Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ruth's Secret Past

I was recently told that I am not a Ruth. Words don’t normally bother me, especially when they haven’t come out of animosity, but these remained in my mind because they labeled my core. The implication was that someone whose heart is bound to the Jewish people will have shown it by a physical change of location and language. The idea obviously mixes up a state of heart with a state of geography. Yet it has made me contemplate again, as I sit by my south-facing, sunny windows in Kansas City and not Jerusalem, Ruth’s long story . . . Who was she, and are we (who God has not yet sent over to the Middle East) anything like her?

The life of the woman we know as Ruth did not start on the day that she insisted on following Naomi to the promised land. Her marriage to Boaz the Jew was not her first marriage to a Jew. Her move to Bethlehem was not her first embrace of Israel’s God or Israel’s culture. Ruth’s famous, heart-wrenching cry, “Entreat me not to leave you!” was the result of a heart-knitting that had happened long before. For a decade past she had been joined to Israel in the most intimate of ways, although she was living in Moab.

For a decade she had belonged to the family—married.

The Bible’s description of her husband Mahlon is that he married Ruth and lived in Moab for ten years. In every translation the statements come in that order (the time-frame directly follows the marriage; it doesn’t precede it). The implication is very different than our old Sunday-school impression that Ruth hadn’t been married to him long, an impression we hold because she was beautiful, called ‘young’, and she had no children. (In reality, Ruth bore a layer of shame beyond being a Moabitess, a stranger, impoverished, and cursed by God with widowhood—she was also barren. She had been married for perhaps as long as a decade, and had not produced a child.)

We modern Christians think most of Ruth’s beautiful moment of declaration. We see the dust of the road and how she clung to Naomi instead of running back to her own mother. . .  But that moment wasn’t a turning point in her heart. 

It wasn’t her moment of decision; it is our moment of recognition. 

It’s the moment at which it becomes clear who was a sheep and who was a goat. The moment at which the outer layer of looks is stripped away, and the real love in the core of someone is displayed—are you Orpah, turning back to your old gods, or are you Ruth, truly and eternally married to the God of Israel?

Ruth was Ruth (and all that name encompasses) for the decade before she ever stepped foot into the Land itself – the decade in which she was a Jew’s wife and daughter-in-law, in which she was worshipping Yahweh, in which she truly loved her new family, and in which she had bound herself in heart and body to the Jewish people. That day on the road she simply showed the rest of us who she was inside.

The only reason Ruth ever entered Israel is because she had long before bound herself in marriage and love to the God of Israel and her new family. The entrance itself was not the binding. Out of the many believers who have loved the Jewish people with all their hearts, in all the ages and places of the world, Ruth was simply one of the few who was given the privilege of physically displaying it.

Can we perceive only the display -- the flashy, apparent moment she used the words we repeat in marriage ceremonies and then stepped across the Jordan? Or can we perceive the truth of a long love, a secret decade of devotion, a heart history that led her to easily take the dusty steps toward a place in history? In that road-side conversation you can tell Ruth had already loved Naomi for a very long time. I can tell you that those steps toward Bethlehem felt to her like simply the logical next ones -- they weren't spectacular and they weren't out of character. There was little difference between them and the steps she had been taking every day of the previous 10 years. (We think martyrs are strengthened in a moment, but they're actually the product of faithfulness. We think cultures are adopted in a cross-world move, but it's actually a movement of heart that began long before anyone else could see it.)

The real miracle of Ruth’s story is Boaz. This Jewish man saw – saw past the prejudices of his culture, saw past her Gentile genes. Saw – saw past the barrenness of her womb, saw past her stigma of being both childless and widowed. Saw – saw past the difficulties he and his children (if she bore any) would face in the life-long scandal of having an accent-laden outsider as a wife and mother.

And when he looked past those things, what did he see?

He saw into her heart, and discovered a woman who in spite of having lived her entire life in a different country was already knit to Israel, who had long ago married herself into the family and into the people, who already bore the image of the God of love and was demonstrating it by a faithfulness he may not have even seen in the natural daughters of Israel.

He saw that her state of heart had preexisted—and had made possible—her steadfastness during those moments on the road with Naomi.

She, of course, did not think so much of herself. She knew she was a foreigner, not even like one of his lowest servant-girls. She knew she had loved Yahweh from the moment she met Him and that she would give up her old surroundings to remain a part of His people, but she had no idea that she had become so virtuously beautiful because of it. In the true manner of virtuous women, Ruth wasn’t seeing herself; she was seeing Boaz—his character, his kindness, his sight—perhaps as clearly as he saw her.

So each regarded the other with incredulous surprise. While she was incredulous that he actually saw and valued her, an outsider, Boaz’s heart was so truly clear-sighted, he was incredulous that she would even consider him. Rightly incredulous. It’s a thing of beauty, this mutual incredulity. 

Without the other, neither Ruth nor Boaz would have their place in history or King David’s family line. Only their outrageous marriage brought either of them into the pages of the Bible. And that union only happened because each was able to see past the outside, into the heart of the other. Neither of their hearts were created by that moment of deciding to follow Naomi or that moment of deciding to ensure the young woman had enough barley to glean. No, their hearts were set a decade or more before, when they had individually bound themselves to God.

I’ve noticed multiple times in the last few years that certain ones of my friends and acquaintances have used the same particular word with me—when they have visited Israel, they say they have felt like it was their real “home.” They are right. The entire Christian population of the earth can’t all go live there at the moment, there isn’t room nor instructions from God to do so. 

But the fact that our bodies still live in Moab does not mean our hearts are not Ruth’s and our home is not Israel and we have not fully, irretrievably bound ourselves to the God of Israel and the people He loves.

No matter where you happen to be living at the moment or what languages you speak, do not be discouraged; the things He has done in your heart are real, as real as Ruth's unmentioned decade of love, and they will bear the same fruit as hers did. 

“Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

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