The word for the day is “widow.” In our reading of 1 Timothy 5:1-10, St. Paul gives practical instructions for caring for the widows in Timothy’s congregation who are especially vulnerable. Paul directs that the church should support widows who do not have a family to support them (vs. 3). But the Apostle teaches that “If any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents…” (vs. 3).
Both the Old and New Testaments pay special attention to the plight of widows. In ancient society, most often, women had no means of support besides their husbands. The word “widow” in Greek refers to those women who have suffered loss, are beret, or left alone (Strong’s 5503, 271).
The Care of Widows in the Old Testament
The Book of Deuteronomy prescribed special care and protection for widows as well as orphans, aliens, and the poor. These needy persons were to receive a portion of the “third-year tithes” (Deuteronomy 6;12), and they could glean the grain that the reapers left. The prophets reaffirmed this commitment to the care of widows. For example, the prophet Isaiah appealed to God’s People, “Cease from your evils and learn to do good… Defend the orphan and justify the widow (Isaiah 1:17). The word “justify” means “to plead the cause” of the widow (Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary #7378, 261-62). According to the prophet, this defense would demonstrate the people’s repentance from oppressing the poor to showing mercy to them. Then too, the prophet Malachi includes those who “oppress widows” in the list of sins that God will soon come to judge (Malachi 3:5).
In the time between the testaments, the care of widows was a special mark of piety. For example, Tobit was the example of a pious Jew because he gave a “third-year tithe” to widows as well as orphans and aliens [i](Tobit 1:7-8). The books of Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon also refer to the care and defense of widows (Sirach 4:10 and Wisdom 2:10).
The Care of Widows in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the early church took the duty of care for widows for granted. The controversy was only that the widows of Hellenists (Greek-speaking Christians) were neglected in the “daily distribution” (vs. Acts 6:1). The solution to this problem established the clergy order of deacons in the church. The New Testament Book of James echoes the Jewish emphasis on the care of widows: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained in the world” (James 1:27).
However, Paul says that those that deserve the congregation’s care should be “real widows” (vs. 3), that is, “truly” in need (Strong’s #3689). Paul has in mind that the primary responsibility for widows rests on their children and grandchildren. If they have a family to support them, they are not (or should not) really be in need. Paul instructs that the children and grandchildren of widows should practice the piety that James advises at home among their own family. They should “repay their parents,” that is, “they should give their mothers or grandmothers compensation for the care given to them (Strong’s #287, 17).
The Duty of Children and Grandchildren
The Apostle suggests that this repayment is not a special act of charity. It is a filial duty. That responsibility is fundamental. Its basis is the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother that the day may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). The Lord took for granted that this command includes honoring one’s parents with material support when they are in need. He criticized the hypocrites who refused to give aid to their parents because they claimed that whatever their parents might have “received” for help was “Corban,” that is, “dedicated to God” (Mark 7:10-11). The word “received” in the Greek text refers to what would be beneficial or useful (Strong’s #5323, 277). Thus, this human tradition of denying parents help because that support was dedicated to the temple makes the Word of God empty (Mark 7:13). Clearly, therefore, the commandment of honoring one’s parents covers the financial support of needy widows.
Paul underscores this duty of children and grandchildren in two ways. First, he says it is “good and acceptable” to God (vs. 4). That is, God approves it, and it is pleasing to him (Strong’s #587, 35). Second, the Apostle reiterates that if any believers have widows in their household, they should continue to “relieve” them, that is, “help” them with financial support (Strong’s #1884,94). If they met their responsibility, the church would be able to help those who had no assistance, the “truly needy” (vs. 5:16).
In summary, the support of widows would seem at first to be a specific matter that only has relevance in its context in Bishop Timothy’s congregation. However, the topic has a wider application. The Scriptures are unanimous in emphasizing that the needs of widows must not be neglected. But the Bible includes widows with others in need, such as orphans, aliens, and the poor. Thus, we should interpret Paul’s instruction to apply to the care of all who are destitute in any time and place. We can conclude from today’s study that the treatment of vulnerable persons in need is a measure of the piety, devotion, and faithfulness of believers. In this Nativity Fast, especially, we should not consider those who need our care to be burdens. These persons represent opportunities for us to share the love, peace, and joy of our celebration of the coming of Christ.
[i] The Orthodox Study Bible has “The third tenth I would give to those to whom it was fitting.” But what was “fitting” is given in Deuteronomy 6:12 as noted above.