I keep a booklet I found when I worked at a public library. On the cover in bold words is “THE CHOICE”. It’s a comic of a conversation in which one man is trying to logically convince the other to say a prayer in order to avoid eternal damnation. In the past, when acquaintances have noticed it, there’s often a moment of discomfort, and rightly so: evangelists don’t have the best track record of kindness toward those outside the church. At best, non-Christians are viewed as ignorant or ‘lost’. Other times, there’s language of evil and temptation: those outside the community might lead believers astray to worshipping other gods (Harry Potter) or to moral failures such as sexual promiscuity (Lady Gaga).
Even with the distance of geography, time, and culture, this reality is not that far from the one in the Book of Ruth. Ruth, a Moabite, would be suspect by those within the community of Israel. She has worshipped other gods, she is a woman from women with a reputation for sexual promiscuity. The inclusion of Ruth’s story among sacred texts challenges Israel to include and bless the same people they had been so certain were outside of God’s desire to bless. There is criticism that the Book of Ruth encourages assimilation: it is only the Moabite who converts—the one who abandons her land, people, and customs—that is accepted into Israel. This is the story of Ruth; Orpah is forgotten. However, such an individual must change the way her nation is viewed. If one can be “worthy” of God’s blessing, then how many others might be as well, but not included into the community of Israel? Ruth had to prove herself, the necessity of which exposes the hardness of Israel’s hearts even more than it does Ruth’s exceptionalism. Perhaps, following Ruth, others can be accepted without such strict adoption to Israel’s culture and customs. God has, since Abraham, been expanding his nation; perhaps Ruth was to show that the outsider can be blessed by Israel, in order that Israel does bless others, even without their abandoning their own people. To use a modern example: not every African American needs to become President in order for the presidency of Obama to begin to to alter the way African Americans are treated in this country. “Maybe,” some Israelites whisper to themselves, “those Moabites aren’t quite as bad as we thought.”
Ruth’s story challenges the Church just as it challenged Israel. We may have abandoned the language of tribalism, but the sentiment is alive and well. If we do the translation work, who would be our Moabites today? Who are the people we can’t imagine God blessing? Do we need to wait for a Ruth figure to come forward before we start extending blessings on behalf of our God, or can we learn from her story? Our culture is also one highly focused on achievement. Who are our neighbors we believe to be undeserving of God’s blessings, those who don’t prove themselves to us the way Ruth worked to? The meth heads, the alcoholics, the welfare moms. Will we remain hard-hearted until they prove themselves to us, or can we bless them into a place of flourishing?
In that evangelical booklet, a couple pages outline the ways in which Satan leads people away from Jesus, including education (with a comic parodying evolutionism), peer pressure (the picture of rough-looking punk men), “the cares of this world” (showing a man chasing after money), and sports (showing a tattooed man cheering). I hope for a Church that blesses those with whom they disagree, the girls with mohawks and men with tattoos, and the man chasing after money—regardless of whether his chase is to put food on the table or to buy a sixth cottage. God’s people are not called to judge, to argue, nor to condemn; we were called to bless.