The book of Ruth has a number of themes including redemption, fidelity and the message that God’s grace is open to everyone. However, I always associate this book with the challenges and promises of marriage. In particular, I like to reflect on the fact that Ruth delivers her moving declaration of loyalty to, of all people, her mother-in-law. Ruth’s words resonate most beautifully in the King James version.
And Ruth said, 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: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.
Why would the newly-widowed Ruth bind herself to a mother-in-law to whom, according to the custom of the day, she no longer need have any ties? The two women come from groups that practice different religions and have a history of enmity between them. Ruth the Moabite will return to Israelite Naomi’s home as an outsider, and not a very highly regarded one at that. In Ruth’s situation, I might have readily heeded Naomi’s advice, stayed in Moab and found one of my own kind to marry, an acceptable and understandably practical decision for that time.
But Ruth, clearly not the practical daughter-in-law, chooses to continue the relationship that her marriage opened up to her rather than retreat into her past. Ruth seeks ways to serve Naomi by suggesting that she glean in the fields. She follows Naomi’s instructions for presenting herself to the family kinsman, Boaz. Ruth illustrates for us what The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1609) has to say about marriage, that it “helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure and to open oneself to the other.” It is precisely to this other, in the person of her mother-in-law, that Ruth avows her loyalty.
In-laws. We don’t ask for them, but they come along with our spouse, an inherent part of the marriage contract whether we like them or not. At least initially, in laws have more in common with our spouse than we do. They not we share DNA with our spouse. They not we have spent years with our spouse, cultivating habits, shaping beliefs and sharing experiences. One could say that in the early days of marriage, each spouse, along with their respective families, is a bit of a foreigner one to the other much as Ruth was when she returned to Bethlehem with Naomi.
Under the happiest of circumstances, spouses and in-laws bridge this foreignness with genuine affection or at least mutual good will. In other cases, bridging the gap may take more time and effort. In unhappier cases the foreignness remains and even grows. The foreignness may run as deep as differences in religion or ethnicity, or it may stem from seeming superficialities as in the case of a friend whose husband told her that she didn’t fold the laundry the right way -- the way his mother did. Whatever the differences and however we handle our in-laws, they are almost always a factor to be reckoned with. Ruth demonstrates, though, that our in-laws come along with our spouse not to aggravate us, but to help perfect us. They represent one more call to overcome selfishness, one more opportunity to “open oneself to the other,” one more avenue for transformation through the sacrament of matrimony.
Husbands, of course, are part of the equation and must be open to the other as well. Boaz doesn’t fail in his responsibility. He demonstrates what it means to be a man, a protector and a loyal husband. As he has done since her arrival in Bethlehem, Boaz stands by Ruth, and acts honorably on her behalf. He behaves judiciously in fulfilling his social obligation to his clan. He marries Ruth, the foreigner, and together they redeem and perpetuate Naomi’s family line now transformed as a result of Ruth and Boaz reaching across a potential divide.
The Catechism (1611) cites the Book of Ruth as a “moving witness to an elevated sense of marriage.” Invariably, I find myself turning to Ruth when searching for that elevated sense of married life. Ruth shows the way. When she decides to follow Naomi, Ruth acts with a bold confidence tempered by obedience and charity to the family she married into. Despite the fact that Ruth no longer has a husband to serve, she remains keenly aware that upon marrying Naomi’s son, she married his family as well. For Ruth, husband and in-laws are one and the same, both deserving of love, loyalty and respect. Ruth shows us the extent to which we must go in marriage to embrace everything about our spouse including the family that comes with him or her, a message that echoes powerfully in Ruth’s eloquent and unwavering commitment to her mother-in-law.