The story of Ruth begins with profound loss, famine (1:1), and overwhelming emptiness. The sole survivor from that original family, Naomi, is who we are going to focus on for our Gospel connection in this text (1:6–7). The most dominant verb in this pericope is the gospel “turn” for this entire book. The Hebrew verb שׁוּב (shoob) occurs twelve times in 1:6–22 and here at the beginning of the book of Ruth it sets a new theme from its original tone. Namely, even though everything seems terribly wrong and filled with the bitterness of death for Naomi (and that is true) she will return to where God wants her because “the Lord had visited his people.”
Before we can see the gospel connection, we need to reach just a little past the lectionary line, which is not offsides or even out of bounds. We often need to scrounge around as preachers for more text to give us what we need adequately for a proper proclamation of the Gospel. I believe this also teaches our people to look into the readings themselves. It creates a habit of curiosity for them as hearers which will bless your pastoral work. So, we need to push past 19b into 20 and even 22. In Ruth 1:20, Naomi changes her name because her life is no longer defined by her former identity; the life she had lived with love and promise and blessings. That all died in Moab. She asks people to call her Mara because that is how she felt, bitter, empty, and full of loss. The Hiphil third masculine singular perfect verb, from מָרָר (maw-rar), has a causative meaning, “to make bitter,” מָרָ֔א (ma-Ra). Job uses the same verb in a similar context: וְ֝שַׁדַּ֗י הֵמַ֥ר נַפְשִֽׁי, (we-sad-day he-mar nap-si) “and Shaddai [the Almighty] has made my soul bitter” (Job 27:2). There the verb takes a direct object, whereas here it takes a prepositional phrase: הֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י (he-mar sad-day li) could be rendered literally as “the Almighty caused bitterness for me” or “made things bitter for me.” The wording here recalls the similar phrase מַר־לִ֤י (mar-li) in Ruth 1:13 which is a part of our text. This can be rendered: “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
The connection to Job is not haphazard. Naomi is a mirror image of Job in the book of Ruth. It is as if the book of Ruth wants us to know the wisdom of waiting on the Lord and to trust the Lord will provide redemption through an heir who will bring salvation to not just this family in Bethlehem but all the families of earth by the Messiah who will be born in Bethlehem from the line of Boaz and Ruth through Obed, Jesse, and David.
The book of Ruth wants us to know the wisdom of waiting on the Lord and to trust that the Lord will provide redemption through an heir who will bring salvation.
I will never forget when I heard about this connection of Naomi to Job for the first time. It was in the plenary session which Dr. David Schmitt gave gave at a Theological Symposium in Saint Louis at Concordia Seminary (link below) where he said:
“She hears that the Lord has visited his people and, therefore, she comes. But upon arriving, she tells others of the Lord’s visitation upon her, leaving her empty and bitter. The townspeople are stirred. They question if she is Naomi. They talk about her but not too her. She bluntly addresses the side conversations, bringing her faith experience to light. The Lord God Almighty is the cause of the troubles. The Lord has testified against her. God almighty has brought her calamity. She will change her name to “bitter” and tell the story of her suffering to the people. Naomi defines herself as one who is empty, bitter, one against whom the Lord has turned. Yet, she returns to dwell in the land of Israel. Inside the Old Testament Law there are disciplines like feeding the hungry, and leaving behind grain for the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners (Deuteronomy 24:19). These disciplines have a way of redeeming property in the case where there is no heir (Numbers 27:8-11). More importantly, these disciplines have a way of redeeming people, raising up an heir for the deceased (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). These are the laws and the customs surrounding the laws which shape the lives of God’s people.
This is why it is critical to create empathy for your hearers to Naomi instead of Ruth. It is critical to our task as preachers to not make redemption something we can do by keeping the Law and being obedient. Instead, the strongest Gospel connection in this text is to the idea of passive righteousness which Naomi exemplifies. Naomi passively receives the benefits of the one who fulfills the disciplines of the Law on her behalf. Ruth keeps these laws obediently and wins redemption because even Boaz can see what a righteous person she is on behalf of Naomi. Ruth receives the redemption, and it passively passes on to Naomi.
It is critical to our task as preachers to not make redemption something that we can do by keeping the law and being obedient.
If we ask our parishioners to identify with Ruth, we ask them to actively seek redemption and to redeem themselves. By making ourselves presentable to the Lord for redeeming as Ruth did. Instead, if we keep it about passive righteousness then we, like Naomi, are on the receiving end of the blessings of the Law fulfilled on our behalf for daily bread, for redemption, and for so much more. Now, look at Ruth 4:13-17:
“So, Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went into her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” 
At the conclusion of the book of Ruth we have a significant returning from the Lord (like in Job). Naomi is no longer called Mara. The return of her name happens when the Lord has granted her hope and life again through the birth of a son which she receives as the salvation of her family. From redemption came the son she could not bear to save her family. That son, of course, led to the greater son of David by the promise made (2 Samuel 7) that would save all of us! What a turnaround indeed! All of us who know the bitterness of sin and death are saved by the Son of God who took the death of the whole world upon himself and redeemed us by “returning” on the third day, to restore to us our salvation. He returned to us our original identity which was lost in sin and bitterness. All of this happens only because someone else did it for us, kept the law for us, and was redeemed for us and did what we could not. Jesus did it all for us and the Father accepted the redemption price, and we receive the benefits.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about a university professor who was invited to speak at a military base one December. The story is a great connection to our text because we see a soldier whose life of war was filled with emptiness and death (Naomi), whose job it was to clear the way for others (Ruth). She begins with a university professor who met an unforgettable soldier named Ralph. Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport. After they introduced themselves, they headed toward the baggage claim.
As they walked down the concourse, Ralph kept disappearing; once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open, another time to lift two toddlers up to where they could see Santa Claus. Yet again, to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time he came back with a big smile on his face.
“Where did you learn that?” the professor asked.
“Learn what?” Ralph said.
“Where did you learn to live like that?” the professor asked again.
“Oh,” Ralph said. “During the war, I guess.” He then told the professor about his tour of duty in Vietnam, how it was his job to clear mine fields, and how he watched his friends blow up before his eyes, one after another.
“I learned to live between steps,” he said. “I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I learned to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot and when I put it down again. Every step I took was a whole new world, and I guess I've been that way ever since.”
Jesus cleared the mine field by taking every step to the cross which exploded the ordinances of the Law for us. Unlike Ralph, it cost Jesus His life to do so. By the power of the resurrection, the way of the cross was not his last step. Instead, every step He took from the empty tomb right up into His ascension into Heaven means a whole new world for us. We are witnesses of this beautiful life of Christ ever since then. The beauty of His story changes us by the power of the Holy Spirit to be free to live and move and have our being in Him (Acts 17:28).
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Ruth 1:1-19a
Concordia Theology- Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Ruth 1:1-19a.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ruth 1:1-19a.