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, too, so that no one may be open to blame. (1 Timothy 5:5-7)
This is a complicated passage because it can be interpreted in so many ways. What do you see?
Do you see the widow who is really in need sitting at a table in a dimly lit bedroom, pouring over the word of God every waking hour? Is she wearing a plain, floor-length black dress with long sleeves and a black covering over her head? Does she refuse to put on make-up or wear jewelry, and are there dark circles under her eyes from her continuous mourning?
And is the widow who lives for pleasure staggering around drunk at the local club? Is she dressed provocatively and does she cuss incessantly? Is she promiscuous? Do men lavish her with expensive gifts and money to support her sinful practices?
Do you see what I mean? We all have our own pictures of the difference between the two widows Paul depicts in his letter to Timothy.
I think the key to understanding Paul’s words is remembering the context of the bigger passage. Paul is trying to help Timothy discern how and how much the church should be involved in reaching out to widows. The issue seems to be determining whether a widow is truly in need.
We have already seen that a widow is not really in need if she has family members who are capable of helping her. Church leaders should be concerned about the widow, but their first responsibility is to remind her family of their biblical role in caring for their loved one.
Now we see that the lifestyle of the widow herself helps define her need and the responsibility of the church to meet that need. The contrast Paul draws is between someone who looks to God to help her in her distress and someone who turns to a licentious lifestyle for the same purpose. My understanding is that the church should try to help widows financially if they have no family to help them, and if they are honestly trying to live for God.
On the other hand, widows who have family with money, and who spend what money they have on sinful practices don’t need financial help from the church. This does not mean they don’t need spiritual help from the church or that they should be shunned as a result of their lifestyle. It just means the church family should not feel guilty about not supporting their behavior or negligence on the part of their relatives.
Paul is not saying widows should lock themselves in a dark room. There is nothing unspiritual about a widow who enjoys life within social circles and finds fulfilling work in her community. And if she has the money to travel and shop, she should enjoy her blessings, as long as she doesn’t become self-absorbed.
This morning passage is really about the limited resources of the church and how it can be managed efficiently and effectively. And as you may know, coming to terms with a workable system is no easy task.
Dear God, help me discern how to help the most people with the resources you have given me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.