Hope for Dysfunctional Families

Is your family dysfunctional?

Honestly, whose isn’t? It’s not really a “yes” or “no” answer. It’s more like a continuum.

You might be smiling and laughing, thinking, “Yep, we’re dysfunctional, alright!” You take a little pride in your crazy uncle or eccentric aunt. You’re putting the “FUN” in dysfunctional.

Others of you are cringing a bit because you’re family dysfunction isn’t fun. Maybe you have a mother who gossips about everyone or a father who cares more about what’s on TV then what’s going on in your life. Maybe you have a brother who gets irrationally angry or a sister who’s constant drama. At its best, it’s frustrating.

Then there are those of you that maybe even started to tear up as you read this. It’s not funny at all. You’d settle for frustrating. But for you, it’s painful. There are far too many memories of unfulfilled promises, abuse, separation, or abandonment. Maybe the pain is more than just a memory. It’s a present reality.  

Whatever your level of family dysfunction is, we can all find hope in this story of family redemption.

Naomi’s Story

Along time ago in a land far away, a certain man named Elimelech (Eli for short) left his home town of Bethlehem, in the country of Judah, because there was a severe famine. He took his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion and went over to the country of Moab, just to the east on the other side of the Dead Sea. There was plenty of food there in Moab and things were pretty good. That is until Eli died and Naomi was left alone in a foreign land with her two young sons.

Now for a woman of this time to be left without a husband would almost certainly mean impending doom. Women of this era, like Naomi, had no means of providing for themselves in an Agrarian society. She could be left destitute, resorting to a life of prostitution or begging on the streets if no one married her again. Luckily for her, she has two able-bodied sons who can provide for her needs. These two sons each married a Moabite woman. One married Orpah (trivia: this is who Oprah Winfrey was named after but no one could pronounce it so they started calling her Oprah) and the other married a woman named Ruth. The five of them lived together as a family, farming for a living.

Now before we go on, I need to say a word about this country, Moab, and its people. In the Bible, Moab is known as a land of sexual indecency, apostasy, and idolatry. Indeed, the Moab people began as a result of an incestuous relationship between Abraham’s nephew Lot and his own daughter. I guess you could say they were dysfunctional from the start. What’s more: Jewish Law said that no Moabite would be welcomed in the Israelite community even after ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:3). Wow! That’s harsh. And this is where Naomi, the Israelite, now finds herself. And her two sons have delved head-first into the “dysfunctional” culture of Moab by marrying local women.

As it turns out, these women are so dysfunctional that they can’t even have children – the ultimate sign of a woman’s worth and value at the time. Both of them go ten years without having a single child between them; then, tragically both of their husbands die; both of Naomi’s sons. Now the three women are all left helpless and alone without husbands or sons to take care of them. Not a good situation to be in at the time.

The brunt of the tragedy is absorbed by Naomi. She has not only lost her primary caregiver – her husband, but her two secondary providers, as well (her sons). In addition, she has lost the possibility of having any grandchildren that could bring her joy and provide for her in the future. You might say her situation is pretty bleak, hopeless, and helpless.

Not really sure what to do or where to turn, Naomi decides she’ll head back to her homeland. After all, the famine is over there. Maybe she can at least participate in the Hebrew welfare system by picking the grain off the ground that the harvesters leave behind. Figuring maybe that there’s strength in numbers, Naomi’s two recently widowed daughters-in-law begin the trip back to Israel with her. But soon after they begin their journey, Naomi realizes, “I can’t go home with these two outsiders. My people will run us all out of town. My chances are much better without them.”

So Naomi puts on a good face: “You ladies run on home now. There’s nothing for you in my homeland. Go to your home and marry Moabite men. May the Lord bless you for your willingness to come with me.” Then they all break down and cry, kissing and hugging – you know, the way women do.

But the Moabite women won’t be gotten rid of so easily. “No,” they persist, “we want to go with you to your people.”

“Oh, come now, don’t be silly,” Naomi answers back. “What can you possibly gain by staying with me? I don’t have any more sons for you to marry. And I’m too old to marry again and have more sons. And even if I could, would you wait around for them to grow up so you could marry them? That’s preposterous! The Lord has made me bitter by causing me such great suffering, but you need not be a part of it. You still can have a future with your people. But my fate is sealed. So go on now. I’ll be alright; alone with my tears.”

Again the three women cry and kiss and hug (you know, the way women do). And this time Orpah takes the bait. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right,” she says. “See ya later.” And she takes off.

Naomi then looks at Ruth. “Well? Your sister-in-law is ‘splitsville,’ so why don’t you do the same?” But Ruth’s not budging.

“Go on, now,” Naomi persists. “You run along, now, you hear?”

Still Ruth won’t move.

“Get going!” Naomi urges a third time.

