Updated: Aug 1
As I was reading the book of Ruth this week, a song kept rolling around in my head. The song is called “The House That Built Me,” and it begins, “I know they say, 'You can’t go home again.’” The song talks about returning to a childhood home and remembering all that happened there. It’s a song that pulls at my heartstrings and has me reliving memories of my own childhood home. It invokes a nostalgia for the way things used to be–to a simpler time, perhaps, or a happier one. But the truth is, nostalgia isn’t just about happy memories.
Theresa Cho is a pastor who reminds us that nostalgia actually has a lot to do with grief. The word, “nostalgia” is rooted in two Greek words. The word nostos, which means, “return home,” and the word algos, which means “pain.” In other words, “nostalgia” literally means, “painful homecoming.” According to Cho, nostalgia is “more than dwelling in a happy past. [It’s] about loss. [It’s] about pain and ache.”  Nostalgia is that feeling you get when you realize that you can never really go back to the way things were. You might physically return to a place of happy memories, but that place will have changed, just as you will have changed.
When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in Costa Rica. I stayed with a host family and took classes with others from my college. One day, as I was getting ready for school, my little host brother came running into my bedroom yelling, “Nueva York! Nueva York!” I ran with him to the tv and saw the footage of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. It was September 11, 2001… When I returned home to the States two months later, so much had changed. Our country was at war. Security at the airport was way more intense than when I left. My mom had walked with me to my gate as I boarded the plane to go to Costa Rica, but now she and my dad had to wait outside the secured area to pick me up. But even more significant than those outward physical signs of change was the emotional change I sensed. It was like our country’s collective innocence had been shattered. In the matter of just a few months, my country, my home, had changed dramatically. And I had changed, too. Perhaps that’s what the songwriter meant when they wrote that you can’t go home again.
Naomi certainly knew something about that, too. After a famine in her home of Bethlehem in Judah, she and her husband and their two sons had traveled to Moab in search of a better life. The Isrealites had a long history of despising the Moabites, and according to one commentary, Moab would have been considered a place of death and destruction to the Israelites.  But there was food there, unlike their home in Bethlehem, so the family had settled in Moab. And sadly, this place of death and destruction ended up being just that for Naomi and her family. First, her husband died. Then her sons married Moabite women, but before they had any children, her sons passed away as well. After ten years away from home, Naomi’s better life hadn’t materialized. She was a widow in a foreign land who had lost everything–everything that provided a woman with safety and security in her society.
And it’s here that we meet Naomi in our Scripture lesson this week. She and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, are trying to figure out what to do next. Naomi has heard that things are better again in Bethlehem, that the famine is over and there is food again. I can only imagine how exciting that must have been for her to hear. She could go home! She could return to the place where she was raised, where there were familiar faces and foods, and where she would no longer be an outsider. So she, Ruth, and Orpah set out toward Naomi’s home.
But somewhere along the way, Naomi stops and urges them to return to their mothers’ homes in Moab. I wonder if she has begun to realize that her homecoming might not be all that she had initially imagined. Perhaps the reality of her situation and the grief of nostalgia have set in. It’s been ten years since she left. Will people remember her? Will they welcome her with open arms, or will they shut doors in her face? After all, she’s returning with nothing to show for her time away except the burden of grief and loss. And she’s not returning alone; she’s bringing these two women who, frankly, are probably constant reminders of all she has lost. Plus, once they enter Judah, her Moabite daughters-in-law will be automatic outsiders. As one commentator puts it, they’ll face barriers in language, in social etiquette, and in religious practice.  Naomi doesn’t know exactly how she’ll be received, but she knows that Ruth and Orpah will be seen as suspect. And she can’t ensure her own safety and security, let alone theirs. I wonder if Naomi has begun to realize that you can’t go home again.
So she tells Ruth and Orpah to turn back–to go back to their mother’s homes where they could remarry and have children. Where they could find safety and security. Where they could have a chance at a better life. At first, they both resist this idea. They all share this burden of grief, after all, and they will go with Naomi to her people. But after many tears, Orpah makes the decision to return to her mother’s home in Moab. In many ways, it’s the most sensible decision, and there are no hard feelings among them. She kisses Naomi and says goodbye. But, the text says, Ruth clung to Naomi. Ruth doesn’t just choose to stay with Naomi. She clings to her.
