August 7, 2012

The Least Of These VII: Widows & Paul's Collection

Special Concern for Widows

In the Apostles and disciples we see a special concern for widows in society just as we did with Jesus. Widows whose husbands had passed on left behind wives or women who were not “economically viable” in Roman society. In other words, they were poor and had little chance of finding meaningful employ or means to make money. For a widow with no husband and no family that could take her in, she was essentially relegated to a death sentence or at least a life of deprivation and poverty. They could also become victims to those that wished to exploit their unfortunate situation (Matthew 23:14, Mark 12:40, destroyers of widow’s houses). Although the Church had an immediate concern for widows and appointed men to remedy the problem, the problem of providing for them did not desist. The fact is that the Church actively pursued fixing the issue. We see the same type of concern even in places like Corinth when the church at Corinth asks Paul what course of action would be most fitting regarding both widows and others (1 Corinthians 7) (Batey 38-39).

It isn’t until 1 Timothy 5 that we see extensive efforts to reduce the number of widows supported by the church. The problem of the Church providing for widows had escalated so severely between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy that Paul seems to have changed his strategy quite a bit to address it. By the writing of 1 Timothy we see that the requirements for the Church to support widows had become more demanding and more stringent. Paul is clear to delineate the difference between widows and “widows in need” in 1 Timothy 5:3 (Fee 115; Hendriksen, “1 Timothy” 167): 

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” 

Here I suggest that we see Paul attempting to draw out the Kingdom mentality of so-called believers that were children or grandchildren of the widow. By saying families should help their widowed mother or grandmother, he is essentially saying they should be helping the poor, which just happened to be related to them. Paul goes on to rebuke the compassionless behavior of the widow’s relatives by bitingly remarking in 1 Timothy 5:8 that… (Fee 117-118; Hendriksen, “1 Timothy” 170):

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

In the same manner Paul also puts demands on the widow themselves in:

1 Timothy 5:9-10, “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.”

By time of the writing of 1 Timothy we see a softening of Paul’s original stance of young widows remaining unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:8). In 1 Timothy 5:14 we specifically see Paul encourage young widows to remarry under the guise of avoiding sin through sensual desire and by so doing they avoid slander and defamation of the name of Christ. It should be noted that Paul hasn’t contradicted himself, he still believes in staying single (5:12) still aids in the service to God but if necessary, young widows should remarry (Fee 123; Hendriksen, “1 Timothy” 175-176):

1 Corinthians 5:14 ~ “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.”

It can be seen today that this problem still persists in the world but it has been the mission of the church since the Apostolic Church to care for widows (and orphans for similar reasons) even when it became an overbearing problem. The basis for the Apostolic church and therefore our stance today can be easily gleaned throughout the writings of the Old Testament also. The Church and God’s people have always been called to step forward to help the widows and the orphans (Batey 40).

Paul’s Collection

The last thing I would like to mention before moving on to a synopsis is the accounts and the issue of Paul’s collection for Jerusalem. It is clear from Paul’s writing and His actions that he took the Gospel and evangelism with extreme earnest. So much so that we get a grocery list of abuses he endured to fulfill his duty of the Great Commission in 2 Corinthians 11. What is interesting though is that he also took the collection for the poor with similar earnestness. Although his collection for the poor back in Jerusalem is usually not often referred to in the main body of His letters, it can be gleaned from their outer edges in the outro or exiting salutations to fellow Christians (Romans 15, 16; 1 Corinthians 16). Paul seems to make it a point to itemize his itinerary in the end portions of his letters and epistles and they often contain reference to taking up a collection. The exception to this seems to be 2 Corinthians 8 but this might be because 2 Corinthians is a combination of letters from Paul and Chapter 8 of 2 Corinthians may have actually been the end of a letter before being combined with the remainder of 2 Corinthians, chapters 9-13 (Batey 55-56). Regardless, Paul instructed the Corinthians to follow a similar methodology that that he had directed the Galatian churches to use in taking up the collection (1 Corinthians 16:1) (Martin 144-145).

