It’s Wednesday 11th March, and I hope you are enjoying the fact that spring is on its way – the days are longer, the skies are blue, and the daffodils are blooming.
Our Bible reading today is 1 Timothy 5 vs1-8. These verses are the start of a chapter in which we find the most detailed instructions or guidelines given anywhere in the Bible about how the church should care for widows.
My mother was widowed in her early 30s, when I was just 7 and my brother was nearly 5. Although I was young, I have some very clear memories of the care and support that we received from the church during that time, and also of the way in which my grandparents played an even greater role in my life than they had done previously.
Prior to my father’s death, my mum did not go out to work, but instead had chosen to stay at home to look after her children. At some point – I don’t remember when – this changed and my mum had to get a job. As I grew up into adulthood, I also began to understand how things such as insurance policies and pensions had also been an important source of financial provision for the 3 of us.
Through her family, her church, and some degree of prior financial planning, my mother was cared for and supported as a young widow with 2 small children.
This is in stark contrast to the situation that a widow may find herself in at the time the New Testament was written. In Middle Eastern culture being a widow often, although not always, condemned a woman to destitution. There were no pension schemes and no state welfare benefits to help pay the bills, and with more people dying at a younger age, there were no guarantees that a widow would have surviving parents that she could return home to, or have children that might be able to look after her.
Widows therefore occupied a precarious and vulnerable position in society, and it was clearly very important to Paul that the churches that he and Timothy had started looked after widows well.
On one level, this should be of no surprise. In the Old Testament God is described as “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” However, what we see in these verses is not just Paul saying, “Look after widows because God says you should.” He goes much deeper than that.
He is saying that as Christians we should care for widows – or indeed orphans, or anyone else who is vulnerable, isolated, or lonely – because this is what the church of Jesus, operating as an inter-generational extended family is meant to look like and be like, and by living like this we are called to transform society.
How do we see this expressed in these verses?
Straight away in verse 1, it is clear that within the church we are meant to have real and genuine relationships with those older than us, and those younger than us. It is meant to be like a family. A place where young men and women can be raised up and discipled, and an environment in which those who are older can share their wisdom and invest in the next generation. We saw this in Monday’s podcast as well.
And just like in any other family there will be times when people annoy or irritate you. You might think some people’s ideas and opinions are outdated or old fashioned, or you might not understand why people would think or behave in the way that they do. My daughter thinks that she should get her ears pierced, her father doesn’t. I could give other examples, but my sons both listen to this podcast!
And so Paul reminds us that within our church family, we are not to speak harshly, or become impatient, but to honour and encourage one another.
The church is called to operate as a family, but one that lives differently from earthly families. There is to be respect and unity across the generations, and through our language and actions, we should all spur one another on to become more like Christ.
The second difference that should be seen in this spiritual family is that our relationships should be defined by absolute purity. This is an area where as a community, living differently; we are called to transform society. We should be people who say “Actually, no, I’m not going to have sex until I am married” or “No, I don’t want to watch porn on my phone”; and these choices are not about being prudish or repressed, they are about pursuing purity as the best way to live, and honouring God with our bodies and our thought life. Our society so desperately needs to see the family of the church living in this way.
Thirdly, we are to be a community where the lonely are set in families. In preparing this podcast, I was so moved by the verses in John 19, where Jesus at his crucifixion sees his mother standing near the cross and says to her and one of his disciples, “Woman, here is your son’, and to the disciple ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
Placing a widow within a family in Bible times could quite literally transform her life.
The church is charged with bringing about similar transformation today. Widows, orphans, the poor, those on the margins of society – the church is to be the extended family in which they are set, where they eat food around the table, are supported practically and materially, find love, acceptance and purpose; a place where their lives can be transformed.
And finally, we are to be a family that puts our faith into practice in our home. We can’t begin to live as a transformational extended family, if we are not living out these values within our own four walls, or with those we are closest to. If there are tensions, difficulties, or unmet needs within your family and relatives, how is God calling you to respond to this, and where can you bring the light of Jesus into these situations?
Heavenly Father, help us to properly recognise the needs of those in our church, and on the edges of our community. Help us to open our homes and our lives so that everyone can find a place of belonging, in a family that places you at the centre of all they do. Amen.
BIBLE READING: 1 Timothy 5:1-8
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
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.