You know, I think Naomi’s story is important because she helps us name the reality of grief in our own lives. She helps us recognize the pain and ache of nostalgia–the sadness, the hopelessness, and yes, sometimes even the bitterness. You can’t go home again. Even under happy circumstances, homecomings can still hold grief and pain. In verse 19, after she’s arrived back in Bethlehem, Naomi asks to be called Mara, which means bitter. Naomi isn’t afraid to cry or name her feelings about what has happened to her. And in that way, she shows us that it’s ok for us to do that, too.
But thankfully for Naomi, she wasn’t left alone in her grief and pain. Ruth clings to Naomi. And then she makes a beautiful declaration of faithfulness and loyalty: “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, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (NRSV)
Back in verse 8, Naomi uses the Hebrew word, hesed, to describe how Ruth and Orpah have dealt with her. The word is translated as “kindly,” but it also means a loving-kindness, faithfulness, or loyalty that goes beyond what is expected. Hesed was understood to be part of God’s character–who God is and how God acts. In other words, God’s unconditional love for us is hesed. God’s gift of unmerited grace is hesed. God’s steadfast care for us is hesed. But humans were also believed to be capable of hesed as well, and Noami saw that in Ruth and Orpah, in the way that they cared for her, and cared for their late husbands.  Yet Ruth’s hesed extends even beyond her own identity as a Moabite. She is committed to Naomi, even in the midst of Naomi’s despair, even if it means leaving behind everything she’s ever known.
Ruth makes a declaration of hesed, swearing an oath that she won’t leave Naomi’s side. And throughout the rest of the book of Ruth, she will live out that hesed. She will stay with Naomi as they make their way to Bethlehem. She will glean the fields from morning until night so that they can both eat. She will follow Naomi’s advice so that she might marry Boaz. And when Ruth and Boaz do marry and have a son, Ruth will remain faithful to Naomi. Ruth’s hesed will make a way for Naomi to enjoy a better life at last.
If Naomi’s story helps us name the reality of grief, Ruth’s story helps us understand the power of hesed. Through God’s faithfulness, God’s grace, God’s hesed working through Ruth, Naomi isn’t left alone in her grief and pain, but she has a faithful companion who stays by her side no matter what. Naomi can’t go home again. She can’t go back to the way things were before she left Bethlehem. But through God’s hesed, she and Ruth create a new home. They create a new family. Through God’s hesed, Naomi and Ruth find their grief transformed into joy, and their hopelessness transformed into new life.
And so it is that we, too, can trust in God’s hesed. We can trust that in the midst of our grief, God is faithful. In the midst of our hopelessness, we’re not alone. In the midst of our bitterness, God’s grace is at work, creating new possibilities and new life. Like Ruth clung to Naomi, so God clings to us, promising that wherever we go, wherever we make our home, God will be with us. And in the same way, we can offer hesed to others.
A few weeks ago, a woman I know contacted me and asked if I knew anyone who could help her move. She’s a single mom, and she’d suddenly found herself in an unsafe living situation. She and her child needed to get out fast. I was about to leave town and I couldn’t help her myself, but I texted a young man I know who happens to live near this woman. I told him the situation and he immediately offered to help. He went the next day and spent several hours helping this woman move. And then he went back the following day to help her get the last of her things. This young man didn’t have to help this stranger. And he certainly didn’t have to go back for a second day. But he was living out hesed. He was going above and beyond–extending grace and loving-kindness so that others could find safety and security in a new home.
Like Ruth, like this young man, we, too, can go beyond what is expected and extend hesed to those who are in need. We can be faithful companions to those who need support. And we can work to create communities of love and grace so that others can find safety and security. Though God’s hesed, we can help others find home. And who knows? Perhaps in doing so, we might even find it for ourselves.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Theresa Cho, “Wreck This Church,” posted on the blog, Still Waters, July 3, 2014: https://theresaecho.com/2014/07/03/wreck-this-church/.
Ruth 1:1-5 Reflections,” New Interpreter’s Commentary (Abingdon, 2015), 269.
Gary Charles, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4 (Westminster John Knox, 2009), 246.
“Ruth 1:6-14, ‘Return to Your Mother’s House,” New Interpreter’s Commentary (Abingdon, 2015), 271.