Mothers-in-law have been the brunt of comedian's jokes for ages, stories of disagreement and bossiness that have been used in routines which generated great laughter. Most play on the idea that the younger in-laws see them as divisive and judgmental. Now it's certainly true that some don't get along with their mother-in-law, claiming that she tries to tell her child what to do and what is being done wrong, yet we seldom hear of the devotion between a mother-in-law and her new in-law that is often the real situation. Maybe it's because they are assumed to be older and set in their ways or perhaps it's because they see their child as he or she was in youth, having difficulty giving up to the reality of the child now being an adult with a family of their own. But the story or Ruth from the Old Testament dispels many of the myths of the relationship between the in-laws as it portrays a young woman who is devoted to her mother-in-law at a time when they both needed each other.
Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, was married to Elimelech of Bethlehem at a time when Israel was in the midst of a great famine. So, Naomi and her husband, plus their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, relocated to the nation of Moab which was not suffering in such a way. They settled there for a generation and during that time the boys became men but lost their father to illness. One of the boys married Ruth, the other Orpah, both women Moabites, and lived happily as an extended family until the sons both died, leaving Naomi both bitter and lonely and the two young widows in despair.
Fortunes changed back in Israel and Naomi decided to return to her homeland and the two women both planned to accompany her. But while on the road, Naomi told them they should not continue, that they were young and would likely marry again within their own people and Orpah reluctantly agreed, tearfully saying goodbye. Ruth, however, insisted on accompanying Naomi and the short verses above contain part of her response. She decided that her mother-in-law, who had been good to her, needed to be cared for and she would never shirk that duty.
Now in those days a widow was someone who needed a community of good people in order to survive and in the day of the Judges there were many unscrupulous souls who would take advantage of their weakness, particularly if they were still young and pretty like Ruth. So, when Ruth decided to try and work in the barley harvest which had just begun, Naomi told her of Boaz, her husband's cousin who had many large fields to harvest and was also rich. She suggested that Ruth try and locate his fields, knowing that she would be much safer near this kind man.
As fate would have it, Ruth began following the harvesters in a field that was owned by Boaz, taking what was leftover after their harvest to use for their own food. Sensing her plight, many of the workers were kind and one day Boaz noticed her, asking who the young woman was following the workforce. When he found out she was Elimelech's daughter-in-law, he introduced himself, telling her to take all she wanted and to feel free to drink of the well and even join in the afternoon meal he provided his workers. She was overwhelmed at his kindness, but he told her the way she was caring for her mother-in-law was most admirable and he appreciated what she was doing.
We'll go further with the story next week, but I don't want anyone to think that Ruth's unselfish devotion to Naomi, who now called herself Mara which meant bitterness, was unnoticed by God. No, when we finish the story next week we will share the joy that would be Ruth's with what God had planned for her. It's a wonderful story of how God does indeed work in mysterious ways and in this story the result has long lasting impact on the future of Israel.
Dear Lord, We thank you for the wonderful stories in the Bible and the sound lessons they provide us about how we should live our lives. Help us to use them to improve ourselves and better live in a manner that follows your way. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.