Sunday, May 13, 2018

What Makes a Wonder Woman?: Broken, Bold, and in the Battle for Life

Wonder Woman: Diana of Themyscira, Naomi of Israel, Ruth of Moab, and Sojourner Truth of America

The cinema story of the summer of 2017 was undoubtedly Wonder Woman (92% Rotten Tomatoes). And now on this Mother's Day 2018, you can find this exciting adventure out on Blu-ray, DVD, and Redbox.

I could try to wax eloquent on why Wonder Woman is a modern example of the strength of a woman, but others have already provided well-written considerations:

Cinema Blend: The Wonder Woman Scene We'll Still Be Talking About 10 Years From Now

Collider: Why Wonder Woman is the Superman the DCEU Needed
CBR: Why Wonder Woman is the Best Superhero Film Ever 

In honor of Diana of Themyscira and all the discussion that she has created due to Patty Jenkins' marvelous direction, Gal Gadot's stunning performance, and more, I also wanted to take a moment to pull back to two strong biblical figures who were also mothers – Naomi of Israel and Ruth of Moab (as well as provide a slice from Sojourner Truth's life) – that tell a tale together of incredible strength and courage in a battle for their lives and the lives of others, as well as for the life of the world considering Ruth is in the family line of Jesus. 

But instead of using my own words, I will let Carolyn Custis James speak for Naomi and Ruth with introductory excerpts below that provide a teaser for these ladies stories through her book, The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Ruleswith incendiary insight into their lives only C.C. James can provide. 

The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James

God's Image-Bearers and Ezer-Warriors

God's view of women clashes at every point with how the world regards us, even with how we see ourselves. 

When widowhood (as with Naomi and Ruth) or anything else alters a woman's life, the center of her identity doesn't disintegrate, for she is not defined or redefined by circumstances, relationships, her resume, or public opinion. God defines her. If you looked up "woman" in God's dictionary, you'd find the definition he set down as he drew up plans for the very first woman. He defined the woman as follows: "Image bearer; created in God's image and likeness; called to be fruitful and multiply, to rule and subdue." It's the same kingdom definition that he gave to the man. God issued definitions for the woman and the man when both were naked and their resumes were blank. Reduce them to their most elemental selves, and they are still God's image bearers. It ascribes to them the highest value imaginable.

Eve's legacy – God's creation blueprint for women – is key to understanding Naomi and Ruth. God created women to be his image bearers – to know him, to become like him, and to represent him in their interactions with others. As theologians, Naomi and Ruth understand that the world revolves around God. Their mission is to center themselves on him – to trust him and to advance his kingdom. They do that as ezer-warriors, fighting battles he places in their path. 

God has created women to be warriors, and he stations us on all sorts of battlefronts every day of our lives. On the surface, Ruth and Naomi's battles seem mundane and insignificant. Little do they know what their everyday struggles to survive will actually achieve.

There's a kingdom to build, vast enemy territory to reclaim. With a task this size, God is not about to sign off on any ezer-warrior's retirement or leave of absence. Whether they realize it or not at such a dark moment in both their lives when their husbands are dead, they have no work and are impoverished, and are filled with grief and sorrow, Naomi and Ruth are mission-critical to God's purposes for the world. Regardless of their widowhood and barrenness, they remain on active duty for him.

They are God's emissaries. Any slight of them is a personal affront to God, and insult to his kingdom. 
A woman's high calling as God's image bearer renders her incapable of insignificance, no matter what has gone wrong in her life or how much she has lost. Even if her community shoves her aside, turns a deaf ear to the sound of her voice, or regards her invisible – even if she is forced into a passive role in the community – she remains vital to God's purposes and is a solid contributor anyway. She simply cannot be stopped.

The book of Ruth breaks all the rules, as two unescorted women take command of the storyline and men recede into the background. Naomi and Ruth do not climb to this high point in the action on the backs of men. They get here on their own. And even with a female focus, the plot contains danger and the same heart-stopping suspense and courageous valor that readers expect to find in manly stories.

"Can This Be Naomi?"

