Ruth 1:1-18; Matthew 1:1-6
December 13, 2020
— When Family Gets Real
Hesed – to that someone might reply “bless you,” but that was no sneeze. The word Hesed is one of the most important Hebrew words in the Bible. Ordinarily, I am not a preacher to bring in words in the original Greek and Hebrew. Honestly, I don’t think people care that much, and I don’t want to confuse anyone with words they have never heard of and will most likely not hear again, but this word is different.
Hesed is at the center of godly living. This word reflects the kind of love that God exemplifies. It does mean love, but it means a relentless, faithful, unyielding, constant, sacrificial kind of love. It is true kindness that is deeper than usual expressions of kindness, as if kindness can be ordinary. You can well imagine how that word might end up being attributed to God, but could that same holy, generous, passionate, fierce love also be given to human hearts. How about to a Moabite widow and her former Israelite mother-in-law?
The story of Ruth is one of the best in the Bible. It is a great story and very well told. It has a storybook ending and does not even have any ugliness or violence or evil in it necessarily. What it does have is the beauty of Hesed. Yes, that word is exactly the word that defines the relationship of Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth. To understand what Hesed means to these two women, you have to appreciate the situation that they have found themselves in. This is the time of the judges. There is no king, no temple, no country, no organized religion – just a bunch of groups living in different places loosely organized into tribes that all have their roots in the Exodus. They are just about two generations removed from the time that Joshua led the people of Israel into the Land of Promise to take it. All of that is in the book of Joshua. In other words, Moses was just a little while ago, himself. People were still figuring themselves out in the challenge of the fledgling nation.
That’s when the famine hits. The ancient town of Bethlehem was experiencing a severe famine – which is ironic since the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” You know if the House of Bread is having a food shortage, it must be severe. Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons head out in desperation because they must have been desperate to leave their home and family and life. They went to a foreign area to start over. Sadly, Elimelech died. Naomi was left with her two sons who would have to step up and fill in for dad and look after her and raise families. They married local, pagan girls and continued in that foreign, gentile area for ten years before tragedy struck, again. Both boys died. Naomi was left with two young women who now happened to be with her but for no good reason. Remember that women back then had no legal rights. They required men to represent their rights. The girls did not owe their mother-in-law anything. They could not even really support themselves. This was bad. Honestly, I think Naomi’s best hope for the three of them was for them to go back home to make a living by begging. She could not bring herself to invite them down that dark path.. They should not have to stoop to that kind of living. They could still have a future; it would just not be with her. That is why she tried to send they away, back home.
Enter Hesed. Both girls refuse to leave, at first. They do seem to love Naomi. It is nice to see that they had a good relationship, but there is literally NO future for them. That is what Naomi’s speech is about. There is NO future for you with me she says. Orpah relents and returns home. She was good and kind and loving, but she also had a brain. She was not stupid. She did what any of us would have done – go back home and try another life where there was still a chance.
But Ruth is the curious case. Really stop and appreciate what she does because it makes literally no sense. It is idiotic and foolish and irresponsible. If any of us heard of one of our family members doing anything like what Ruth did, we would think they were anything but wise or right. Sure, it was a nice thing to do, but….
Hesed got in the way. The pledge that Ruth swears does not make any sense, but it is entirely and completely fierce love. She swears her presence, her support, her love, and her faith to Naomi. Her life is completely in Naomi’s hands. She binds her soul to Naomi and will have no future other than Naomi’s future. Of course, this is where the story gets interesting. When their family had essentially died, when there was no longer the bonds of family to hold them together, they forged a new family that was stronger than anything they had before. They created a family that did not fit into the boxes of their day, but it was the kind of family they needed to survive. In a way, the family they created was similar to a new marriage. They lives were intertwined and undividable. This was deeply covenantal love. If I don’t follow through with my promise, Ruth said, then let me die. That is covenant talk.
These are such difficult days to be family, I think. Relationships are already strained. We cannot get along and do with each other and for each other as we once could and might like. We are relationally more isolated. Even the very act of getting together can be a death sentence. Then, mix in the fact that it is holiday time, when we would be getting together and doing things. We grieve the loss of this festive time. Even more, for some of us, family is not a happy thing or a good word. We may resent hurts and brokenness that family gave us.
The answer is Hesed. When Naomi saw her life come to a functional end, Ruth responded with Hesed – her devotion gave Naomi new life. When their family seemed to be gone, Ruth resurrected it by her sheer desire to continue in love and grace and compassion and radical kindness. She knew that they did not need blood relations or legal ceremonies or anything official that we consider family. Their sheer desire to continue in deep love made them a greater family.
The same holds true for us and our church family. If we want to grow in any way, we will have to cultivate our Hesed and greater hearts. Harder days are ahead, not easier. We may not have a famine in the House of Bread, but we do have challenge upon challenge between the times in which we live and the situation of our church family.
Of course, what you need to see is what God does with our willingness to live in Hesed – that godly loving kindness. That brings us back to a genealogy of Jesus, but this one is in Matthew. I think Matthew’s genealogy is even more interesting that Luke’s, one reason being that Matthew’s listing of Jesus’ relatives actually contains women. No one did that. Matthew lists a number of women who were in Jesus’ ancestry, and except for Mary, none of them were Jewish. That is another sermon. For now you need to see the one I ended up on with David. His great grandmother was Ruth. That nobody, gentile godly loving daughter-in-law from this broken family was given new life in her gift of Hesed. She was not only given a new future, but hers is recorded in history for all time. She has a place in the life David and Jesus himself. Her family not only didn’t die, it actually grew because she was willing to love like God loves.
Where there is brokenness, hurt, and even death living between us, there is also hope for something more. When we ourselves were dead in our sins, Romans tells us, Jesus came and gave us new life in his grace. We were freed from sin and death by God’s Hesed through Christ. Ruth shows us how it is also possible to live that way with others in ways that ripple through families, maybe even for generations to come. This world will fight every step toward godly love, but God’s love is even bigger, especially where we are willing to grow.
To God be the glory. Amen.