A Love Story
By Pastor Vince Gerhardy
Our text today is a family story. It is a story probably three thousand years old about a family in trouble, and I guess it’s because of this, that this story has such fascination for us even today. Here is a middle-class family that has hit on hard times. Our text today is also a story about loyalty, love and devotion.
A severe famine hit the country. There was total economic ruin for everyone. These were not easy times to bring up a family. Hearing that things were a little better in the neighbouring country of Moab, Naomi, her husband, Elimelech and 2 sons decided to leave their hometown of Bethlehem.
This would not have been an easy decision for this family to make. An Israelite would have had to be really desperate, really hungry, to move his family to Moab. The Moabites worshipped the god Chemosh and on occasion human sacrifices were made which included whole villages and towns.
Naomi and her husband were desperate but soon after settling in Moab hardship struck this family again. Naomi’s husband died – a bitter blow indeed.
The story goes on and it’s not long before the two sons began dating local Moabite girls and Naomi eventually found herself with two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. This was a pretty big deal for an Israelite and it would have been tough being a mother-in-law to two young women who were brought up in such different religious and cultural backgrounds.
But it got a good deal tougher for Naomi. Both of Naomi’s sons died without leaving her any grandchildren. Naomi was a practical and compassionate woman. When she announces that she going back to her hometown, Bethlehem, she encourages Orpah and Ruth to return to their people, their culture, and their religion and make a new start since they were both still young.
What happened next is mind-boggling. When Naomi kissed the girls farewell, the girls wept and refused to leave their mother-in-law. Naomi pleaded and pleaded. Orpah saw the wisdom of it, and complied. But not Ruth whom we are told “clung to her”. I get a vivid picture of the young woman literally hanging on to Naomi – refusing to let go as the older woman tried to leave. Here we see absolute commitment and loyalty to Naomi.
“Don’t entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried. (God) do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”
What amazing words. What superlatives could I find to describe such love between a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law? It is human love of the highest order.
Mothers-in-law are the brunt of so many jokes. With the broad brushstroke of generalisation but also with an element of truth an element of truth in it, the relationship between man or woman and their mother-in-law can vary from uneasy, to competitive, to destructive. For some mothers, no woman will ever be good enough to be the wife of her son. You only need to watch an episode of ‘Everyone loves Raymond’ and you get a good dose of this kind of thing.
The only Old Testament story that comes near to this kind of expression of love, is that of Jacob who worked without wages on his Uncle Laban’s farm for seven years in order to marry his sweetheart Rachel. We are told “Jacob served seven years for Rachel. They seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20).
Now one could expect that words like those Ruth spoke could have come from Jacob’s lips as he expressed his undying love for Rachel. They were lovers. There is the whole sexual thing and the kind of yearning to be with the person of the opposite sex. But here we have a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. No eros here. This was pure, unselfish respect and love for a fellow human being. Very close to what the New Testament calls agape – that outgoing, costly, freely given kind of love which is best seen in Jesus Christ.
Most of what we see in the movies and hear in songs about love is contaminated with self interest. Love is not so much what I give to the other person but what I can get out of the relationship. A father was heard giving this advice to his daughter as she was about to leave on her first date. “Don’t be taken in by the first handsome guy who turns on the charm, looks into your eyes, and softly says: You are so beautiful! The chances are that he may be just looking at, and worshipping, his own reflection in your eyes.”
Love that is completely selfless, generous and complete is a rare thing in our world. There is always the motive behind most of what we call love, “What is in it for me”. Or we draw a line and say that going beyond that line was too much to ask.
Jesus demonstrated the kind of love that had no regard whatsoever with how he would benefit from giving himself totally in love. He was prepared to endure the stares of those who disapproved of his mixing with prostitutes and tax collectors. He heard the whispers of disbelief when he touched a leper, forgave the sins of the repentant and words of ridicule as he tell that he came to seek and to save the lost. We know all too well that it was his love for all of us that led him to the cross where he gave himself so selflessly and totally with no concern whatsoever about what benefits he will receive.
