In real life situations can be difficult and messy. Attempts to help people can be abused and taken for granted. In chapter 5 Paul turns to practical advice for the actual scenarios of helping widows in the church community.
He begins with a general premise: that of honouring people. Whether it is older men or young men, older women or young women, all should be honoured. We saw this principle back in chapter 3, and it is a Kingdom value which can inform how to help and maybe even who to help, given that situations are not always straight-forward.
Context is always important. In 21st century Britain there is social security and a benefits system. Sometimes though it doesn't work, and also austerity squeezes people. Add to that the reality that many people simply have no financial buffer, and so the Trussell Trust quote of 'only one pay check away from disaster' rings true. We therefore support Ely Foodbank which helps people first and foremost in crises need.
Back in the 1st century there was no nationwide social security - people depended on extended family or re-marrying. Cultures can be harsh: in many African nations today the death of a husband can open the way for the husband's relatives to seize the property and evict the widow.
The individual also has a context, and this will affect their actual need. Paul taps into this in verses 4 to 8. If there are relatives then they should honour the widow with their support - Paul points out that even unbelieving families do that! Within the individual context is their own attitude, with verses 5 & 6 giving a contrast: the truly destitute lady who depends on God versus the lady who has means and can live for her own pleasure. The conflicting attitudes convey a spiritual issue of hoping in God versus keeping God at a distance.
Verses 9 & 10 give interesting criteria: over 60 (realistic compared to life expectancy of the time?), having been faithful, and well known for good deeds. Compared to the Foodbank these are remarkably narrow criteria! The Foodbank underlying value of bless in any crises without judging is practiced, aided by relying on voucher holders to identify genuine need. We may make mistakes with that, but we would rather be in error on the side of generosity!
Yet Paul seems to be saying 'only honour those worthy of honour'! Some commentators believe there was already an 'order of widows' who served the church, and these criteria were about recognition and enrolment. Others say the list is idealistic, perhaps used to trim the numbers accepted into lifelong care by the church community.
It is hard for us to untangle the possibilities, but in any case a good principle emerges: Honour a person in a sustained way where there is honour back from the person - i.e. it becomes a two-way thing. We can distinguish between the first help given and repeated/ongoing help. This is not to say that further help is earned in some way, but it is right to look for a sense of honour being returned.
Verses 11-15 are even harder, with the question of the 'first pledge' by widows. Is it a pledge of service, of future celibacy, or their original decision to follow Jesus? Commentators scratch their heads! Again we can draw out a useful principle, which is to be wary of making absolute pledges that you cannot necessarily guarantee to keep! It is worth stepping back and asking ourselves what our initial commitment to Jesus was all about - for some it may have been a kind of bargain ('If you do X I will believe ...'), or for some others a pledge (e.g. responding to a talk 'I will do ...'). Ultimately God calls us to relationship, a love response that leads us to walk through thick and thin, hence the key question:
Key Qn: [UP] Is you faith based on a bargain, a pledge or simple trust?
Challenge: For hard decisions, trace back to Kingdom Values
The challenge relates to the task Paul and Timothy are facing, and which we all face - how do we practice in the various tricky situations we face on the ground. Can we learn to trace back to Kingdom Values to help inform our decisions? As we seek to see Kingdom Life across the city, sometimes God will miraculously intervene ... but there will also be times when life is hard and messy. That is where Kingdom principles such as honouring people are of vital importance: living these values enables us to show signs of God's Kingdom (the 'not yet') already here in the messy life of the 'now'.