Our passage from 1 Timothy this morning is a complicated one; there’s a lot here that Paul is just assuming, because Timothy already knows exactly what’s going on in Ephesus—but we don’t, and so there’s disagreement as to the exact situation Paul was addressing. Two things are clear, and then from there we sort of have to figure it out for ourselves. First, the church in Ephesus was committed to supporting its widowed members financially. Second, the false teachers in Ephesus had had a lot of success among the younger widows in the congregation. That much we know; the rest is disputed.
For my part, let me give you my best understanding of what was going on here. It seems clear that there was some sort of formal roll of widows in the church who were supported by the congregation; and from the language Paul uses, it appears that the widows on this roll were expected to devote themselves to the work of the church, such as they were able, and especially to prayer. It seems likely from verse 12 that they made some sort of pledge that if the church provided for their needs, they would dedicate themselves to the church. Some commentators have even gone so far as to describe these widows as ordained officers of the church; that’s too strong a statement for the evidence we have, but it does seem clear that they were working right alongside the deacons in ministries of service, whether they were officially ordained to that work or not.
Now, I can’t be sure, but this might give us insight as to why the false teachers in Ephesus had such success recruiting younger widows. It sounds like priority for support was given to older widows in the congregation—as Paul is clear that it should be—both because the older widows who lacked family support were in greater need, and because they showed greater spiritual maturity and stability; the younger widows as a group were less mature, and also much likelier to remarry and thus to come off the list. This doesn’t mean that the Ephesian church didn’t provide for younger widows to ensure their needs were met—especially if they had children to support—but that they didn’t have the same status as the older widows, and that their support wasn’t as high a priority. I suspect that some of the younger widows resented this, and that the false teachers played on their resentment to win their support; thus Paul feels the need to point out the behavior of some of the younger widows (who were taking advantage of the help they were receiving to live irresponsibly) to reaffirm the church’s policy in this area.
Now, there are two threads running through this passage, and we don’t have time to address them both this morning. The first is Paul’s concern for the behavior of some of the younger widows, who are following the false teachers and in consequence are acting in ways that make the church look bad; we’ve talked about this to some extent in the last few weeks. The second is new in this passage, and so that’s where I’d like to focus our attention this morning, as we also see here Paul’s concern that the church in Ephesus do the best possible job of providing for and taking care of those in their midst who were in need. This concern follows quite logically on Paul’s instructions to Timothy, which we considered last week, to train himself in godliness and to lead the congregation to do the same: one of the ways in which we do so, one of the ways in which we grow spiritu-ally and bear witness to the truth of the gospel, is to take care of our own.
There are several points to note here. One, the first responsibility for widows in the church belonged to their families, if they had families to support them. Partly, this was for financial reasons, to enable the church to use its resources as effectively as possible; after all, the church in Ephesus probably wasn’t swimming with money. This is an issue we deal with as well, as we have money to use to meet people’s needs, but we don’t have enough to do everything for everyone—especially in the current economy; we have to think about how much we give, and to whom, and for what, to make sure we don’t just run through the money we have. It’s hard, since we don’t know what needs are going to come down the pike a week from now, or a month, or three months. That’s a tough call to have to make, to say, “We can do this much and no more”; to be able to do that consistently, you have to set up guidelines. For the early church, this was one of them, that the priority for church support went to widows who didn’t have families to support them.
Beyond the financial reason for this policy, though, is a deeper reason: it’s a religious duty, it’s our Christian obligation, to provide for family members in need, and especially if it should be our parents who are in need. You might think that’s strong language, but that’s exactly Paul’s language. It’s ironic in a way; Christianity was accused in its early days of undermining the family structure, since it called people to honor a higher authority than their parents (or, for that matter, the government). Here, Paul proves the falsehood of that charge, coming down hard on people within the church in Ephesus who were neglecting their responsibility to provide for their parents. People who don’t take care of their relatives, and especially their immediate family, Paul says, are worse than unbelievers—since after all, those outside the church at least accepted this responsibility, whatever else they got wrong; and in acting worse than the world, worse than those who have no faith in God, they have rejected their duty to God and effectively denied the faith. That’s how serious a thing it is to refuse to take care of those who have taken care of you, to whom you owe responsibility as your family.
Now, for those who don’t have children, grandchildren, or other family to support them—or whose family is outside the church and has rejected them—that responsibility passes to the congregation; and as we’ve noted, Paul spends a little time here on how this responsibility ought to be handled. One main consideration, of course, is financial, as the church should give the greatest help to those in the greatest need; that’s only logical. Along with that, however, Paul is concerned with the spiritual state of these widows, and their commitment to the church. This again was probably in part to focus the church on helping those who were truly its own, rather than having people drift into the church just to get help, with no real interest in being a part of the body of Christ; and if we’re right that widows on the list were expected to devote themselves as best as they were able to prayer and works of service, then it only makes sense to give priority to those who will take that commitment seriously, and who have demonstrated their concern for others.
The key in all this, once again, is that the church should embody and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ; and we see this concern here from three different angles. The first is that the church needs to focus its resources on that mission, that everything the church spends and everything it gives away should in some way further the work of Jesus in this world—as giving to those in need obviously does. Second, taking care of our own, providing for those to whom we’re related—whether by blood, or as brothers and sisters in Christ—is part of training ourselves in godliness, which we talked about last week; it’s part of our call as Christians to care for others before ourselves, and to put the love of Christ into practice in a meaningful way. After all, as Jesus told us, we can’t claim to love other people if we aren’t willing to give of what we have to help them. God brings us into relationship with others—through our family, through his body, the church, and by other means as well—and then he calls us to love each other, and part of that is taking care of each other; we cannot refuse to do so.
And third, we see here an abiding scriptural theme, God’s concern for the powerless, of whom the archetypal examples are the widow, the fatherless, the homeless foreigner, and the stranger. Under Roman law, these were people who had no rights, no ability to defend themselves, and no real opportunity to earn a living We see this all through the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, as God declares himself the God of the weak and the powerless, and condemns the evildoers who “kill the widow and the stranger, [and] murder the orphan.” Again and again, we have the affirmation—which Paul echoes in 1 Timothy—that God is a God of justice, and that those who exploit the poor and defenseless will be punished. The psalmist may ask, “How long shall the wicked exult?” but he does so in the certainty that the one who disciplines the nations will dig a pit for the wicked in the end. Those who build their mansions on the backs of the needy may prosper for a time, but not forever.
And in the end, though talk of God as a God of justice and judgment rings a harsh note, it’s important for us to remember that the judgment of God comes on those who do evil, on those who reject his ways; it’s important to remember that it’s rooted in his insistence on making right all that is wrong, and on his concern for the powerless—and that his concern includes us. The highest and greatest expression of this concern came in Christ, in his death and resurrection on our behalf, taking the punishment for our sin and paying the price that we were powerless to pay, winning for us the freedom we were powerless to win. In a sense, God’s greatest act of mercy was also his greatest act of justice. We worship a God who did not love from a distance, but came down to bear the weight of human need through humble service, and who calls us to do the same—to show his love not just in words, but in our actions, in care for those who are weak and needy and defenseless, and especially for those who are close to us. His love opens us to see the needs and burdens of those around us, and his compassion calls us to bear them in his name and for his sake, to share the gift of his self-sacrifice with others.