The prophet Isaiah, when he pronounced a severe judgment on God’s rebellious people, wrote these words: “For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon to do his deed—strange is his deed!—and to work his work—alien is his work!” I hope that last three weeks have so shaped us that we have come to hear the ring of truth in the prophet’s words.
God rejects the king whom he had chosen, and King Saul and his son die in battle. God chooses as his successor a boy-shepherd, David, with nothing terribly kingly about him. That successor, far from being a moral pillar, was complicated at best; his passion for God drips of the pages of the sacred text, but his other passions do so as well. And last week, we looked on as Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark of God, and was struck by God. And he died. These are strange deeds. These are alien tasks.
This morning we’ll take a break from the troubling tales of first and second Samuel.
We do so because today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles (I love that title!), the first witness to the resurrection, the one from whom Jesus cast seven devils. Tradition—and specifically, Pope Gregory the Great, tell us that Mary was a prostitute prior to her encounter with Jesus. I think that tradition is based on poor exegesis—a conflation of two different characters that we meet in the Gospels. But still, to have been possessed by seven demons—that is an interesting detail all on its own.
However we understand the demonic, we can certainly say that this was a troubled soul. If she presented herself to her parish, having been baptized, to say that she wanted to be considered for holy orders, no discernment committee that took their job seriously would pass over this woman’s past and send her on to the Diocesan level. Let’s face it, we don’t need to embellish anything—as Gregory and subsequent Christian tradition has—to notice that this woman has baggage.
And yet, she is one of only four who stays by Christ at his cross. She alone is mentioned in all the resurrection accounts as the first to greet the Risen One. She is the first hear the good news in the Gospel of Mark, the first to tell it in the Gospel of John. She is to be celebrated not because of her past but because in his grace and mercy, the Lord Jesus called her and appointed her to be the apostle to the apostles, the first Christian missionary. That is a strange deed and an alien task. It is one, on the face of it, that makes no sense.
Why does God call the people he does? That’s a question that you should be asking too after reading or hearing the Old Testament lessons of last few weeks. And the answer we keep banging into, whether we like it or not, is that while God has his own reasons for choosing the people he does, he does not share them with us. He simply bids us look at those people—warts and all as Oliver Cromwell once said—and give thanks and glory to him for his mercy. His work in election is a strange deed and an alien task.
So today, on this feast day of St Mary the Magdalene, we turn from the troubling tales of 2 Samuel, to the book of Ruth, a story set several generations before the birth of David. But we don’t leave this theme behind. For the story of Ruth is the story of two women: one chosen by God who desperately tried not to be and another who, by all accounts, should not have been chosen by God, and yet whose name is included not simply as a foremother of David, but of our Lord Jesus. We are still dealing with the God of the Gospel. The God whose deeds are strange and tasks, alien.
First, the woman who desperately wants to be unchosen. Her name is Naomi. We meet her in the time of the judges—that time in Israelite memory that follows the entry into the land and precedes the enthronement of King Saul. A time when, according to the author of Judges, “there was no King in the land and each did what was right in his own eyes.” A time of lawlessness, when the Israelites would suffer oppression for a while, God would raise up a judge to deliver them, and they would soon return to idols, only for the cycle to begin all over again.
Naomi is from Bethlehem and she and her family are suffering because of a famine. To stay alive, she, her husband, Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Chilion, go to the land of Moab, to begin again. If we use modern terms, Naomi is a climate refugee. She is forced to move by a turn in the weather from her homeland for another, foreign place.
But there’s more to it than that. This is a story of God’s people in God’s land. Elimelech is an example of what each doing what they saw fit looked like. Elimelech, whose name means God is king, forsakes the land given to his ancestors by none other than God himself, and goes down to the land of Moab.
Elimelech—remember, God is King!—gives up on the covenant and rejects the God who cut that covenant with his people. And Elimelech goes down in to Moab. Moab—the descendants of the incestuous union of Lot and his daughter. Moab—the enemy of the people of Israel The man whose name meant God is King made peace with God’s enemy. This is not a good beginning. Things get worse! Mahlon and Chilion marry Moabite women—in other words, they aren’t going back. And so, Ruth and Orpah join the household as it continues its slow assimilation away from Israel and into Moab.
