“At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.” Ruth 1:14
Rio de Janeiro, 1962. A very talented young artist attended the Fine Arts School of Rio, the most renowned art school in South America. He shared the studio with some of the heirs of Brazil’s most prominent families. He had moved to Rio from a small town in the South in order to help his mother, a young widow who lost her income when her husband died prematurely. He was offered a job in Rio in exchange for a small salary, housing and the tuition money to pay for his classes at the Fine Arts Institute.
Regardless of his modest upbringing, his talent stood out among the eager, fame-seeking students at the school. In one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, the Ambassador of France in Brazil recognized my father’s talent and offered him a scholarship of one year to learn from Paris’ crème de la crème. This unique opportunity was the fulfillment of my father’s dreams. His refined taste for arts yearned for the chance of studying among the best teachers in the world. And as everyone around him watched in disbelief, daddy said no to his dream. The chance to sit at the tables of the Champs-Élysées or stare at the masterpieces of the Louvre would have to wait. Daddy had to take care of his mom. He chose to stay.
When I was preparing to teach the book of Ruth to my Bible study group a couple of weeks ago, my first idea was to focus on the well-known correlation between Boaz’ redemptive act when he married Ruth the Moabite, and the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. But as I started reading the book, something else caught my heart: the display of sacrificial, “agape” love first by Naomi and then Ruth.
Naomi had lost it all. Her husband died and so did both her sons. She was away from home in a strange land; filled with idolatry and sin. In the days in which she lived, there seemed to be no future for Naomi. She was older, without a husband and childless. Her only option was to return to Bethlehem and hope – just hope, that her family would take her in. There were no guarantees there either, as Elimelek and Naomi had basically turned on the faith of their fathers when they chose to move to Moab. God had prohibited His people to have anything to do with the countries surrounding the Promised Land, as they were idolaters and enemies of the One True God. But the people continually disobeyed (Judges 2).
In an act of pure selflessness, Naomi suggested her daughter-in-laws to go back to their families. Naomi knew that these young ladies were her only hope for provision; whether by remarrying or by working to put food on her table. And yet, she insisted that they should leave her. With her loving, selfless act, Naomi became an example of sacrificial love engraved in the pages of Scriptures forever. She thought of her daughter-in-laws’ well-being before her own.
On the next scene of this drama, we see the two younger women weeping after their mother-in-law tells them to go home. Both of them would miss her and did not want to be away from her. Naomi had certainly made a strong impression on these ladies. As we watched them weep loudly, we realize that both loved Naomi. However, as each responded to their mother-in-law’s plea, we realize the depth of the love each of them had for her. Orpah took her mother-in-law’s advice, kissed Ruth and Naomi good-bye and did what many of us would do. She took care of herself. She did what made sense.
We have to be careful not to judge her, as the prospect of three childless widows surviving on their own in the old testament times was simply not good . Add to the grim reality the fact that Naomi had decided to move back to her home country, where Orpah and Ruth would be viewed as heathen foreigners, and they’d find very plausible reasons to run back to their fathers’ houses.
No question Orpah loved Naomi, BUT… she was scared… or she was not willing to sacrifice her own future for someone else’s well-being.
And then there was Ruth.
Ruth would not have it. She was going to follow Naomi to the ends of the earth. She would not leave her mother-in-law alone to fend for herself. Her commitment to sacrifice her own future and well-being in order to save Naomi resounds as one of history’s most memorable acts of sacrificial love:
“Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” Ruth 1:16-17
I have no question in my mind that Ruth was scared. She knew many things would change as she started her journey to Bethlehem. She knew she could be rejected by Naomi’s family, but she also knew God wanted her to sacrifice for the sake of her mother-in-law. She knew that the God of Israel would make a way. Ruth set forth towards her new destiny with no self-preservation.
Agape is one of the Koine Greek words translated into English as love, which became particularly appropriated in Christian theology as the love of God or Christ for humankind. In the New Testament, it also translates as the love that men demonstrate for God and for each other. It represents divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active, volitional, and thoughtful love. 1
I don’t know about you, but Ruth’s story challenges my heart greatly. Truth being told, “love” is a pretty corrupted word these days. If the person is lovable, we love them. However, if they do something to hurt us or if their personality just does not match our expectations, well, we may love them, BUT…
Honestly, how many times have you started a conversation like this: “I love so-and-so, BUT….”? Ok. I’ll be the first one to admit it: I’ve done it countless times. And yes, many times it may be that the person is indeed quite unlovable. However, how many times does the word “BUT” after our “I love you’s” only means that we are not willing to love them unconditionally or sacrificially?
True sacrificial love has nothing to do with whether it is deserved or not. When Paul says in Ephesians 5:25 “Husbands, love (agapao) your wives,” he’s not saying “love her because she deserves it”; he is saying “love her even if she is not lovely that day. Love her enough to die for her, even if she is not worth dying for.” Just as Christ has died for us, undeserving sinners.
True sacrificial love is not an emotion
The world says that if the “feeling” stops, the love is over. That is the main reason 50 % of marriages end up in divorce these days.
Agape is not a feeling; it is an act of selfless sacrifice. Agape serves, even the most egocentric people.
Just as Jesus started washing the disciples feet while they were on a major ego trip, arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom, oblivious and insensitive to the fact that Jesus was about to die on a cross for them (John 13).
Did they deserve it? Absolutely not.
And yet He did. And when He was done, His words summarized how He expects His followers to love one another: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 13:34 .
His love was certainly not emotional. As a matter of fact, he probably felt sadness as he washed their feet, so big was their selfishness. But even in His sorrow, He served them anyway.
If we love someone like Christ has commanded us to, we will love them “in spite of”. Our love will often be inconvenient and we will make decisions which are very, very hard. We will give up things that we love in order to serve them. We will make time to be with them. And even if we do not love how they act, we will still love them sacrificially.
At the end, God will always reward Agape love. Naomi’s selflessness and Ruth’s sacrifice were rewarded as Boaz chose to redeem Ruth and took her as his wife. Jesus’ agape, sacrificial love took Him to the cross and ended the sting of death, giving eternal life for all who trust Him as their Savior.
And I am happy to tell you that my dad has been rewarded with a good, full life, as well as three children and four grand-children who love him deeply.
That is exactly what we talked about as we looked out the windows of the Jules Verne, one of the restaurants in the Eiffel Towel, as we gazed at the City of Light in its glory.
My husband and I took him to visit Paris in 2004, 42 years after he sacrificed for his family. As he looked out the window, with his eyes filled with tears, he held my hand and said: “I would not have had it any other way, Babu. Because I am here with you.”
Daddy’s girl smiled. She knows it is true.