There are many mothers in the Bible, but few that feel contemporary to us. I offer to you today on this Mother’s Day, the Book of Ruth in the “Old” Testament. A marvelous, short book, with a beautiful story of two women, Naomi and Ruth; a story that we can relate to. I will only focus on the highlights of the story.
In the days after the Jews had settled in Canaan [perhaps around the year 1,200 BC], there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. [Moabites were detested by Jews.] The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then Naomi decided to return to her homeland. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. [Very striking in a patriarchal society – instead of the usual “father’s house.”] May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” [Orpah did go back], but Ruth clung to her. Naomi said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth replied with some of the most famous words in the entire Bible:
“Don’t press me to leave you. For 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. May the Lord deal with me severely, if even death parts me from you!”
So Naomi returned home together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Ruth went to work in the field belonging to a man called Boaz. Boaz looks kindly on Ruth. “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” [Recognition of Ruth’s faithfulness – followed by blessing.]
With a little coaching from Naomi, Ruth and Boaz marry. Ruth bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without [a redeemer]; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Note how the story ends. It ends well for Ruth, and she became the great-grandmother of David, the King. And thus Ruth entered the genealogy of Jesus that we read every year on the Sunday before Christmas. A Moabite, a foreigner, in the genealogy of the Messiah! But it also ends well for Naomi. The people bless her. She has been redeemed from her bitterness and poverty, from the emptiness of her life. Ruth’s faithfulness became the means by which God reversed the outcome of Naomi’s life. Never underestimate what you do for your mother or your mother-in-law! God’s purpose is always what the Hebrew Bible calls ḥesed, loving kindness. This is God’s covenant kindness/love. Even when Naomi told the two daughters-in-law to return home she prayed that the Lord will show them ḥesed regardless of their return to Moabite homes.
God uses Ruth, the outsider, the foreigner, to turn around the life of Naomi. The Moabites were rejected by the Jews – just as the Samaritans that Jesus used as models in his ministry! Naomi and her husband did not stop their sons from marrying Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Tolerance, inclusion – values that every parent, especially every mother must teach her children.
Naomi, model mother and grandmother:
- In her bitterness, as a widow and both sons dead, she did not stop blessing and recognizing the presence of God in her life and in the life of her foreign daughters-in-law.
- An agent of God’s ḥesed, loving-kindness. Mothers are central to God’s covenant with humanity. Never underestimate your role in God’s plan.
- Do not place burdens on your children and their spouses. Let them respond to your faithfulness with their own faithfulness.
- Teach and demonstrate inclusive love, acceptance of others, of those who are different.
- Encouraging, positive.
- Teach your children well, as the CSN song put it back in 1970.
- Teach your children well, and they will honor you. They will be faithful, as Ruth was to Naomi. Let every day be Mother’s Day!