Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mara

Wasn’t Naomi fortunate to have Ruth? Sometimes we forget about Naomi, in the face of Ruth’s compelling story, her blessing in finding Boaz, her nobility in David’s line. Naomi seems only the vehicle to get Ruth to Judah, a sad older woman who finds unexpected joy in a foreigner.

One-fourth of “Ruth” is devoted to the study of Naomi. She endures, in the span of a little over 10 years, famine, removal from her nation, the deaths of her husband and both her sons. She is left with no protection, no provision, no companionship. Even in her daughters-in-law, she sees young girls who don’t belong with her. She is old, hopeless, Jewish. They are young, fresh, ready to marry again. What do Moabite women have to do with a Jewish widow? Her loneliness consumes her. She returns to Judah only because she hears rumor that God has begun to bless the people there again. This is her last family connection, a broken distant one.

And God? Yes, she knows him. But she describes their relationship like people do who have been tested and broken by struggles. “The hand of the LORD has gone forth against me.” Naomi doesn’t see her trials and losses as random events, nor as punishment for her sin, nor as the natural course of life. She knows that God has designed her trials for her. In a series of deliberative, intentional acts, God afflicts her. He throws oppressive burdens on her back – one, then another, then a few more. She collapses under the weight of her despair. “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me; the LORD has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me.” This is her own God, the only one she has. She is returning to her people, the people who belong to this God. She is returning to him, and more than before tying herself to him, in spite of his oppression of her. Why?

This question must be asked, because Ruth does the same thing. Watching Naomi, listening to her describe her God, Ruth volunteers to claim this afflicting Deity as her own. “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” Ruth might as well say, “I’ve watched the horror that is your life for the past decade. You say your God did this to you. Well, I want that God for myself too.”

What kind of lunacy possesses these women?

What kind of God possesses the power to turn your life to ashes and bow you to the ground? The same kind of God who can then reverse all those losses. If he’s powerful enough to do one, he’s powerful enough to do the other. He is the redeeming God – the one who turns losses to gains and reclaims all things of his that seem beyond hope. Naomi’s story is all about redemption, just as Job’s is: how much can God strip from a human, and then return? How much will a human, in his despair, still look to God for redemption, because there is hope nowhere else? Naomi must have thought these thoughts as she dandled little Obed on her knee.

When we suffer, we must acknowledge that God’s hand gives the suffering. We must admit that, without the affliction we would have neglected to think of God. Then we must hold that afflicting hand and trust that it will return to us all that is lost. There is no other way.

Naomi’s friends said of baby Obed, “A son has been born to Naomi!” – a replacement, a redemption, for the sons she lost. She is no longer Mara; she is Naomi again.

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