“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
Ruth 1:20-21 (NIV)
Along my journey, I’ve known many people who I would describe as having been dealt a bad hand in this life. I have experienced multipole stretches of the journey in which I felt I was dealt a bad hand. There are unexpected tragedies, unforeseen illnesses, and circumstances that come out of left field. As I ponder things, I feel as if the entire world got dealt a bad hand the past year-and-a-half. It’s one of the realities of this earthly journey. Despite all the wonderful promises of name-it-and-claim-it televangelists, the Sage of Ecclesiastes reminds us of a hard reality: in this life there are times and seasons when things like death, war, tearing, weeping, searching, relational distance, mourning, and hate are our experience. In every time and season, we have to play the hand we’re dealt.
Today we begin the short story of Ruth, one of only two books of Great Story named after women. Ruth is one of a select handful of women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus, so her story is a meaningful chapter in the Great Story. It is set in the dark period of time known as the time of the Judges. The story begins with a woman, Naomi, to whom God deals and incredibly bad hand.
There is a famine in the land, and Naomi’s husband leads her and her sons to the foreign land of Moab in a search to find food. At first, it appears that they’re playing their cards right. They settle in, have food, and even find Moabite wives for their sons. There was nothing illegal with Hebrew men marrying Moabite women, though it will certainly raise some orthodox, prejudicial eyebrows if and when they should return home to the little town of Bethlehem (yep, that Bethlehem).
Then there’s a change in seasons, just like the Sage reminds us. Naomi’s husband dies. Then both of her sons die. For a woman in the dark age of the Judges, this was the worst hand God could deal her. Widows had no status, no viable means of income, and there was no social structure to provide for their needs. Naomi’s situation is essentially hopeless.
Naomi recognizes that the situation for her daughters-in-law is not as dire. They are young, beautiful, and have child-bearing years ahead of them. She urges them to “fold” their hand, stay in Moab, and trust that their local Moabite god will deal them a new and better hand. One takes her up on the offer, but Ruth chooses to ante up, stick with Naomi, stick with Naomi’s God, and see this hand through. On the surface, this is a bad decision. Being a Moabite widow in Bethlehem and expecting a positive result is about the longest odds one could imagine in the context of the times.
Sure enough, widow Naomi’s return to Bethlehem with her foreign, widowed daughter-in-law, has the two buzzing with gossip. Naomi sums up her situation by asking people to call her by a different name:
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara (which means “bitter”), because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
Bitter. What a great word for those times when I suddenly find myself playing a bad hand in life. Bitter at God. Bitter with the situation. Bitter that others seem to have it easier than me. Bitter that all the televangelist’s prophesies of my prosperity and the self-help guru’s promises of my success turn out to be null and void. Bitter that God dealt me this hand when He could have dealt me something different.
In the quiet this morning, I feel for
Naomi, I mean Mara the Queen of bitter. I find myself recalling some of my top-ten bitter moments of this life journey even as I admit not one of them was nearly as dire or life-threatening as Naomi and Ruth. At the same time, I’m reminded that the Great Story is ultimately a redemption story that is layered with redemption stories. The way stories work, you can’t experience redemption without first experiencing the bitter. The bitter hand is the pre-requisite of redemption. I don’t experience the latter without the former.
It’s one of the lessons I’ve learned along this journey of following Jesus. When dealt a bad hand, never fold, because that assures perpetual bitterness. Playing out my hand is the only path to redemption, even against the longest of odds.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.