Have You Heard the One about the Mother-in-Law Who . . .

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 13, 2012

Ruth 1:1-18

Have you heard the one about the mother-in-law who…..?  Well, I’m not about to tell a mother-in-law joke this morning.  But we have all heard them, haven’t we?  There is no shortage of mother-in-law jokes in the world.  Mother-in-law stories are sort of like the bad news that dominates the front page of the newspaper.  You rarely hear about the good ones.  But there are good mother-in-law stories out there, if we are willing to look for them.  Two such stories come to mind from our first full-time church after seminary.  When we moved to Mt. Pleasant Church, I thought it a little odd when I learned that at least two members lived with their mother-in-law.  Glen was well up in his 60s and lived in the same house with his mother-in-law Mamie, who was in her 80s.  When Glen and his wife had married, he just moved in with her and her mother.  After some years, Glen’s wife, Mamie’s daughter, died.  But Glen continued living in the home of his mother-in-law because it was the only home he knew.  And they got along quite well.

And then there were Vada and Melba.  Melba had married Vada’s son and had moved in with them.  Melba’s husband, Vada’s son, had died, but Melba continued living with Vada because she had made her home there.  And Melba and Vada got along beautifully.  They attended church together, shopped together, and traveled together.  As I said, when we first moved to that church and I encountered this phenomenon, I thought it somewhat strange.  But as I have grown older and a little wiser, I have come to appreciate the beauty of it all.  Because Glen and Mamie, and Melba and Vada demonstrated something about how relationships are supposed to be.  Perhaps they also knew something about the richness that is to be found in the story of Ruth. 

As we look closely at the little book of Ruth, we quickly learn that there is no joke to be found here.  Indeed, the story of Ruth is one of the most touching stories in the Bible.

The story of Ruth has a lot to teach us about family relationships.  Now, Ruth 1:16-17 are words that are familiar to just about anyone who has ever attended wedding ceremonies. 

“Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

There I will be buried.”

However, the interesting thing is that these words, to be used at the marriage of a man and woman who pledge their love and loyalty one to another, must be taken out of their context.  I wonder how many couples realize that they are not words spoken between lovers, but rather, words spoken by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.  Such says something significant, I think, about Naomi and the type of mother and mother-in-law she was.  Ruth and Naomi found human companionship and security in one another, in the intertwining of their lives.  At least one of the many great lessons we learn from Ruth and Naomi’s story is that families come in all varieties. Great beauty is to be found in families of all kinds and in the promises that hold them together.

Ruth also teaches us something about divine love.  Naomi testifies that Ruth had “dealt kindly” with her.  This passage is based on the Hebrew word chesed that is often used to describe God’s acts of unmerited grace and mercy toward humankind.  But its use here in Ruth implies that humans are also able to do or show chesed one to another.  To “deal kindly” means to demonstrate loving-kindness and loyalty that extend far beyond what the law requires, beyond anything the recipient expects or deserves to receive.  “The word denotes willful, directed compassion and faithfulness arising out of a committed relationship.”Such is what Ruth had already done in her relationship with Naomi, and it is what she promised to do in the future.  In the face of death, in the loss of home, in the prospect of possible starvation, with a willingness to give up homeland and gods and selfish desires, Ruth insisted that she and Naomi were going to live together, make a home together, worship God together, and be a family.2   As preacher Richard B. Vinson puts it, “Ruth loved Naomi when there was nothing in it for her but a long walk to an uncertain future away from all her natural-born family.”On a dusty road to Bethlehem, a young pagan woman makes promises to love her old, tired, and bitter mother-in-law in a way that mirrors the divine love of God.  That’s what true love is; agape, God-like love; chesed, steadfast loving kindness.  It is the kind of love that Jesus brings to perfection in his own life, teachings and death.  It is the kind of love exemplified in the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that Ruth and Naomi demonstrate that divine-human love (chesed) can cross all barriers—racial, ethnic, age, and otherwise. Ruth was a Moabite, a member of a race that was despised by those of Naomi’s homeland.  “In the ears of an Israelite audience, almost any reference to Moab would have carried negative moral and emotional connotations.”3 There had always been enmity and hostilities between the Israelites and Moabites.  In fact, the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:3) banned Moabites and their descendants down to the tenth generation from entering “the assembly of the Lord.”  So Naomi knows that her friends and relatives in Bethlehem will have a negative view of Ruth, and hence, tries to send her back home.  But Ruth will have none of it.  She clings to Naomi and refuses to budge.

“Where you go, I will go;

where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

there will I be buried.”

Differences of age, race or ethnicity, nor hardships or an uncertain future would separate these two women who had steadfast love one for another.

But was there yet another message that the author of the book of Ruth really wanted to get across?  Though packed with important, universal truth about human love and relationships, the book is not as simple as it might first appear to be.  There is another, deeper, layer to the story, we might say.  Another reason for the story of Ruth was to establish King David’s ancestry.  The lineage of David is traced back to a Moabite (Gentile) woman.  Ruth, a hated Moabite, was King David’s great-grandmother.  So the book of Ruth says, in effect, if King David can have a Moabite as an ancestor, then maybe Gentiles aren’t so bad after all.  In other words, the book of Ruth was one of the first books of the Hebrew Scriptures to be universal in outlook, to proclaim the universal love and acceptance of God.  The book of Ruth said God is no longer just the God of the Hebrews.  God is the God of the whole world, none excluded!  There is one other little book in the Old Testament that is very similar to Ruth bearing the same message.  Can you guess which one it is?  It is the book of Jonah. 

And so, when all is said and done, the message of the book of Ruth is that all of us should have the same quality of love and steadfastness in our family and other relationships shown in the story of Naomi and Ruth.  And our love for others should extend beyond our own little group to those “Gentiles” out there that we may have never thought about as being worthy of our love, or of God’s love and acceptance.  The messages of Ruth are both beautiful and powerful.  And, curiously enough, it took a mother-in-law story to convey them.  So, God bless all mothers and mothers-in-law this day. Amen.

 1Homiletics, Nov. 2006, p. 12.  2Richard B. Vinson, Ministers Manual for 2006, p. 256.  3New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vo. II, p. 901.             

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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