All You Need Is Love
Growing up, I listened to The Beatles a lot. My dad and I sang along to “Oh-Bla-Di, Oh-Bla-Da” in the car, I cried along to “Let It Be” and “Blackbird,” and when I got a turntable for Christmas, Magical Mystery Tour was the first LP I bought. My favorite song, however, was undoubtedly “All You Need Is Love,” with its nonsensical verses and wide-eyed optimism. It was also my little brother’s least favorite. We had the same interaction so many times it might have well have been a comedy routine. “All you need is love,” I’d sing cheerfully, and then he’s chime in, “and food, water, shelter, and access to medical care.”
Of course, as you get older optimistic sentiments from Beatles songs and romantic comedies about the overwhelming power of love get less popular. “Love is a chemical reaction, scientists find,” reports a 2009 PBS article, which bluntly explains that what we experience as love is merely a potent cocktail of hormones and survival instincts. Even for people who admit that true love is possible, the common cultural consensus is that it very much does not conquer all, as evidenced by that inaccurate “50% of all marriages in divorce” platitude that gets thrown around The idea that marriage leads to the loss of love and freedom has become a cliché, as succinctly expressed by American writer Ambrose Bierce more than a hundred years ago: “Love, noun. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
As we explored last year in our discussion of soul mates, Christian culture often has the opposite problem. The pressure for students to find spouses at Christian universities has become legendary, and many church Singles Ministries are little more than mixers for all the stragglers who didn’t pair off in college. Popular object lessons like the one that imagines the perfect marital relationship as a triangle formed by a husband, a wife, and God imply that there are two kinds of love essential to live a fulfilling life: romantic love and the love of God.
One of the most popular supports for this idealized picture of love is the story of Ruth, found in a book that is both one of the only two named for women and one of the only two devoted entirely to a love story (the others being Esther and Song of Solomon, respectively). Ruth has provided many women with romantic role models, as evidenced by websites like “A Modern Day Ruth,” which presents women with a bounty of quotes about God writing their love stories and finding them their Boazes superimposed on dreamy, Pinterest-friendly backgrounds.
Interestingly, Ruth seems like a bad example to prove that 'everyone has one true love,' especially considering that Ruth is a widow and her story is about her re-marriage to a new husband.
You may think from my tone that I am about to take the side of the cynics here and tell you that Ruth isn’t really a love story at all. In fact, I think it is. But the biggest love story in this book isn’t between Ruth and Boaz; it’s between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi.
The first chapter of Ruth is all prologue: Naomi, her husband, and her two sons move to the neighboring country of Moab, their sons marry local girls, and everyone seems quite happy until tragedy strikes and Naomi’s husband and sons all die in quick succession. Grief-stricken, she starts insisting that people call her “Mara” – Hebrew for “bitter” – and decides to return home to Israel and her people. One of her daughters-in-law, Orpah, agrees, but the other refuses. In Ruth 1:16-17 we find Ruth’s words, one of the most beautiful declarations of human love in the Bible: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. 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, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (NIV).
Long before Ruth encounters Boaz and eventually marries Boaz – an interaction arguably born as much out of need to survive as out of romantic love – she reveals the kind of irrational, dizzying, life-consuming love that we idealize today. Consider Ruth’s declaration’s similarity to the traditional wedding vows: “I take you for my lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.”
Does this mean that romantic love isn’t a noble and desirable thing? Of course not. But perhaps – Ruth suggests – romantic love isn’t the only kind of love that conquers all.
Related texts or passages to consider: Proverb 18:22; Hebrews 13:4; Mark 10:6-9; Ecclesiastes 4:9
• In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis argues that healthy human love can be divided into four categories: storge (naturally occurring affection, such as that between a parent and child); philia (the deep bond between friends); eros (romantic love); and agape (the unconditional love of God that Christians should seek to emulate). How many of these loves do you see in the book of Ruth? Which ones are predominant in your life?
• Elsewhere in the Bible, God forbids the Israelites from marrying outside of Israel, but here he uses a non-Israelite as an ancestor of Jesus. How do you explain this? (Read Ruth 1:1-5, Genesis 19:34-38)
• Ruth begins with these words: "In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons." (Ruth 1:1 ESV) Why do you think the author highlights the importance of the time of the judges? (See next question for help.)
• The book of Judges ends with three of the most disturbing and violent chapters in the entire Bible. Judges 19-21 include a story that includes assault, abuse of women, dead bodies being chopped up, a massive civil war, genocide, and kidnapping. After all this senseless violence among the Israelites, the author of Judges concludes the book with these words: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25 ESV) Now read Ruth 4:13-22. Why does Ruth begin with a reference to the Judges and end with this genealogy?