The Story of Ruth: Plans and Provisions by Cris Cramer
The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
The beginning of the book of Ruth tells us about an Israelite family's sojourn to another country, leaving their homeland to escape conditions of famine and going to live among a neighboring people who were not allies of Israel. There is some tempting symbolism here regarding living inside and outside of God's plan and blessing, tempting but dangerous.
Taking the basic facts at face value, Elimelech leaves the land of his own people and goes to live among foreigners who do not worship God Almighty. He forsakes his own people in a time of hardship and goes where he thinks conditions are better. There's a temptation to say he was wrong, that he should have stayed in God's land among God's people and stuck it out with them, waiting for God's provision. It's tempting to see the basic events and interpret them in this very simple, thoroughly condemning way -- a way that is only one step away from interpreting Elimelech's death as punishment for straying from God's plan.
Sound familiar? This kind of story plays out all too often in modern media, where religious leaders interpret world events and natural disasters as God's judgement on "those people" and "their wrongdoing." The people and behavior in question are condemned, and the only correct response presented for them is to follow what the religious leader says is the right way, regardless of any kind of upheaval it would cause in their lives and situations, regardless if they had any choice in the creation of those situations. No room is granted for any other interpretation of the facts, no grace allowed for people's struggles and hardships, no acknowledgement that the world is complicated and people have the right to form their own opinions and make their own choices, based on their own lives and experience.
Let's go back to what the book of Ruth says and doesn't say about Elimelech's situation and decisions. All the story tells us plainly is that Elimelech's family went to Moab to live. Not a word is said about whether God intended them to go or not; we simply can't say. It is possible that God prompted Elimelech to move away, either directly or via the guidance of circumstances; it is possible that God warned him not to, likewise; it is possible that God didn't specifically say anything, either way. Yes, God does have plans for us and guide our lives, but he doesn't give us specific outlines to follow -- we do get a say, we do get to make our own choices sometimes, among a range of possible good options, and God works with us in the midst of those choices. One of the most incredible things about God is his ability to work with any plan we create; we are never left on our own to figure things out, because we chose something that God doesn't know what to do with.
The very same thing is true in this story. Whether or not Elimelech's family was moving with or against God's will, God was still with them. No matter whether they lived in Israel or Moab, they were still in God's presence -- God who created the whole planet and the entirety of the reality it exists within. Every corner of the world belongs to God, he was in Moab before Elimelech's family ever arrived. Regardless what he thought of their choice in moving there, he still provided for them. When Elimelech died, God enabled his sons to find wives. The family survived and made a living there for ten years. And when the sons died, God was still present with the widow Naomi. She suffered terrible losses, but she never suffered the loss of God's presence and provision. She may or may not have agreed with her husband's choice to move to Moab, she may or may not have had a say, but God didn't abandon her in a foreign land on her own. God had a plan to bring her back to a place of safety and abundance -- and it didn't have to have been in Israel. He chose to bring her back to Bethlehem, but he could have provided for her in Moab. He could have provided for her on the moon, if he wanted to.
There are two powerful reminders for me here. One is that other people's lives and stories are more complex than it sometimes appears on the surface, and that there's always more to them than I will ever know -- but God knows it all. When I am tempted to condemn someone's behavior or choices, I may not be seeing the whole picture that God sees. It's my job to love people and listen to them, not to judge.
The second reminder is that when I feel like I'm lost and unblessed, God is still present, and his presence is blessing -- I am never unblessed, as long as God claims me for his own. I am never forgotten about, no matter if my choices are good or bad. I am never unprovided for, whether or not I can see the means of provision in the passing moment. I can mess up my life, but I can't mess up God's plans. He's the one in charge, and he will always take care of me.
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