Ruth 1:8-18 & Esther 8:1-8 Summer Series: Top 10 in Bible
Elizabeth M. Deibert 10 July 2016
Two women with very different lives. Ruth is in a desperate position as an adult, a widow, with nothing, who commits to help her mother-in-law. Esther got out of her desperate orphan life as a girl and became a Queen, but she does not let her success make her forget the desperate needs of her people.
Both women exhibit loyalty -- fierce, courageous loyalty. Both women take risks to do the right thing, and God blesses them in their courage. Let us learn from them that doing the right thing is always right, even when you risk your life to do it. Jesus, one of Ruth’s descendants, did that too.
Before we read Ruth’s story, let me remind you that Naomi had lost her husband and both of her sons. Ruth and Orpah were Moabites. Naomi was returning to her homeland. She encouraged the young women to do the natural thing – stay in their own homeland, returning to their mothers until they find new husband. Having a husband was generally required for any quality of life in these days, while having sons was social security for old age. Naomi had neither, but she had Ruth. In a man’s world, Ruth and Naomi work together to secure themselves.
8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband." Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me." 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16 But Ruth said, "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. 17 Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!" 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. (NRS)
Naomi is to be commended as well as Ruth for her desire the best for her daughters-in-law. Because she believed she could not provide it, she encourages them to abandon her. But Ruth cannot. She is fiercely _______loyal. Not many women choose their mother-in-law over their own mother, especially when the husband is no more. But Ruth does. She stays with Naomi, and in the end, they are rescued by Boaz, a wealthy land owner. But the interesting thing about this story is how it is told from the destitute women’s perspective, and how the women are able to work it out by faith and hard work and some careful plotting. Ruth was as loyal as God. I will not abandon you. I am steadfast and true. Wherever you go, I will be there. And due to her willingness to listen to Naomi’s scheming, Ruth is able to use the power at her disposal to win herself and Naomi a secure home with Boaz.
The Book of Ruth also challenges ethnic assumptions like the Good Samaritan story. Ruth is the good Moabite. Moabites were not generally understood to be friends but enemies. But Ruth shows us a radically different picture. Moabites are faithful and true. We need this message today that the ones we assume are unsafe, the people we fear, are not always the enemies we think they might be. They are just people like us.
(slide) We need to hear again President Roosevelt reminding us in his first inaugural address that the “only thing we need to fear is fear itself.” For it is fear that makes a police officer shoot too quickly, when feeling threatened, and one feels more threatened if one is making broad assumptions about groups of people. Many of us have a hidden prejudice that even we ourselves will not recognize until we are put in a threatening situation. It is fear that propels hatred and hatred with no outlet turns to despair and leads to desperate acts like we saw in Dallas. Faithful police officers were trying to provide a safe environment for a peaceful protesters in the name of Black Lives which do matter so very much. One angry man turned that constructive act of protest into a bloodbath of confusion and deeper conflict. None of this is right. And violence will continue to make more wrong, not make any of it right. God help us all.
(slide) Speaking of violence, the Book of Esther is full of it, I’m sorry to say. Violence and a beauty pageant. It is a book is full of irony. The poor orphan Esther becomes the Queen, because the former Queen Vashti did not obey the whims of her husband, King Ahasuerus. Esther’s uncle Mordecai guides her to her success, but he obstinately refuses to bow to the King’s right hand man, Haman, the bad guy in the story. Haman, like Esther, is a foreigner in the Persian court. The bad blood between Haman and Mordecai has its roots in King Saul’s day. Remember Saul was the King before David, our Top 10 Bible character from last week’s service.
So we pick up the story after Esther has won the heart of the King in the beauty contest. And after Mordecai has refused to bow to Haman. And Haman, not knowing Queen Esther is Jewish, has decided that Mordecai and all the Jews should be killed. Haman prepares the gallows, while Esther plots to share a meal with the King and Haman, knowing that she has the King wrapped around her little finger and he will do whatever she wishes. King Ahasuerus has promised several times that she should simply ask, and he will do whatever she requests. Much to Haman’s surprise, she divulges who she is as a Jew and asks that she and the Jews be spared. This took enormous courage. She was standing up to make a dangerous request. Remember this is the same King who on a whim, disposed of one Queen, because she did not come to him when he requested. But Esther knew what she was doing. She had made the King happy, and he was ready to do whatever she wanted. So Haman got caught in his evil plan, and he himself was hanged on the gallows he prepared for the Jews and Mordecai. Then the King gives Haman’s authority to Mordecai. Hear the story and notice how respectfully Esther speaks, even after Haman has fallen. She is wise and exercises good judgment here. Now as I read it, I invite you to follow the tradition of Purim and boo every time Haman, the one plotting evil, is mentioned.
On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews; and Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her. 2 Then the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman. 3 Then Esther spoke again to the king; she fell at his feet, weeping and pleading with him to avert the evil design of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews. 4 The king held out the golden scepter to Esther, 5 and Esther rose and stood before the king. She said, "If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king. 6 For how can I bear to see the calamity that is coming on my people? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred?" 7 Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and to the Jew Mordecai, "See, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows, because he plotted to lay hands on the Jews. 8 You may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king's ring; for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's ring cannot be revoked." (NRS)
What we learn from Esther is the crucial importance of exercising power in ways that improve conditions for others, especially those who are being mistreated. Esther did that. She risked her place with the King to protect her people, but she did so carefully and respectfully. She made sure she had won the King’s favor, and waited for him to seek her wishes. She was not demanding, but cautious, waiting for the King to ask her twice. This is diplomacy.
It is courage, much like Ms. Reynolds, girlfriend of Mr. Castile who was shot. I have no idea how she would have the calmness to use Facebook video while her boyfriend was bleeding from gunshots, but sometimes in a moment of shock, the adrenaline rush allows us a certain strength. We must all rise up and demand justice for people who have done no wrong, as Esther did, and Ms. Reynolds did. But I pray we can all move away from the brutish horror of hanging people and shooting people in response to injustice. Violence begets violence, and hatred more hatred. Until good people stand up and peacefully say, “No more! This is not who we are. This is not the world we want to live in.”
(slide) As Martin Luther King Jr said, “We not only refuse to shoot a person, but we refuse to hate a person.” We want to be part of the non-violent solution – a world in which people of all skin color and religion and ethnic background are respected and treated with the same dignity, a place where all of us can trust and appreciate the safety provided by the police. (slide) Back in April this peace-loving woman approached this peace-loving policeman and she said she would pray for his safety. The policeman was so moved by it, he asked for a photo together, and posted it on Facebook with the story which ended, “Don’t hate evil more than you love good.” Romans 12 says, “Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good.”
These two women, Esther and Ruth, demonstrated a fierce loyalty and goodness in the face of evil. They stood by their people, even at risk to themselves. There are many great stories of loyalty, but after a troubling week, sometimes it is a recreational joy to think of our animal friends who are less complicated than humans. There is the story of Achiko, (slide) about whom a 2009 movie was made. He was the dog who went to the train station every day to meet his master, a professor in Tokyo. One day while at the university, his master had a stroke and died, never to return, but Achiko continue to go to the station every afternoon for ten years. There is a statue of Achiko the loyal dog in Tokyo.
(slide) In both stories of Ruth and Esther, outsiders became insiders, and both acted with the loyalty and goodness that we more often see in God than in humans. God is never overtly named in the whole book of Esther, but this story has been a reminder for Jews and Christians that God does not forget those who are being abused and threatened, as our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate at the Feast of Purim. God comes to the aid of those who are threatened and does so through the faithful, loyalty of people like Esther and like Ruth. Victims became victors through their faith and their courage.