The Prison of Bitterness

Based on Ruth 1:1-24

The book of Ruth is found just after the Book of Judges. In the first sentences, the book of Ruth places itself in the time of judges during a time of famine. Naomi, her husband and sons, move to Moab, where the sons marry. Then the father dies, the sons die, and Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are left together.

You know, many people believe that the Hebrew people of our Bible were not an evangelizing group. That there was a matrilineal aspect of Judaism that could not be circumvented. But they’d be wrong.

There are lots of examples of just the opposite. Examples of the expanding nature of Judaism, it’s response to outsiders, and the welcoming nature of the religion that goes beyond our current understanding.

Ruth is an example of how outsiders can become good Jews. Ruth becomes a good Jew, “whither thou goest, I will go, your God will be my God.” In fact, she becomes such a good Jew that she is a progenitor of David and Jesus.

Amy-Jill Levine says, “the book of Ruth does not concentrate on international relations or community apostasy, war or death. Rather it speaks of food, plenitude, and “loving-kindness and loyalty” not shown by the deity but by a Moabite woman.” It is Ruth who practices Hesed (lovingkindness) More than anything else, the story of Ruth is a story of inclusion.

Ruth 1, CEV
During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?”

She replied to them, “Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?”

Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Last Sunday, we talked about the finding ourselves in the Biblical narrative, both individually, and collectively. I asked you all to vote, in a very non-scientific way, as to where you see our congregation in the narrative. Are we in the cosmic beginnings? Are we in the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the generations? Are we in the exodus? Are we in the time of the Kings, or in the divided kingdom? Or are we in the exile, either the Assyrian or Babylonian? Or are we in the time of the entry back into the land with Ezra and Nehemiah.

You overwhelmingly decided that you perceive that we are in the Exodus, no longer enslaved in Egypt, although perhaps longing for older, safer times, but not in the land of milk and honey just yet. Maybe we’re asking the question, are we running away from something or running toward something? And how will we get there?

Our text this morning is a perfect example of exodus thinking, brought down to the personal.

Let’s look at the story.

Naomi and her husband left Israel, during the time of the Judges. Remember where we are? Just after entering the land, after Joshua, before King Saul. Apparently there was a time of famine in Israel (although there’s no Biblical record of this time), and they went to the land of Moab for safety. While in Moab, Naomi’s sons marry, but her husband and sons also die there.

There’s a couple of things you should know about Moab—first, that Moab is associated with hostility and sexual perversity. Deuteronomy 23:3-6 excludes Moabites from the Assembly of God. So there among their “not people,” Naomi’s family died.

Naomi decides that it’s time to return to her people, to Israel. As she is about to go, she says to her young daughters-in-law, “return to your homes.” Orpah, decides to return to her home. There she will have the hope of marrying again, of having children. Ruth, on the other hand, decides to follow her Naomi.

You know the words, probably by heart… “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

The Narrative Lectionary text ends here, but I selected for us to go on and read more about Naomi, since she’s a great example of a person in the midst of exodus. Naomi and Ruth travel until they come to Bethlehem, where the whole town stirs. They ask, “Are you Naomi?” but she answers, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away frull, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi, when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has rought calamity upon me?

Call me Mara. Mara, Hebrew for Bitter. Naomi rejects her name, which means Pleasant, for another name, Bitter.
Naomi is bitter because she has returned from Moab empty. According to Amy-Jill Levine, Naomi defines “full” and “empty” only in relation to offspring; but the terms, and so women’s worth, have wider applications. “Full” reappears in 2:12, where the full reward Boaz wishes for Ruth goes beyond children to include security, marriage, and—given the immediate context—food. “Empty” is repeated in 3:17, in the context of grain.

And meanwhile, Ruth is in contrast to all that Naomi has said. Naomi isn’t empty, she has Ruth by her side. She isn’t empty, because of the family connections she has in Bethlehem, and with Boaz. She isn’t empty, because she will not go hungry. She isn’t empty, because she will again have family. She isn’t empty, because she has a future.

So back to our exodus, our into a new promised land. Like Naomi, or she who would call herself Mara, we have a choice to make. Will we be Bitter or Pleasant? Will we be empty or full?

Sometimes it’s really hard to say really hard things up here, but I’m going to try.

Some of you are stuck in the desert and are choosing to see only emptiness. You look across the aisle at another church member and think of the past and choose to call yourself Mara.

Some of you look at our church leadership and what they’ve done and are doing, and choose to call yourself Mara.

Some of you look into the pulpit here, in the pastoral care, in the leadership and the administration and choose to call yourself Mara.

If you look at the people of the Exodus, you should know that there are those who do not enter the promised land. You can look at many different reasons why they didn’t enter the land, but the key to it is that they choose to be bitter. They chose to be Mara. And they worked to make sure that others wouldn’t enter the land, either.

Because bitterness is all about choice.

Maya Angelou says that “Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

We’ve talked about this before… In order to move through a feeling, you have to FEEL it. And release it. Bitterness is anger stretched out.

And frankly, if you are Mara? It’s your loss. You are the one who refuses to see the love that is all around you. You are the one who doesn’t see the blessings of food that is plentiful. You are the one who doesn’t see the possibility of family. You are the one who doesn’t see how God is taking care of us all along the way.

Maybe it’s not bitterness holding you back. Maybe it’s anger or fear. Maybe it’s a lack of control, or powerlessness.

Imagine with me for a moment that there are already those of us who are in the promised land. We are building a community of friendship. We are doing justice work. We are having fun, loving one another, laughing a lot, planting gardens, and worshiping God.

Do you want to remain Mara?

Or do you want to join us?

Would you like to know how?

If you really want to come into the promised land, I’m going to give you a homework assignment. When you go home today, write three things you love about your life. Then write three things you love about your church family. Do this every day. And every time you have a negative thought about this church? Or about a member of this church? Or about staff? Go write three more things you love about this church family.

Because the only way to get through bitterness is through gratitude. In this Rock, Paper, Scissors world, the only thing to beat bitterness is gratitude.

I’m sure you’ve all heard some iteration of this Buddhist story:

Two monks are walking along a country path. They soon are met by a caravan, a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kindly mistress and her possessions. They come to a muddy river, and cannot cross with both mistress and packages – they must put one down and cannot figure out how to do so. So the elder monk volunteers to carry the woman across the river, on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things, and then all can go on their way. The woman does not thank him, and rudely pushes him aside to get back to her caravan.

After traveling some way on their own, the younger monk turns to his master, and says, “I cannot believe that old woman! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your very own back, and not only did she not offer thanks, but she actually was quite rude to you!” The master calmly and quietly turned to his student, and offered this observation: “I put the women down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”