Naomi and Job share a fundamental equality in that they have both lost everything. Their lives are in ruins, and their souls are drowning in grief. But the biggest distinction between them is the most obvious one – Naomi is a woman and Job is not. In the ancient patriarchal culture, his maleness counted for a lot. Doors might open to him, doors that are bolted shut to Naomi. Poverty is not inevitable for Job. He can work; he can rebuild. He may endure the unjust accusations of trusted friends, but he will not face degradation, discrimination, or physical abuse because he is male. He still retains a level of stature in the community, even though his character is under the microscope. If anyone raises a hand against him, Job has his rights and can take legal action. The offender will be prosecuted. But the roof has caved in on Naomi. She faces a whole new layer of adversity because she is a woman in a culture that defers to men. Death strips her down until she stands nakedly before God without the usual props a woman counts on to justify her significance. This is where Naomi's story enlarges to encompass every woman who is (or fears ending up) alone regardless of the reason. 

In a way, all of us can identify with the widow from time to time – those low moments when we are left out or don't fit in, when we have the bitter taste of rejection in our mouths, when we think we are forgotten or that our purpose has expired. Through the widow we come to understand who we are at the core of our being. We can remain confident that whatever happens, we always have a God-given mission and are part of the big things God is doing in this world. 

When Naomi arrived in Bethlehem, she may have felt like a useless piece of driftwood that had washed up on the beach – a relic of a bygone golden era, a woman who had outlived her usefulness. In God's eyes, she was still on active duty and the treasure of his heart. Her story has purpose written all over it, although the signals she receives from the culture and from her own heart tell her otherwise. She is unaware of the fact that instead of setting her aside, God is readying her for a strategic kingdom mission. 

The Gospel of Ruth

Ruth the Moabitess also arrives in Bethlehem with several strikes against her. She is female, foreign, barren and widowed – all reasons to consider her undesirable. Yet she is not undesirable in God's eyes. He has just carried out a successful rescue operation to reach into Moab and bring her out and into the community of his people. Through her subsequent bold actions, she becomes a catalyst for new levels of godliness and justice in the community. Ultimately, she makes the short list of Israelite matriarchs named in the royal line of Jesus – a well-deserved honor. 

If scholars compare Naomi to Job, they compare Ruth the Moabitess to Abraham. The faith Ruth exhibits here rivals what the wealthy patriarch Abraham did in leaving his homeland and family for an unknown land. But Ruth leaves on her own, empty-handed, against intense pressure to the contrary from Naomi and her own woman's heart. Ahead of her lies poverty and an uphill struggle to survive. Instead of pursuing the slim prospects she has for a husband and security in Moab, she devotes herself for life to an old woman and sets her face toward the unknown Bethlehem. 

Unlike Abraham, Ruth's decision is unbolstered by God's promises of great blessing along the way or any visible props from her circumstances that might reinforce her choice. If anything, Ruth's future is grimmer than Naomi's, for now Ruth will be the foreigner and, because she is young, she faces a longer stretch of adversity ahead than her aging mother-in-law. But with both eyes open to the consequences of her actions, Ruth slams and bolts the door on her own future. She clings tenaciously to the despairing Naomi, then cries out to the heavens to fall on her if she fails to keep her word. It takes my breath away.

Ruth stands out among all of the biblical narratives as a powerful example of a person whose faith in God emboldens her with stunning courage. She gives us one of the strongest examples in all of Scripture of faith in action and, as future scenes show, a risk-it-all determination to live as a child of God. She is a true ezer-warrior. Her full story reminds us that our struggles are also important and that, even when there's nothing left but rubble, God is mysteriously at work in the mess. This is the Gospel of Ruth – a shaft of light across the empty blackness of a broken life – a woman's radical faith that refuses to say, "So much for your God."

"And Ain't I a Woman?"

And ain’t I a woman? Defiant words rang through the air at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. The voice belonged to a tall, angular woman who was a former African slave. Sojourner Truth was publicly dismantling the notion that femininity – hers or any other woman's – depends on delicacy or being treated like a fragile teacup. 