1 Corinthians 16:1-3 ~ “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.”

He tells them that on the first day of every week, each Christian was to set aside monies at home comparable to how they had prospered (Batey 55). That way, when Paul finally arrived the funds would be ready and nothing would need to be done in haste or in a shoddy manner (Kistemaker, “1 Corinthians” 594-595).

Paul’s faced many of these same challenges we face today with raising money. He spent nearly ten years asking for funds for what is commonly referred to as the Jerusalem Collection. This collection was taken up among the Gentile churches to help Judean believers who were suffering from extremely hard economic times as a result of a mid-40’s famine during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.) (Kruse 148). The collection was ended in 57 A.D. and the funds were delivered by Paul and a group of Gentile delegates. Romans 15:26 specifically states that (Hendriksen, “Romans” 493; Kruse 150):

Romans 15:26, “…Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem.

The importance of the collection is not only as a symbol of Christian unity and generosity but it is also an act worship and koinonia/κοινωνία that would actually create unity. Paul then literally spells out the theological ground for Christian giving. He wants the giving to be a outworking of their hearts and what dwells within them: The Holy Spirit and therefore salvation and the Kingdom of God.

2 Corinthians 8:8-9 ~ I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Theologically, Paul saw Christ, his ministry and the Gospel (death on a Cross and Resurrection) as the piercing central feature of divine grace. It was an example of perfect Christian love, and ethical conduct. Paul is not referring to Jesus economic condition above (although it could be construed that way); he is saying that Jesus humbled Himself by allowing Himself to be killed for the salvation of humanity that would believe in Him. Although Jesus was God and was worthy of all praise, He allowed Himself to be despised among men (Isaiah 53 or a la Philippians 2:5-11) (Batey 57; Kistemaker, “2 Corinthians” 280-281; Kruse 155). Paul thereby compares this to the generosity and compassionate giving of the believer in the context of 2 Corinthians 8. To fail to give of one’s self fully is to not fully emulate that extent to which Jesus went to love and therefore save His brothers. We see the ultimate version of this when Jesus says the following: John 15:13 ~ “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” This is because when a person to gives their life, they have given everything they have in love and generosity for another person (Hendriksen, “John” 305). Furthermore, this is exactly what we see in the Crucifixion.

I suppose what we truly see in the Jerusalem collection that is taken up all over the known Roman Empire and headed by Paul is the universal or catholic nature of the Church being an outworking of the Kingdom of God. This is not a point to be overlooked or taken lightly. By Paul and therefore the Church as a whole taking up this collection and acting as a harmonized holistic unit we see the commonality of purpose and unity in the mind of Christ. This collection is a visible expression of the interdependence of believers worldwide and how they are all connect through Christ into a Kingdom of believers. This visible manifestation is a signpost or indictor of the Kingdom to come. It has been inaugurated but has not reached consummation. All of life is included in the shared concerns of those in Christ. Certain believer’s surplus supplied the needs of other believers in their time of need. Those in need are then sustained to live another day and help their benefactors in their time of need also. Just as any loving and compassionate family member would do for another family member in need. It is an amazing statement about equality or equalization in the Body of Christ (therefore the Kingdom of God) from Paul below:

2 Corinthians 8:13-14: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.”

What we see is one piece of a symbiotic body working to preserve another portion of the body when it is dire need of help. It is an act of not only self-preservation but an outcropping of an abundance of life that is in reality, the Kingdom of God through Christ Jesus via the Holy Spirit breaking through into our worldly realm. Within these two verses we see the divine plan to abolish poverty. This is all in accordance with the plans of our Sovereign God as outlined in Scripture. A plan that revolves firmly around God’s redemptive designs, compassion and love for humanity (Christian 174). Therefore it revolves around the Gospel of Jesus Christ who is directly in the center of it all (Kistemaker, “2 Corinthians” 287-288).

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