I LEARNED IT ALL WHEN I WAS A CHILD
Ruth 1:1-18, Psalm 146, Mark 12:28-34
November 2, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
We hope that we will someday live in a society where every person is respected and never snubbed no matter where he/she comes from. The problem is: where nationalism is strong, often one culture is considered to be more important than others like the situation in Quebec. Can we not respect one tradition without diminishing another? The book of Ruth is an attempt to answer this question by telling the story of three women caught between two countries. It tells us that simple respect for other people will solve much of the problem of conflict between different cultures.
I said "simple respect" but I am not saying that it is easy. Simple things are often difficult to do. We invent conditions and make exceptions to excuse ourselves from doing simple decent acts. Robert Fulghum wrote a book titled, All I really need to know, I learned in kindergarten. His point is that most of the basic wisdom of life is quite simple. We learned it all when we were children. But later we learn not to follow what we tell our children.
Fulghum recalls those lessons: "Share everything. Play fair. Don”t hit other people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don”t take things that aren”t yours. Say you are sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush the toilet. (I like this next one.) Take a nap every afternoon…. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together." The list goes on. And it”s all very simple. You do not have to go to university to learn all this, because you probably have learned it all already when you were kids. It”s all the matter of respect and common decency. Note that these lessons do not discriminate. It does not say, "Share everything only with people you like." or "Don”t hit people of your own kind." But often we conveniently forget that we must respect everybody especially if we don”t like some people who look different. So what do we do to cover our hypocrisy? We say, "It”s not all that simple. Life is complicated." So children learn important lessons in their first few years, but spend many more years to learn that those rules are childish, naive and stupid. No wonder our world is in a mess.
The book of Ruth was written at the time of a great resurgence of Hebrew religion and culture. It was the time when the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Palestine after their captors were defeated by the Persians. The Hebrew nation was back together again in their homeland. The oppressors had tried to destroy the Hebrew nation by prohibiting the practice of their religion and traditions. But they were now free to worship their God, rebuild their temple, and re-discover their traditions.
Unfortunately at a time like this, when people enthusiastically take pride in their own culture, language and traditions, they tend to be suspicious of foreigners. They began to see foreigners and their influence as bad for their traditions. It was the reaction to the humiliation they suffered under the Babylonians. Racism begets racism. Consequently those who were keen to keep the purity of their culture and religion saw marriage with those outside of their race as unacceptable. They even told those men who had married foreign women to divorce them and to send them home. The book of Ruth was written during such a time. It was written to remind the Jews that the great-grand mother of their beloved King David was not a Jewish woman. The book was written to remind people that faithfulness to God is the same thing as being kind to every human being, whether friend, relative, or stranger. Preserving one”s own heritage does not mean the oppression of others who may be different. You will truly be able to respect your own culture when you know how to respect others”.
As the story has it, when the Hebrew people were still new in the land, they were fighting wars against neighbouring peoples all the time. During those difficult years, the crops failed a few years and there was a famine. A man by the name of Elimelech and his wife Naomi decided to migrate to avoid starvation. They went to the land of Moab on the east shore of the Dead Sea. Though the Moabites were enemies of the Jewish people, Elimelech and Naomi had no problem settling down among them. The Moabites exercised simple respect for their neighbours and extended their welcoming hands to hungry people. Today, we call Moabites Arabs who live in the kingdom of Jordan.
Elimelech and Naomi had a comfortable life in their adopted country. It shows: Both of their sons married Moabite women. The names of those daughter-in-laws were Orpah and Ruth. Now Elimelech and his two sons died one after another. The Bible does not say why. I don”t think that is a significant point of the story. Men have always died earlier than women, as they still do. The point of the story is the love between a mother-in-law and her daughters-in-laws. When Naomi decided to go back to her home in Bethlehem in the land of Judah, where she still had some relations, the two daughters-in-laws wanted to follow her, even though they knew they would run into difficulty in a foreign country. So the point of the story is the love that overcame cultural and national boundaries, and not so much about relationship between in-laws.
Naomi told the two young women to leave her and go home. She wanted to spare them the hostility they might run into in a country of former enemies. "No way." said the two. They loved Naomi and wanted to follow her. But after some persuasion, Orpah decided to go home. There were many tears and kisses as Orpah went back to her kinfolk in Moab. But Ruth stayed with Naomi. Ruth said, "Wherever you go, I will go. Your people shall be my people." So the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law went to Naomi”s home in Bethlehem. There they ran into a very kind person who was a relative of Naomi”s. He helped them to survive the first difficult days and saved them from going hungry. Naomi even taught Ruth a cunning way to find a husband. Thus the Moabite Ruth and her Jewish man Boaz got married, raised a family, and became the great-grandparents of King David.
It is a simple story of genuine affection between three women, who overcame the fact that they were from two different countries, cultures and religions. Even when it describes Orpah who decided to remain in her own country, there is no hint of condemnation for her decision. The story recognizes and respects the Moab people and their culture. That is why Orpah was described as someone who was following a natural course of action. On the other hand, Ruth successfully fitted into the life of the people she married into. She could do that because she loved her mother-in-law and her husband. Both Orpah and Ruth were affirmed in this story even though they took different courses of life. When people are bonded together in love, differences between them will not be obstacles to their relationship. Differences may not go away, but through respect may enrich the relationship.
Some scholars of the Scriptures asked Jesus what the most important commandments were. They challenged Jesus with a question, which they assumed to be very difficult for an uneducated man like Jesus to answer. But Jesus answered by repeating the simplest and oldest commandments from Leviticus. "Love God, and love your neighbour." It was incredibly simple. The Bible clearly says, "There is no other commandment greater than these." Those educated people, just like us, were so used to seeing everything in such a complicated framework that they could not remember the simple basic rules of life; "To love God and to love people." The more we learn, the more we make simple things complicated. Today we must remind ourselves that those simple rules of life can resolve the difficult problems like the ones where cultures and nations collide head on, like in Quebec, Algeria, Northern Ireland, or Palestine. We learned it all when we were children. "Share everything. Don”t hit other people. Clean up your own mess. Flush the toilet. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together."