From Bitter to Sweet - by Hannah Bartlett
In 2020, we probably don’t have to work too hard to imagine a world that looks like this: A crisis in the land causes a major disruption in the economy and material world. Whole families are uprooted, caused to adapt, and at times even relocate. Even those who may be in familiar territory feel like this new landscape feels foreign. On top of this, individuals appear to be suffering loss upon loss, losing people, places or things that have been so dear and so close. This is, in fact, not an outline of events that have happened in the year 2020, but are the outline of events that happen to the Israelites “in the days when the judges ruled in Israel” (Ruth 1:1). The book of Ruth shares a time in history where a major crisis has disrupted the land: a severe famine (1:1) changes the way of life for everyone, bringing economic crisis and instability. The Israelites would have been asking similar questions that we are perhaps asking today in the wake of the pandemic: how long is this going to last? How will my finances ever recover? How will I provide for my family and loved ones? I can imagine these were the questions that Naomi, wife of Elimelech, was asking when she heard the first news of the famine. I can also imagine the extra anxiety that would have come with the decision that she, her husband, and two sons would move from familiar Israel to Moab, a foreign territory. Even geography seemed to be working against her. Perhaps you have not had to relocate due to the pandemic, but I know we have all had what I would like to call “geographic anxiety” - perhaps for us, it has been because our geography has been restricted: traveling to certain locations where friends, family or resources has not been possible. Our own maps have shrunken in this time. Naomi would have had a lot on her heart and mind with the crisis of famine and the uncertainties of relocating. But on top of this, her husband dies (Ruth 1:3) and about ten years later (sometimes the year 2020 has felt like it’s lasted ten years!) both of her sons die as well (Ruth 1:5). Naomi is left alone with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth: three women living in a patriarchal culture with no sure hope of survival or flourishing. We, like Naomi, have experienced compounded grief in this season. We have experienced losses personally, in our communities, and across our land. These range from the loss of loved ones to the loss of jobs, opportunities, celebrations, and events cancelled. It does not surprise me that Naomi says this as she tries to send her two daughters-in-law to a better future back to Moab: “Call me Mara [which means bitterness], for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me” (Ruth 1:20).
So many of us have reacted similarly in the wake of all that has happened in 2020. We have heaved a sigh of resignation: just write off 2020. Just call 2020 ‘bitter’ - there is nothing left for us in it, and nothing good can be brought out of this year. Just call me exhausted, or angry, or fed up - because that is what I am, and that is all that has come out of this year for me.
Maybe we echo the words of Naomi: “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” (Ruth 1:21). It is important to note that God does not intervene and tell Naomi to snap out of her grief. He does not punish her for being sad, angry, and bitter. Naomi had very real reasons to grieve: the loss of her husband and sons meant that her future as a widow in her culture was not bright. There was seemingly only more hardship ahead. But God also does not abandon her or leave her without hope. In fact, he offers her hope abundant in the person of her faithful daughter-in-law Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite woman who has spent time in this Israelite family. She has witnessed a God who is not her own shape the life of her husband’s family... so much so that she responds this way when Naomi tells her to leave her in her bitterness: ““Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”” (Ruth 1:16) Ruth shares an uncertain future with Naomi but chooses to put her trust in God even when neither of them know what is coming next. We know from the book of Ruth that it is through Ruth’s trust in God and her loyalty to Naomi that the unthinkable happens: God turns a bitter situation into one that is sweeter than Naomi and Ruth could ever picture.
Ruth meets and marries Boaz (Ruth 2-4), giving the two women the provision that they need: famine turns into food, seclusion turns to security, and refugees become rooted into a community. Had God given Ruth and Naomi only these things this would have certainly been enough! But we know God is a God who loves to shower blessings. Ruth gives birth to a son (Ruth 4:13), bringing Naomi the joy and thrill that only grandchildren can bring to their grandparents. God restores joy to the heart of Naomi, providing for her and going over the top in ways that I am sure she could have never imagined when she told Ruth she would identify as “bitterness” for the perceived future.
Ruth made a choice in the midst of a crisis situation full of grief to remain with Naomi - to see past the grief to hope in a way that Naomi was struggling to do.
Because Ruth chooses to trust God she ends up not only bringing security and hope to her family and people, but hope to the world: Ruth’s and Boaz’s son is named Obed, who becomes the father of Jesse, who becomes the father of David (Ruth 4:22). We know that it is through the line of David that Jesus is born - the Savior of the world. Ruth’s decision to trust God and move into uncertainty literally changed the course of history! God uses her to help bring his salvation plan to bear in a time of crisis, grief, anxiety.
As 2020 soon draws to a close, I have been challenged by this story to consider how my heart reacts to all that has happened. I can say “just call me bitter” or “let’s just move on from 2020, nothing good can possibly be done here.” Or, I can echo the hope-filled words of Ruth and trust God in saying, “where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. God, your people will be my people, and you will continue to be my God!” The story of Ruth shows us that a heart that prays like this can change everything. It reminds us of a God who redeems, restores, and goes above and beyond what we can ask or imagine. It prompts us to remember that hope is born in the strangest places: in foreign lands, during famines, among death, grief and loss. This is the ground where God chooses to plant a seed to do his work. And this may be the ground we feel we are standing on today. Grieving is so appropriate and healthy in this season, but God never intends that we self-label as permanently bitter, forgotten about, or that the best days are behind us. Let’s step out in hope and allow God to be our God. Let’s actively move forward in the face of uncertainty, knowing that when we do, God will use us to accomplish more than we could ask or imagine.