July 26, 2018 will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the wedding between my wife and I. Time seems to move faster as it goes on, I think, and it is remarkable to me that fifteen years will have gone by so quickly. In just a few short years, I will have spent more of life with my wife than without her.
The vows that my wife and I chose for our wedding ceremony came from Ruth 1.16-17, which I just preached on this past Sunday: "...where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me if anything but death separates you and me." As he was reciting these vows for my wife and I to repeat, my father-in-law (who performed the ceremony) had a slip of the tongue and said, "Where you die I will die, and there I will be married" instead of "buried." Everyone had a good laugh. I think every wedding ceremony needs a slip-up or two to remind us that nothing is perfect.
As I prepared to preach this text this past week, I read K. Lawson Younger Jr.'s commentary on Ruth. Toward the end of his comments on chapter 1, he has a section that argues that the use of Ruth 1.16-17 as wedding vows is a misuse of this text, as the circumstances between Ruth's commitment to Naomi are completely different than those between a husband and wife. Having read Younger's argument (and perhaps, much to the chagrin of my wife!), I am inclined to agree with his assessment. The context of Ruth 1.16-17 is not at all similar to that of a marriage covenant between a man and a woman. Moreover, it would be downright wrong for a person to commit to another that "your God will be my God," as though he or she would follow the lead of one spouse from god to god! That being said, I do believe that the commitment of Ruth to Naomi is one that is admirable and which all husbands and wives should seek to emulate toward their spouses.
The broader context of the story of Ruth helps to illustrate this. Naomi (Ruth's mother-in-law) saw herself as a marked woman, a target for the displeasure of God. After all, her husband and both of her adult sons had died, leaving her a destitute woman. As such a woman in a patriarchal society, Naomi had no prospects of joining the work force and providing for herself. There was a very real danger of her facing death by starvation. At best, she could be a beggar who subsisted on the leavings of and charity of others. Needless to say, the outlook on her life was grim to say the least.
This is why Naomi encouraged her daughters-in-law (Ruth and Orpah) to go back to their hometowns, remarry, and live happy lives. If they were to stay with Naomi, they would share a similar fate of destitution and even potentially death by starvation. "And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her" (Ruth 1.14).
At her mother-in-law's insistence, Orpah takes off with a kiss goodbye. But Ruth "clings" to Naomi. What is pictured by these words is an embrace - an extended and passionate hug. But there is much more that is going on. By "clinging" to Naomi, Ruth is throwing in her lot with Naomi to the extent that they will share a common destiny, a common fate. Whatever happens to Naomi will happen to Ruth; however Naomi suffers, Ruth will suffer; wherever Naomi goes, Ruth will go; wherever Naomi dies, that is where Ruth will die.
Just think about what Ruth was willingly accepting by "clinging" to Naomi: Naomi was too old to remarry, but Ruth wasn't. By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was willfully giving up the prospect of remarrying and having children (note: this wasn't ultimately the case for Ruth, however - read Ruth 4!).
By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was giving up her cultural and social identity and taking on a new one: that of a destitute widow.
By clinging to Naomi, Ruth was accepting the fate of Naomi: most likely death by starvation.
By clinging to Naomi, Ruth's identity was wrapped up in Naomi's. Whatever happened to Naomi would happen to Ruth. If one suffered, they both suffered; if one rejoiced, they both rejoiced.
Compare Ruth's commitment to Naomi to the sentiment communicated by traditional vows that are used in wedding ceremonies: "I take you to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in scenes and in heath, to love and to cherish, till death do us part." They sound pretty similar to me.
I imagine that Ruth wasn't excited about the prospect of becoming a destitute widow who faced starvation - especially when she had the opportunity to go back to her homeland, remarry, and live happily ever after - but that's what she chose to do. Why? Because she was clinging to Naomi. I'm sure she also wasn't excited about moving from her homeland to go to Naomi's homeland where Ruth would be a foreigner.
What it meant for Ruth to "cling" to Naomi is exactly what it means for us to "cling" to our spouses: to take on a common destiny or fate. To stand by each other regardless of the circumstances we face individually or as a couple. Sometimes one spouse does something that creates difficulty and tension for the other spouse, or in the marriage, or even in the family in general. And the results can be miserable: discontentedness, strife, emotional distress, and so on. But still, we cling. We have intertwined our fates together, our individual destinies have become one destiny together. "Where you go, I will go; how you suffer, I will suffer; where you die, I will die." Sometimes clinging to a spouse isn't very fun or enjoyable - indeed, sometimes it's downright miserable. But still we cling.
It's important to note that this type of clinging in marriage doesn't give one spouse license to run roughshod over the other spouse, or to be intentionally harmful, manipulative, or abusive. It's not as though one spouse can behave terribly and demand allegiance from the other spouse under the guise of clinging to one another. This would be to completely misunderstand Ruth's commitment to Naomi.
Although Ruth's exact words to Naomi may not be appropriate to recite during a wedding ceremony, the principle behind her words are exactly the kind of commitment that husbands and wives should endeavor to display in their marriages. Be like Ruth, and cling.