Meditations in Ruth : 8. Return to the Starting Place
Ruth 1:18,19 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.
Naomi has determined to return to her old home town and after failing to deter Ruth with talk about having to change her people and her God, the two return to Bethlehem. Returning to the original point of a journey into failure, delusion or heartache is never easy but sometimes essential. As far as family upsets go, most of us would prefer to leave the past in the past and not go to places that revive memories of hurt. When Naomi returns to Bethlehem she must have had memories of how she had married there and born two sons, but now she is alone but for a Moabite daughter-in-law, and how will people receive her?
But if Naomi is to have any life it has got to be back with her own people. She is becoming an elderly lady and with no husband or sons to support her, the future looks bleak, and if she is going to survive anywhere it had better be with her own people. There is little other option. Often we need to go back to start again. If we have left the past with unresolved disputes we can never carry on a full and righteous life if we do not, at least, try to do something to resolve those past conflicts. Sometimes it requires us to face what happened in the past with open honesty, accepting out part in what went wrong, perhaps seeking forgiveness and perhaps confronting others with their failures in respect of you. How they respond is up to them. Biblically forgiveness is only granted with acknowledgement of having been in the wrong and asking for that forgiveness (God only forgives the repentant sinner). Sometimes there may need to be restitution, whatever it takes for us to do all we can to put right past wrongs. Oh yes, in God’s kingdom we cannot sweep the dirt under the carpet and hope it will go away.
But the thing is that it can’t be the same as before. If we walked out on our family, if there was relational upset, if wrong was done to us, the reality is that we cannot expect the clock to be put back and pretend everything is now all right. If we are the father of the returning prodigal (Lk 15) with the grace of God, we can welcome back with open arms, but not everyone may welcome them back in the same way (e.g. the ‘elder brother’) and there may need to be work to regain trust.
The other thing, of course, is that if we are the one returning, we have history between the time we left and now, and that history, as in Naomi’ case, may be very painful. The truth is that we are not the same person. It may well be that the painful events have refined us and we return with a larger measure of grace than we had before. However we may have memories (and habits and behaviors) that we need help in being released from. Time is a healer but so is the truth and then the grace of God.
If we are ‘returning’ we can ask ourselves, ‘What have I learnt from what I have been through?’ We can learn from what we’ve been through; it doesn’t have to have been a wasted time of our life. Maybe we came to understand the realities of this fallen world, maybe we came to appropriate the grace of God more fully.
So Naomi and Ruth return: “So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” (v.19) Years have passed but people who knew her in the past, see the arrival in this relatively small town and think, “I have seen this woman before. I know this woman. Surely it is Naomi who left with her husband, Elimelech, and their two sons.”
But when they greet her Naomi doesn’t try to put a gloss on it; she is open and honest about what has happened: “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (v.20,21) Now Israel knew that when God afflicted someone they deserved it, so this is her way of confessing, “I blew it, we got it wrong, and it all went badly. I am not the woman I was.”
And thus we read, “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.” (v.22) Not Ruth the new Israelite, but Ruth the Moabitess; that is significant as we’ll consider in the future. And it’s barley harvest. Coincidence? We’ll see, but whatever else it is, it is significant as we’ll see as the story unfolds. Naomi is home again. The whole town was “stirred because of them”, because of their obvious plight. The gossips certainly had something to talk about – and what about this Moabite woman Naomi’s brought back with her????