In the fifth chapter of the first letter from Paul to Timothy, we come to an issue that is near to the heart of God, which is that of widows. The Hebrew Scriptures---the words that reveal the character of God, and which must be viewed through the event of the incarnation and the cross---are filled with words that speak to God’s concern for widows. Widows, along with orphans, were among the most vulnerable members of society, and the mark of the people of God was their proper care of widows (and orphans, though we’ll ultimately limit ourselves to widows for the sake of the treatment of Timothy). Indeed, it could be said that a driving force behind the judgments of God that rained down upon His people through the instrumentation of Assyria and Babylon, was Israel’s treatment of the groups of people to whom God had directed them to offer special concern and consideration. This group included widows. Therefore, we should not be surprised to find the issue of widows treated in the New Testament, as the church of the Christ sought to find its way in a culture that was quite dismissive of widows as those that had no place in the honor system, who were relegated to the margins of society, and whose existence, by and large, was going to be meager at best.
God’s passionate concern for widows, as revealed in the narrative tradition that was foundational for the covenant faith of Israel, is best summed up by James, as in the context of the early church’s grappling with the continuation of that narrative tradition and the re-shaping of that covenant faith around Jesus as Lord, he writes “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune” (1:27a). This has an added benefit of making it possible “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27b). There is a tendency to see this as a statement with a double directive, with the first directive concerning achieving a pure and undefiled religion being caring for orphans and widows, while the second directive is keeping oneself unstained by the world. Perhaps this is a false division? Perhaps it is time that Christians saw this as directive and consequence---action and reaction? Perhaps this statement by James follows hard on the directives and examples of the Hebrew Scriptures? Israel failed to care for the orphans and the widows, and therefore they became stained by the world around them. Had they cared for the orphans and the widows, and kept that at the center of their covenant-keeping, such staining would not have taken place.
At the same time, Paul does not romanticize widows, and does not unduly elevate them, as he still stresses the equality of the church and the need for all to be treated equally---this was the counter-cultural corrective to the usual treatment of widows. It stands written: “Honor widows who are truly in need” (5:3a). Unsurprisingly, Paul commences with the use of “honor” language. As we know, this goes far beyond treating them deferentially or simply respecting them, as talk of honoring widows affords them a status (a status that is to be shared by all, as all honor would ultimately be directed to the Lord that has subjected Himself to the greatest shame) which they would be unable to attain outside of the church. This is balanced with the “in need,” as Paul keeps the unity of the church body in view, always cognizant of the fact that the scale, owing to the social conditioning that is a component of human nature, can often be tipped too far to one side, with widows being afforded honor that is quickly converted to rank, status, and special privilege.
The “in need” is followed up with “if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty towards their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them” (5:4a). Here we note the mention of “their own household,” which is a contrast with the church body, which, owing to the fact that the gatherings of the church took place in private homes around a common meal, would be often referred to as a “household.” Though there would be no honor involved in caring for a widowed mother or grandmother, and especially because there would be sacrifice on the part of the children and the grandchildren, it is insisted upon that “this is what pleases God” (5:4b). Speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity indeed.