Return/Turn to the Lord: Ruth, Luke 17, Psalm 111, and The Fear of the Lord

By Elizabeth Ahlman

3 Year Series C; Proper 23

If your church uses the 3-year series for their lectionary readings, then Ruth 1:1–19a is coming up as the Old Testament reading on Sunday, October 13. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited for the Book of Ruth to get some “play,” so to speak. It is paired with 2 Timothy 2:1–13, and Luke 17:11–19. The psalm for that Sunday is Psalm 111. On this upcoming Sunday, especially, the Psalm gives us a wonderful hook for the interpretation of the passages from Ruth and Luke. Together, the three passages demonstrate that turning toward God and His gracious gifts is to fear Him and be ushered into His wisdom.

The Old Testament lesson details Naomi’s return, with Ruth, to Bethlehem following the deaths of their husbands and the news that Yahweh has visited His people to deliver them from famine. In verses 6–22 of Ruth 1, the Leitwort (a recurring word whose semantic range is explored in a text and teases out meaning in the overall text) is “return” or “turn.” It is used 12 times in that section. So in the section used for the lectionary reading, it recurs nine times (Hebrew: shuv and in the LXX various forms of strepho). In Hebrew, this verb refers both to physical return and to spiritual aspects of turning or returning. It is used to speak about physically returning from one locale to another (such as from Moab to Bethlehem, or Moses going from the wilderness back to Egypt, etc.). The same verb is also used to describe repentance, or a turning away from one thing toward another (for instance Psalm 80:3; Isaiah 10:20–21, 59:20; and Jeremiah 3:12). In Psalm 80, the speakers implore God to “restore us,” or, “turn us again” so that they might be saved. That is, they ask God to bring about repentance and turning from sin toward His grace and mercy.

In this section of Ruth, Naomi is literally and figuratively returning. She is physically moving from Moab, where she was sojourning, toward her original home in Bethlehem. It makes complete sense that Naomi is said to return. However, Ruth is also said to return to Bethlehem, a place she has never before been. This is because Ruth’s daring confession of Yahweh and promise of faithfulness to Him, as well as faithful service to Naomi, is a turning in itself. It is a turning from pagan idols to the one true God. Ruth, a foreigner, turns toward Yahweh, confessing His name, and ordering her life according to His gracious will and ways.

The cleansing of the 10 lepers has a similar theme of turning or returning. When the lepers come to Jesus to be cleansed, He instructs them to go to the priests. As they walk away, they are miraculously cleansed. However, only one leper among them, a foreigner, returns to Jesus to give thanks and praise. Luke uses the Greek word hupostrepho to describe the leper’s actions. Jesus uses the same verb when he asks, “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner” (Luke 17:18)? (Fun Fact: Luke loves this word and uses it all over both Luke and Acts, whereas it is used very little by other Biblical writers). The root word, strepho, can mean physical turning or return, but also turn or change inwardly, including “be converted.”[1] (Also see Mt 18:3, 27:3; John 12:40; Acts 7:39, 42; 13:46).

  The same root word is used with various prepositions in the Greek translation of the Book of Ruth found in The Septuagint. Lexically, the idea of turning or returning, both physical and spiritual, then, connects the OT and Gospel lessons. In both cases, God’s gracious activity bursting into the lives of these ones who are not His people (“visiting” His people to give them food in Ruth, and “visiting” in the person and work of His son to bring healing in Luke) causes them to turn toward Him and confess and praise Him. Ruth confesses that Naomi’s God will be her God and ends with an oath to remain with Naomi that uses God’s covenant name, Yahweh. The Samaritan leper, unclean in more ways than one, also lifts up his voice to praise the one true God and to fall at the feet of Jesus in worship, praise, and recognition of who He is.

 This is the response which God’s gracious and mighty deeds elicit, as Psalm 111 demonstrates. This hymn of praise to Yahweh lists many ways in which His graciousness and faithfulness are made manifest in the lives of His people. His works are great and His righteousness endures forever. He is gracious and merciful. He provides food for His people and His works are awesome. His Word (“precepts”) is established forever and is utterly trustworthy. That Word of grace and mercy, as confessed by Naomi early in Ruth 1, and His awesome deeds (providing food in Israel) turn Ruth from her pagan upbringing to her great confession of Him as God and Lord. It turns her inwardly and physically toward Him in order to integrate her into His people. As a recipient of one of His awesome works of healing accompanied by simple words from Jesus, the leper recognizes Jesus as God and Lord and returns to praise and worship Him.

This turning toward God indicates that the leper and Ruth have the fear of the LORD. They trust in Him and His gracious promises. They turn in repentance and faith toward the God who is able to do all these things for His beloved people. Psalm 111:10 tells us that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” Ruth—the pagan Moabitess—and the leper—a Samaritan despised by the Jews for not practicing right worship—are turned toward God through His gracious activity and praised for their faithfulness to Him. In Ruth, this brings forth a verbal confession of Yahweh and an oath to serve Naomi. In the Samaritan leper, this results in shouting praises to God in recognition that it is He who has healed him and then in humble worship at Jesus’ feet. As the Psalmist says, “His praise endures forever” (111:10)

Like Ruth and the Samaritan, we were once outside of God’s family, lost and turned towards the wrong things. In our baptisms, God turned us toward Him. He continues to work repentance in us each and every day. We turn towards money or a spouse or ourselves, and God turns us again toward Him. We turn toward the world and its ways, and God works His repentance to turn us again to faith in Him through His graciousness and mercy, through His precepts (His Word) proclaimed to us, and through His great and mighty deeds done to us (Baptism and The Lord’s Supper). He makes us to fear Him and to have His Wisdom—His very own Son. Like Ruth and like the leper, we confess His beloved Name, praise Him with loud voices, and fall down at His feet in thanksgiving.

**For more on Ruth, check out my in-depth Bible study, Ruth: More than a Love Story. You can purchase it at Amazon or at Concordia Publishing House.

***For more on Psalm 111 and how it also relates to the woman of Proverbs 31, read my book, Demystifying the Proverbs 31 Woman. You can purchase it at Amazon or through Concordia Publishing House.


[1] “strepho” in F. Wilber Gingrich, Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 186.

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