Mother’s Day, May 12 2013, The Book of Ruth, & Matthew 1:1-6
1:1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
Mother’s Day may have been created by the Hallmark card company to generate revenue, as the cynics say (actually that’s not true) but it has become much more than a crassly commercial day. Now, it is a special and significant day for most of us.
I know there are sad and even tragic exceptions, but most of us have positive memories
of our mothers. And although Mother’s Day is not a religious holiday, nevertheless, God’s work in and through mother’s has always been enormously important.
It’s not just that there have been significant mothers in the bible, it is also important for each one of us to have known a mother’s love. Some psychologists tell us that our sense that the world is a safe place where there is such a thing as love, and that we ourselves are worthy of being loved is the direct result of the loving care our mothers gave us as newborns.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on my mother’s lap as she read to me from a Childcraft book. It is a memory filled with love and security; relaxed happiness. The world was wonderful; my mother blessed me with that feeling.
We read the first part of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Most of the time Matthew only mentions the fathers, but there are four mothers who show up, like unexpected lumps in the mashed potatoes – we notice them.
There is an odd back-story in each case: Tamara had to disguise herself as a prostitute to become a mother. Rahab (or her namesake?) was already a prostitute when the spies entered Jericho. Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” was an already-married woman when David saw her and took her. Ruth was a foreigner; not just any foreigner though, she was from the hated, despised land of Moab.
There would have been no King David without three of these four unusual mothers, just as there would be no Jesus without another unusual mother: the unwed Mary.
These mothers all played crucial roles – which is, I’m sure, why Matthew included them in the genealogy. Each of them were part of odd plot twists, creating unexpected developments.
Ruth: the unlikely mother
Today let us look at the story of Ruth. The whole story reaches its climax when Ruth becomes a mother. This is the most unlikely thing that could have happened, given the way the story begins. But after a tragic start, through a series of happy coincidences, all ends well. Ruth becomes a mother, and so continues a family line that produces Israel’s famous king: David.
“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” so says Albert Einstein, in The World as I See It.
All of the names in the book of Ruth are part of this seemingly coincidental world. Coincidently in the time when the judges judged and there was no king, a man whose name means “God is king”, Elimelech, has a problem. He lives in the city called the “House of Bread” or Bethlehem, but there is no bread. He is forced to emigrate to the hated, despised land of Moab (lots of past history!).
There, his two sons, Sickness and Spent, or Mahlon and Chilion make matters even worse by marrying women from the hated-despised Moabites. The name of the one was “Back of the Neck”, Orpah, and the other was named “Friend” – Ruth.
The two brothers, Sickness and Spent die. Now, “Back of the Neck,” Orpah and “Friend” Ruth are widows, along with their mother-in-law “Pleasant,” Naomi. This is now time for Naomi to reach the only conclusion that the facts of her life allow her to draw: that she is cursed. She says, “the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” “Don’t call me Pleasant,” she tells people, “call me Mara, Bitter.”
She has nothing left to do but to return to her motherland, Judah, and to Bethlehem, the city of bread, where, as unlikely as it was a short time ago, now, there is again bread to eat. Orpah shows her the back of her neck as she returns to her “mother’s house” in Moab, but Ruth proves to be a true friend and stays with her mother-in-law Naomi.
You know the story, about how Friend Ruth goes out to glean and just happens to work in the field of Mr. “Strength” – or Boaz, who turns out to be a relative of Naomi’s deceased husband, Elimelech. Boaz, Mr. Strength shows enormous strength of character, doing the most unlikely thing: he decides to marry this despised Moabite foreign woman, Ruth, to allow the family line of Elimelech to continue. Ruth the friend becomes Ruth the mother.
There is more motherly care in this story than is immediately apparent. If you remember the story, you know the scene at the harvest festival when all the reaping and gleaning is over. After a night of celebration, when all are resting, Ruth sneaks over to where Boaz is sleeping, and when he discovers her beside him, it says:
“He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” (Ruth 3:9)
Literally, though we translate it “cloak,” she asked him to spread his “wing” over her. She was asking him to do for her what a mother bird
does for her chicks: spread out her wing and cover them, giving them shelter and security. “Be my mother-bird” she is asking, in effect.
Boaz knows that image of the mothering bird very well. When he had first met Ruth and learned that she had stayed with her mother-in-law, as a true friend, to help her survive, he said to her:
“May you have a full reward from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (Ruth 2:12)
Boaz was willing to be the mother-bird to Ruth, because he knew that Yahweh had been a mother bird to her already, spreading her wing of safety and protection over that young widow.
