The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 5/12/96
Text: Ruth 1:1-18
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Mothers' Day. I like Mothers' Day, as I know we all do. There is something very special in taking time out of the hustle and bustle to celebrate those special ladies who have given us life. The "Mother" of Mother's Day is Anna Jarvis who spent forty years developing the concept. Her drive to create the holiday reached fulfillment in 1914 with a presidential proclamation by Woodrow Wilson. Anna had two fears, both of them well-founded. She was afraid that her effort to honor mothers would be exploited by what was then known as "the floriculture industry." She was also afraid that Mother's Day would become the financial backbone of the greeting card industry.(1) And, if she had only lived in a more technological era, she would have found that the chief mother honored on the second Sunday in May would of course be "Ma" Bell. Restaurants do not do too badly, either. No matter, in coming up with the idea, Anna Jarvis did us a real service.

For Mothers' Day this year I want to focus on someone who made her mark in history as a MOTHER-IN-LAW. Strange, perhaps, especially in light of our normal attitude toward in-laws. You have heard the classic definition of mixed emotions: watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Rolls Royce. I even heard of one preacher who exhorted his congregation at offering time to "give as if you're giving to send your mother-in- law back home." It is an OLD problem. Even in ancient Rome, the writer Juvenal said, "Domestic concord is impossible as long as the mother-in-law lives." Well, none of that is really fair. There are lots of genuinely terrific mothers-in-law...I know...I have one.

The mother-in-law to whom I would call your attention this morning is Naomi. Of course, she was a mother too (you do not get to be ONE without first being the other). She was probably a GOOD mother, but we do not know much about that. She was a SUPER mother-in-law, and we DO know about that.

Do you remember the story? Times were hard. A famine had struck the land of Israel. Families were forced to do anything they could just to come up with enough food to survive. At least ONE family (and who knows how many others) even came to the place of leaving the country all together. Just as the Irish left their native soil in the 19th century because of the potato famine and came to America to seek a better life, Elimilech, his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, left their native Bethlehem...the town whose name ironically means "house of bread"...and went to Moab.

That was a BIG decision because, as chauvinistic as nations are in our own day, things were even MORE so back then. Israel and Moab had a certain common heritage, the Moabites having been said to be descendants of Abraham's nephew, Lot. Through the years though, as relatives often do, they had had their troubles. During Israel's wilderness wandering toward the land of Canaan, they had come to Moab and asked for permission to cross through that territory, but the request was denied. As a result, Israelite law prohibited any Moabite from coming into the Jewish congregation for ten generations...not FOREVER, but for a long, long time.

Eventually, things got back to some semblance of normal between the two nations, and by Elimilech's time, they were getting along pretty well. So, he and his family moved, and probably would have been pretty pleased at the whole situation considering that food was readily available to everyone for a change. I say "probably WOULD have been," except for the fact that Elimilech up and died. Can you imagine what a blow that was to Naomi? It would be bad enough being left a widow with two young sons to raise, but even worse being left like that in a foreign land: no relatives to give support, no long-time friends to offer consolation, no shoulders to cry on. It must have been a terrible time.

To Naomi's eternal credit, she managed in spite of it all. She raised those two boys; she somehow found ways to support them, she brought them into manhood as best she could. As I say, I think we can presume she was a good mother.

Of course, when Mahlon and Chilion were finally grown, they took wives for themselves - two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. The boys obviously saw no problem with that. To be sure, they knew of their Israelite heritage from their mother's instruction. They probably would have been perfectly happy to find Jewish wives for themselves, but there were no Jewish girls around. And anyway, these boys had lived more than half their lives in Moab, so they were quite content with the local lasses.

I wonder what Naomi thought about that in her heart of hearts. It must have distressed her. She knew how much intermarriage was frowned upon in her homeland. During some periods of Israelite history, it was absolutely prohibited by law. Now, here were her two Jewish sons marrying non-Jewish girls. Even in OUR day, Jewish mothers have a problem with that. But, you know, there is not one word, not one indication, that Naomi ever let her inner feelings be known. As far as Orpah and Ruth were concerned, they were now as much a part of Naomi's family as if they had been born into it. There were lots of wonderful things about Naomi, and this was just ONE of them: Naomi ACCEPTED them...and they knew it.

That is not typical of our vision of a mother-in-law. If there is any accepting to be done, the daughter- or son-in-law must do it. There is that classic story of the woman who was being congratulated by a friend after both her son and daughter were married within a month of each other. "What kind of boy did your daughter marry?" asked the neighbor. "Oh, he's wonderful," gushed the mother. "He makes her sleep late, wants her to go to the beauty parlor everyday, won't let her cook and INSISTS upon taking her out to dinner every night." The neighbor said, "That's terrific. What kind of girl did your son marry?" The mother sighed, "Not so good. She's lazy. She sleeps late every morning, spends all her time at the beauty parlor, won't cook, and makes them take all their meals out." There is an old German proverb that says that most mothers-in-law forget that they too were once daughters-in-law." Ah, yes. Acceptance. Fortunately, that was not Naomi.

There is more to her story, of course. More tragedy. Both Mahlon and Chilion died. Now Naomi had lost not only her husband but both her sons as well. One wonders how she was able to bear it...but she did. When such things happen to people, they begin to think of better times, if only to keep from thinking about how rotten the current times are. For Naomi, those thoughts turned to home...Israel...Bethlehem...memories of the joys of young love with Elimilech...memories of two little boys playing in the fields outside of town. Those memories were like a siren song in her grief calling "Naomi, Naomi...come home...come home." And so, she resolved to do it. After all, there was nothing in Moab to keep her: husband...sons...gone. When word came that the famine in Israel was over, that was all the incentive she needed. All that was left for her in Moab were her two daughters-in-law. So they ALL decided to go, and off they went.

