The book of Ruth is one of the great literary stories in the Old Testament. While it might be a short story, it is a brilliantly constructed piece of literature that involves love, tragedy, and hope. It is packed with subtlety, meaning, and is masterfully written. And as I’ve been preaching through this wonderful book I’ve noticed how this story may well help us when we talk about race, ethnicity, and cultures.
It is in the introduction where this cross-cultural theme is raised. Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons move away from God’s Promised Land to Moab. In crossing the Jordan River they arrive in a foreign land, with a foreign people, who worship foreign gods.
Here tragedy strikes.
Elimelech dies; seemingly before his time. And Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women.
And so, the author constantly references ‘Ruth the Moabitess’ as the story progresses. This action to marry women of Moab is not seen as a good thing. Given the historical context of the story these marriages, and the decision to leave the Promised Land, is a rejection of the promise-keeping, covenant-bound relationship with God. It is an act of disobedience.
The issue here in the book of Ruth is one of fidelity.
It is an issue of faithfulness.
The promise-keeping, covenant-bound marriage between God and his people is being broken through (1) a lack of trust in God’s provision and (2) what is more than likely a drifting into worshipping of other gods, rather than worshipping YHWH, the Lord God.
Any infidelity through other gods from foreign nations is considered a breaking of this promise-keeping, covenant-bound marriage between God and his people.
There is a constant refrain in the Old Testament of God having a people he calls his own. This is biblical Israel. This is those who are to trust and obey him with their hearts and actions.
Yet, the Old Testament also speaks of the people of God accepting and including the outsider, the foreigner, into the family of God. Israel is to refrain from oppressing the foreigner and provide justice for them, incorporating them into their festivals, celebrations, and sacrifices and offerings. They are incorporated into the people of God and to be treated as such (Leviticus 17:8-9; 18:26; 20:2; 22:18; 24:16, 22; Deuteronomy 10; Numbers 15:14).
God’s people are to be concerned and care for them just as they are to care and be concerned for their own people.
And so there is this balance. God wants his people to remain his people, while also being open to the outsider, the foreigner.
The author of Ruth highlights the disobedience of this particular family but across the story shows the significance of this particular foreigner. Ruth the Moabitess is to be the person in whom God fulfils his promises and plans; leading to salvation and redemption for all nations.
As we sit here today–post-Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection we understand the gospel continues to have a radical challenge for us in terms of cross-cultural relations.
As Ephesians 2:11-22 reminds us,
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”
It seems to go without saying that of all people Christians are not to be people who are racist or ethnically monochrome.
First, we understand that all people are created by God and made in his image.
Not much more needs to be said, other than this is a foundational truth for us as believers. Those we sit next to at work, those we play sport with on the weekends, those we interact with in our street, are all people created by God and are his image-bearers. Genesis 1-2 outlines the imageo dei for us, a crucial understanding of who we are as persons.
Second, we understand that the gospel is for all races, nations, tribes, and ethnicities.
Paul writes in Galatians 3:27-29,
For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.
The promises of God, and the good news of what God has done in Christ, is open to all people. This is leading to a time when people of all nations and tribes and ethnic groups will worship God together. Revelation 7:9-10:
After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
Salvation belongs to our God,
who is seated on the throne,
and to the Lamb!
Third, we understand that God’s people, the Church, is made up of people from all nations and tribes and tongues.
There isn’t a flattening of cultures and ethnicities into one monochrome Christian culture. Rather, the Christian church becomes a deeper and more diverse faith because of the worship of God through cultures and ethnicities worshipping God in ways they understand.
God, in his wisdom, has provided a church that is multi-ethnic; and we as the people of God are to reflect that multi-ethnicity in our local communities of faith.
And fourth, we understand that we are to go and tell; to share this message of racial inclusivity to all nations and cultures.
The mission of his church is to show the gospel and the Christian faith isn’t a nationalistic faith, a ‘white-man’s faith’, or a Western faith.
It is good news for all people of all cultures at all times.
When we read the opening of Ruth we may have lots of questions around this issue of Ruth being a foreigner. Why does it seem so significant? But really, the surprise comes in that she is included into God’s family. In a similar way to Abraham, she is a person who accepts God by faith, and in doing so is accepted by God.
I wonder, I just wonder, whether Ruth can help us in our understanding of others…?