Saturday, 1 July 2017

Are you a loyal person?

Ruth said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me”. Ruth 1:16-17

In the world of football it’s said that the only people who are loyal to their team are the fans. Not the players - oh yes, they love to “kiss the badge”, but, with very rare exceptions, they’re easily persuaded to look elsewhere in search of bigger opportunities or more money. And not the managers - they too seem often to have their eye on the next career opening. Only the fans show decades of loyalty.

Which is sad. For loyalty is a beautiful quality.

Ruth stands as a moving example. Remember the story...

Naomi and her husband Elimelech have travelled from Israel to Moab in time of famine, and they make their life there. But Elimelech dies, and Naomi is left with two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who eventually marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But then the two boys also die, and Naomi, grieving and bitter, decides to head back to Bethlehem, where she and Elimelech originally came from.

So what is to become of the daughters-in-law? It is to the credit of Naomi that she doesn’t play the misery card: “Oh, you will come with me, won’t you? You’re all I have left, after all...” No emotional blackmail. When both girls declare that they will go with her, she pleads strongly with them to stay at home in Moab: “Your future is here! You are young enough to find new husbands. But I must return to my own people...”

Orpah decides that Naomi is right. She kisses her mother-in-law and takes her sorrow back with her to her Moabite family. We never hear of her again.

But Ruth refuses to obey: with the beautiful words I have quoted, she insists on sticking with her mother-in-law, and the two women start out on the long journey to Bethlehem.

Why does Ruth make this decision? It must have been heart-breakingly difficult - and would turn out to be totally life-changing. She commits herself to be loyal to Naomi until death parts them, and even then to stay in the land of Judah.

One very obvious possibility, of course, is love. Perhaps Ruth had come to love Naomi deeply, and simply couldn’t imagine life without her.

But there are hints of something more. I’m sure Naomi must have talked about the God of Israel with her sons and their wives, and perhaps Ruth had become convinced that the God of Israel really was the one true God. It’s worth noticing that when she takes that oath to stay with Naomi, she does so with the words “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” The Moabites had a god called Chemosh, but she doesn’t make her vow in his name.

Whatever, she has made her decision, and solemnly declares that she will abide by it.

(I don’t think, by the way, that we should be too hard on Orpah. She was under no kind of obligation to stay with Ruth, and she probably felt a strong sense of loyalty to her Moabite family. I just hope she was able to make a happy life.)

The message is very simple if we let Ruth speak to us down through the centuries. Are we loyal people? Loyal to God, of course. Loyal To Christ. Loyal to our husbands or wives. Loyal to our family and friends. Loyal to our church.

Or are we the kind of people for whom loyalty is just a word? People who flit about from one commitment to another, happy to drop people if it no longer suits our purpose to stay with them? People who pick up with someone or something new if that seems to be in our own interest? 

Most of us can probably look back over our lives and say “Thank God for those dear people who have proved loyal to me! What would I have done without them?” But then we must go on to ask ourselves the question: “Have I shown the same kind of loyalty to others?”

I’m not forgetting, of course, that there is a limit to loyalty. If loyalty to a friend means disloyalty to God, then we’ve got a hard decision to make. 

Remember those deeply troubling words of Jesus about the need, sometimes, even to “hate” the very closest members of our own families (see Luke 14:26). God brooks no rivals! (Otherwise, how would he be God?) Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century mystic, wrote: “Cursed be that loyalty which reaches so far as to go against the law of God.”

But while we keep those hard thoughts in mind, let’s say thank God today for Ruth - the heathen woman whose wonderful loyalty in dark days led to her name appearing, almost incredibly, in the family tree of Jesus. Yes, really! - just look up Matthew 1:5.

Lord God, teach me the meaning of true, Christlike loyalty. Amen.

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