What was it about life in the Garden of Eden that made it a paradise for those who lived there? How was life in that ancient garden different from life as we know it today? It was, no doubt, a beautiful place in which to live with no slums, no ghettos, no abandoned buildings and no stretches of vacant lots littered with trash and debris. There was an abundance of things to eat so, unlike many places in our world today, no one had to be hungry. The idea of work had not yet been invented so people lived at leisure all the time. Nobody was getting up and getting ready to go off to a job and perhaps even more than one job just to make ends meet. That is not the way things were in paradise.
However, there was one more thing about life in the Garden of Eden that made it fundamentally different from life as we know it in our world today. There was Adam and there was Eve; there was one man for every woman. Nobody was left alone. Nobody experienced loneliness. God said “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), so after God made the birds and the animals and the other living creatures, God made a woman to be the companion of man.
I want to suggest today that the perfect balance found in the Garden of Eden, which is one man for every woman may never have existed again, and it certainly does not exist today. As many women know all too well, there are far more women in this world looking for male companionship than there are men who are available to provide that companionship. There is not one man for every woman. In some American cities there are three women for every man. In some work and social settings there are no eligible, unmarried men at all.
Our society is one that is centered on the idea of people getting married and living happily ever after. There are some people for whom that reality has always been true. However, there are three unavoidable realities that must be acknowledged; the first is that 50% of those who do get married do not live happily ever after. They get divorced and have to fuss about how to divide the assets they accumulated when they were married. The second reality is that women tend to live longer than men, so no sooner has a man retired from working than he dies between the ages of 62-66, leaving his wife to live alone for the next 15-20 years. The third reality is that a good many people in our society, and especially as it involves women, will never get married at all. It is not that they don’t want to get married. It is not that they would not make wonderful wives. The hard fact is simply this; there are not enough men for every woman to have a husband.
That description of reality is as true right here in our church as it is anywhere else in the world. These four things define who we are as a congregation. Antioch is home to an incredible number of couples who have lived happily together for 30 or 40 or 50 years and more. We celebrate those couples almost every week in the church bulletin. At the same time we are home to a large number of divorced persons whose marriages perhaps should never have occurred, but at some point one or both persons decided to call it to an end. Divorce is as much a part of what defines our church as long-term couples.
Then we have a large number of persons, mostly women but some men as well, who have outlived their spouses and now they find themselves “living single” after 30 or 40 years. They are trying to figure out what to do with themselves. Should they go out on a date? Does it disrespect their deceased spouse if they move on with their lives? It may never have occurred to them that they would once again have to live single in a “marriage culture.”
Then, finally, we have a great many men and women who are old enough to be married, and who may very much want to be married, but they have never been able to enter into that experience. Society has historically been unkind to people in this group, and Antioch has been no exception. We ask them such hurtful questions as “what’s wrong with you that you are not married yet?” We tease them and taunt them and ask them if they “have any prospects.” Not uncommonly, it is persons who are involved in miserable marriages who raise these questions with unmarried people. It is almost as if “misery loves company.”
There are people known to me who have left this church because they got tired of being reminded that they were not married. They knew they were not married. They did not need for us to remind them of that every Sunday. They needed us to say that single people are as valuable to God as married people. They needed us to say that there is more to life than being married. They needed us to understand what they understand, that many people who are married really do not have much of a life. One of the great challenges for any church is to find a way to provide ministry for all three groups: married couples, divorced persons and adults who have never been and may never get married.
Not surprisingly, this is an issue from which the Bible does not shy away. The text we are considering today from the 9th century BC takes us into the heart of this perplexing and agonizing reality of the 21st century AD. The story is 3,000 years old, but the issue is as current and relevant as this morning’s breaking news headlines. At the heart of the book of Ruth is what people are supposed to do when there are more women who may be looking for a husband than there are men who are available for that role. There are three single women introduced to us at the beginning of this story: Naomi, Orpah and Ruth. For reasons that were entirely beyond their control each of these three women found themselves living single in a “marriage culture.”
Naomi was a Jewish woman who went with her husband and their two sons to live in the country of Moab to the south of Jerusalem because a terrible famine had occurred in Judea. While living in Moab, Naomi’s husband, Elimelech died leaving her a widow. After a while her two sons married women from Moab: Orpah and Ruth. Ten years later, both of Naomi’s sons also died, leaving Orpah and Ruth as relatively young widows.
