An Unexpected Ministry
I sit cross-legged on the floor in front of one of my cleaning clients. She looks younger than her eighty-five years as she bounces and tickles my son while teasing my daughter. The pictures of my children are on the shelf next to her own grandchildren. After a few more minutes of chatting and laughing, I gather the kids and we head for the car. “Goodbye,” she says, “I love you; see you next week.”
The next day my son is on another elderly lady’s lap. My daughter is busily drawing a picture at her table. In between playing with my kids, and while I scrub her cupboards, she tells me about her struggles. Suddenly, her widowed friend bursts in. “Hello!” She hides a present for the kids, delighted to surprise them with it. “I like to give them things, because I don’t get to see my grandkids.”
When I started cleaning houses a couple of years ago, I little thought it would provide far more than a means to make ends meet. My kids, currently far from blood relatives, have gained several grandmas. I have wise and encouraging mothers, with whom I can share my own struggles and fears. In turn, these women, whose days are spent often alone, with their own thoughts and pains, get to see and talk to people. They are reinvigorated by the joy of young children. They are less burdened by sharing their pain with a listening ear. They have people on whom to lavish love and attention. Though I wasn’t looking for it, God gave me the opportunity to minister to widows. And they, in turn, have ministered to me. They have given me encouragement and perspective. They have demonstrated Christ’s love in tangible and meaningful ways. My experience has made me wonder if Christians in general ought to seek out such opportunities. Or is ministry to widows unnecessary with accessible welfare, comfortable nursing homes, and numerous churches?
Commands and Consequences Concerning Widows
The Bible is replete with stories about and commands concerning widows. God cares for widows and calls His people to do the same. The Psalmist describes God as the protector and upholder of widows (Ps. 68:5, 146:9). He is the God who sent his prophet to a penniless widow and raised a destitute widow’s son (2 Kings 4:1-7, Lk. 7:11-15). In the Old and New Testament, He commands His people to imitate his care, provision, and protection of widows. The Israelites, and later the church, were to set aside extra food for the widows (Deut. 14:28-29, 24:19, 1 Tim. 5:9-12). When possible, a widow’s father, son or brother was to care for her and see to her physical needs (1 Tim. 5:3). If necessary, they were to plead her cause (Is. 1:17b). These were not suggestions but a mark of true religion (James 1:27). Therefore, a sure sign of straying from the Lord, or even unbelief, is neglecting or abusing widows.
God clearly warns His people that if they mistreat widows, they will incur judgement (Ex. 22:22-24). As proof, He gives mistreatment of widows as a reason for past judgements (Mal. 3:5, Ez. 22:7, Jer. 7:6). Jesus echoes these Old Testament teachings when He calls out the Pharisees for their long prayers and scrupulous law-keeping while neglecting their own widowed mothers (Mark 7:10-13, 12:40). The treatment of widows serves as one of the barometers for determining the health of a nation in the Old Testament, and certainly of the church in the New Testament.
It is evident that care of widows is a priority in God’s economy. But what does it mean to take care of widows today? Are we to give food or money to poor widows? Or do we give our time helping around the house or praying with or simply listening to her? Are we to help all widows or only those within the church or our own family? Though I cannot answer all these questions, I will address God’s commands concerning our own widowed mothers, destitute widows in the church, and widows in general.
Caring for Widows Today
While we ought to honor all widows, it is our specific duty as Christians to honor and care first for widows in our own family. Paul makes it clear that we are to provide for and take care of the needs of our own widowed mothers or grandmothers. “Honor widows who are truly widows.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” (1 Tim. 5:3-4, see also Mark 7:10-13). If we neglect this duty, we are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). So, if we have a widowed relative, it is our job to make sure she is cared for. Does that mean she must live in our home? Does it mean we need to visit her every day or week? Or do we pay for her living expenses if she is unable? The Bible does not answer all these questions; but it makes clear that we are to provide monetarily for our widowed mothers and show them respect and honor (Matt. 15:4-6). We are also to guard and defend them (Deut. 4:29, Ezek. 22:7). This also applies to true widows in the church.
Part of the reason Paul is adamant we care for widows within our own household is so that church may not be so overburdened that they are unable to care for the true widows among them (1 Tim. 5:16). He explains that these true widows are women in the church who qualify for special care. They are widows over sixty, who’ve lived a godly life marked by service and hospitality and have no family on which they may depend (1 Tim. 5: 9-10). It is the duty of the church to care for such women. Again, we don’t know the full extent of this care, but at the very least, it means making sure they have food to eat (see Acts 6:1-7) and a place to live; that they are protected and defended. The general principle in either case, as summarized by James, is to visit widows in their affliction (James 1:27). One commentator explained what James means. “The person who exhibits true religion visits the ‘orphans and widows in their distress.’ He puts his heart in to being a guardian and provided, he alleviates their needs, and shows them the love of the Lord in word and deed (Matt. 25:35-40).”
At this point, we may be sighing in relief that none of our relatives are widows, and we have no true widows in our church. However, I suggest, that though we may not have a duty to care for a specific widow, God’s heart for widows in general ought to shape ours. God has a special care and concern for widows in general that goes beyond making sure they have food to eat. We may know many wealthy widows who are without friends. Or maybe we know widows whose families live near, but never visit. Is it not our privilege to demonstrate God’s love to them? We may not give them money or food or legal support. But perhaps there are other tangible ways we can show them the love of Christ. God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, how can we love the widows we know as ourselves (Mark 12:31)?
God’s love and concern for widows is evident throughout scripture. The laws and principles in the Old and New Testament bear witness to God’s heart. Indeed, during His earthly ministry, Christ tangibly demonstrated His love for widows. Most significantly, He died that they—as well as we—might become part of God’s family (John 1:12). When we believe in Him, we become a son or daughter of the Father (Eph. 1:5). Christ becomes our brother and husband; fellow believers, our siblings (Matt. 12:46-50, 2 Cor. 11:2, 1 Tim. 5:1-2). What a comfort and source of joy to know that we are part of a larger and everlasting family. How much more must this mean to widows who have lost husband, children, or siblings? It is our joy, as brothers and sisters of these widows, to demonstrate their incorporation into God’s family by visiting, supporting, and caring for them.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.
When I refer to widow, I mean specifically someone whose husband has abandoned her or died.
Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of James, Epistles of John, Peter, and Jude, 65.