Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. – 1 Timothy 5:3-10
Well I am still tired from running the “Ephesian rapids“. That was a tricky stretch of river that required some discerning discipleship for sure. The “drought” of water passages here in the new testament continues as I floated right through 2 Thessalonians without encountering any water passages. We find ourselves in 1 Timothy today. This letter, although directed toward Timothy, was really for the church in Ephesus. So in a sense this is a circling back to rerun some of the same river covered in Ephesians.
The first four chapters of 1 Timothy contain many rapids and challenging teachings. I am not intentionally avoiding these treacherous waters, they simply did not contain references to water. Timothy was apparently a believer from the city of Lystra in Asia Minor. He had a Jewish mother who had become a Christian believer, and a Greek father. It is not clear to what extent his father was a believer, but his female relatives are mentioned in the two letters to Timothy. Their is apparently some debate about the authorship of the letters to timothy, but I will not wade into those waters.
Much of this letter has to do with Christian leaders and leadership, and in this passage specifically with caring for widows. What would seem to be inordinate details are provided about which widows are worthy of caring for and how that might happen. Presumably there was some confusion about which who should receive help and care. The approach being followed by the people of Ephesus was apparently to create a list of “worthy” recipients. It seems like if one were to ask Jesus which widows and orphans we should help he would say all of them.
The letter provides a puzzling preamble to a list of instructions about who and how to help: “Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame.” This is somewhat confusing to me. Why would helping the “wrong” people in the “wrong” way open up people to blame? I guess one possibility is that in helping some people and not others they were ultimately using their own experience and talents rather than trusting God and the Holy Spirit to guide them. I do not know. I guess I am of the opinion that we should love them all and let God sort them out. The instructions, in simplified form, are: 1) care and provide for your relatives and family; and 2) care for older widows who are actively helping and caring for others.
The first item makes sense from a pragmatic perspective. One would probably know the needs and how to help and care for one’s own relatives and family better than others who are not related. In the course of my work in Haiti over the last 14 years I have been impressed by the way the people of Haiti care for their families and extended families. This is extended globally by the Haitian diaspora that often send a significant portion of their earnings back to Haiti to help support friends and relatives. This focus on one’s family would seem to be somewhat at odds with Jesus’ redefinition of family to include anyone who needs our help or is seeking God.
The second item goes into excruciating detail about what a “good widow” is based on her actions and attributes which include: 1) over sixty years old; 2) faithful to her husband; 3) well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble; and 4) devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. This is where the water reference comes in with the inclusion of foot washing which Jesus demonstrated was one way we could show our love and care for one another.
I cannot shake the sense that this list of instructions is very inwardly focused. It seems to miss the messiah that healed and cared for all comers. I cannot imagine Jesus sitting around with the disciples compiling a list of people that were worthy of his love and care. What happened between when Jesus walked the beach to provide a window between worlds and these flawed followers in Ephesus trying to figure out who to help? I am not sure I have a good answer, but I think we struggle with the same problem that the Ephesians were trying to tackle. Who and how do we help?
This is especially relevant as many cities are trying to tackle widespread homelessness and hunger problems. Should we make “a list” of which homeless to help? I do not think that is the love and care we are called to provide. I do not have any easy answers to homelessness and hunger, but I know someone who does.
Prayer: God help us to love and care for all those who need our help.