Love, loyalty, and marriage

I love weddings.  Last Saturday, our family attended the wedding of a bride we had known since her childhood; I confess to getting a little teary-eyed as I watched a slide show of her youth.  And yesterday evening, I officiated the ceremony of two young people who were full of life and very much in love.

It’s my habit to ask couples if they have a particular passage of Scripture they would like to have read.  This couple chose a well-known passage from the book of Ruth:

Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!  (Ruth 1:16b-17, NLT)

The passage is personally significant to me; it was part of the wedding vows my son and daughter-in-law wrote to each other.  (My daughter-in-law started choking up when she read the vows aloud; after that, we were all glad to make it through the ceremony in one piece emotionally.)  Having another couple choose the same text gave me a perfect opportunity to go back, reread, and reflect.

The story takes place during the period of the Judges, a turbulent time in the history of God’s people.  A Jewish family from Bethlehem is forced by a nationwide famine to resettle in the land of Moab.  The family, a couple and their two sons, seems destined for tragedy.  Sometime after the move, the husband dies.  The two sons marry Moabite women.  Ten years later, both sons die also, leaving their mother, Naomi, in a rather precarious situation for a woman in a world of patriarchy.  She feels bitter and hopeless.

When Naomi receives word that the famine in Judah has ended, she begins the journey home, with her daughters-in-law Orpah (not “Oprah”!) and Ruth in tow.  She tries to convince them to stay in Moab, predicting that they would have no future in Judah.  Orpah eventually turns back.  But not Ruth.  The words above are hers: heartfelt and poignant words of unexpected and unbreakable loyalty to her Jewish mother-in-law, and to Naomi’s God.

You know the end of the story.  The two women return to Bethlehem, where Ruth eventually marries Naomi’s kinsman Boaz and bears a son, to the redemption of Naomi’s shame.  The boy Obed will turn out to be the grandfather of King David, a fact celebrated by the book’s ending:

This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:18-22, NIV)

Compare that to the parallel passage in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus the Messiah:

…Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.  (Matt 1:b-6, NIV)

Nearly all of the names in Matthew 1 are of men, as was the custom.  But five times, the mothers are also listed: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (referred to only as the wife of Uriah), and of course, Mary.  An unusual list, for each of these women had at least a whiff of scandal about them.  Ruth was a foreigner and a widow, which should have made her an outsider to God’s plan for the Messiah.

But apparently, Matthew wants to tell us, God likes to work in unexpected ways.

Ruth, of course, knew none of this.  She simply loved her mother-in-law.  The women of Bethlehem declared her to be worth more to Naomi than seven sons (Ruth 4:15).  And generations later, her selflessness would be woven into the tapestry of the genealogy of Jesus.

Why use Ruth’s words as part of a wedding ceremony?  At one level, it’s hard to imagine a deeper phrasing of a till-death-do-us-part kind of devotion.

But at another level, just as Ruth’s story of loyalty was providentially taken up into the story of Jesus, so too might every promise of love and devotion be taken up into the ongoing story of God and his kingdom.  A couple’s undying loyalty can and should be a reflection of covenant faithfulness, an embodiment of the sacrificial love of both Ruth and the crucified Messiah who would be her progeny.

May all weddings–all marriages!–be so.