Friday, December 02, 2011

Mercy in a Manger

While teaching the scroll-thumping Pharisees, Jesus called them to live out God’s merciful ways. Declining, the judgmental Pharisees charged him with eating with ‘sinners’ and tax collectors. However, knowing their hearts, Jesus challenged them, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13).

To the always-making-rules Pharisees, this was not a new concept. Through the prophet Micah, God had accused Israel of doing rituals while ignoring the compassion of God: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

In February, Naomi and Ruth were the focus of one of my columns. Ruth remains a good example of justice, love, mercy, and walking humbly with God. In four chapters of the book of Ruth, their stories unfold when a famine caused Naomi, her husband, and two sons to move among pagans in Moab. While there, Naomi’s husband died, leaving her the daunting task of finding wives for her sons. Poor. Without social standing. Doing a husband’s job. She searched out two women to marry her sons.

Calm reigned for a few years, and then double tragedy struck -- both of Naomi’s sons died leaving three widows to fend for themselves. Without any resources, Naomi decided to return to her hometown of Bethlehem.

Daughter-in-law, Orpah, returned to her Moabite family while Ruth chose to accompany her mother-in-law and travel to a culture foreign to her. Even in Naomi’s homeland, Ruth would have four strikes against her: she was female, a widow, a foreigner, and barren. She made a crucial decision to cling to her mother-in-law because she’d experienced enough of Naomi’s faith and God to choose him. Ruth made a vow to Naomi to love her God and her people until death should part them.

When Naomi and Ruth returned to the town of Bethlehem, the “city of bread,” their prospects were bleak. They may have felt abandoned and, most likely, had many “why” questions. There’s every indication that these emotions fit their harsh circumstances.

Compared to the story of Job, Naomi’s is the female version of almost complete loss. Left in poverty and deep sadness, she returned to her hometown after hearing how God had blessed the area with good harvests. From a pagan culture, the two marginalized women, Naomi and Ruth, moved back to Bethlehem -- the future scene of a manger.

Carolyn Custis James writes in The Gospel According to Ruth. “When Naomi returned to Bethlehem, she may have felt like a useless piece of driftwood….In God’s eyes, she was still on active duty and the treasure of his heart.” Mrs. James continues, “Her story has purpose written all over it although the signals she receives from her own heart and culture say otherwise.” Naomi “is unaware of the fact that, instead of setting her aside, God is readying her for a strategic kingdom mission” because Ruth will be listed in the genealogy of the Messiah.

Naomi and Ruth chose God and walked justly and humbly with him, unaware of his unfolding plan. They had learned merciful living, shown in their love and care for each other. God, in loving kindness, doesn’t exile these widows to the margins of the Bible. In his mysterious ways, he places them in the middle of the redemption story in Bethlehem, where the truest expression of mercy on earth will have its start in a manger.

Index card for week 48: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).

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