What’s your name?
Do you have a nickname?
We get called a lot of things. Most of the time we might be called by our name; but other times, we’re called something else, something like a nickname, something that may or may not be complimentary.
The star character of the book of Ruth could have been called a lot of names.
For starters: “Moabite.” She was from that much-disliked neighboring country; remember from last week? For Israelites, Moab was a place of shady origins (Genesis 19) and bad history (Numbers 22 and 25; Judges 3). Elimelech and his family were driven there by famine at home in Bethlehem. I wonder how they looked at the Moabites when they first arrived: Suspicious? Nervous? Hateful? I wonder how the Moabites looked back at them: Suspicious? Nervous? Hateful? But this particular Moabite – the star of our story for today – wouldn’t remain a “Moabite” only. Soon she’d be called…
“Daughter-in-law.” Elimelech’s sons take Moabite wives. Those wives become, in turn, daughters-in-law. They are married for a time so short it’s sad – just ten years. The husbands die and the daughters-in-law gain a new name…
“Widow.” A designation no spouse wants to acquire. Maybe at some age-appropriate time involving nursing homes and wheel chairs…? No; not even then. No spouse wants to be a widow. And yet it happens, doesn’t it? A husband dies and a young woman is left alone.
In Biblical antiquity, being a widow wasn’t just sad; it was dangerous. A woman without a man had no source of food, clothing, and shelter; this is why Israelite law provides for widows with special tithes (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and the right to glean from the corners of farmland (Leviticus 23:22). In this story, the widows try to survive, one by returning home, while two – a mother-in-law and her radically kind, uber dedicated daughter-in-law – head to Bethlehem. There, the widowed daughter-in-law would be called a new name:
“Foreigner.” Remember how the Israelites felt about Moabites? Now picture this widow – this burden to society – coming into town. For her mother-in-law, it was a happy homecoming; but for this foreigner, it was an outsider coming in. People who see her are suspicious, nervous, hateful.
Her mother-in-law advises her to go out to a relative’s field and glean – pick grain – as the law says she can. The foreigner goes and gathers alongside the servants, from sunrise to sunset, without rest. The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, takes notice both of her work ethic and her dedication to her mother-in-law. He tells her she can gather there anytime. She has earned a new status, a slight upgrade:
“Servant.” Her mother-in-law sees this as a foot in the doorway to a new life. She encourages her servant daughter-in-law to get closer to this Boaz. Lay down next to him while he sleeps, even. Boaz wakes, surprised to find this servant lying beside him… but he does not object. Instead, he calls her a new name:
“Worthy woman” (3:11). He sees it, and the whole town sees it. She is worthy of him, and he begins to make plans to acquire her.
Yes; acquire her. This is a different time when women held a different status. So discussions begin about a piece of property that belonged to old Elimelech, the worthy woman’s former father-in-law. Whoever buys that land will get this worthy woman along as part of the package. The story celebrates when the first-in-line relative declines to purchase the land, allowing Boaz to purchase the land and the woman. Her fate – and her mother-in-law’s – are secured, but modern readers might be left with the feeling that she’s been called something else:
This is not her name, though. Neither is her name “Worthy woman,” or “servant,” or “foreigner,” or “widow,” or “daughter-in-law,” or “Moabite.” None of these titles are her name.
Her name is Ruth, and we will not forget it.
We could forget it. It’s possible to be in the Bible and not have your name remembered. The best I can count, there are at least 27 women who show up but are not remembered by their names. Noah’s wife. Pharaoh’s daughter. Jepthath’s daughter who was tragically sacrificed. Job’s wife. Isaiah’s wife. Peter’s wife and mother-in-law. The Samaritan woman. The woman who bled for 12 years.
All of these women are in the Bible, but their names are long forgotten.
Ruth has a name, and it is remembered. In the conversations of the final chapter of Ruth, the word “name” is used seven times. A name matters: Elimelech’s name should carry on; the right name should be on the land; Ruth’s child is named and his name will be remembered.
But it’s not just Obed, Ruth’s baby, that’s remembered. Ruth is remembered. She is the title of one of the sixty-six books of the Bible. She is the great-grandmother of King David. In the gospel of Matthew, she is one of only four women – named women – listed in Jesus’ family tree. There’s her name, right there in Matthew 1:5:
The world wants to calls us all sorts of names. Some have to do with what has happened to us: “widow.” Some have to do with where we’re born: “Moabite.” “Foreigner.” Some have to do with our relationships: “daughter-in-law.” Others are a statement of how others view us: “servant”; “property.”
These are not our names.
Father Gregory Boyle works with gang members in Los Angeles, young men and women who have many nicknames. As a way to remind them of who they are, he likes to ask them: “What did your mom call you when she wasn’t mad at you?” *
Well, how about you? What did your mom – or dad, or grandma, or whoever raised you – call you when they weren’t mad at you?
That’s your name, your real name.
Jesus says that he is the good shepherd, calling his sheep by name (John 10:3). No matter what the world calls you, Jesus is calling you by real name. The God who made you and loves you knows your name; God has not forgotten it. God is calling it right now.
Will you answer?
* Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, is a great one.