More Than Seven Sons: How Ruth Teaches Us to Care for Our In-Laws

Sitting in my in-laws’ living room, I felt a fresh conviction from the barley fields of Bethlehem.

If you’ve read through the four homely chapters of the book of Ruth, then you’ve no doubt taken note of God’s providential provision, his surprising sovereignty, and the messianic anticipation woven throughout this little book in the Bible. Certainly, those themes should be foremost in our thinking when we read Ruth. How else do you explain a Moabite widow nestled into David’s ancestry but by God’s mysterious, guiding hand? And, as others have noted, Naomi features prominently in the narrative as the recipient of God’s providence, whether through a famine, through a redeemer, or through a grandchild.

But I’d like to offer one more application from the book of Ruth that has been precious to me in recent days. Ruth teaches us that godly, loyal love will compel us to care for our in-laws, or more broadly for our families.

The narrator of this tender short story means for us to see both Ruth and Boaz as living examples of the kind of loyal love (in Hebrew hesed) the Torah commanded. They stand in stark contrast to their setting, the selfish days of the judges, and epitomize the statute to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Boaz follows the law, in spirit and letter, to provide food for the sojourner and the widow (Deut 24:19-22). And Ruth, by all appearances, does everything she does to provide for her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi.

It’s Ruth’s example that I want to highlight so that we might consider how a loving son- or daughter-in-law cares for his or her in-laws. I don’t know what your situation is, whether you have in-laws, and if you do, whether they’re more out-laws than in. But I trust that these principles of familial, loyal love that we see in Scripture will encourage you to love your family with more sacrificial, Christ-like love.

Here are three ways that Ruth teaches us to care for our in-laws.

Ruth teaches us to embrace our in-laws

As the story begins, a triple tragedy strikes. Three early graves, three grieving widows, and three women looking for “rest” (Ruth 1:9). Naomi tells her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to leave her and go back to their families in Moab where they would no doubt find a warm welcome and maybe even a husband (1:8-13). Orpah, understandably, returns. Ruth does not. The narrator tells us that Ruth “clung to [Naomi].” (1:14)

What Ruth goes on to say in her famous speech explains what her physical embrace represents.

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (1:16-18)

It would have been so simple for Ruth to just go home to Moab. Surely staying with Naomi would be costly. Ruth would likely have been tempted to let her Jewish mother-in-law fend for herself back in Bethlehem. But she doesn’t abandon Naomi, and her reason is that she has decided to embrace her mother-in-law as her own. They say blood is thicker than water, but Ruth proves that love is thicker than blood.

Consider your own family. Are there those from whom you’d like to keep your distance? Would it be simpler to just let them go their own way, to fend for themselves, to let them be someone else’s problem? But what does loyal love do? Our ultimate example is God, whose words Ruth echoes.

I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God. (Exodus 6:7)

Loyal love embraces those we are connected to, even if only by covenant and not by blood. Ruth refuses to treat Naomi as Mahlon’s mom but takes her as her own. Can we say the same in our families?

Ruth teaches us to provide for our in-laws

Notice that when Ruth and Naomi return together to Bethlehem, it’s Ruth who initiates the plan of provision, saying, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor” (Ruth 2:2). Ruth takes the lead in providing for her vulnerable mother-in-law.

Now, we don’t know Naomi’s situation entirely, so it’s hard to say what she could or could not have contributed herself. Maybe she was too old to go gleaning in the fields. Maybe she was afraid because, as she notes later, this is the kind of era where working in the fields could easily end in assault (2:22). It’s not clear either way.

However, what is clear is that Ruth doesn’t wait for Naomi to ask for help. She initiates and offers to provide, even putting herself in potential danger to do so.

Paul picks up on this provisionary family dynamic in 1 Timothy when discussing what kinds of widows should be financially cared for by the church. Paul delivers this strong rebuke:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8)

Did you catch the underlying principle? According to God’s common grace, even unbelievers realize that they should provide for their relatives. Ruth puts this principle into working boots.

Would you be willing to do the same for your family members? When your in-laws need help, do you offer it before they even have to ask? Are you eager to be generous with your family? Will you work hard to provide for your relatives?

Ruth teaches us to sacrifice for our in-laws

Now, you may be fine with Ruth’s example so far. “I love my in-laws, and I’m glad to take care of them whenever a need arises.” Wonderful. But Ruth takes this one step further, demonstrating the extent to which loyal love will go. Loyal love is also willing to make costly sacrifices.

Chapter 3 in the book of Ruth opens with Naomi suggesting that Ruth provide for herself by, essentially, asking Boaz to marry her. Commentators differ on how to take Naomi’s suggestion – I think it’s relatively innocent and not as suggestive as some want to make it – but the point is that Naomi is trying to care for Ruth, to help her find “rest” in the care of a husband (Ruth 3:1). Ruth, however, has a different motive.

After Ruth arrives at Boaz’s threshing floor, she uncovers his feet, wakes him up, and responds to his question with her request.

He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” (3:9)

Now, how you understand Ruth’s statement here depends on the bigger questions about whether you understand this to be a case of levirate marriage or not. Without getting into the weeds on that issue (that’s for another post), my understanding is that when Ruth says, “you are a redeemer,” she’s referencing Boaz’s redemption of the land, not only his marriage to her. And I think Boaz realizes that she is being motivated by a desire to provide for her mother-in-law because of his response:

And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. (3:10)

You should ask the question, “Kindness to who?” Well, what’s the first kindness? It’s a reference to Ruth’s return to Bethlehem with Naomi to care for her, which he already said he knows about (2:11). So, what’s “this last kindness?” Choosing to marry Boaz, an older man, rather than a young man, in order to secure the redemption of Naomi’s land (and family name) through that marriage (4:9-10). At least, that’s what Boaz says.

If all that is too complicated, then here’s a simplified explanation: Rather than pursuing a young dude to serve her own desires, Ruth pursues an older man because she knows that he can take care of his mother-in-law. At least in Boaz’s eyes, that was a meaningful sacrifice that once again demonstrated Ruth’s loyal love for Naomi. She was willing to choose the husband that most benefitted her mother-in-law, not necessarily herself. She was willing to sacrifice for her in-law. And because of Ruth’s self-sacrificial love, the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that she has found in Ruth a “daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons.” (4:15)

My guess is that you’re not going to find yourself in the midst of a land redemption/marriage contract situation quite like this, but there will be lots of opportunities in your life to sacrifice for the sake of your family. Where you choose to live, how you spend your time, whether you pick up the phone and call when you’re tired… those big family decisions and little passing moments offer us countless potential demonstrations of loyal love or of indifference. Of course, we need to weigh all things with wisdom, and I’m not saying that only people who live next to their in-laws are loving (I dearly love my in-laws and they live across the country). But I am convicted by Ruth’s powerful example to evaluate my own motives when making those decisions. Do I take my in-laws’ interests to heart? Am I willing to sacrifice to serve them over myself? In what ways am I actively demonstrating my love for my in-laws, my immediate family, and my relatives?

If gospel-driven love is self-sacrificial love (1 John 4:7-11), then Ruth gives us a foretaste of that love by doing the rather ordinary and hard work of caring for her mother-in-law. There are bigger issues in the Christian life than this, to be sure, but this one hits close to home, doesn’t it? Ruth challenges me to love my family practically, purposefully, and ultimately more like Christ.

Oh, to be a son-in-law who is more than seven sons!

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