Love brought Jesus nothing but hardship and suffering. So why does Jesus ask – no command – us to love in the same way? He said it in the gospel reading this morning. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).
When Ruth pleaded with Naomi that she go with her, she knew that things would be difficult least of which would be the fact that she was a Moabite woman living amongst people who despised Moabites – the cultural, religious and social hurdles she would have to jump would be enormous – let alone fending for herself in a society where there was little support for a woman without a man. Naomi tried to warn her of all this but still Ruth insisted, “Don’t entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried. (God) do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”
That’s the kind of dedication, devotion, commitment and loyalty that Jesus is talking about when he says that loving God and loving others are the two most important commandments that God has given humanity. Jesus is telling us to love – willingly and sacrificially. No, he is commanding us to love, because he knew that anything less than a command would be dismissed as unimportant. He commanded us to love because we are happy with a love that is anything but unconditional and sacrificial.
A command requires that we carry it out. If we break a rule then we can expect consequences even if we break that rule unintentionally. Commands are meant to be kept but while I say that we don’t need anyone to twist our arm to admit that our love for God and for others has been anything but the kind of love that Ruth had for Naomi, her mother-in-law of all people.
This is where the perfect love of Jesus comes in. He loved us and continues to love us to the point of giving his life and then declaring us guilt free on the day of judgement. In spite of our lack of commitment when he commands it, he says to us, “Where you go, I will go”.
But Jesus’ forgiveness and love don’t let us off the hook when it comes to those commands that Jesus gave about loving with all your heart, soul and mind and loving others as you love yourself. It is clear from the scriptures that our love actually is God’s love coming through us. We have been recreated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and been given the Holy Spirit so that love would show itself in the way we are patient, kind, gentle, faithful, loyal, tolerant, forgiving and compassionate. Once again all credit goes to God. The power for us to love in this way, the results of this kind of love – all come from God and his good will.
So how does this work out in practical ways? Imagine that you want to get fit, so you buy a pair of jogging shoes and start off down the road. You finally make it back home, hardly able to breathe and you wonder why you were stupid enough to think that you could jog such a long way. Your body has used more energy than you had available to use. You throw your shoes in the cupboard never to be used again.
Many of us try to love that way. We love with great fervour and self-sacrifice. As a result of what you hear today you might resolve to love, but it only lasts a while, maybe a day or an hour. You can’t keep it up. Like the joggers we find ourselves down the road in pain, gasping and cramped. We have tried to give more love than we have the ability to give.
Love is a lot like jogging. Our output must be matched by our intake. An enduring love requires God’s word, his presence, his Holy Spirit, his love and forgiveness. As we love, we will love not in our own strength and ability but the strength and ability that we receive from Jesus. We will love because he has first loved us.
To love as Jesus commands us in our text today means that we need to immerse ourselves in his Word and Sacraments and to let the love of Christ enter our lives and empower us to love, serve and work together. We will come to realise more and more our place in God’s family and cast off everything that is opposed to love – things like impatience, selfishness, greed, an uncaring attitude, an unforgiving spirit and be led by the Spirit and be more Christlike in everything we say and do. Anything less than that would be like trying to run with both feet tied together. You might hop a little way but collapse under strain.
The readings today from the Bible inevitably lead us to ask ourselves, “What has my love been like”.
It makes us aware just how often we have only loved because someone has loved us first.
It highlights how selective we have been when it comes to showing love.
It shows up the times when we have talked about love but done little to give love legs and hands and actually do something. What a difference the kind of love that Jesus is talking about would make to our homes, our relationships with friends and our congregation.
Let us ask Jesus to forgive us for our failure to follow the command to love and ask him for the will and the strength to let Christ’s love empower us to love others in every situation.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006 Vince Gerhardy. Used by permission.