Reprinted from the magazine Joyful Woman
The German poet, Goethe, called the book of Ruth "the loveliest complete work on a small scale." This intimate account of God's sovereignty and providence in the lives of two women is a still-frame in the unfolding drama of His sweeping plan of redemption and salvation. It's not often when one daughter-in-law is held in higher esteem than seven sons, yet that was the value of Ruth's love to Naomi in the eyes of the Israelite women (Ruth 4:15).
I wonder if the apostle Paul thought of these women when he instructed his trusted helper, Titus, in how various groups in the church must be taught to live (Titus 2). Paul clearly desired that older women live in "becoming holiness," so that they can be teachers of good things to younger women. Paul expected older women to disciple younger women in relationships (loving husbands and children), God-glorifying characteristics (discretion or self-control, chastity, goodness or kindness) and practical issues (domesticity). This is how sound doctrine instilled in women is supposed to be lived out in the eyes of unbelievers. Obviously, Naomi was fruitful in her discipleship of Ruth, because Ruth the Moabitess would not be deflected from her faith in the God of Israel (1:16), even when Naomi urged her to return to her people and her gods (1:15). She was also well taught in godly virtues, for Ruth's goodness and kindness preceded her — Boaz had already heard of her noble character before she even showed up to glean in his field on the first day. Naomi even wisely counseled Ruth on the fine points of the kinsman-redeemer courtship model, to which Ruth submitted and received a godly husband.
The mother-daughter relationship is the most basic example of feminine discipleship, and one that's easy to picture with young girls. But I think Ruth presents single adult women with the other side to consider. Though we may or may not have children to have relationships with, most of us still have relationships with our mothers. Scripture places a responsibility on children to honor (as in the Ten Commandments) and respect their parents (Leviticus. 19:3), and to avoid cursing or attacking them (Exodus 21:15-17). More specifically, Proverbs 23:22 says "despise not thy mother when she is old." If your mother is still alive, Scripture exhorts you to look after her physical needs, too, or else be labeled as "worse than an infidel" (1 Timothy 5:8). In fact, two verses later, Paul says that believing women with any widows in the family should help them and not let the church be burdened with them. Ruth fulfilled all these principles in her service to Naomi, which is why their relationship was so God-glorifying.
Though I have no data, from observation I think it is common for believing women to care for the physical needs of their mothers, and to shun cursing or attacking them. But the specificity of the command to not despise your mother when she is old should make us all stop and evaluate our relationships. Despise is a strong word, yes. It has elements of contempt, distaste, disdain, and scorn. More strong words. But if we break them down even further, we see that the Biblical sin categories of pride, self-righteousness, impatience and unconcern are at the root of these concepts. In light of that definition, it becomes easier to see how we can miss the essence of this command in every day life.
I once turned up my nose at a very generous offer from my mother solely on the basis of her age and that of her peers. When I was in my early thirties, my mother asked me to accompany her on an Elderhostel trip. My father was not interested in the excursion, so mom asked me to join her. Though the vacation itself sounded great, I was not thrilled about using my limited leave from work to travel with the senior set. (Also, in my vanity I was convinced there was no way I was going to meet an eligible young man on this holiday!) While I thought the Elderhostel educational program was a great idea, I was happy to wait my turn to take advantage of it. At the time, my reaction was all about me – I didn't appreciate the opportunity to spend my vacation time with my mother because I was being self-centered and not thinking of her desires. I believe she sensed my lack of enthusiasm, for she let the idea drop. A few years later, however, she asked me once again to accompany her on an overseas seniors-only trip with her siblings. This time, the Lord showed me what an amazing privilege I had to be able to enjoy my mother in good health, and to spend time abroad with my aunts and uncles. Though I had adjusted my attitude and looked forward to the trip, we didn't go. Instead, we spent her 70th birthday and the allotted vacation time at home as she recovered from her third surgery following a broken hip.
Now neither of us takes her good health for granted, though I'm glad to say she's recovered splendidly. In fact, we finally did get to vacation together. As I write this, I have the very slightest remnant of a tan from our recent trip to Florida. After all those years, we finally went on vacation together – and we had a blast! As long as my own memory holds out (more questionable with each passing day!), I'll never forget the conversations we had as we walked on the beach each morning — or as we walked to the drugstore each morning to purchase whatever item I just realized I'd forgotten to pack. One morning, I took time to draw her out about a particular weakness in my character, and her input helped me see how I can jump to conclusions in certain settings because of my pride. Another evening, I listened as she and her brother talked about their childhoods. These are topics I didn't pursue in my youth, but highly value now. I'm so grateful to God for the redeemed opportunities.
With age comes frailty of mind and body, and plenty of opportunity to be despised for weakness. As my mother and others in my life age, my prayer is that I will not disdain this season, nor would I neglect the teaching I've received from them. I want to grow in my sensitivity and my service. May we all emulate Ruth in her teachability, diligence, humility and care for Naomi, because her character and good works honored Naomi's discipleship and exalted the Lord.
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