Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Widows (part 2 of 3)

In contrast to the widow that has children or grandchildren, “the widow who is truly in need, and completely on her own, has set her hope on God and continues in her pleas and prayers night and day” (5:5).  As part of the non-romanticizing of widows, on the other hand, “the one who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (5:6).  Here, it is necessary to make a further point about honor and shame, in that shame was equivalent to death.  So an interesting construct has been created.  Paul insists that widows that are truly in need be honored, which will include her receiving the support of the church body and their meeting all of the necessities of her life, which is contrary to cultural norms.  This has been tempered with a call to duty for children and grandchildren of widows to live sacrificially, in accordance with the demands that God has placed upon His covenant people.  Paul then revisits the widow that is truly in need, who should be on the receiving end of the honor that would not normally come to her, pointing out that part of her commendation stems from her continuation in pleas and prayers, contrasting that with the widow concerned only with the pursuit of pleasure (Epicureanism?), who is already dead (shameful).    

To this is added, “Reinforce these commands, so that they will be beyond reproach” (5:7)---reproach being a term of honor versus shame, as conceptions of honor and shame are reworked and appropriately retooled within the church.  Though the church community will not be structured by perceptions and assignments of honor and shame, Paul very much desires the community of the covenant of faith to develop new and revolutionary ideas in regards to that which is truly honorable and deserving of honor, and of that which is shameful and deserving of shame.  To that end, he insists that “if someone does not provide for his own, especially his own family, he has denied the faith,” the mark of the covenant that is calling Jesus Lord, with all that is implied thereby, “and is worse than an unbeliever” (5:8).  For the body of Christ, there could be no greater source of shame.    

Having placed new parameters around honor and shame, especially concerning widows and the response to widows, Paul then goes on to present his thoughts concerning the same in a way that is not entirely dissimilar to what he has done earlier in the letter with overseers and deacons.  In a sense then, it is almost as if Paul is creating “widows” as a position in the church, which he knows will result in the appropriate amount of honor coming their way.  Again, this stands in opposition to the culture, which was generally dismissive of widows, and which left widows to what was going to be a harsh and miserable existence.  So,  just as Paul has offered directives concerning the role and the requirements pertaining to overseers and deacons, he does the same for widows.  To that end, we read “No widow should be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (5:9a), which would be quite old in a day and age in which life expectancy was much, much lower.  This restriction is extended, as Paul adds, “was the wife of one husband, and has a reputation for good works” (5:10a), which is the language of public benefaction, extends beyond service in the church, and does not carry any connotation whatsoever in relation to performance-based righteousness or the attainment of salvation, “as one who has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of saints, helped those in distress---as one who has exhibited all kinds of good works” (5:10b).  This should give each of us pause, causing us to question our own efforts towards that which is here defined as good works (as it matches up well with the words and actions of Jesus), especially as Paul makes the point of using “good works” twice in relation to these things.

In contrast, Paul adds the instruction to “not accept younger widows on the list,” presumably those concerned with pleasures, “because their passions may lead them away from Christ and they will desire to marry, and so incur judgment for breaking their former pledge” (5:11).  Clearly, with these harsh words, Paul has specific individuals in mind, much like was probably the case with the restrictions placed around the qualifications for overseers and deacons.  Talk of the widows that have been the wife of only one husband, combined with this talk of desire to marry and judgment for the breaking of pledges, dovetails with Paul’s insistence that overseers and deacons be the husband of only one wife, and should probably not be read in isolation from each other.  Taken together, all of this lends itself to the idea that there were certain individuals in the church that were attempting to elevate themselves or to create a hierarchy within the church, and Paul would not have this in the church of Christ.  With such things in mind, we can hear Paul continue his condemnatory words, not speaking in generalities in the least, and writing “besides that, going around from house to house they learn to be lazy, and they are not only lazy, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things they should not” (5:13).  Apparently, Paul is attempting to shame somebody, as this is a far cry from “one who has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of saints, helped those in distress---as one who has exhibited all kinds of good works.”     

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