I have never thought of the book of Ruth as a political statement. In fact it is probably best remembered for Ruth’s declaration of fidelity to her mother in law, Naomi in chapter 1:16,17
“Do not press me to leave you
 or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.


It is one of the most eloquent statements of relational fidelity you will find in the bible.  It presages Jesus’ words in John 15:13—” No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  


At their best, these words are inspirational.  They exemplify the courage, devotion and self sacrifice of women who had to make it  in a world where being female was a liability.  At their worst, they are used to create one sided expectations for the ideal woman.  ‘If I could enact one statute for all the women of America, it would be that each of them should read the Book of Ruth once a month.’  Senator Beveridge ( Though the quote is dated, the sentiment persists.  


However, I don’t think that the focus for the author of Ruth was gender roles.  Though written as a history, this book is more of a historical parable to provide counterpoint to the conventional wisdom of the day.  Ruth was written in troubled times. Israel had been defeated and its leaders exiled.  The nation was shattered and the Jewish identity was at risk.  When the exiles returned, Ezra and Nehemiah sought to rally the people around their faith.  From their point of view, intermarriage had diluted, if not polluted, religious allegiances and purity.   They were determined to purify the people and reestablish the Jewish identity. They fiercely opposed intermarriages and sought to dissolve them.


This, of course, is not a new problem. Whenever cultures mix, whether that is in post-exilic Israel or at immigration centers in the United States, there is anxiety and fear about maintaining the  ‘Jewish’ way or the ‘American’ way.  In the midst of this struggle the book of Ruth is written.   Ruth reveals a common biblical truth—God works his purposes out outside of human expectations. 


The story begins  with famine and a forced migration. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, are separated from their own culture and must settle in Moab—a foreign land with a disdained people.  Moabites, in particular,  were seriously frowned upon. Their offences were so grave that in Numbers 25, Moabites were banned from the assembly of the Lord. These were not people good Jews consorted with much less married—yet both of Naomi’s children do so.  This was exactly the kind of intermarriage that Ezra and Nehemiah feared and opposed.  Then, not only Naomi’s husband, but both her sons die—leaving Naomi, and her daughters in law, alone to face the world.   Naomi laments:  “my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”  It is in this moment of despair that Ruth makes her famous declaration:  “Where you go, I will go….your people shall be my people,  and your God my God.”  Ruth was in no way obligated to stay with Naomi. Her familial obligations had been met.  But,  Ruth chose to stay with Naomi.  It wasn’t the law, it was the spirit of the law that Ruth aspired to.  


By all human expectations,  neither Ruth nor Naomi had a future.  Ruth is reduced to gleaning the fields—a very high risk, low reward way to survive for an unprotected woman.  She meets Boaz, a distant relative to Naomi, and comes under his protection.  Knowing that Boaz has no legal obligations to Ruth, Naomi advises Ruth to seduce Boaz so as to secure her future.  It works.  They marry and Ruth has a son, Obed who has a son, Jesse—who is the father of King David.  I’m pretty sure no one saw that plot twist.  The greatest king of Israel was the product an intermarriage, and more surprising to a Moabite.  So much for ethnic purity as a condition for God’s favor.  


Humans have been making rules to determine who is righteous and who is pure for centuries.  The bible has a frightening strand of ‘justifiable violence’ including killing the inhabitants of the promised land and later the spouses of intermarried couples. There have been many rules and rituals designed to make ourselves presentable to God.  But fortunately humans have a very poor track record for predicting who God loves or who is acceptable to the Lord.  


Do we mark our faith  by the ways we are different—and therefore exclude others.  Or, do we mark our faith by the diverse and unexpected ways that God shows up. Humans usually opt for polarization and exclusion.  But that simply is not how God loves.  At least as I read Ruth and as I understand Jesus,God is regularly correcting our definitions and certainties.   God routinely challenges our human insistence upon certainty.  God cares for the outcasts.  God cares for children.  God cares for the stranger.  And most importantly, God cares for sinners.  We do not get to judge. Our judgments co opt God.  In Ruth, God reveals that in famine, desolation, unacceptable marriages and even death, God is working his purposes out.


In the current political climate I have personally heard people write and say:  “How can you claim to be a Christian and vote Democrat?”  And I have heard the same question from the other side of the aisle: “How can you claim to be a Christian and vote for Trump?” These questions are rarely honest inquiries.  They demean and stereotype others.  They reveal that we make politics our personal litmus test  of faith.  The questions themselves assume a righteous certainty that judges and divides people—in the name of God no less.   The reverse should be true.  Our faith should govern our politics. The real question is how can any of us ask questions in this way and claim to be Christian?  Such questions are signs that we need to confess.  


We believe, as difficult as it is to comprehend, that everyone of us belongs to God and we pray that each one of us is called to discern God’s will.  That requires a humility that I am often short of—-but it is still the call and the standard of our faith.   We have plenty of evidence that we fail. We are a judging and judgmental people. But when we can recognize that God is acting in ways beyond our capacity to see, we can confess our lack of humility and our need to be right.  We can confess that we demand agreement over offering respect.  We can confess we judge others for being judgmental. We can confess that we do to others what we accuse them of doing to us.   


Especially in these polarized times, we need to remember who we worship.  The book of Ruth speaks to devotion, self giving and sacrificial love—even when it is not expected or required—as the vehicle of God in history.  It was Ruth’s line that gave us David.  It was Ruth’s line that gave us Jesus.  It was Jesus who reconciled an often very unsavory world to himself.  By the religious standards of Ruth’s day and by the religious standards of Jesus’ day, none of this should have happened.

Even now God is acting in ways we cannot see.  We need such reminders so that we can place our faith over our politics.  We need such reminders so that we can confess when we don’t.  Let it be so.


Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.