By Chuck Griffin
There is no doubt that in churches all across America, we’re experiencing divisions that break along generational lines.
I don’t find satisfying the current approaches many churches are using. In some cases, they establish two cultures under one roof, leading to competition for prime worship times and resources. Other churches simply cater to a particular generation. They sometimes look successful doing so, but I wonder how they will fare as time passes. What do you do when you are 50 years old in a church aiming for an average age of 35? How does a church clinging to the old ways ultimately survive?
I do think I’ve glimpsed the beginning of an answer in the Book of Ruth, an Old Testament text taking us back to the early days of the Israelites, a time when the people were ruled by God-inspired judges rather than kings.
I’ll try to summarize a complicated story quickly; I hope you’ll take time to read it in full. To understand the Book of Ruth, it helps to grasp Old Testament concepts like the role of a kinsman redeemer, and how property rights were developed to protect family interests.
The story is primarily about a Jewish widow, Naomi, and her non-Jewish daughter-in-law, Ruth. Ruth and another non-Jewish daughter-in-law, Orpah, are widowed when Naomi’s sons die. Naomi had moved with her husband to Moab during a famine, but once all the men in her family are gone, she decides it is best to return home to Bethlehem. She tells her widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their Moabite families and find new husbands.
It is good advice; Naomi has nothing to offer the young women, and all three are in danger of dying in poverty or even by violence without male protectors. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and departs. Ruth loves Naomi dearly, however, and cannot leave her.
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” Ruth says. She even makes a poignant promise to die where Naomi dies, a statement rooted in the poor odds they face together. A sad, bitter Naomi accepts Ruth’s company from then on.
Once in Israelite territory, however, the situation improves dramatically for the two. Rather than rejecting Ruth as a foreigner, the people of Bethlehem are deeply impressed by this young Moabite woman’s devotion. A relative of Naomi’s husband also takes notice of Ruth. He first ensures Ruth and Naomi have plenty to eat, and ultimately he arranges through some complicated legal wrangling at the city gate for Ruth to be his bride. In the process, Naomi’s family name and property are preserved.
The story ends like a fairy tale; all involved find their happiness restored. Generations later, this non-Jewish woman who faithfully followed her mother-in-law despite their desperate circumstances is remembered by the Jews as the great-grandmother of King David. And according to Matthew 1, she also is in the lineage of Jesus Christ, making her a symbol of how God has used broken circumstances to redeem the world.
It all worked because two women from two generations loved each other to the point that each was willing to sacrifice for the good of the other. Ruth gave up all she had known to follow Naomi, with little hope in sight. Naomi risked being rejected by the people in her home village, her last safe retreat, when she brought home a Moabite woman.
Sacrificial, intergenerational love is an important concept if we are to strengthen our churches. When we as Christians focus on our own desires, we are being ruthless. When we are Ruth-like, and Naomi-like, each generation looks to the other’s interests, clinging to each other, refusing to depart each other, going so far as to say I will die where you die before I will allow us to be separated.
Who wins? In the Book of Ruth, everyone does, even as they fall over themselves to take care of one another.
This story of intergenerational sacrifice is part of the loving crucible in which Jesus Christ was formed. In our churches, similar sacrifice could spark a resurgence in the Holy Spirit’s willingness to work among us.
Lord, we are faithful to you first. May our love and obedience toward you be our common intergenerational bond, and may we walk together in your light from cradle to grave, accommodating each other’s holy needs along the way. Amen.