated into English.

Hesed is an act of loving kindness, but it is especially a loving kindness that comes to expression between those who are already involved in a relationship – it is not expressed between strangers.

Throughout the Old Testament, Hesed, loving kindness is expressed in a variety of relationships.

God demonstrates Hesed towards his people – a loving kindness that persists through all of their rebellion and waywardness and heard-heartedness. Ultimately, of course, God’sloving kindness is displayed as he gives us the gift of new life through his Son, Jesus Christ.

But God’s people also demonstrate hesed – loving kindness – toward God.  In their best moments, by the grace of God, his people turn toward him in actions of affection and praise and obedience.

Finally, Hesed, loving kindness also comes to expression between people in the Old Testament. As God acts with favour and grace toward his people, so also do women and men demonstrate loving kindness toward each other in the bond of covenant community.

And that is precisely what Ruth does in relation to Naomi. The way that she commits herself to Naomi is nothing short of an astonishing display of hesed – of loving kindness.

“Naomi, I’m taking a huge risk here. But I will be your companion, your friend, your supporter – I will not abandon you. Naomi, the sweetness is gone from your life. You feel that your life is empty. But I will walk beside you and I will try to make a difference for your life.”

And we should not gloss over the fact that this one who displays hesed – who mirrors the loving kindness of God, is a poor, widowed, Moabite. Yes she has committed herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s people and to Naomi’s God – but it is nevertheless shocking to the sensibilities of God’s people that from such an unexpected quarter (she belongs, after all, to a despised people) – in her the very character of God’s love is on display.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of Hesed – of loving kindness in an ongoing relationship. I think of a particularly powerful experience in life – when I was going through a time of anxiety and fear. One of my sisters opened her ears and her heart to me in a way that only she could. She listened to me, she prayed with me, and she helped carry me beyond fear and anxiety to better place of confidence and joy. She displayed loving kindness toward me, her brother, when I most needed it.

Over the past couple of weeks I read a remarkable little book by Elizabeth McCracken – it is the story of events surrounding her loss of a baby at nine months of pregnancy – and of her delivery of the stillborn child. McCracken writes openly and compellingly of her grief, of her feelings of guilt, of her walk through a valley of shadows and death. But she speaks also of those – including her husband and friends – who surrounded her, and accompanied her – those who emailed her and wrote to her and hugged her and sat silently with her. Though she doesn’t use the word – of those who displayed hesed, loving kindness toward her. Those who, in some sense, made it all bearable. They were the only ones who could have supported her in this way – and they did.

In itself, of course, loving kindness is a good and beautiful thing. It expresses the way of God toward us in Christ Jesus. But the story of Ruth reminds us that hesed isn’t only an end in itself. Acts of loving kindness lead to deeper experiences of community – such acts accompany us on the way to deeper and fuller relationships of love. Here we have to cheat a little bit by looking ahead in the story.

There are hints of this wonderful conclusion already in the opening Chapter of Ruth. We might ask: Why does Naomi decide to make the return trip from Moab to Judah. On the one hand it is certainly because she has lost her family. But also because, as we read in verse six: “She had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food.” The famine in Judah seems to be over – God has blessed his people – has extended loving kindness toward them.

And it is surely hopeful sign that we read in the concluding verse of chapter 1: “So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” At the beginning of the barley harvest.

What we need to see, is that there is a kind of parallel between what will happen with the harvest, and what will happen in the community of God’s people. 

What we discover in the book of Ruth, is that acts of loving kindness by Ruth and others will make possible a rebuilding of family life.

Acts of loving kindness by Ruth and others will lead Naomi from emptiness to fullness.

Acts of loving kindness by Ruth and others will lead to a fullness of life in community for God’s people.

Through a Moabite woman of all people (yes, one who has committed herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s God – but a Moabite still), and through her acts of loving kindness, there is the possibility of a deeper fuller experience of life in the community of God’s people.

God’s act of loving kindness, through the giving of a harvest, will lead his people from famine to feasting.

And as women and men mirror God’s loving kindness in their relationships with one another, they are on the path from emptiness to fullness  in community – they are on their way toward sweetness from bitterness in life together, as is God’s intention for all his children in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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