Bruce Epperly: Tell me a Story – Ruth, Nehemiah, and Good News for Outsiders
by Dr. Bruce G. Epperly, pastor, professor and author of Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, Ruth and Esther: Women of Agency and Adventure, and more!
It’s been said that God created humankind because God loves stories. Our scriptures are filled with stories, legends that tell a deeper truth than mere fact, tales that counter our prejudices and invite us to see the world from a wider perspective. No one knows exactly when the story of Ruth was first told. The heroine may not even have existed, but for many refugees and mixed race children, her story was good news, a healing balm, and the source of pride and courage. So let me tell you a story:
Hadassah’s life was good before the priests and lawmakers returned from exile in Babylon, and before the ultra-orthodox Ezra and Nehemiah took over the country. Hadassah enjoyed playing on the banks of the stream, running through the neighborhood with friends, and just being a little girl.
When the priests and lawmakers returned from Babylon, they had big ideas: life had been hard for them in exile. Their families had been the elite in Jerusalem, but in Babylon they were nobodies. They struggled to hold onto the old ways and the religion of their parents. They believed that their great-grandparents’ unfaithfulness led to the nation’s humiliation, and they returned home, vowing to never turn away from God again. They wanted to make Israel great again and that meant returning to true religion – the religion of law and ritual, grounded in purity and fidelity. They wanted to stay on God’s good side – after all, God could be violent and punitive – and in their quest for purity, they looked for someone to blame for the humiliation they’d experienced. The obvious scapegoats were those who remained in Israel, accommodated to non-Jewish culture, appropriated some of the lifestyle of the Canaanites, and even married local women, during the exile – Canaanite women, who may have accepted the God of Israel but who still observed the seasonal festivals of their parents’ religion.
At first, the return of the religious, governmental and business elite was celebrated, but then the elites – under the authority of the Persians wanted to build a wall around Jerusalem – a really big wall, with high ramparts – to separate the pure from the impure, the faithful from the infidel. They wanted to return Jerusalem to its former glory, and to make the nation great again. Nothing would stand in their way, especially the unfaithful who married outside the true religion, their infidel wives, and their mixed race children.
Hadassah’s father was blacklisted for marrying a Canaanite, and his business suffered. But, worse, he was attacked on the street by religious zealots. His faith was questioned and he was banned from worship services. Some of the neighborhood children taunted and teased Hadassah, insulted her parents, and even called her names, “half breed,” “pagan child,” and worse. The paradise of childhood became hell for Hadassah.
When Hadassah asked her father, “What’s wrong with me? Why do they call me names? What did I do wrong?” his heart was broken. And, when he and his wife had to give their children the “talk” about staying safe in the streets, their spirits almost broke.
It was a family custom at bedtime for the children to plead with their father, “Tell me a story.” And so, he told the stories of their ancestors – David, Moses, Abraham and Sarah. But, one night, in response to his children’s plea, Hadassah’s father began a new story, one that the children had never heard before – the story of a young woman named Ruth, a foreigner, who came to live in Bethlehem.
“Once upon a time,” so began father, “there was a famine in Israel, and a couple and their two sons migrated to Moab. Like other refugees, they were first treated with suspicion and fear. The locals worried that they would take away their jobs and property. But, years passed, and this little family like other refugee families, worked hard, found a place in the community, and the boys married Moabite girls. At first, there were some concerns, mixed race and mixed religion marriages are often looked down upon and seen as a threat to the purity of faith and race. But, the family fitted in and anticipated staying in Moab for the long haul.”
When father paused, the children begged, “Tell us more. What happened to this family? Did they have children like us?” Father closed his eyes to let his imagination roam and then continued. “Well, times can get tough, and the men died before their wives could have children, and the women were left alone. One named Orpah went back to her parents, but the other Ruth was attached to her mother-in-law Naomi. She had no home to go back to, having been disowned for marrying a Hebrew, and she knew that a woman alone would not survive. Together they would make it. Times were better in Bethlehem now and besides Naomi owned a plot of land, and so they journeyed, two women walking in heat and chill, till they made it back to Bethlehem.”
“Naomi was home, but now Ruth was the stranger. Now she was the foreigner, the one with the accent, who still had trouble speaking the local language; an unmarried woman, she was a threat to others seeking husbands and she was also at risk from predatory males. Some welcomed her, but others turned away. ‘She’s not one of us. Go back where you came from. Don’t’ steal our men or our land from us.’” Others invoked the prejudice, ‘You know the Moabites, they live by another code; they sacrifice babies, and their women, well….’”
Father paused, and the kids implored, “Please, please, more, more.” “Well, Ruth went to work in the fields, picking up the leftovers, and Boaz noticed her. She was smart, strong, and beautiful, and they courted each other, fell in love, and the rest is history – or is it herstory?”
“God blessed them. They had a family, and Ruth’s great grandson was the great King David.”
“That’s all you’ll get tonight,” father concluded. But, that was enough for Hadassah. She saw herself in that young woman Ruth – a survivor, strong, able to outlast the persecutors; she realized that she was smart and talented regardless of what bullies and wall builders said. She also saw her mother, a Canaanite – looked down upon by the righteous ones with their dreams of ethnic purity, but not letting their hate and judgment get the best of her as day by day, she fashioned a loving home. Maybe, her father was like Boaz, Ruth’s Jewish husband, dealing with the prejudice of others, but not letting that hate destroy his family. He was proud of his Canaanite wife, and despite social and religious pressures, he would never divorce his wife, as some had done.
Hadassah went to sleep dreaming of David, the great King, from a mixed race and an interfaith marriage, just like her. “Maybe I am good enough. My birth is blessing and not a curse. Like Ruth, I will outlast the bullies. God blessed another foreign woman, God is blessing my mother and father, and God will bless me. I will be faithful, proud of my heritage, and like Ruth, I’m going to make a difference by just being myself.” And so she did!
A sermon preached by Bruce Epperly in a joint service of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, and the Craigville Tabernacle Community, August 28, 2016.