Have any of you heard about the Bechdel test?
It’s a test developed by Alison Bechdel used to evaluate how women are portrayed in fiction, including literature and television and movies.
The Bechdel test works like this: If there are two women with names, talking to each other about something other than a man, then it passes the test!
Two women. Whose names we know. Talking. Not about men. That’s it.
Simple enough, right? Well, actually, when you drill down into it, most of what we read and watch fails to pass the Bechdel test. It’s really kind of pathetic, actually.
However… this week, when reading this morning’s Scripture, I dawned on me that Ruth chapter 1 passes the Bechdel test!
Women characters named? Yup. Naomi and Ruth are the main protagonists, with Orpah making a cameo.
Talking about something other than men? Yup. While the background is that all their husbands passed away, and Naomi telling her daughters-in-law that she won’t be having any more kids, there is that one part where Ruth pledges to never leave Naomi’s side, and Ruth declares that whatever fate befalls Naomi will befall Ruth too.
This is actually one of the only times that any story in the entire Bible passes the Bechdel test. Yikes. The roots of patriarchy are deep.
When Ruth pledges her fate to that of Naomi, the Hebrew word best used to describe that his Hesed – It’s an act of loyal loving, of loving-kindness. It’s a covenant of love, so it’s something one commits to regardless of how you’re feeling. A wedding vow might be a similar comparison. Through thick and thin, health and sickness, good times and bad. Hesed is also used to describe God’s love for God’s people. It’s loyal love.
Ruth and Naomi talking about loyally loving each other is certainly better than them talking about men, right? Although that does come in chapter 2.
We’re going to come back to hesed in a bit.
Naomi and her husband and their two sons are Israelites, and they move to a foreign land called Moab. And, the sons marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. And then when all the men pass away, Naomi decides to go back home to her own country and her own people.
Now, according to the customs of the day, Naomi’s daughters-in-law were free to go back to their own families, their own people, their own rules and customs and culture and religion. Naomi “released” them.
And Orpah went.
There is something freeing about rules, isn’t there? That there are clear expectations of you, and you know that if you do what you are supposed to do, it’s probably going to be okay.
Pay your taxes, and CRA probably won’t send you a letter.
Don’t speed, and you won’t get a speeding ticket.
Take out a building permit before you add on a sunroom, and then you won’t have to take down the sunroom that you just built.
I know someone who started their new job as a chaplain, and on her first day she was given a big black binder labeled “Policy Binder.”
At first she was a bit overwhelmed. She thought, “How am I ever going to follow all these?”
But after a few months, she actually came to appreciate the policy binder. She said there was a certain level of freedom in there, where she knew what the expectations were and if she followed them, she’d probably be okay.
Rules, can be freeing.
Naomi knew the rules. She was free to release her daughters-in-law back to their own people and culture.
And Orpah followed the rules. They hugged, they kissed, they said goodbye, and they went on their different ways.
There is a place for the rules… and then there’s what Ruth did.
Ruth went BEYOND the rules in her love and devotion to Naomi. She said, “I know what’s expected of me. I’m going to let my love move me beyond the basic requirements.”
In almost all our relationships, I’d suggest that the more committed we are, the more we go above the basic requirements, the better off that relationships is.
Our cars – If we wash them in winter, they’ll last longer.
Our lawns – If we fertilize and water, they will look nicer.
Our gardens – If we weed, they will give us more food.
Our jobs – If we show up and work hard and take courses to keep learning, we will have more satisfaction.
And I think our relationships with each other is similar. If we’re committed, if we go above and beyond what’s “required” of us, I think we’re setting ourselves up for all sorts of positives. Because love moves us above and beyond what is simply “required” of us.
And we’re back at hesed – Loyal loving. Covenant of loving-kindess. More than a feeling. Beyond what’s required of us.
And do you know what makes the story of Naomi and Ruth and hesed even more cool?
Naomi was an Israelite from Judah.
Ruth was a Moabite, from Moab.
Ruth was a foreigner.
We read lots in the news about foreigners, don’t we? Refugees from Syria, asylum seekers making irregular border crossings into both the USA and Canada. We tend not to hear much about how my French ancestors were kind of unwanted to New France 500 years ago by the First Nations, perhaps even considered illegal immigrants, but that’s a different sermon for a different day.
But Ruth was a foreigner.
What are the requirements of treating foreigners?
Well, as Christians, our first loyalty is to God, not our country, so we’ll spend our time there. (although, interestingly enough, it’s that loyalty to God over country that resulted in Mennonites being banned for a while from moving to Canada, as we couldn’t be relied upon to fight for our country, but I digress).
Well, let’s start with the Old Testament:
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:34
Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Exodus 22:21
And then there’s Jeremiah, sticking in to the kings of the world. “This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right… Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3
Or Isaiah, blasting his own people: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have choses: to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free… Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?” Isaiah 58:6-7
I’m usually not a fan of cherry picking verses from the Old Testament to support what I already believe, so let’s take a jaunt into the New Testament, shall we?
But first of, we should make note that the New Testament says very little about foreigners directly, because the life and teachings of Jesus AND the apostle Paul tore down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, between them and us.
Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 2:19 – Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of God’s household.
But I really love reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus, where we give more weight to the words of Jesus than the other parts.
We can talk about how the Jewish leaders tried to kill Jesus after he referenced a bunch of times in the Old Testament where God was found among foreigners (Luke 4). Or the time he spent eating with and healing Romans, the hated oppressors of Israel (Matthew 8). Or when he healed foreigners (Mark 7) . Or how he treated the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).
Or when in doubt, we always have good old Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me,you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Jesus kind of says that if we don’t look after strangers in need, we risk the fires of hell.
Yikes. So harsh, right? Good thing we’re gonna be like Ruth and err on the side of doing MORE than the law requires, right?
Let alone all those other part of the Bible about hospitality, or when we host strangers we might be hosting angels, or if we have two cloaks we should give one away, or that Jesus was a refugee who crossed into other countries, or that time Jesus told a story about how the hated foreigner is actually our neighbor, or how “Love does no harm to its neighbor.” (Romans 13:10).
One of my favourites, though, about Ruth being a foreign Moabite, is actually found in the gospel of Matthew. We’re going to working through Matthew starting in January, but we’ll just quickly jump in there.
Right at the beginning of Matthew, before the Christmas story of angels and wise men, we’re given the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew was written to a primarily Jewish audience, so the genealogy is there to give some street cred to Jesus. Kind of like us living in rural Manitoba figuring out who are grandparents and great grandparents are.
And in the genealogy of Jesus, we have all sort of big hitters: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, Solomon, Josiah…
And then, tucked away into there, we read the name Ruth.
…Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth…
Ruth, a foreign woman, made it into the genealogy of Jewish Jesus.
The son of God, the prince of peace, has a foreigner in his bloodline. They could have left her out of the list. She doesn’t have to be in there.
But she is. They intentionally listed her in the genealogy of Jesus.
Maybe, just maybe, they knew that including a foreigner in the genealogy of Jesus was revolutionary.
Kind of like how Ruth choosing hesed, to go above and beyond what was required of her, choosing to loyally love someone she isn’t required to, is kind of revolutionary.
And so, in conclusion, may we continue to practice love… Love for our families, love for those in our community, and those who are from different parts of the world. May we continue to love our neighbours as ourselves, and may we always remember that love does no harm to its neighbour.