It’s clear from these verses that true godliness does not stop at avoiding immorality and living morally pure lives. Godliness also includes taking social responsibility seriously; it includes caring for those who are most vulnerable in our family, church and society. In other words social action is another part of our call to godliness, and social action reflects the heart of God in a very special way as we will see.
In the Christian Church at times people & churches have been prone to emphasise holiness or social action, to emphasize one at the expense of the other. The religious right tends to lean towards holiness, morality & right doctrine etc while the religious left tends to emphasise social action, rights and equality etc. At least that’s how things are often perceived in the days we live in. But listen to the way James ties these things tightly together in 1:27 of his letter; “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” In other words there are two sides to religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God – social action & holiness! It’s not either or; it’s both and! We’re not called to align ourselves with political streams of Christianity, but with the Word of God which calls us to be both sexually pure and socially active. We are called to abstain from what God hates AND to be involved in what he loves. This means social action is as much a part of what it means to be holy as not stealing; and it means true morality includes being as passionate about helping the poor as it is committed to not murdering annoying people. The Word of God does not tear these things apart, people with religious or political agendas do. The Gospel holds such things together and calls us to a life of true and full godliness!
Our verses today begin by telling us to “Honour widows” and then go on to teach us how to best honour them. It’s important to note at the outset that the principles underlined in these verses should be applied to all vulnerable, poor and forgotten people in church & society. These verses should cause us to ask questions like: Who are the most vulnerable, needy and forgotten in our society? What can we do to help them? How can we help provide for them? How can we bring worth and dignity to their lives? Because an important part of living a life of godliness means honouring the most vulnerable, neglected and forgotten people in our society!
Throughout Bible times and beyond widows have always been among the neediest of people! For this reason the Bible has a lot to say about widows & honours them in a way many cultures have failed to. Often in history, & this is still true in some cultures today, a woman’s identity & worth was defined only in relation to a husband (sons or father). But if he (or they) died, she lost everything – her identity, future, income and worth. Widows were among the poorest & most neglected people in society at the time this letter was written. However throughout the Bible widows, along with orphans & sojourners (people without husband, parents or home) are said to deserve special honour, protection & care. Throughout God’s Word justice & love are demanded for them. Psalm 68:5 describes God as the “Father to the fatherless & protector of widows.” Deut 10:18 NIV says; “He defends the cause of (Lit: executes justice for) the fatherless & the widow, & loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food & drink.” Psalm 146:9 says; “The LORD watches over the sojourner; he upholds the widow & the fatherless.” In Exodus 22:21-24 God warns; “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” They are strong words which make a strong point about God’s heart and concern towards the foreigner, widow and orphan. Deut 27:19 uses equally strong words when it says; “’Cursed be anyone who perverts justice due the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow,’”
God’s Law also instructed farmers to store a tenth of their produce for sojourners, widows & orphans, as well as leaving them the gleanings of the field and orchard (Deut 14:28-29; 24:19ff; 26:12-13). Some of the most touching stories in OT history concern care for widows. Just read the book of Ruth, the story of the widow of Zarephath in the days of Elijah (1 Kings 17) and also how oil was provided for a widow through the ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 4:1-7). I’ve already quoted from the Psalms and the prophets also regularly express God’s heart to defend and provide for widows... and they express his anger when they are neglected or exploited. In the gospels Jesus himself showed compassion towards widows. For example he restored to life the only son of the widow of Nain, giving her back her identity, future, income & worth as well as her much loved son. This is part of our mission as his Church: To see those with no identity given a new identity, worth, hope & significance in Christ (such which cannot be stripped away from them!). One of the first things the early church did was appoint people to specifically look after widows (Acts 6:1-7) and our verses today (as well as others in the NT letters) highlight that this is still part of the Church’s responsibility and mission today. So as you can see this is a theme which clearly runs through every part of Scripture and therefore it must be very close to the heart of God!
