Paul used the model of a family to describe relationships in the church. Timothy was to address elder members as he would a father or mother, and the younger men and women as brothers and sisters (1 Tim. 5:1-2), and it was in these terms also that he talked about the care of widows. However, the church was not to assume the duties of the family, and in particular the care of widows: “...let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed” (v. 16). By “widows indeed” he meant widows who have no surviving relatives.
Piety at Home
Paul described caring for widows as caring for our “own house” (v. 8). He was very clear that the charity of the church was never to replace the responsibility of a child, or even a nephew. In a patriarchal order where extended families lived and worked together, an aunt was very much an extended mother figure and deserved a corresponding respect. This family responsibility came before that of the church, which only got involved if there was no family member who could assume care. Like all of God’s law, this requirement involved a blessing for obedience and a curse for disobedience.
The promised blessing was that, in the eyes of God, the care of aged family members was a “piety at home” that Paul assured us would be “good and acceptable before God” (v.4). When God gives us the opportunity to serve Him in obedience, it is an act of grace, a blessing. The Pharisees, because they distorted God’s revelation, constantly showed themselves to be clueless in matters of piety. Their idea of piety was that of a public display to “be seen of men” (Mt. 6:1-18). They also thought they could honor God in worship while they neglected their responsibilities to needy parents (15:5-6).
Worse Than an Infidel
There was also a curse on those who neglected their duties to parents. Paul told Timothy that withholding care from a needy parent was denying the faith and was “worse than” the behavior of an infidel.
This should not seem harsh if we understand the imperative of the fifth commandment. When Paul wrote to Timothy about the responsibility of children to their parents, it was in the context of the minister’s relation to the congregation. Even in the difficult situation of a necessary rebuke, the minister should not forget the honor due that person as a fellow member in the family of God. In the difficult times of a parent’s burdens of age, illness, or economic need we must likewise be mindful of our responsibility to honor them as the fifth commandment requires. Christ, after all, came to establish the law (Mt. 5:17). How can we honor our Heavenly Father while we dishonor our earthly parents?
In addition to honoring their role in the economy of God as the fifth commandment requires, we must also remember our debt of gratitude for our upbringing. Paul mentions that our treatment of needy parents is a way to “requite” or repay them (v. 4). How we treat them when they need us says a great deal about whether we truly value them and our upbringing. Niggardliness to one’s parents reveals a self-centered ungratefulness.
As our parents age, there is a care-giving role-reversal. We should see this as an honor to pay them back for the care they gave us as children. Mary, sister of Martha, once honored Christ by anointing His feet. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea honored Him by burying His body with what was a small fortune in myrrh and aloes. Sometimes our greatest method of honoring of parents may involve physical displays, however dissimilar.
Honoring a frail and needy parent is a final maturing of our relationship with them, because it is our last role as a child that we must fulfill. And we must understand that a child’s role does not end with adulthood, but always exists as long as a parent lives. It is honoring to show our parents how much good we learned from them.
Some years ago, I ran across a child’s storybook by Robert Munsch called Love You Forever. It tells of a mother who carried her young son to bed each night and sang a song, “I’ll love you forever.” At the end of the story the mother is too frail with age to sing to her son, so he carries her to bed instead, and sings that song she loved him with as a child. I gave a copy to my son, and one to my eldest daughter, and have yet another copy tucked away for the next in line.
Love is more than the expression of feeling. It is best revealed in our actions. Caring for parents is an act of love and a piety at home pleasing to God.