Being a nun, I’ve never had a mother-in-law. So I’ve never experienced firsthand the joys and challenges of such a relationship. But I have heard many mother-in-law jokes. And I have read about two mothers-in-law in scripture. In the jokes, the mother-in-law often fares badly. But in the two examples in the Bible, the mothers-in-law come out looking good. (This post is based on reflection #96 in my book, By the Way: 100 Reflections on the Spiritual Life.)
The first instance is found in the book of Ruth. Many of us are familiar with the story. Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons emigrate from Judah to Moab due to famine. Their two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah (not Oprah as some of my students thought!) and Ruth. Eventually Elimelech dies along with his two sons. We are not told how.
Naomi decides to return to Judah and tells her two daughters-in-law to remain in Moab, where they will find new husbands. But Ruth refuses to stay. She says those words to her mother-in-law that are among the most beautiful in scripture: “Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” The words are often read or sung at weddings.
Once in Judah, however, Ruth is discriminated against because she is an alien, an outsider, a non-Jew. Naomi, on
the other hand, treats her with nothing but love and tenderness. (In the 1960 movie version, Naomi is played by Peggy Wood, the perfect choice!) Ruth helps to support her widowed mother-in-law by gleaning grain in the fields. It is while gleaning that she meets Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman and the owner of the fields. They eventually fall in love and marry.
The payoff of the story is the genealogy at the end of the book: “Boaz was the father of Obed, Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David.” David, of course, is the great king of Israel. What’s more, he is the ancestor of Jesus himself. One of the lessons of the story is that God welcomed non-Jews like Ruth into the Plan of Salvation. A question for us today is: how welcoming are we to aliens, outsiders, and people of other faiths?
The other mother-in-law is Peter’s. Her story is told in three short verses. Jesus comes into the house of Peter only to find that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick “with a fever.” Jesus approaches her, grasps her hand, and helps her up. The narrative concludes: “Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”
We know practically nothing about this woman except that she lived with Peter, she was loved by the people who
knew her, and she had the great privilege of holding Jesus’ hand. What’s more, when the fever left her, she immediately began to serve the people gathered in the home—an action we assume was typical of her. (By the way, my friend Sr. Kathleen Glavich, has written a novel entitled The Fisherman’s Wife, an imaginative story of St. Peter’s wife. You might want to check it out.)
The mother-in-law relationship is an interesting one. We marry a particular man or woman and we get additional relationships like our spouse’s mother and father. I have known many individuals who cherish their in-laws. My sister, for example, always says she has the best three daughters-in-law anyone could ever ask for. There are other relationships that are simply given to us by “fate.” These too can enrich our lives: nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, second cousins, neighbors, colleagues, and friends of all kinds.
Today might be a good day to reflect on those individuals given to us by the circumstances of our lives. If we struggle with some of these relationships, we can ask God for patience and understanding. If we thoroughly enjoy some of these relationships, we can thank God for putting these individuals into our lives.
Today’s song is “Wherever You Go” by Weston Priory. In this video the words of Ruth are set against various illustrations from the Bible story. In the middle of the song is a spoken narrative about loving relationships that are a part of the fabric of our lives.
Have you been blessed with any good in-laws, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces. nephews, cousins, grandchildren, neighbors, colleagues, and friends of all kinds? Would you like to tell us about one of them?