“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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
What follows here is Paul offering Timothy some advice on how to establish and create guidelines for a program of caring for widows in his church. There is much to comment on here, but let’s settle now for a few observations on some themes.
For starters, look closely at how tightly Paul draws lines around who is worthy of receiving help and who is not. He keeps laying out boundaries until there is a very small pool of potential candidates. They are evaluated both in terms of their physical situation, but also their character. It’s not just any widows who can receive help from the church. It’s those who are older, truly without any other family who can help take care of them, and who are of good character and will be committed to the cause of the poor and downtrodden themselves.
These guidelines are important. If a person has family who can help him, then it is the duty of his family to do so. The church is not there to replace a person’s family. The church family should not be an excuse for a physical family to not do their duty. The temptation by some folks then and now in the face of such compassion from the church is to step back and cede their duty in a way that dishonors both their family member and God Himself. As Paul says, the family who won’t take care of their own is worse than an unbeliever. Yikes!
He leaves out widows who are young as well. And why? Look again at his reasoning. They may get married again and so the help available from the church shouldn’t be used in such a temporary manner. Also, if she is younger and capable, but not having to work at all because of the help she is receiving, she could fall to becoming essentially a busybody who does nothing but go from neighbor to neighbor in idle talk. (By the way, men in this kind of a position would be just as susceptible to such an end as women would be.) Now, the way he frames his argument can be taken as offensive today, but the point is that receiving welfare and not working for it can poison the character.
The big idea here is this: While we have a duty to help our neighbors, we should look to offer help in ways that are not only helpful, but ennobling of the character. If someone is truly in a place that ongoing welfare is necessary, it must be a person whose character record is such that the ones providing the help are confident that it won’t ruin them. They way to avoid this is to make sure people are given some kind of meaningful work to do. Absent this, receiving something for nothing will gradually eat away at a person’s character and soul.
But, offering help like this takes effort on the giver’s part. Too often it takes more effort than a church (much less an individual) is willing to contribute toward it. It is far easier to throw money at a problem and feel good about ourselves regardless of whether or not we’ve helped in some kind of a meaningful way. Yet, if these efforts are only serving to keep a person held down in a failing situation, we can find ourselves in a place where nothing is actually better than the something we are doing.
Yes, there are times when money is a solution to the problem. More often than not, though, what is needed could better be called “money and…” Money and job skills training. Money and resume prep help. Money and money management courses. Money and household management training. Money and some kind of skills or knowledge combined with accountability that will empower the person to rise above their failing situation and become not merely self-sustaining, but enabled to help others, thereby contributing a net positive to the world around them.
Help that helps is always empowering, aimed at the right people (i.e. those who are truly in need and not able to provide for themselves or receive help from their family), and focused on enabling the receivers to move in the direction of generosity themselves. Absent this, we are not solving any problems. We are at best continuing a bad situation. At worst we are creating a new one and killing the character of the people we are trying to help as we do it. Help others, yes, but help with wisdom.