Now, when one considers a daily distribution of food to widows, there is probably an idea of people going house to house, delivering meals to those that are shut-in and who are too old and frail to serve themselves. Though this may have been part of what was occurring, it is best to keep oneself culturally and historically grounded, while also keeping the regular assembly around the meal table front and center.
One must also bear in mind that, due to much shorter life expectancies, these widows could have been relatively young. Though this study will later be dealing with this in greater detail, it is possible to get a glimpse of the treatment of widows in the letter to Timothy (thus causing the reference to widows in Acts to have an even greater bearing on a study of Timothy), when Timothy is instructed that “no widow is to be put on the list unless she is at least sixty years old” (1 Timothy 5:9a).
As it relates to the physical capabilities of widows and to being sure that they are being viewed through an appropriate lens, Paul writes that there is a bit of a problem in widows “going around from house to house” (5:13a). In response then, Paul’s directive is “I want younger women to marry, raise children, and manage a household, in order to give the adversary no opportunity to vilify us” (5:14). More on this anon, but in that statement, widows are the “young women” and therefore the subject.
So again, one must put the idea of the frail, sickly, shut-in widow, who can barely lift her head or feed herself (though there were certainly some of these attached to the church), out of mind and see these widows referenced here and in Acts as capable and perhaps vibrant members of the community, who are able to participate in the regular table gatherings of the church.
That said, it is probable that it was at the coming together of the church around a common meal that these widows were being neglected in the distribution of food. If so, this sounds terribly like the situation that Paul addresses in Corinth, where he writes “when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it… Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:18,20-22a)
It becomes clear that the honor-based arrangements around the meal tables to which Jesus was regularly invited, and which He regularly criticized, were alive and well and being used at the meal tables of the church in Jerusalem. Widows, as would have been quite common owing to a lack of a living husband and therefore a lack of honor or even the ability to accrue honor (a wife’s honor was dependent on that of her husband), were being neglected---relegated to the positions in which they were served last.