The Family You Choose

Ruth 1:1-8

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 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. 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. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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? 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, 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.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 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.

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!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

“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. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

It was thirteen years ago this very weekend that Matt and I first met. It was at a seminary function at the planetarium on the Chicago lake shore. I was a student and Matt was a recent alumnus. I had spotted him much earlier in the evening, but it was several hours before the two of us were introduced to one another, as our professors worked their hardest to do their matchmaking magic.

So, the very next evening, on Halloween, we went on our first date. Neither of us were feeling our best, as it had been a late night at the seminary function, but neither of us were willing to admit it to the other. So, we went out to a local restaurant, ended up both ordering somewhat bland and unexciting food, before settling in to watch a movie together. The evening ended with Matt discovering that he was allergic to my cat. Between sneezes and itchy, watery eyes, we said goodnight to one another.

So, it wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings, but two years later, we hitched our fates together and moved to an entirely new part of the country, settling in and starting lives in New England. When the day came that we had our wedding ceremony, Matt and I both knew right away that we wanted this story from Ruth. Not only did Ruth’s words capture the commitments that we were making to one another on that day, they captured for us the commitments by which we had already been living up to that point.

Now, even though this story is increasingly popular in marriage ceremonies, especially for same-sex couples, and though Ruth’s words have a very marriage-like quality to them, there is nothing in the text to suggest that this was a romantic aspect to the relationship between Ruth and Naomi. Rather, they are a vow of commitment and love between two women in the midst of great hardship, loss, and grief.

In a kinship-based society, one’s social safety net was one’s family—specifically blood relations. But Naomi was a foreigner in the land of Moab, and after the death of her husband and the death of their two sons, she had no kin anymore. Naomi was now a foreigner and a widow; to remain in Moab was to seal her fate and live the rest of her life on the edge of society, poor and vulnerable for the remainder of her days.

In the midst of their grief over son and husband, Ruth and Naomi choose a different path. Without kin of their own, they choose to make each other family, to be for one another what the world no longer provided them. It was an act of love, but also so much more than love—it is an act of grace, of compassion and mercy towards one another, an act of profound loyalty and faithfulness. Binding their fates and fortunes together, Naomi and Ruth set out to create a new future for themselves.

In our other reading this morning, a scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment. Jesus’ response, to love God and to love your neighbour, is sometimes read by Christians as being a radical statement over and against a particular caricature of Judaism as being legalistic. But that is not at all what is happening here. Rather, Jesus is proving his Jewish identity with these answers—he is quoting from the Hebrew scripture and getting to the very heart of what it meant to be Jewish, of what it means to be God’s people.

After all, what is the story of Judaism but the story of God who chooses to be the God of the Israelites, not out of any obligation, but out of love and loyalty, compassion and faithfulness. So is it any surprise that the oath God would make with the Israelites could be summarized so succinctly as, “Love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as your own kin, as your own self.”

Nor is it surprising that Jesus would command the same to his followers. The story of Christianity is the story of God becoming as us in the person of Jesus, whose love for us was so great that he would accept even death on the cross. It is a love not borne of blood relation, but love chosen through compassion, mercy, loyalty, and faithfulness.

What does it look like when we live up to this commandment that is central to both Judaism and Christianity? It looks like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it looks like the life and ministry of Jesus, and it looks like the story of Ruth and Naomi.

Who is the family that you choose in your own life? Not the family that you are related to by birth or marriage, but the people whom you have chosen to bind yourself out of love and loyalty?

And what is the family that we choose to forge as a community here at St. Faith’s? Is it to one another? Hopefully. But what about our neighbours? Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but that means more than just smiling to people on the street and collecting food for the homeless. What would it look like for us to care for all our neighbours, not out of some sense of obligation, but out of a deep love and loyalty to one another? What would it mean for us to bind our fates and futures with that of the community around us, so that where we go, we go together and where we weep, we weep together and where we sing for joy, we sing together?

For that is what God created us to be and who Jesus calls us to be—a community marked by love and faithfulness and compassion and mercy and grace, for ourselves and loved ones, of course, and especially for the family we choose to make. Especially for the family we choose to be together.