Paul writes to Timothy;
5:3-8 “Honour widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Before we go on it’s important to understand exactly what is meant by the term widow here. Paul says “Honour widows who are truly widows” in verse one. Then in verse five he says “She who is truly a widow, left all alone...” Clearly in Paul’s mind a true widow was not simply a woman who had lost her husband but a woman who had no family to look after her. A woman who was all alone in the world! It should also be noted that the Greek word for “widow” refers to any woman without a husband, and not simply to a woman whose husband has died. So a true widow is any woman who is left all alone in the world without provision and identity. Kent Hughes also suggests that; “Today the application of this passage should be wider, because modern... culture has produced a category of women virtually unknown in the first century—Christian women and children who have been abandoned by their spouses and left without family support. Godly single mothers are a new class of ‘widow’. And those without family and resources are the church’s sacred responsibility.”
All this is important for us to consider as we try to get our heads around this so we can mature in godliness and be the church God wants us to be. The basic point in verses 3-16 is that church members should take responsibility for looking after their own family members so the church is free to look after those who are truly alone in the world. And the basic point of verses 3-8 (our verses today) is that social action starts at home with our own families! It starts by looking after our children and by looking after our parents & grandparents. By providing for their basic needs and by giving them responsibility, worth and significance! It doesn’t end there but it certainly ought to start in one’s own family. We’ve already seen in this letter that leadership starts at home. Elders and deacons ought to be able to manage and oversee their own households before they manage church affairs (3:4-5; 12). Now Paul teaches us all that godliness also starts at home, and more specifically social action starts at home! Paul says; V4 “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.”
When our parents (or grandparents) can no longer look after themselves it is our responsibility to make sure they are looked after. That’s the very plain and basic meaning of these verses. Our parents brought us into the world, they fed us and clothed us looked after us while we could not do so for ourselves. They also taught us and sacrificed for us. Often grandparents play an important supportive role in all this as well. It’s only right that we do the same when they can no longer look after themselves sufficiently. In the economy of God, this is the way children can repay their parents. In fact it is the ultimate expression of ingratitude & selfishness to not do so. It’s a very godly thing to look after aging parents or grandparents & to help bring dignity & value to their later years. It brings a smile to the face of God, it pleases him! We live in a time when elderly women (and men) can easily be forgotten. We also live in a world where sadly elderly people can be neglected, even by their own family at times, and in such a culture they become easy targets for robbery and theft. In such times we, the Church, are called to be protectors and providers for such people, and Scripture is teaching us such protection and care ought to start in our own family. Elderly people are extremely valuable to God, as we will see as we continue through these verses, therefore they should be extremely valuable to us. When something is valuable we look after it, treasure it and protect it! This is how God’s feels about the widow, the elderly and the vulnerable and we are called to reflect his heart!
Think about this: If every family shared responsibility for looking after their own there would be a lot less vulnerable people in society... Sadly what often happens is that one member of the family circle ends up doing most of the care for an aging parent, this can lead to tension, strain & burnout. However this should never be allowed to happen because every family member is responsible to play their part. As Christians we are to exemplify this to the culture we live in. God intends family to be the backbone of society so that all might be protected and cared for sufficiently! Caring for aged parents and grandparents (as well as other vulnerable family) is the most practical theology of all. True godliness always begins at home. This does not necessarily mean grown up children need to provide all the care themselves. Sometimes there are things we cannot do for loved ones. There is a legitimate place for professional care-workers, as well as for nursing homes. But it is the responsibility of family to make sure their parents receive the best care possible, and it is very important that they remain closely involved in the responsibility of looking after them. They must never abandon their God-given responsibility. 1 Timothy 5:8 sums it all up best; “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Verses 5-7 also hint at something else. They reveal that just because someone is older in years does not mean God is finished using them and therefore they can put their feet up and wait on Jesus talking them home. If a Christian is still alive on earth they are still called to seek first the kingdom of God no matter what stage of life they are at. There is no such thing as retirement from Christian living and mission. Our part in God’s mission may change because of age but the call to mission remains until we see Jesus face to face! True widows, whom Paul obviously views generally as older ladies in these verses (and I believe the principle also applies to elderly men today), are encouraged to continue in the life of faith! To, “set their hope on God and continue in supplications and prayers night and day.” In fact Paul says to not do so implies that a person is “self-indulgent and dead even while she lives. Timothy is told to "Command and teach these things as well, so that they may be above reproach” (V 6-7).
