The story of Ruth is a great story for expats. Especially for expats returning “home” after a long time of living abroad. I read through the book of Ruth this morning and found more hope and blessing in it than I initially expected. The book is called Ruth, but could just as well, or even better, be called Naomi. As it is Naomi who looses everything, including hope, and finds blessing in the end. The blessing comes, surprisingly, through Ruth, a foreigner. But it is Naomi who receives the blessing and is restored.
Actually, the story is at first not even about Naomi, but about her husband. For this is how the story starts: “a man from Bethlehem in Juda … went to live for a while in the country of Moab”. He went there with his wife Naomi and their two sons. They left Bethlehem because of a famine in the area and decided to wait it out in a foreign land, where food was still available. They intended to come back though, as they only went to live there for a while. But then the story takes a turn. The man dies and leaves his wife and two sons behind. Now it is all about Naomi. She is on her own. She allows her sons to marry two local women, one of them is Ruth. However, about ten years later, both of her sons die as well and Naomi is left with no-one but her two daughters-in-law. By that time, the famine in Juda is over and Naomi decides to travel back to her own country, after more than ten years. She urges her two daughters-in-law to go back to their families, to stay where they belong. One of them does, but Ruth stays with Naomi and travels with her to an unknown place. She intends to stay, even if this means to die and be buried in the land of her in-laws. She is not an expat, but a migrant. She goes to stay.
When the two women arrive in Bethlehem, the reaction of the women of the town says it all: “Can this be Naomi?”. She has changed, she is not the same woman who left her land and her people over ten years ago. In her words:
“I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty”.
I am not Naomi, but I also travelled to a foreign land, to live there “for a while”. And now, after almost twelve years, the time has come to go back. I went away full of hope and dreams and plans and expectations. And it has been good, there have been many blessings. But there is also a sense of loss. A loss of opportunities perhaps, a loss of ambitions I used to have. I came as an agronomist, specialized in tropical landuse, with the intention to make the world a better place through agriculture. But instead, I raised a family in tropical lands. Which is an accomplishment in itself, and a blessing. I gave birth, I nursed, I fed, I cared and I homeschooled. I cooked, shopped and drove through South-American and African traffic daily. I overcame all kinds of challenges: bureaucratic, mechanical, emotional and practical. I have gained experiences I never thought I would. So I have changed, I am not the same person who left “home” twelve years ago. I am full of memories and experiences that will always stay with me – but I feel like I am coming back empty-handed. I have hardly any work experience to show for, my talent to survive under third-world circumstances will not be of much help in a highly developed society and my ambitions to make a difference as an agronomist seem to have left me.
But the story continues. The two women live off what is left on the land after the harvest. They own no land of their own; as a woman without husband or sons, Naomi has lost her claim to the land. They now belong to the poorest of the poor. But it is through the foreign woman who has become family that blessing comes to Naomi. Ruth finds a man who is willing to marry her, according to the law of the land. Naomi will now be able to reclaim the land of her family, through the children of Ruth. And then the blessing comes: Ruth gives birth to a son. Naomi is restored. The son of Ruth is as a son to her. The land is hers again. The women in the town praise God and say to Naomi about her son:
“He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age”.
The life of Naomi is renewed in an unexpected way. The blessing came through a faithful foreigner. Living abroad may have changed me, and may have caused some loss. But it has also brought unexpected blessings, not in the least through the “foreigners” who have now become like family to me. There is always hope, always the possibility of a renewed life and always the promise of sustenance for the years to come.