With no men to provide any support for any of them, Naomi decided to leave Moab and return home to Judea. She urged her daughters-in-law to remain behind in their own homeland of Moab, and eventually that is what Orpah did. However, in a famous line in the Bible, Ruth declares that she will never leave Naomi to return home alone. Perhaps you are familiar with that passionate statement by Ruth:
Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.
Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.
Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.
The two women make their way back to Bethlehem in Judea and upon their return Naomi says that the people should call her Mara and not Naomi. In the Hebrew language, Naomi means “sweet one” and Mara means “bitter one.” Naomi is saying that having lost her husband and both of her sons, and believing that God had somehow turned his back on her, she now felt bitter and hurt and even angry with God. All the sweetness had gone out of her life. One day she was a wife and a mother, and now here she is as a childless widow with only a daughter-in-law from a foreign country to keep her company.
The issue for Naomi and Ruth was not simply the issue of being widows; the real issue was that of being single in a culture that was designed for women to be married. Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society where all authority and power were assigned to men and where women were totally dependent upon some male figure be it a husband, a father or an older brother. Women, along with orphans and foreigners, fit into a kind of protected class of people who were never to be taken advantage of precisely because they had no independent status in society. Widows had no man to provide for them or advocate for them in the society. They were never meant to live alone in that society, and when they found themselves alone something had to be done.
In the book of Ruth the solution that was identified was called the “kinsman redeemer” law. That meant that when a woman’s husband died, another man on the husband’s side of the family was obligated to step up and open his home to receive that women so she should would not be left alone. In the book of Ruth a man named Boaz stepped up and became the kinsman who “redeemed” both Ruth and Naomi by taking them into his house, and he took Ruth to be his wife. They solved the problem of not having one man for every woman by allowing one man to have more than one woman.
That is not a solution for people in the 21st century. We have laws against polygamy or men having more than one wife. Not only that, but there are not many women I know who are prepared to allow another woman into their home as a second wife no matter what the Bible says. I suppose it is possible to find at least one man who would love to play the role of Boaz and make room for another woman in his life, but unless he wants to be on the receiving end of a rolling pin or a frying pan he had better not try it.
Can you imagine how the conversation about becoming a kinsman redeemer might go if it involved a woman of the 21st century? The man might say: Dear, my brother has died and I would like to bring his wife into our home so that I can be a husband to her as well as to you.
A modern woman might well respond: If you try to bring her in here she will end up right next to her dead husband in the cemetery. And you might end up there as well! Clearly, the idea of a kinsman redeemer is not how we should try to solve this problem in the 21st century.
However, while the solution in the book of Ruth is not acceptable, the problem described in the book of Ruth goes on and on. What do we expect people to do when there is not one man for every woman? As we affirm and encourage those persons in our congregation who are “living single in a marriage culture” what direction can we offer them?
First of all, let’s remind single people that there is nothing wrong with them. There are no characters flawed attached to being single. It is a fact of life for nearly one-half of the world’s population.
Both Paul and Jesus lived as single men in a society that assumed that men should be married. All of the disciples seem to have left their families, at least for those three years and perhaps completely in order to follow Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 7:1, Paul said it is “good for a man not to marry.” In 1 Corinthians 7:8 he says to the widows and those who are unmarried, “it is good for them to stay unmarried as I am.”
All through history it has been an accepted fact that for one reason or another there would be persons who would never get married. No big deal was made about it; it was a simple fact of life. Sometimes a person cannot find a spouse they want as a lifelong companion. Other times it seems as if no one wants them as their lifetime companion. In other instances, they may have been married before and they simply do not want to enter into that relationship again. Remember that there are a variety of reasons for why a person might be single.
Either way, Paul puts his finger on a very real problem that being single creates for so many men and women in our society; it is the problem of intimacy or human sexuality. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:9, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” This is where the problem becomes even more intense for singles. The possibility of finding a spouse may seem limited, but the reality of passion or the drives attached to human sexuality do not go away just because a person is not married. People do not cease to have sexual urges or desires just because they do not have a spouse.
