Imagine a moment in your life when your mother instructed you to do something that was entirely to your benefit and success. It would be devoid of much difficulty and hardship, and you would be a fool not to accept the offer. If put in this strange scenario, what would you do? Naomi’s proposition to Ruth and Orpah strikes a similar ring to this imaginary scenario, even if it is from a mother-in-law and not a biological mother, but the principle remains intact. But what exactly is that principle?
Christian commentators have certainly noticed the loyal aspect of Ruth’s “clinging” to Naomi in the face of dire circumstances—famine, tragedy of the loss of husbands, geographic relocation—yet, I think there is also another principle rooted in the differing responses of both Ruth and Orpah to Naomi’s call to “go, return each of you to her mother’s house” (vs. 8).
Naomi’s call for Ruth and Orpah to return to older, familiar, familial patterns of life is answered both positively and negatively. It is answered positively by Orpah and negatively by Ruth.
It is impossible to regard Orpah’s positive response as disobedient. It wasn’t. She did as Naomi instructed even to the point of going “back to her people and to her gods” (vs. 15). Orpah took the logical and less difficult route in trying times. In a lot of ways, it simply made more sense. She returned. She went back to her old ways of life and worship. And why wouldn’t she? Why wouldn’t we?
It is also impossible to regard Ruth’s negative response as obedient. Well, that is, not in the literal sense. Even so, Ruth’s response was tinged with extreme loyalty and an untinged faithfulness to her mother-in-law. In some ways, considering the trying and dire circumstances surrounding the context of this conversation, one could conclude that Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi is illogical and unreasonable. Why wouldn’t she take the easy way out? Why wouldn’t she just return to older, familiar ways of life? Wouldn’t you?
The voice of the Apostle Paul seems to cut right through the middle of such a dilemma when he writes somewhat scathingly to the Corinthians, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”1
Today, it would be simple to read the story of Ruth and miss the principle found in what could be called her “foolish faithfulness.” Was Ruth’s response to Naomi the most logical or reasonable? Probably not. But maybe Ruth’s “foolishness” flies in the face of the world’s wisdom. Maybe she exemplifies the type of thing that Paul hints at—to become a fool that she may become wise.
Today, it would also be simple to take the path of Orpah and not of Ruth when it comes to living a life shaped by the death and resurrection of Christ. Too often, we return to the old and familiar ways that seem the most reasonable and logical to us—and, in the world’s eyes, they probably are.
Part of living like a disciple of Christ is recognizing the foolish and scandalous nature of the cross, which stands in stark opposition to the pride and self-love that dominate our Orpah-ian responses in the ebb and flow of Christian life. The gods that Orpah and we keep turning back to get flipped on their heads by a God who enters in to redeem creation not through power, but through service, and ultimately through death. And it is Paul who hits this point home again, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”2
In this regard, Ruth’s “foolish faithfulness” teaches us to live a cruciform life—an existence having the shape of the cross. The cross stands in opposition to the wisdom of the world and all our Orpah responses. Ruth’s response to Naomi also takes that sort of posture; so should we.