But before they had gotten too far, Naomi began to think. "This is not fair. These girls should not have to be uprooted from THEIR home just because I want to go back to MINE." And she told them so. "Go back to your own mothers, girls. You will be better off there. You will find new husbands for yourselves and build a better life. You will be fine. I know you will."

You see, Naomi BELIEVED in those two young women. She had gotten to know them just as if they had been her own flesh and blood. She knew that they had a lot to offer the young men who might marry them. She had seen them offer a lot to her own sons, especially at the time of death. She knew these girls would be all right.

That does not fit very well with our concept of a mother-in-law either, does it? It often seems that the in-laws are the absolute last ones to ever be convinced of the worth of the one a son or daughter chooses for a spouse. And, on the other side, we so often hear someone credit their success to the fact that someone BELIEVED in them. We need to remember that, whether we are dealing with sons- or daughters-in-law or anyone else, for that matter. Naomi knew it...and Orpah and Ruth came to KNOW she knew it. And that is why they did not want to leave her.

You remember. The daughters-in-law protested, "No, we want to go with you." But Naomi persisted: "Listen, you two. You know I love you and you know I would be pleased to have any sons of mine take you for wives. But be practical. I HAVE no more sons, and it is unlikely that I ever will. Why, if I got married tonight, and got pregnant tonight, it would be twenty years before that would do either of YOU any good. Are you going to tell me that you would be willing to wait around all that time for something that is nothing more than an impossible dream? Of course not. Go home. You will be better off."

That was painful for Naomi to say. She had come to love Orpah and Ruth, and no one wants to be separated from those they love. But Naomi was practical. She was well aware that, in her culture, the life of a woman was totally dependent upon the man. A widow could not simply decide to pick up the pieces of a broken life, go out, get a job, and start all over again. The only way life could REALLY begin again was in the home of a new husband. Naomi was CONCERNED for them, so she was willing to sacrifice her OWN happiness for theirs.

Again, we get a picture that is different than one we might expect of a mother-in-law. At least in popular mythology, the only thing evident among in-laws is an apparent LACK of concern. How many times have in-laws been informed that a certain relative-by-marriage is coming to stay for awhile with resulting moans and groans all over the house? It happens all the time. There is no real concern there for the welfare of the one who is coming to visit; the only concern is SELF-concern. But Naomi was not like that.

That is why what eventually came of her relationship with Orpah and Ruth was possible. If you recall, Orpah reluctantly went along with what Naomi said. Orpah knew that Naomi had accepted her, believed in her and had concern for her. Naomi had Orpah's best interest at heart, and Orpah knew that. So she decided to do what Naomi suggested: she stayed in Moab and went back to her family and friends.

But for Ruth, it was different. She too had felt accepted; she too knew that she was believed in; she too knew that Naomi was concerned about her. And no doubt her decision to stay with Naomi was based on that; she was not willing to give that up. And who could blame HER? That kind of relationship between two people was all too rare in HER day, just as it is in our own.

Of course, once that kind of relationship HAS been established, some marvelous things can result. In Ruth's case, history has been treated with one of the most beautiful statements of loyalty that has ever been uttered. What she said to Naomi has endured through more than 3,000 years as an expression of what genuine RELATIONSHIP is all about. Even to our day, what Ruth said has expressed a bond of union so close that it is even repeated in wedding ceremonies to reflect undying devotion. In the beautiful expressions of the King James Bible in which so many of us were nurtured, "Entreat me not to leave thee or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God" (Ruth 1:16). What a magnificent pledge!

What would prompt such a thing? Only that rare combination of loving qualities that supposedly are so rare in an in-law... acceptance, belief, concern..."ABC's" of building any kind of true relationship...acceptance, belief, concern.

One more thing should be added. Naomi's traits should not be thought of as being limited to the making of a good in-law; they would make a good ANYONE! Do you want to reach people for Jesus Christ and his church? You can talk till you are blue in the face, but "Actions speak louder than words." The good news of Christ's abiding presence in our lives will most assuredly be communicated by what we DO at least as much as by what we SAY. We have no idea what Naomi might have said to Ruth about her God during the years they lived together in Moab...something, no doubt, but what we do not know. We DO know what effect Naomi's LIFE had on her daughter-in-law: that marvelous affirmation, "Your God...MY God."

Acceptance, belief, concern...not only the ABC's of being a good mother-in-law, but also of being a faithful witness for Jesus. Do you want to be a good ambassador for Christ? Let Naomi show you how. ACCEPT the other person as one whom God loves and for whom Christ died. BELIEVE in the other person - trust them to respond to the leading of the Spirit. Show CONCERN for them...genuine concern...for their well-being - physical, emotional, spiritual. When you can put those elements together you too are liable to hear, "Your God shall be MY God."

Thank you, Naomi, for the lesson. We celebrate Mother's Day, and that is good - we OUGHT to...and for that we thank Anna Jarvis. But on THIS Mother's Day, let us include Mothers-in-Law... in honor of one wonderful mother-in-law who has taught us so much. Happy Mothers' Day.


1. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, (Princeton, 1995), pp. 245-256.

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