Some people are offended by speaking of God in feminine terms, calling God “mother” as well as “father” but we see that the mothering care of God is found in the bible, and is exactly what we need to believe, in order to know the nature of God’s loving care for us. God’s love is motherly love.
So, Boaz did spread his wing over Ruth; they married, and the “Friend” of “Pleasant” Naomi became the mother of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David. God used unlikely circumstances and uncanny coincidences to make a foreign woman the mother of the greatest king Israel ever knew.
Let us take a moment to notice one more unlikely feature of this amazing little story. With all of its attention to family lines and motherhood, this story seems to emphasize the importance of ethnicity. Five times when Ruth is mentioned, she is called “Ruth the Moabite” – and that’s in addition to the fact that the story told us they moved to Moab and the brothers married women from there. It is as if the author wanted us to think of the foreignness of Ruth as her most dominant feature.
Nevertheless, what Boaz commends her for, even in spite of her despised foreignness, is her lovingkindness shown to Naomi which he believes proves that Ruth has indeed come under the Lord’s mothering wing.
And again, in spite of her foreignness, Boaz takes Ruth under his wing as well. This story, that seems to be all about family lines and ethnicity, ends up turning ethnic purity on its head. In the end, David, the most significant king the nation of Israel ever knew had Ruth’s foreign blood in his veins. Not just foreign blood, despised Moabite blood! And that was God’s doing.
In the end, the overwhelmingly powerful love of a mother bird for her chicks is the best way to describe the Lord who arranged all of the unlikely coincidences of this story in order to show her mothering love to her people.
If there is any one characteristic of mothers it is the unconditional love they have for their children. No matter what condition they are born with, no matter what happens to them in life, a mother’s love sees only her child. No matter what that chick grows up to do or be, even ugly and horrible things cannot prevent a mother from loving. Even to the point of self-sacrifice.
When I was first in the world of the Hungarian Reformed churches of Romania I saw a remarkable symbol. In the churches, most of the pulpits are raised, which emphasizes the elevated importance of the proclamation of the scriptures. Above the minister’s head is what they call the “pulpit crown.” On top often is a carved image of a mother bird surrounded by her chicks. Her head is bent down, as she takes flesh from her own breast to provide food for them. It is a symbol of self-sacrifice, and so, a symbol of Christ, as a mother bird.
Let us notice how this happened in practice in the story of Ruth. Who sacrificed self in order to save Elimelech’s family line? Of course Ruth did. And so did Boaz. Boaz allowed his own estate to be split up so that Elimelech’s line would continue. Ruth’s son Obed, and then his son Jesse, and his son, David inherited land that Boaz could have kept for his own heirs.
Isn’t is often the case that the way God does God’s anonymous work in the world is through real people; people who are willing to practice the ethics of the imitation of God – the imitation of a mother bird.
We are all the recipient’s of God’s mothering love – first, for the majority of us, through the powerful sacrificial love of our own mothers, and then later through many people who took us under their wings at just the right time. Does God love us and care for us now? Yes, just like that mothering bird.
And we are all here for a purpose, just like Ruth and Boaz. We are not here on earth to look out for ourselves and our own kind alone. We are here to be the wings of love for others – not just others in our own family, our own race, our own nation. We are here to be the wings of love completely ignoring the racial or ethnic status of the ones in need, and completely willing, like Boaz, to ignore the cost.
A Practical Suggestion
Now, on this Mother’s Day, I have a practical suggestion. All over the world there are mothers who are raising children for whom they are the sole or primary bread-winner. Women around the world are growing or selling vegetables, managing bakeries or small shops, sewing, raising animals, and all kinds of cottage businesses in order to support their families. Often with just a small bit of capital, they can do much more. Sometimes a group of women get together with a plan to run a small business that will provide for all of them.
Now, through the modern tool of the internet and through the effective efforts of micro-finance groups around the world, it is possible for us to be the wings of love spreading out over real people in need.
Organizations like Kiva are a good example. Through Kiva you can select a person from pictures and descriptions, from around the world, make a loan of any size, and then track them as they put it to use and repay it. When the loan has been repaid you can take your money back, or re-invest it as another loan that you choose.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our conversations at church were something like this:
“How are your investments doing?”
“Great, my sewing business in Uganda has already paid back 50% of their loan, and my farming co-op in Guatemala has gotten off to a great start. How about your investments?”
This is just one example; there are a wide variety of ways we can be the wings of love over people, and by so doing, be the way God spreads wings of love.
Where are people at risk? Where are people in need? What are the resources God has blessed me with that I can use to bless others? What is my purpose in life? These are the questions that we ask ourselves on mother’s day from our blessed place, under protective wings.