You must forgive me for being so explicit, but if we cannot talk about this aspect of the problem we are not being fully honest. First of all, we live in a society that celebrates marriage in the face of persons who are living single and may never be able to share in a marital relationship. Then, to make matters worse, we celebrate human sexuality as one of the central aspects of human life.
So many of our popular songs, so many of the Hollywood films and so much of the subject matter on TV talk shows is about sex and intimacy. We do not suggest in any of those venues that human sexuality is limited to people who are married. Instead, we celebrate adultery, we give awards to films that focus on intimacy between homosexual cowboys, we have TV shows about openly lesbian relations, and one of the most popular shows on TV is called Desperate Housewives – a show that celebrates lust on the part of married women.
In truth, the temptation of sexual activity between unmarried, heterosexual adults is not the most shocking thing going on in our society today. However, as tempting as sex outside of marriage may be for some unmarried adults, it still occurs in the face of some terrible risks and realities. The first risk and reality is that there is no shortage of people who are more than willing to satisfy the sexual urges of other people so long as there are no strings attached. Do not ask them for commitment. Do not ask them for love and a meaningful relationship. Do not ask them for anything except a solution for the lust or burning mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:9. Sometimes this problem can produce the worst kind of sexual promiscuity with no trace of authentic love or commitment as the Bible understands those terms.
The second risk and reality of sex between unmarried adults is the presence of HIV/AIDS and other diseases for which there is no cure. When you lie down with someone in this society you are lying down with their entire sexual history. And when you get up you will not know for many years to come whether or not a moment of passion has resulted in a lifetime of infection. I should add that people above the age of 55 are among those who are contracting HIV/AIDS at the highest rates. This is because, after years of marriage and monogamy, they have become divorced or widowed. They re-enter the “dating game” and become intimate with people who bring a 30-year sexual history with them. Believing that birth control is no longer their concern they engage in unprotected sex. Then, much to their surprise and chagrin, many such persons discover they have contracted this disease. As difficult as loneliness may be, it is a much better solution than a long illness, a harsh medical regiment of drugs and the potential of a painful death.
The third reality to be confronted is that as Christians we are called upon to live in ways that are pleasing to God and also in ways that set an example for others in our society. One of the most important lessons Christian singles can teach this society is that one can be single and celibate and satisfied with one’s life. Are there moments of temptation? No doubt! Does the culture in which we live make it difficult to live single- celibate and satisfied? No doubt! Is that the life Gods holds out in front of unmarried people in our churches and in our society? No doubt! I am not suggesting that this is the life many of you may prefer to enjoy; I am only saying that this life is possible and should be embraced by those followers of Jesus Christ who want their lives to be pleasing to God.
The last point I want to make today is this; there is far more to life than marriage or intimate relationships. There are rewarding careers that can be pursued. There are important tasks for which a person can volunteer that can occupy their time and their talents. There are all manner of events that can be enjoyed as easily by one’s self as with someone else. You do not have to be married in order to adopt a child who can thrive on the love and attention of an unmarried parent. You do not have to be married to enjoy the company of your family and your friends. You do not have to be married to have a relationship with God that is nurtured by prayer, Bible study, worship, service to others and a deep sense of being valued by the creator.
There is a meaningful life for those who are not married, but you might miss out on most of it if you spend all your time moping around in self-pity because for one reason or another you do not have a spouse. Harriet Tubman was not married and her life was not wasted. Sojourner Truth was not married for most of her life but her life was not wasted. George Washington Carver was not married and his life was not wasted. Many people either outlived their spouse, or got a divorce or were never married; and they still managed to live full and meaningful lives.
Look at how this biblical story ends; over time Ruth does get married under the practice of kinsman redeemer. However, Naomi does not marry again. Her husband dies, her two sons die and her daughter-in-law gets married. But Naomi is not written out of the story. Rather, she rejoices in the good fortune of Ruth and helps to raise the child conceived with Boaz. Her life goes on and her joy is unending. One could say that her Bitterness had passed and he Sweetness had returned. There may be some bitter times for those who “live single in a marriage culture.” But it is possible for God to keep your spirit “sweet” to make your life full and to make your soul content.
Marvin McMickle is Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.