By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

Ruth: Poor Immigrant, Unlikely Icon

Do you feel that you are an "outsider," unable to impact your surroundings? Fifteen years ago, my husband and I were newly married and just arrived in this country for his graduate studies. From being someone with an identity in Sri Lanka, I had just become nobody, the "non-working spouse" as stipulated on my visa. Our sole income was my husband’s stipend. Rather an unlikely situation from which to effect change. Yet here is a story about an immigrant woman who impacted the community she became a part of. Ruth’s story gives us hope that we can influence our own surroundings, even when people consider us insignificant.  
Ruth’s and Naomi’s struggles and sorrows were considered worth writing about, and worth including in the official record of God’s involvement with his people, rather than hidden out of sight as "women’s issues." They are held up as women whose initiative and choices in the middle of their own challenging life circumstances are used by God to not only bless them but benefit the entire nation in giving Israel its greatest King, David. The story of Ruth reminds us that God sees, loves and calls all people — women and men, from different ethnic groups and tongues, new immigrants, and those who have lived in the land a long time. 

Making a sacrificial choice

As the story of Ruth opens, we see Naomi, bereft of husband and sons, preparing to leave Moab and return to Bethlehem with her daughters-in-law. Even though she grieves, she remembers that her daughters-in-law need social and economic security. She insists that they return to their families of origin, mainly so that they may have an opportunity to marry again and be well provided for. While one, Orpah, realizes the truth of this wisdom and turns back to return to her home, the other, Ruth, is immovable in her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth is determined not to leave fragile, lonely Naomi alone. Perhaps she had some curiosity and longing to know God better for herself too, since for ten years she had been a part of Naomi’s God-worshipping family. The hope that Bethlehem would be a good place to find a husband was an unlikely factor in her decision. No one was going to marry a poor foreign widow.   
Ruth puts Naomi’s needs before her own and makes a courageous and selfless choice in a society where marriage included financial security and social standing, and where being childless was stigmatized. In her willingness to sacrifice her future for her mother-in-law's sake, Ruth is already demonstrating the character of the God she is attracted to.

Living as a poor, widowed immigrant

Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the harvest, just in time to experience the first of a series of "coincidences" where people's actions mesh with God's plans. Since employers would be looking to hire extra hands, it would be easier for strangers to find work at this time. When her old friends converge around her in excitement, Naomi is unable to muster up joy at being back home after so many years. Instead, she is focused on the troubles that have befallen her. It is up to Ruth, the foreigner in a small town, to think of their survival and look around for employment. Was she conscious of looking different? Speaking with a strange accent? Dressed in quaint clothes? Not quite fitting in? Probably. She doesn’t panic and head home. What she chooses is the practical action of looking for a job that would provide for them both.   
As Ruth goes out to the fields to look for work, we see the second "coincidence" as she ends up working on the property of a rich relative. Then "coincidentally" on the afternoon of her first day at work, the owner stops by to check on progress, notices Ruth (maybe because there are visible markers of her foreignness?), inquires about her, and gets an outstanding recommendation from the foreman. Despite this positive report, the foreman and others see her foreignness first, rather than her kinship to Naomi. She is spoken of as "Ruth the Moabitess" among the ancient Israelites. Much like talking about "Radha, that Tamil girl" among a Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka or "Wei, the Asian girl" or " Aaliyah, the black girl" in small town USA.
Living in a village of less than three thousand  people in upstate New York, and having a child each in the local elementary and middle schools, we have transitioned from being an unusual sight in the area to a familiar family in our neighborhood to even being one of the older families in our cul-de-sac. In town (especially before a handful of other non-white or mixed-race families moved in), it was hard to miss us because we look very different from the rest of the community. We stand out! In those early days, I remember the occasional stranger driving down the street who would slow down to take a second look as I went for a walk in the neighborhood, or shoppers stopping their conversation to stare at me in the local grocery store — someone who doesn’t look like she blends into the surroundings. Rewind to around three thousand years ago when change happened at a much slower pace. It would not have been easy for Ruth to venture out into this community where, like it or not, she drew attention to herself because she looked different.
Ruth would have been aware of her vulnerability as a poor, young, immigrant widow working out in the fields. Without any family or friends, she would be easy game for anyone who was inclined to abuse her. Boaz insists that Ruth works on his fields, sticking close to his other women workers, effectively protecting her from potential abuse on someone else's land. The narrative informs us that he is aware that without specific instructions to the contrary, even his own men could try to harass her.