God calls older ladies (& older men) to ministry in the church! This will become even clearer as we move onto the next verses in a few weeks time. However let me finish today by highlight one last things: There is something uniquely powerful about the prayers of elderly widows! A Biblical example of a praying elderly widow is Anna, the prophetess at the temple in Jerusalem: Luke 2:36-37 says; “She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Paul almost seems to encourage all widows in this direction when he says true widows “continue in supplication and prayers night and day.” In a sense every praying elderly widow is like a sister to Anna. Such women prayed all over the Soviet Union during the dark years of communism. When one pastor visited the Ukraine after the fall of that evil empire, he saw:
“How mistaken the Communists were when they allowed the older women to continue worshipping together! It was they who were considered no threat to the new order, but it was they whose prayers & faithfulness over all those barren years held the church together & raised up a generation of men & young people to serve the Lord. Yes, the church we attended was crowded with these older women at the very front, for they had been the stalwart defenders of Christ’s Gospel, but behind & alongside them & in the balcony & outside the windows were the fruit of their faithfulness; men, women, young people & children. We must never underestimate the place & power of our godly older women.”
What a powerful picture. Another old lady stories is that of the Revival which was birthed on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides:
In November 1949 Revival began on the island of Lewis. Two old women, one of them 84 years of age & the other 82 (one blind), were greatly burdened with the state of the community. Not a single young person attended church & this greatly concerned these two old ladies so much they began to earnestly pray. A verse gripped them: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground” (Isaiah 44:3a). One Tuesday they got on their knees at ten o’clock in the evening & remained on their knees until three or four o’clock in the morning. One night one of the sisters had a vision & in the vision she saw the church crowded with young people. She was so impressed by the vision she sent for the minister. That morning one of the sisters said to the minister, “You must do something about this. I would suggest you call your elders together & you spend at least two nights with us in prayer a week. Well, that’s what happened, they met to pray twice a week & the two old women knelt with them.
This continued for weeks... Then, one night as they were kneeling in the barn pleading the promise, a young deacon got up & read Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the Lord” (vv.3-5a). Afterwards he lifted his hands & prayed, “God, are my hands clean? Is my heart pure?” He got no further. The young man fell to his knees & fell into a trance, lying on the floor of the barn. When this happened the power of God swept the community, an awareness of God gripped the people, so much so, the following day little work was done as men and women gave themselves to thinking on eternal things. This all started with two old widows committing themselves to prayer day night & day!
Perhaps there are some people in this room today who are significantly younger than those two ladies in their eighties, but for some reason you think your best years are behind you. You feel as if you have been going around in circles for years and got nowhere, but God has something say to you today: Your best years are still ahead of you; your prayers, your sacrifice, your commitment may yet be the key that opens the door to revival in the West of Ireland. Do not lose heart. Keep praying, keep serving, keep sacrificing & keep living for Jesus until he comes or takes you home. For you never know, perhaps the great work of your life is only just beginning! Those two ladies (in their eighties!!) after decades of seeing very little happen – of seeing things get progressively worse in fact – stepped up and led the way in prayer and saw the glory of God visit their generation!
So then, this same letter that tells a young man to let no one despise his youth also gives great dignity and significance to older ladies! May God fill all of us with the spirit of Caleb today, who said in Joshua 14 “Here I am today, eighty-five years old! I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day.”