But then, in short order, Elimelech and his sons die leaving the women alone. Naomi accurately sizes up the situation. Her daughters-in-law are young enough that they will be able to remarry. She is not; and even if she did, she could not bear them sons for them to marry. That sounds odd, but the practice Naomi mentions is the practice of levirate marriage, in which a widow would marry her husband’s brother, thereby ensuring her own survival and the carrying on of her dead husband’s name through any children that she might bear afterwards. So she sets off for home, where there might be hope. And she begs her daughters-in-law not to come with her, but to remain with their own people in the that they might remarry and begin again.
What is striking is that, through all of this, Naomi remains acutely self-conscious of her identity as an Israelite. She insists that her true place is not in Moab, but in Israel. How do we know? We know because she pleads with her daughters-in-law to return to their own land, she commits them not to the care of their own gods, but to the care of the covenant God of Israel. May the LORD [the capital letters tell us that she used God’s covenant name, the name he revealed to Israel] grant that you find security. Naomi knows that there is only one God, and she prays that in his strange deeds and his alien works, he would care for these women whom she has come to love, these women who are descended from Naomi’s enemies.
Furthermore, when she returns to Bethlehem and the people greet her, Naomi invokes the name of God again: “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full,but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” The LORD has dealt harshly with her. He has repaid her with emptiness. He has taken all away from her. And she changes her name from “beautiful” to “bitter.” Here is a woman who knows she is chosen by God and wants desperately to be rid of him.
And now to the other woman, Ruth. Unlike Orpah, Ruth does not go back to the land of her ancestors in hopes of finding a new husband. It would have been the easier way to go, you know. Same culture, same gods, same life as before. But Ruth says no. She is one who is not chosen. She willingly adopts the role of enemy and foreigner as the price to remain with her mother-in-law. In words of Scripture so rich in covenantal commitment of one person to another that they have become part of the marriage rites of many churches, Ruth says, “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!”
What a powerful statement of love and commitment of one to another. What is even more powerful is her invocation of the God’s covenantal name. This woman from Moab, this sworn enemy of Israel, invokes God’s covenant name, the LORD—YHWH in other words—and says, this God will be my God. Your people will be my people. I will live in your home. I invoke the curse of God upon me if even death parts me from you! What strong and powerful language! It is the language of a true Israelite who has determined to cling to God and to God’s people. It is the language that should have come from Naomi. The language that should have come, indeed, from Elimelech before he went down to Moab. And yet we find these words on the lips of another, another who should never, ever have said them.
The book of Ruth is a tale of two women—one embittered by circumstance against the God who chose her, the other who, though she experienced the very same, clung in trust to the Covenant God of Israel. The rest of the story is the story of God’s alien righteousness at work. It is the story Ruth catching the eye of a wealthy farmer named Boaz. Of Naomi recalling that Boaz is her relative and should marry Ruth. It is the story of Naomi and Ruth’s subtle seduction of Boaz at the threshing floor. It is the story of Ruth marrying Boaz. So it is that Naomi, who could produce no son for Ruth, ends her days holding young Obed, the son Ruth and Boaz have produced for her.
But this is not just a story with an unhappy beginning and a happy ending. It is the story of God’s alien work. For the book concludes that Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David, the King! History has just been blown open. Do you see? The greatest king of Israel—the one to whom all future kings would look back—has as his great-grandmother, a gentile. And not just any Gentile, but one from Moab.
And of course, for us, the story does not end there, does it? Listen to these words we hear, if at all, only at Christmas:
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David the father of Solomon by Uriah’s wife. . . .
And so the generations continue until we read that Jacob as the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Tamar—she seduced her father in law, Judah. Rahab—a Canaanite and a prostitute. Ruth—from Moab, the sworn enemy of Israel. Uriah’s wife—she who was taken unlawfully by David. God is not predictable, nor is he manageable, nor is he safe. He chooses as his own, as the mothers and grandmothers of kings and of his own Son, women whom any respectable religious person would pass over. The book of Ruth leaves us with a powerful picture of God’s strange deeds, his alien work, and points ahead to his interventions in history not simply in David, but in David’s son, Our Lord.
At no one point in Ruth can we say definitively that God is at work. It gives us no snapshot of his presence, no declaration “And God said, And God did.” Even in the big picture, it very easily reduces to a story with an unhappy beginning and a happy ending with God nowhere to be seen. Until we get to the end. The lineage at the end of Ruth, the very same as picked up by Matthew, is the clue. God is there. God is behind it all. God is working his alien work, that his Son might be the Saviour not simply of those chosen at Sinai, but their enemies too. And that is good news!