Two Mothers-in-Law in Scripture
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?
What a beautiful selection!
I have been blessed with a kind and generous mother-in-law. She has been a wonderful role model of selflessness for our family.
Dear Kathleen, Yes, “selflessness” is the essence of our Christian faith, isn’t it? Thank you for responding! Sr. Melannie
Good morning, Sister. I wanted to let you know that appreciated this post. It’s one of my favorite movies. Congratulations on your recent anniversary of your religious profession. I am hopeful that a new book will be forthcoming soon.
Dear David, So you remember the movie of Ruth too! I saw it for the first time as a young nun. Then years later, I used to show it to my freshmen religion classes… I am currently working on a new book. Pray that the Holy Spirit inspires me! Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie
I, too, have been blessed with “in-law” relationships. I always got along with my mother-in-law, and am blessed with 3 wonderful daughters-in-law. Funny, you never hear about father-in-law/son-in-law relationships. Maybe women are just more open about their feelings – and that can be good, bad, or interesting!
Dear Jean, You raise a good question: about fathers-in-law and sons-in-law. I wonder if any men are reading this who can say something about their relationship with their father-in-law or sons-in-law… Thank you for making the observation, Jean. Sr. Melannie
I love the line in the song that says, “We will be together forever.” When I was in college I had a roommate that became a good friend. Our families had much in common. One day I said to her, “Someday we will be together forever.” Several years later she married one of my brothers and is now my forever sister-in-law.
Dear Janet, What a charming story! Your good friend became your sister-in-law! How nice! Thanks for responding to this blog! Sr. Melannie
I lost my mother-in-law much too young… She taught me how to cook and how to share love… She was only in her 50’s when she passed away. I think of her often and smile… Third grade educated, yet the wisest woman I’ve ever known!
Dear Patti, Your mother-in-law sounds like a fine woman. Yes, you were blessed to have her–even if for only a time. It seems as if she continues to influence your life even now… Thank you for sharing her with us. Sr. Melannie
My mother-in-law is a gift from God! My relationship with my own mother has many challenges, so I treasure my Mother-in-Law even more. She is a person who has been steadfast in her support and loving care for both my husband and me. I agree that there are people in our lives by birth and then there are those by choice. Her presence in my life is a happy and welcome choice.
Dear Karen, Yes, there are people in our lives by birth…and those who are in our lives by choice. How lucky we are when we can welcome both individuals who are “given” as well as those who are “chosen.” Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie
Thank you for this reflection today. My mother-in-law was very caring early on in my marriage, however as I was having babies, she was starting to suffer from Alzheimers. It was heartbreaking to go through this with my husband; as he says, we lost her little by little.
I have been blessed with some very dear sisters-in-law, and some that are challenging.
Finally, I am looking forward to becoming a mother-in-law myself as my daughter is engaged, and I am already enjoying my relationship with her fiance.
Dear Kathy, How sad it is to lose a loved one to Alzheimers “little by little” (as your husband said). I have two great sisters-in-law… And I’m glad you already are enjoying your daughter’s fiance. God bless all of you! Sr. Melannie
Dear Sister Melannie,
As we age, we lose our relationships one-by-one. But seventeen years after my mother-in-law’s passing, I still miss her most of all. Since I can’t sit and talk with her or my beloved grandmothers anymore, instead, they have become part of my grandmother litany. Asking for their intercession, together with family grandmothers that I didn’t even know, keeps them close as I pray for our three wonderful daughters-in-law, sons, and their precious little ones.
God is good; His blessings abound. God bless you. Joanne
Dear Joanne, I really agree with you about the sadness of losing so many friends as we age. But I like the way you still “talk” with your wonderful mother-in-law and grandmothers… Yes, God is indeed good… Thanks for show us this through the examples from your own life! Sr. Melannie
This song reminds me of a very special aunt who sang this at my wedding 38 years ago. So beautiful thank you! God bless!
Dear Mary, I’m happy that this song recalled your wedding and your “very special aunt.” The words are really lovely. .. So glad to hear from you! Sr. Melannie
These thoughts and this song, touched me deeply, I had a wonderful mother-in-law and am mother-in-law to 3 now. I’m also in touch with 2 former daughters-in-law, one of whom is very close and one whom I keep in touch with because of 3 of our grandchildren. She still thinks I’m wonderful. I’m so happy I came across your web-site a while back.
Dear Kathleen, I’m glad the song touched you. And what a blessing to have had a wonderful mother-in-law and to still keep in touch with two former daughters-in-law… We all could use a few people in our lives who think we’re wonderful!… Thank YOU for reading this blog and for responding! Sr. Melannie
This is my first comment, but I have been enjoying your weekly comments. I too have a wonderful relationship with my mother in law,
and terrific daughters in law. Someone commented about father in law/
son in law relationships. My husband has always had a great relationship
with our sons-in-law. I’m so thankful that my children and their spouses
get along as truly one family.
Dear Anne, Thank you for your comment and for sharing your own personal experience as a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. How fortunate it is that your husband has a great relationship with his sons-in-law too… You said this was your first comment. I hope it’s not your last! Thanks again! Sr. Melannie
My dear Sr.Melannie, what a beautiful way you have brought out the wealth of a daughter in law. Once I did bibliolog with this story and I realise the beauty and richness of Ruth.
I always look forward to your sunflower seeds.
Dear Roshini, Thank you for responding and sharing your love for the “beauty and richness of Ruth.” Readers: Sister Roshini is a Sister of Notre Dame originally from India. She has served in Tanzania and now is in Nairobi, Kenya. What a beautiful and rich life she has lived! Sr. Melannie
Thank you! I always find something wonderful in your meditations.
Dear Linda, It’s responses such as yours that encourage me to keep writing this blog! Thank you very much! Sr. Melannie
Dear Sister Melannie, What a beautiful tribute to Mother-in-laws. I have a great mother -in- love . We preferred to refer to each other in those terms. She lived to be 96 and was one special woman. I feel so blessed to have had her in our lives for so many years. I am also very blessed with two daughters -in -love. God is so good and that is one of my most favorite songs. Thanks for your inspirations. Blessings, Jeannette
A beautiful tribute to Mothers-in-love which was our preferred term.Mine lived to be 96 and she was awesome. 2 great daughters-in-love too. Love that song. So blessed. Thank you
My mother in law is a gift to the world. She was left at age 30 to raise 6 children on her own. Her husband left her for someone else. I do not know to this day how she made it. With all the hurt and pain she endured, she still believes in the holiness and sanctity of marriage, the way God wanted marriage to be. She had a Christian love beyond all measure. She will be 87 this October and she is still my best friend and confidante. She is always there with a smile on her face and her eyes that sparkle. Barbara D. MA