By Thomas Kincaid
The story of the young woman named Ruth goes something like this.
She met and married a man Mahlon who was from far away. Mahlon’s brother was Chilion — he married Orpah, and Mahlon’s and Chilion’s mother was Naomi. In other words, Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law.
Naomi’s husband died, and then so did both Mahlon and Chilion, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. The three women are caught in desperate straits — it’s a patriarchal society in extreme, and only the men can normatively provide, own land, etc. Between the three of them, there isn’t a husband or a son to be found.
Naomi is in the worst trouble: She is the foreigner, and, being old enough to have had two grown sons, she’s unlikely to marry and procreate further. Ruth and Orpah, on the other hand, can hold out a sliver of hope of finding another husband who could generate offspring.
Naomi realizes her only hope — it’s not really a hope at all but it’s something — is to return back to her native land, and says goodbye to her daughters-in-law. Orpah, who shouldn’t be blamed for this action, makes the prudent and reasonable — and not sinful — decision to remain in her home country, return to her parents’ house, and functionally start life over under her father’s protection as she hopes for a new husband.
If anyone in this room were providing some coaching or counseling to Ruth, they would advise her to do the same. Again, Orpah does no wrong here. She has no obligation to her former mother-in-law, and, whatever kindness she might wish to extend, Orpah and Ruth have no obligation to follow their former mother-in-law back to a foreign land they’ve never inhabited.
Ruth makes the imprudent choice and follows Naomi back to the land of Noami and of Ruth’s late husband. Ruth famously tells Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Ruth’s loyalty is beyond measure. In this decision she is nothing less than Godlike. How do I mean? Ruth acts toward Naomi as God acts toward us: She shows total commitment to Naomi with disregard for her self-interest. So it is with God to us.
In time, Ruth, and through her Naomi, will be tremendously blessed. Ruth’s loyalty will enable her to meet the faithful Boaz, Ruth will bear a son, and this short book of the Bible which opens with a view of Naomi as completely without hope ends with her holding her grandson in her arms.
I want us to think some this morning about the decisions made by Orpah and Ruth. Orpah made the good decision; Ruth made the better one. Orpah was prudent; Ruth was prodigal toward others. Orpah managed her risk; Ruth ignored her risk. Orpah was a good human; Again, Ruth reached for a higher nature.
Last week and this one we are talking about the Scriptures, as we do every week, and we are paying particular attention what they have to say about our financial stewardship. For members, this is the season we ask you to prayerfully consider your financial commitment for the coming calendar year. If you’re new at Incarnation and still getting to know us, then please know we’re not asking for a commitment. Jesus has a lot to say about how we spend our money — he wasn’t shy about talking about it, and we try not to be either. But please know if you’re new — and I know there are a lot of you who are — we aren’t looking for an annual commitment from you.
Again, I want us to think some this morning about the decisions made by Orpah and Ruth. Orpah made the good decision; Ruth made the better one. Orpah was prudent; Ruth was prodigal toward others. Orpah managed her risk; Ruth ignored her risk. Orpah was a good human; Again, Ruth reached for a higher nature.
In deciding how much of our income to give away, we are faced with the decision of which daughter-in-law we want to be. We could make the good, prudent, risk-avoidant, reasonable decision to save first, to worry about our kids’ future education needs, to build up a nest egg, to make sure we retire well. Those decisions wouldn’t make us evil, but they would make us ordinary.
Or we could join Ruth in participating in God’s life. A life marked by prodigal generosity, by a worry about others over ourselves, by reaching beyond the limits of our human nature and resting on and in God.
God doesn’t need our money — anyone who tells you different is lying. We at Incarnation do need your money if we are going to keep up all that God has called us to do, but God, and his Gospel, are going to be fine with or without Incarnation, and with or without you.
God — he doesn’t need us, but he wants us to trust him — and nowhere do we need to trust him more than with our money.
We can be Orpah, or we can be Ruth. We can end up okay, safe in a predictable life, or we can step out in faith and see how great God really is.
One of other things I love about the story of Ruth is its size. It is stuck in the early part of the Old Testament, where epic tales reign. Whole people groups move around, Pharaohs are drowned in the Sea, armies clash. And then we get this little story of one woman, her two sons, and their two wives. But this little story of one small family has everything to do with financial stewardship.
Appropriately, this lesson about stewardship happens in a small story. How we spend our money is almost entirely about the little decisions. We all agonize over buying a house or a car, but some spend more than an average car payment on coffee a month without thinking. How we spend our money is about the little decisions.
That’s how our funding at Incarnation works as well. We have some generous people in our midst who are blessed with great financial means, but the vast majority of our giving comes from ordinary folks stretching further and further to get closer to the Bible’s tithing standard.
The Good News we see this morning is that God will win in the end. Naomi moves from isolation to holding her grandson; The cause of the Gospel will always be under threat but will always prevail. Its success is not dependent upon you or me.
But who are—how we relate to God — where we put our trust — how much we risk to grow in Christ — all of those things are entirely depend on us.
The Rev. Thomas Kincaid is vice rector of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas.