Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pleading the cause of the widow and the orphan

Christian conservatives are often accused of only caring about people until they are born, that we care more for the fetus in the womb than the hungry child or the elderly. That is of course disingenuous because at least until the “death panels” are put into place under Obamacare, it is not common place to murder small children or the elderly. It is commonplace to murder children in the womb, so we can be forgiven to some extent if we seem singularly focused on the unborn.

There is a sense in which that accusation from the Left is at least partially and unintentionally accurate. The Bible speaks a lot about caring for orphans and widows (i.e. the elderly) but it doesn’t get as much play in the church. I think part of that has to do with our culture with a social safety net that provides health and financial benefits to the elderly and young children. At least with orphans there seems to be a movement afoot in the church to revisit our efforts to care for and even adopt them but what about the elderly? It is interesting how often Scripture links the fatherless and the widow…

You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. (Exodus 22:22)

He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. (Deu 10:18)

Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the Lord; exult before him! Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. (Psalm 68: 4-5)

The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 16:9)

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. (Jeremiah 7: 5-7)

Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)

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. (James 1:27)

One very interesting passage comes in Deuteronomy 24…

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deu 24: 17-22)

So under the Law, the leftovers from your harvest were to be saved for the widows, the orphans and the sojourners in the land. Notice that this is not a government program of wealth redistribution, this is a call by God to His people to remember those in need when harvesting. I recognize that the laws of Israel are not the laws of America, and I have no interest in trying to put them into force here, but the concern that God commands His people to have for justice and mercy toward the fatherless and the widow and the sojourner are every bit as forceful now as they were under the Old Covenant administration.

That brings me to the crux of this post. How do we reflect God’s concern here? I think the question about the fatherless is a little easier, there are lots of books and ministries that focus on orphan care and adoption. But what about the elderly? I am speaking here of our own parents as they age, those parents we are commanded to honor, as well as the elderly in the Body of Christ. I don’t think having a really nice, comfortable building for the elderly to come to a couple of hours a week is really what God has in mind. The early church had a daily distribution for widows (Acts 6:1) that was important enough for the church to call seven men to oversee it and not just seven guys who had nothing better to do but men who were “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3), the most famous of whom was Stephen who was a remarkable preacher and a model for us all as the first recorded martyr for Christ. Clearly caring for the widows among the Body (and by implication all of the elderly) was a major priority for the early church. So how do we reflect that concern? Here are a few ideas:

Role Reversal

I think it starts, as so many things do, in the home. Being prepared to care for aging parents to whatever extent they will allow means being prepared for a whole bunch of inconvenience but is that beyond what we should be willing to do? I understand that there are some circumstances that make home care for elderly parents difficult (or just difficult parents in general!) but I certainly don’t see that caring for our elderly parents, which is certainly a ministry, is different from anything else. No one said the life of a disciple was going to be easy!

Home Alone

That is well and good for our biological parents but what about other elderly saints in our church without children or lacking children willing to take them in? If a family is open to foster care for a child, why not make their home open to an elderly brother or sister? Perhaps not someone who requires serious medical care but certainly an older Christian who has outlived their spouse and who’s life is marked by loneliness. I have to imagine that many middle-class Christians have kids who have moved out and have empty bedrooms. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief that your kids are gone and now you have space for a den or a craft room, make that room in your house a ministry to a brother or sister.


We spend untold millions each year on Sunday school lessons, conferences, books, etc. all in a quest to become wiser. How ironic that the best resource outside of Scripture is probably sitting alone in a pew next to you. An incredible amount of wisdom dies each day, lost because so many Christians are seeking what is new, what is flashy, what helps them feel as though they are living the American dream. Rather than dividing “senior saints” into homogenous groups kept apart from other homogenous groups (young singles, married with kids, etc.), integrate them so that they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation. I have gained more wisdom in a weekly visit with an older Christian man than I have in years of listening to talks and sermons. Match up young men with older men and young women with older women. The new generation of overindulged young adults are woefully unprepared for being in a Christian marriage and need someone to mentor them. A partnering of young and old will be beneficial for the individuals involved as well as the church itself.

I truly think this is a topic that gets short shrift in the church but there is no excuse for that to be the case. It is truly troubling that instead of being ministered to and cared for by the church, the elderly are often the big givers or at least the consistent givers. Our elder brothers and sisters are not a piggy bank to be shaken upside down when the giving is down, they are a vast resource of wisdom and a compelling object of ministry.

What do you think, how can the church minister to the elderly among us?

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