Today is mother’s day. And so today we celebrate our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters. We pause to thank God for them and show our love and gratitude for them. Today is about mothers; but more than that, today is also about family and mothers often play a central role in bringing the family together and nurturing family relationships and cohesion.
Of course, families are not perfect. And for some, family life is very difficult. Some of us do not enjoy a close relationship with our mother, perhaps because of distance or conflict or something else that makes the relationship difficult. Some are grieving the loss of a mother or a child today. So, mother’s day is a day of celebration for many, but for others it is difficult.
In the story of Naomi and Ruth, we encounter both of these things: the joy and wonder of being a mother, but also the pain and suffering of enduring loss. In the midst of all of this is hope, because God is drawing all of us into his larger family, his covenant family. We become members of this family not because of our biology but because of God’s covenant promise and invitation; in this family we are related to one another not primarily through blood but through faith.
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There are a number of famous mothers in the Bible, women who play crucial roles in the unfolding of salvation history: Eve, the mother of all who live; Sarah, the mother of the covenant through which God is going to bless all nations of the earth; Rebekah, the mother of Jacob who becomes Israel; Naomi and Ruth, who are important in the genealogy of King David; Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; and Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible sometimes even depicts God himself as a mother: God is like a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13), a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4), a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Deut. 32:18), and a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4).
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Today we are focusing on Naomi and Ruth, whose story is recorded in the book of Ruth in the OT. The story begins “in the days when the judges ruled Israel.” Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their two sons Mahlon and Kilion, leave their home town of Bethlehem in Judah because of a severe famine. They settle in Moab. While they are in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies and she is left alone with her two sons. Her two sons marry Moabite women (one marries a woman named Orpah and the other a woman named Ruth), but after about ten years both sons die. Neither of them had fathered children, so the women are now left without husbands and without children.
When Naomi hears that the famine in Judah is over, she and her daughters-in-law get ready to leave Moab and return to her homeland of Judah. Along the way, Naomi, with great love and kindness toward her daughters-in-law, tells them to return to the home of their parents. She says, “‘Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.’” Then she kisses them good-bye, and they all break down and weep (Ruth 1:8-9). After some deliberation, Orpah agrees to return to Moab, but Ruth decides to stay with Naomi:
16 Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” 18
The story emphasizes two things about this relationship between Naomi and Ruth: (1) Naomi’s graciousness and gratitude toward Ruth and (2) Ruth’s kindness and faithfulness to Naomi. All of this is an expression of love. And in their graciousness, kindness, and faithfulness, Naomi and Ruth reflect the character of the God they serve, the covenant God of Israel who is abundantly gracious, kind, and faithful.
Both women have experienced great loss. Naomi (who now wishes to be called Mara, or ‘bitter’) has lost a husband and two sons; Ruth has lost a husband, a father-in-law and a brother-in-law. But in the midst of their grief and loss they have found each other and though they are not blood relatives they are family together, mother and daughter. They are not obligated to stay together. Ruth could have returned to her own family to begin again, but she decided to stay.
And while they don’t realize it at the time, God has a larger plan for them and for their family. The story of their relationship is going to become an important part of God’s larger story, God’s redemptive plan not only for Israel but for the whole world.
As the book of Ruth unfolds, Ruth meets and marries a man named Boaz, who is a close relative of Naomi’s. Boaz agrees to become a family redeemer or kinsman redeemer. In those days, when a man died without leaving an heir, it was customary for the closest next-of-kin male relative to claim and ‘redeem’ both the widow and the property. In this way, the woman could then bear a son who would be an heir to her first husband’s estate. In chapter four, near the end of the story, we read:
13 So Boaz took Ruth into his home, and she became his wife. When he slept with her, the Lord enabled her to become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. (Ruth 4:13-17)
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So, what do we learn about God’s family from Naomi and Ruth?
The book of Ruth teaches us much about God’s view of family. From Ruth, we learn about the importance of love, kindness, and faithfulness. Ruth made a commitment to Naomi and selflessly put the needs of her mother-in-law before her own. Similarly, Boaz, Ruth’s husband, honoured his own family by fulfilling his responsibilities as kinsman redeemer. God honours both of them by choosing them to be part of the messianic line: their child will be the grandfather of King David!
From Naomi, we learn about the importance of openness, hospitality, and gratitude. She took Ruth, a foreigner – a Gentile! – into her own family and loved her as a true daughter. And God blesses her with a new family and a baby grandchild who will be her husband’s heir.
Most importantly, the story of Naomi and Ruth teaches us about God. Their relationship exemplifies God’s own love, grace, goodness, and faithfulness. And their story teaches us about the kind of family that God wants to represent him in this world. It teaches us that God’s grace and our response to his grace in faith form the basis of a new family that God himself creates. This family might include our actual blood relatives, but it includes many others as well—others who are sometimes radically different from us.
Think for a minute about God’s inclusion of Ruth in his special covenant line. Ruth is a non-Israelite, a pagan foreigner not related to the family of Abraham by birth. Yet, she becomes the mother of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, the grandfather of David, and the great ancestor of Jesus the Messiah! Ruth—an outsider—becomes a key link in the chain of God’s chosen people, a people through whom God will bless the entire world.
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Jesus himself came to create a family. He begins on the cross with his own mother, Mary. Like Naomi, Mary had also suffered the loss of a husband and was now facing the death of her son. In the midst of the pain and loneliness of the cross, Jesus calls his mother and his close friend into a new family:
25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)
This was just the beginning. Jesus died and rose again to create one new family made up of both Jews and Gentiles, one including people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation. Jesus died to bring people back to God and to bring people together in God’s great family. Those who are unrelated by birth are now family in Jesus – we are brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in Christ bound together in the one Holy Spirit united in one baptism and gathered around one table. As the apostle Peter puts it, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:10).
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So, how shall we respond? First, we can show love, kindness, graciousness, and gratitude to and for one another – whether we are children or mothers. We can strive to treat our own mothers as Ruth treated Naomi: with kindness and faithfulness. And we can strive to treat our own children as Naomi treated Ruth: with openness and gratitude.
Second, we can open our lives to others—others who are not related to us. We can strive to be open, showing hospitality to those who need a family. No one should be alone in the body of Christ. We are called to be brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers for another in Christ. This takes effort, intentionality, and sometimes overcoming fear, selfishness, and even prejudice.
Today is Mother’s Day. But for Christians, it is more than a Hallmark holiday. It is a church day. A day when we recognize and celebrate together our spiritual kinship together in Christ.
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Painting: He Qi, “Naomi and Ruth”