Initiating a marriage proposal

As the busy harvesting season draws to a close, we see Naomi coming out of her self-absorption and thinking about Ruth's future. It dawns on Naomi that the best husband for Ruth would be their relative Boaz who has treated them well throughout the harvest season. (Please note: there is no one right way of initiating a marriage proposal! Here, the mother-in-law sets the ball rolling with Ruth being a very willing learner.)    
Who knows? Boaz may have been attracted to Ruth’s exotic looks and speech, and moved by her devotion to Naomi. Boaz's own mother being foreign-born probably predisposed him to view Ruth with empathy. Naomi is quite certain that once Ruth proposes marriage, Boaz would respond positively within the day and he does. In fact, in agreeing to marry Ruth, Boaz willingly takes on personal financial loss. In practicing the familial law of the Kinsman Redeemer, he would buy the plot of land belonging to Naomi's family but maintain it in the name of his dead relatives.
God honors the choices that Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz make to give them a better future than they could have imagined. He also uses their choices to weave his greater purposes for Israel and for the world. Boaz and Ruth are blessed with a child whom the village recognizes as a grandson for Naomi to dote on and bring up in her old age. They would never have dreamed that this baby would become the grandfather of Israel's greatest king! In including a woman from a different ethnic group as a vital part of their national story, God reminds the Israelites that the reason Israel was to be a distinctive people was so that God could work through them to bless all nations, and that all people are invited to be a part of God’s story.

Choosing better over good

Ruth's pivotal choice to accompany Naomi changes her destiny and influences the destiny of her adopted country. Her choice even has the far-reaching effect of her becoming part of the ancestry of Jesus. For Ruth, this initial choice was clear-cut: respond to an obvious need or rationalize why she would not get involved. 
Can we miss God's best for our lives by making easy and safe choices rather than making tougher, riskier choices like Ruth did? Risks don't always involve the dramatic, but risk does involve moving out of our comfort zones. For some of us risk may mean like Ruth that we uproot ourselves and move to a different country. Or taking up a challenging but vital job. For others risk may involve forming an authentic friendship with someone who is from a different cultural background. Or giving a chance to an employee with a prison record. Or it could simply involve helping a newcomer to a group to feel at home.
During those first years in the United  States, in our relative poverty, we extended hospitality to people several times over. Our apartment was the scene of social gatherings where we fed friends in community or one-on-one and where folks met to pray. We even had the most visitors from Sri Lanka our first year! One of these visitors commented that the two weeks she spent with us out of her six weeks in the US were where she felt the most relaxed and comfortable, even though the other homes she stayed in were way more luxurious than our one-bedroom apartment with no car. A white friend in our grad fellowship told us that things were very different after we'd become a part of the chapter. I guess the difference she appreciated was being accepted for herself, viewpoints and all. And although we didn’t feel we had accomplished much, the professor who was our fellowship’s grad advisor said that in the decade or more that he had served in his position, our tenure in leadership was the most active he had seen the group. God used us to impact people, even though we were outsiders without much resources.   

Becoming an insider  

The story ends with the women of the community affirming to Naomi that her daughter-in-law is worth more than seven sons. High praise indeed! Ruth’s work is not taken for granted because she is the daughter-in-law, as is still true today in many cultures — instead there is honest recognition of her worth.
It is fascinating that a poor immigrant widow is given centre stage in the lineage of Solomon and David. A woman of a minority group plays a crucial role in Israel’s national history. Rather than glossing over the fact that the kings’ bloodline is not of pure Israelite stock, Ruth's foreignness is emphasized and her integration to the Israelite community is celebrated. At the personal level, the story of how David's great-grandparents met is told from the perspective of Ruth, not Boaz. The everyday, ordinary tasks, conversations and concerns of women are elevated as the story of God.  
Nobody stares at me in the neighborhood grocery store anymore (unless they are newish in town). In summertime, my children’s neighborhood friends know that they can expect occasional treats from our house as they hang out in the circle. In some years our family has taken the lead in organizing the Easter egg hunt for the children in our cul-de-sac. We know that we will be contacted if there is a need in the community that requires everyone to chip in by bringing meals. We belong. A lot of the sense of belonging came through ordinary interactions over time. It was not all rosy though, because when you are an outsider, however much you try to integrate, how much you can integrate is also dependent on others. You can’t make people accept you.
We often court the powerful and the privileged and are seduced into devaluing the contributions of ordinary people and those in the periphery of mainstream life. In contrast to a world both now and then dependent on the powerful to make history, God chooses Ruth, a woman who was on the fringe of the community, to accomplish his plans in the real world.   
About the Author

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.

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