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody every helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could heed me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a manwhen I could get it  and bear the last as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Sojourner wasn't protesting chivalry toward women because she scorned gentility or disparaged the finer things in life. She was, however, challenging the popular notions of what it means to be a woman. Her objections were borne from a deep inner conviction that in this broken world being a woman often means doing hard things, straining your muscles, and tackling messy problems that sadly are missing from too many books on true femininity. Sometimes even God calls us to do things that violate our personal list of what we consider "appropriate activities" for ourselves as women, but which are nevertheless a woman's calling.

Sojourner Truth was a true ezer-warrior. For her being a woman included sweating in the fields alongside the men, exerting physical strength to plough, plant, and harvest; fighting fierce and terrible battles for her children, and taking up unpopular causes to win justice for slaves and women. She unflinchingly entered any battle Jesus summoned her to fight and did so with every ounce of womanly strength she possessed. She believed embracing the challenges God presents can never diminish womanhood or femininity, but reveals it.

Sojourner Truth reminds me of Ruth. After returning to Bethlehem, the young Moabitess faced a battle that demanded more of her than she had ever been asked to give.

Naomi and Ruth Pour Themselves Out for Each Other

The sacrifice Naomi decides to make in Ruth 2-3 is staggering by anyone's estimation. She is a grief-stricken woman. She went out full and came back empty. But in the intervening weeks since her return, she has made two amazing discoveries. First, that Yahweh has not forgotten her after all. His hesed still surrounds her and is active in her life. And second, she has watched  day after day  as her daughter-in-law set out to glean, she has come to realize that she isn't as empty as she first thought. God has blessed her life with Ruth, who is later aptly described by Naomi's friends as "your daughter-in-law, who loves you" (Ruth 4:15). She pours herself out for Ruth in an attempt to put her daughter-in-law above her own family interests when she sends Ruth to Boaz that night. Naomi is like the poor widow Jesus noticed dropping her last pennies into the temple coffers. In the words of Jesus, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others" (Mark 12:43). Naomi, out of her poverty, is giving away all she has. Even from the dusty rubble of ground zero, she makes a sacrifice. This is the gospel. This is submission. This is how God's kingdom looks on earth.

On the other side, Ruth voluntarily sticks her neck out in a dozen different ways and exposes herself to all sorts of potential humiliations. But Ruth never seems to travel on safe roads, and she's walking through a minefield with how she changes Naomi's plans and asks Boaz for even more. She risks his refusal. She risks public embarrassment if anything goes badly and word gets out. Instead of making life better for herself as Naomi desired, Ruth has deliberately put her future in greater jeopardy for Naomi. From Ruth's perspective, Naomi's scheme was flawed from the start, for it simply wasn't possible for Ruth to embrace a course of action that put her own happiness ahead of Naomi's. Instead, Ruth sees in Naomi's suggestion a window of opportunity to do more for her mother-in-law than anyone had a right to ask or would even dream. But that, again, is the nature of hesed. "Ruth subordinated her own happiness to the family duty of providing Naomi an heir. In demonstrating remarkable initiative and defiance of custom, she not only embodied the Israelite ideal of hesed but also, if successful, set herself up to be the true bringer of salvation in this story. We are watching Ruth pour herself out for Naomi. This is a powerful act of submission. Ruth lays down her life for Naomi and volunteers to conceive a child to rescue the Elimelech family from extinction. She is breaking the rules once again. The words Jesus spoke of another Gentile are surely fitting here. "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith" (Matthew 8:10). Ruth, out of her poverty, is giving away all she has. Even from the misery and heartache of barrenness, she makes a sacrifice. She offers herself to save Naomi. This is the gospel. This is submission. This is how God's kingdom looks on earth.

Book Recommendations

For more details and reflections on Naomi and Ruth, and how the God of the Bible esteems woman and reveals their profound calling in the world, here are five recommendations:

+ The Book of Ruth
The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules by Carolyn Custis James
+ A Loving Life in a World of Broken Relationships by Paul E. Miller
+ Is the Bible Good for Women? Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture by Wendy Alsup
+ Seven Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Mataxas

And for sermon audio I preached based on Naomi and Ruth's story, check out: Broken, Bold, and in the Battle for Life Sermon and Liturgy + Sunday, July 16, 2017

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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