We live in a new age, the age of grace, “not under law”. So surely all that teaching in the Old Testament about the importance of caring for widows doesn’t apply to us. Right?
And in any case, widows aren’t destitute anymore, they have social security, pensions, families willing to help them. So it all seems a bit academic to say that God makes the treatment of widows a high priority in our day.
Let me challenge that thinking.
The record of Jesus’ own practice, and the record of the early church, doesn’t substantiate the notion that care of widows should be a lesser priority today.
Jesus consistently treated the widows He encountered with respect and deep compassion, as the following examples illustrate.
We have Jesus restoring to life the deceased son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), even going so far as to make Himself ceremonially unclean by touching the bier that the body was lying on. He knew that without a living son, this woman would lose her land, her income, her rights, her protection, everything.
One of the last things Jesus did before expiring on the cross was to arrange for His mother Mary (undoubtedly a widow) to be cared for by the beloved disciple, John (John 19:26-27).
In Mark 12:40 (as in Luke 20:47) Jesus makes an astonishing public denunciation of the Scribes, accusing them of vanity and hypocrisy in seeking public recognition and honour, by praying long prayers for show, and by “devour[ing] widows’ houses… they will receive the greater condemnation.” How astonishing that this, the oppression of widows, is the primary sin for which Jesus condemns them as unfit to be spiritual leaders.
He then points out a poor widow who had come into the temple and put into the offering box her last two coins, leaving her utterly poverty-stricken. In context Jesus expresses His outrage at a religious system that would demand even the very last penny from a destitute widow, rather than reaching out to support her, to provide for her physical and material well being. Jesus mirrors the indignation of Yahweh who throughout the Old Testament had urged, no - commanded His people to look after those most downtrodden in society.
§ The Jerusalem Church
In the early church’s story, as recorded in Acts 6, there seems to have been quite a number of destitute widows who relied on the Christian community for meals. The local Hebraic Jewish widows were managing to get fed, but for some reason the Greek Jewish widows were being missed.
When the apostles heard about this problem, they decided to have seven Spirit-filled, wise men put in charge of the catering services. They recognized that this practical care of widows was equally as important as their own calling to prayer and teaching of the Word. And it equally required people to be ordained and set apart to this ministry, just as they themselves were called to the ministry of the Word.
§ Churches Founded by Paul in Asia
As Paul and the other apostles established fledgling Christian communities throughout the Roman provinces, one of the things they taught was practical Christianity, the kind of practice that made Christians stand out from the population around them.
Paul gives very detailed instruction in I Timothy 5:3-16 about the appropriate care of widows to Timothy, who had been appointed to teach local congregations how to govern themselves. As always Paul is clear and incisive.
The church evidently already had a list of widows whom they supported, and perhaps this list was becoming so long that the local church’s limited resources were being stretched too thin.
Paul first teaches that “proper recognition” is to be given to them, which stands in direct contrast to the shame and dishonor that most widows in developing countries experience today. Widows were not to be treated as second-class citizens in the early church.
Then Paul differentiates between those who had children or grandchildren who could and should be supporting the widow (v.4). Paul says that this is a rightful repaying of one’s parent for what she has done for the child. It’s the natural application of the law to “honour your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12).
In verse 8 Paul adds that anyone who fails to care for the widowed members of their family “has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever”. Strong words! But such is the heart of God toward widows, as we saw in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures; and Paul has clearly imbibed that conviction.
He is not only concerned that family members do what is right for the widow among their relatives, he’s also concerned for the reputation of the church among the pagan neighbours.
So he advises that widows who are younger than 60 should not be included on the list, since presumably they could remarry. In fact he recommends marriage for the younger widows since he feels that a life of celibate devotion would be hard for them to sustain.
The church should understand that its responsibility is to care for those widows over 60 who genuinely are needy because they have no children or relatives to support them. However Paul wants the widows (and the church) to understand that this isn’t a free meal ticket. Rather these should be women who have been known in the past to be honourable in their home life, looking after people in trouble, and “devoted to good deeds”.
That’s Paul’s directives for a certain time in history. If we look at the plight of widows in developing countries today, we’ll find that even those with children need to be cared for by Christians, no matter what their age. Younger widows with children have absolutely no means of support; while older widows in Africa, for instance, have had to take on the responsibility of caring for their own orphaned grandchildren plus other children as well. (Read about it in the Stephen Lewis Foundation introduction).
§ James to Christians of the Jewish Diaspora
The most succinct and compelling word about widows and our responsibility for them as present-day believers is in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The part about keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world resonates with our understanding of Christian living. But looking after widows in their distress? That seems a bit counterintuitive and less “spiritual”.
This takes us right back to the Hebrew Scriptures, where Yahweh reveals Himself repeatedly as the defender of widows. He’s the God who cares intensely about what is done to widows, orphans, foreigners, any who had no voice and no standing in Jewish society. And since Yahweh hasn’t changed, why should we find it surprising that He still makes this the acid test of genuine faith?
“Orphans and widows” of course is shorthand
for any who are marginalized and disenfranchised. And we live in a world where
the higher percentage of its 258 million widows live in abject poverty with
little to no hope of change. It has been said they are probably the single most
marginalized and abused group of people in the world today.
Therefore I think James would say to us, “You call yourself a Jesus follower? What are you doing about the misery and distress of widows? How are you expressing God’s heart of compassion toward them?
Does your compassion extend to widows, not just in your own church and community, but also to those in other countries who live lives of unimaginable horror?”
He would remind us that “pure and undefiled religion” involves doing something about the widows of our world.
Here are links to some other voices who challenge us to make care for destitute widows a part of our faithful discipleship.