As a girl, I did not like Queen Esther. Like, at all. Because A. her story always felt shallow (beauty pageant winner hosts a banquet to stop a genocide that includes her–duh, how was that even a struggle?) or B. she was the one most other girls liked, and I hated doing things like everyone else.
That’s why, of the two females who got a book of the Bible named after them, I was always in the pro-Ruth camp. It was more of a reaction against Esther than anything else.
As I got older, I realized that many of my favorite fictional characters were basically Ruth in different settings. Like, really different. Middle Earth, a preschool daycare center, and Wild-West-dystopian outer space, for starters. Here are three reasons why Ruth is awesome, and a few characters who remind me of her.
(Contains spoilers for Firefly, The Lord of the Rings, and Toy Story 3. Those of you who haven’t seen/read these, you should probably do so. Like, now. I’ll wait.)
One: Mal Reynolds and Zoë Washburne
I couldn’t find a clip for this one, but one of my favorite (non-joke) lines in the T.V. series is from “The Message”: “When you can’t run, you crawl. And when you can’t crawl…when you can’t do that anymore…you find someone to carry you.”
The key here is who is being carried. In this scene, Mal and Zoë’s old war buddy puts everyone in peril by running away from an incredibly dumb double-crossing choice he made. And yet, when he flees to his friends for refuge, they take him in and refuse to hand him over to the people who want to murder him. It gets complicated from there, but that old saying still sticks in my mind as a raw and beautiful portrayal of love for someone who can barely hold it together. Of love when love is hard and the object of love is not particularly loveable.
When she left her home, Naomi was at the “run” stage. When her husband died, it was time to crawl. But when both her sons died, leaving her alone and destitute, she needed someone to carry her. And Ruth did. Even though, let’s be honest, people, an old woman who tells everyone to call her “Bitter” cannot have been terribly fun to be around. But she was family, and Ruth was determined to stick with her.
Two: Samwise Gamgee
Do I really need any transition here at all? The parallels are kind of obvious between this and Firefly. Especially the “someone to carry you” bit.
Like Sam, Ruth had an epic-speech moment of her own that pretty much defines unrelenting love and loyalty: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
Do you find yourself wanting to cheer yet? Because I do.
Three: Buzz Lightyear
I love team-based storylines. That’s why The Avengers is my favorite superhero movie, Remember the Titans is my favorite movie of all time, and The Hunger Games made me incredibly uncomfortable. (The whole first book, I was like, “Guys! Just work as a team and resist the government! COME ON!”) And why this scene was one of two Pixar moments that made me cry.
Did you hear the ominous music change in that moment, when they all joined hands? That little bittersweet strings riff? It says hope in the middle of a furnace, because these toys, who have gone through three movies of peril and betrayal and conflict, are a family now, and they are staying together, no matter what. They were committed to each other, all of them, not just their best friend in the group.
In the same way, Ruth was not just committing to Naomi. She was committing to her entire people, even when she wasn’t sure if they’d return the favor.
There is a courage that allows you to love people who are not very likeable. It is the difference between “You are mine because I love you” and “I love you because you are mine.”* That is the Firefly kind of courage that doesn’t betray a friend even when he pretty much deserves to be abandoned.
There is a courage that trades comfort for uncertainty because of loyalty. It allows you to leave behind everything you’ve ever known, risking rejection and suffering and danger because you gave your word that you would stick by someone no matter what. This is the Lord of the Rings kind of courage, the one shown by Samwise Gamgee, who is not coming back alive unless Frodo does too.
And there is a courage that embraces an entire group of people. It accepts strangers as family and loves them, even on those days where that love is not returned, even when that group is marked by flaws and bitterness and prejudice and fear. That is the Toy Story kind of courage, a lifetime of building a ramshackle family that will hold hands even—especially—when it seems like all hope is lost.
Ruth had all three kinds of courage. She is Zoë and Sam and Buzz, all at once. That’s why she’s my hero.
It also makes me think: do I know anyone who needs someone who needs to be carried, even if they aren’t easy to love? Will I be willing to sacrifice what’s comfortable for the sake of another person? Can I risk being hurt and serve my adopted family, the church, even though I’d rather be independent?
Those are hard questions, because love is hard. If it’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right.
So the next time you hear the story of Ruth, don’t think: sappy romance story (although it is kind of that). Think about the courage it takes to love.
Do you have a favorite character from the Bible? (And it’s totally fine if you say Esther. I’ve gotten over my snobbish hipster-ness. Really.)
*Stuffy Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: For example, when I say “my authors,” referring to the authors I work with at my job, I mean it in the first sense—I relate to some better than others and I may not always stay in touch with them. When I say “my jr. highers,” referring to the kids I work with at youth group, I mean the second sense—I love them all equally; they don’t need to earn my approval and they will never lose it. I love them because they are mine.