Foreign and Belonging
I have not spent much of my life as a foreigner, though my short bouts with being a cultural outsider remind me of the difficulty of always feeling on the outside of the circle. Just as the distance between outside and inside seems to be closing, something happens or something is said and you are reminded again that you do not really belong. On a visit with Wellspring International to Northern Uganda some years ago, the thought never left us. Everywhere the director and I went, children seemed to sing of “munos,” a term essentially (and affectionately) meaning “whiteys.” It made us smile every time we heard it. But even when communicated playfully, it can be both humbling and humiliating to always carry with you the sober thought: I am out of place.
The book of Ruth scarcely neglects an opportunity to point out this reality. Long after hearers of the story are well acquainted with who Ruth is and where she is from, long after she is living in Judah, she continues to be referred to as “Ruth the Moabite” or even merely “the Moabite woman.” Her perpetual status as an outsider brings to mind the vision of Keats and the “song that found a path/ through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home/ She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”
And yet, while Ruth was undoubtedly as aware of being the foreigner as much as those around her were aware of it, she did nothing to suggest a longing to return to Moab. Her words and actions in Judah are as steadfast as her initial vow to Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17a). This is Ruth’s pledge to her mother-in-law, repeatedly.
In these early pages of the story, little is known about Naomi’s God or her people. The brief mention of each comes as a distant report: “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the LORD had visited his people and given them food” (1:6). Moreover, Naomi’s first mention of the God of her people holds a similar sense of detachment. Though she recognizes God’s sovereignty over her situation, it is blurred with bitterness: “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. For I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty” (1:20-21). Her description was hardly a compelling glimpse for the outsider looking in.
And yet, Ruth clearly embraces all of Naomi: the people who would only see her as the foreigner and the God who was not her own. In fact, ironically, it is Ruth the Moabite whose voice is the first in the story to call on the divine name. After her resolute declaration of loyalty to her mother-in-law, Ruth adds the plea, “May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (1:17b). It is the foreigner who has taken Yahweh to be her God and calls on this God accordingly. In fact, it is this foreigner whose adoption into God’s presence can be traced in blood all the way to the throne of King David and to the reign of Christ. Ruth the Moabite is forever remembered an outsider. But at the same time, she is remembered a woman with a crucial link to the Son of God.
In moments when I am feeling most isolated, displaced with pain or even playfully reminded that I am out of place, I am also most conscious of my belonging somewhere else. The psalmist cries with the identity of one who belongs in another country, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were” (39:12). The stories of Scripture give voice to both a nagging sense of homelessness and a compelling call of welcome, reminding in comfort and in pain that we are both strangers and welcomed guests in countries not our own. We are men and women moving toward a greater kingdom. And the life of a foreigner named Ruth illustrates how great is the longing of God to see each of us enter in and fully belong.
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