Finally, Ruth breaks her silence. “Look, I’m not leaving you, okay? So don’t ask me again. Wherever you go, I’m going. Wherever you live, that’s where I’m pitching my tent. I’m no longer a Moabite. I’m an Israelite. I’m forsaking my gods for your God. If you’re going to die, then I’m going to die with you… and they’ll bury me in your land, not mine!”

Now, I know Ruth sounds a little bit like a stalker, but it’s really extreme loyalty! For whatever reason, she’s stuck like glue to her mother-in-law, and like a faithful puppy, she’s going to follow her around wherever she goes. Orpah may be easily dissuaded, but not Ruth. She’s in this thing for the long-haul.

Naomi finally understands this and she stops trying to get rid of her, and the two continue on to Naomi’s hometown, Bethlehem.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, the entire town is a buzz. “Is this really Naomi?” they ask. “We haven’t seen her in years. And what’s she doing with that Moabite outsider? She should know better than to show up after all this time with a forbidden foreigner! What nerve!”

“You know what?” Naomi tells the people. “There’s no amount of criticizing or ostracizing that’s going to bother me any more than I’ve already been bothered. I’ve lost my husband and both my sons. I’m no longer the “pleasant” Naomi (for that’s what “Naomi” means) you once knew. Now I’m “bitter.” So call me “Mara” (for that’s the name for “bitter”).”

Whoa! Watch out! Perhaps this is the origin of the saying: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

Hope for Dysfunctional Families

You know, sometimes being a mother or a father isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it’s really, really hard work. Sometimes it’s frustrating, disappointing and downright hurtful. Perhaps sometimes the disappointment and pain leads to bitterness. Sometimes you set out on life’s journey pleasant and full of life, only to come back empty and jaded by the trials along the way. That was certainly the case for Naomi. And maybe that’s the case for you, as well.

Maybe your son or brother married a woman who’s “not from around here.” She doesn’t know our culture. She doesn’t get your family. She’s a little rough around the edges. Maybe your daughter or sister married a man who doesn’t like hanging out with your family. He skips most of the family gatherings and when he does show up, you wish that he wasn’t there.

And sometimes being a daughter-in-law or a son-in-law is really difficult. No matter how hard you try to make inroads in the family, you’re still seen as an outsider. You’re never truly accepted and welcomed in.  

Whether you are a bitter mother or a scorned daughter; an angry father or a rebellious son; there is HOPE.

First Peter 4:8 says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

Love also heals many hurts.

Love can make bitter people pleasant again.

It’s the undeserved love and loyalty from an unexpected source that heals Naomi’s deep wounds, and turns her bitterness into joy. Though she constantly tried to refute Ruth’s faithful love, Ruth would not be deterred.

It is this faithful love that causes others to say to Naomi in the end, “Your daughter-in-law has been better to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15).  That statement in a society where women are completely dependent upon men for survival is perhaps the highest praise for the unremitting love shown by Ruth to her mother-in-law. Ruth gave everything she had to care for her mother-in-law – to heal her wounds.

Everyone has an outsider in their family – a sister-in-law, cousin, uncle, etc. Maybe the outsider is you.

Ruth was the outsider in her family, but she wasn’t content to stay on the outside-looking-in. It wasn’t her “job” to care for her mother-in-law. She certainly had no obligation to do so. She could have easily abandoned her mother-in-law and just looked out for herself. But she didn’t. She was determined to love her bitter mother-in-law to the bitter end.

Just because you’re an outsider doesn’t mean that you can’t show love to insiders. You don’t have to be loved before you can love others.  

Like Naomi, none of us deserve the love poured out to us by God through Jesus Christ who became nothing so that we could have everything.

If a simple Moabite woman like Ruth would not be deterred, how much more will Christ not be deterred. “Where you go, I will go,” he says. “Where you live, I will live. Even through the darkest nights and the longest days; through the frustration, disappointment and pain, I will be there until the (bitter) end. Nothing can separate us!”

It is the faithful, unremitting love of Christ that can heal any wound – even the wounds left by a dysfunctional family.

Whether you are an outsider or an insider in your family, God calls us all to be redeemers.

Ruth redeemed Naomi with her relentless love and Ruth herself was redeemed by a husband (Boaz) who gave her a son (Obed). Obed became the grandfather of King David – the greatest king in the history of Israel – whose royal genealogy leads all the way to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Ruth redeems Naomi and Boaz redeems Ruth and CHRIST redeems ALL.

Unexpected love from an unexpected source reaps exceptional results.

So the next time you think it’s not your problem, or not your concern to care for someone else, remember Ruth. It could very well be through you that God blesses another, yourself, and perhaps the entire world.

Love makes even bitter mother-in-laws pleasant again.

(Read the whole story in the book of Ruth in the Bible)

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