We all have someone in our lives with whom a close relationship seems impossible. Maybe it’s a sibling, a parent, a child, or even a spouse. For whatever reasons, we just can’t seem to get along. Outside of our families, most of us have other difficult relationships-with bosses, neighbors, business associates, coworkers, clients.
In the New Testament book of Ruth, we meet a couple of women who model an extraordinary, highly unlikely relationship. They’re in-laws (Ruth married one of Naomi’s two sons), and by the fifth verse of the book, both women are widows.
There are a myriad of reasons why these two women never should have hit it off. They faced some or all of the following obstacles:
- The in-law problem. Tension between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is a real phenomenon in every culture and era.
- Age difference. The generation gap is also real in every culture and era.
- Culture difference. Naomi was an Israelite; Ruth was a Moabite.
- Religious barriers. Ruth possibly grew up worshiping the god Chemosh. This would have been reprehensible to a monotheistic Israelite like Naomi.
- Class struggles. Some scholars think the description of Naomi’s family as “Ephrathites” (Ruth 1:2) means they had been part of Jerusalem’s high society. If Ruth was from the working class, you can imagine the potential for conflict.
- Economic hardship. Life for widows is rough in any culture. It was especially difficult then. Many ended up begging or turning to prostitution.
Yet with all those strikes against them, Ruth and Naomi forged a close and loving relationship. How?
Mostly what sticks out is Ruth’s unusual commitment: “Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God” (Ruth 1:16). This classic statement, so often quoted at weddings, was originally made by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law. Isn’t that ironic? Many people do everything they possibly can to avoid their in-laws even when their spouses are alive! But here is a woman who committed herself irrevocably to her mother-in-law after her husband was dead and buried. It is this kind of head-scratching commitment that can turn potentially bad relationships into blessed ones.
The unselfishness Ruth and Naomi shoed in looking out for one other is admirable (Ruth 1:7-14; 2:18) At crucial moments, each one’s greatest concern was not “What do I need or want?” but “What would be best for you?” Such a selfless attitude led to acts of kindness. At one point Ruth announced she would gather grain for the two of them (Ruth 2:2). It’s an act of service that’s all the more amazing when you realize it followed right on the heels of Naomi’s extreme insensitivity toward Ruth (Ruth 1:19-21). Ruth had just pledged her lifelong commitment to Naomi and accompanied her back to Bethlehem. In response, Naomi moaned about how empty and bitter her life was. Ruth might have thought, “Thanks a lot! What am I? Chopped liver?” But she was understanding and relentlessly kind. The next day she was out gathering food for her mother-in-law.
In the great story of God, the sparkling behavior of the Moabite Ruth is meant to contrast with the faithlessness of the Israelite people. Ruth is blessed because of her actions. In her new home of Israel she became the wife of Boaz, the great-grandmother of King David, and part of the lineage of Christ. On an interpersonal level, her life shows how it’s possible to build relational bridges instead of relational walls.