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Showing dignity and respect

1 Timothy  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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There are vulnerable people in our community and we need to ensure they don't fall through the cracks

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Wanting to help

There are hurting people all around us. Women living in fear from an abusive husband. Children feeling helpless as they watch their parents lives crumble because of drugs and other addictions. Workers who have lost their job and has no way of knowing how they will pay the pile of bills that are already overdue. The man who has just found he has cancer and doesn’t know how he will tell his family. The couple who have been trying for a decade to fall pregnant and just can’t.
Sometimes there is not much we can do. But sometimes there is. What I find sad is that quite often we want to help those in need but we don’t, and I think the reason is so often because we don’t know how to.
Quite often, I think this is because we are blissfully unaware of what is going on. I’m sure you can think of times when someone tells you of a recent troubled time they’ve gone through and you think - but I could’ve helped you if only I knew you needed help.
Partly we could argue that the person should have spoken up, but the truth is, I think we should also be asking the question: have I provided a place where others feel free to ask for help?
While we might not be able to solve their problem - (in fact, rarely do the hurting people around us have just a simple problem to be solved) - we can be there to listen to them, to show we care and offer practical help when appropriate.

Connection with passage

This morning we are going to continue our series in 1 Timothy. What we’re going to see is a very specific issue that Paul is addressing to Timothy. We’ll look shortly at the specifics of this, however what will hopefully become clear is that he’s dealing with an issue of his time, not something that we should take as it is and superimpose it on our own culture - and so, the task for us will be to see the principles behind what Paul is saying and how we can apply it to us.
What I’m going to argue is that the principles we find in here, will help us think about how we can help some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Understanding the context

But before we try to apply it to our own situation, I want to try and shift ourselves back two millenniums and into the cultural system that this passage was written to.
We’re in the city of Ephesus. The men here have all got some sort of trade. The women would be mostly focused on home duties. Now of course you women are reliant on your husband providing for you - if he doesn’t, or can’t, then there is very little opportunity for you to earn a living, and certainly you can’t expect to get any money from the government.
Now let’s say tragedy strikes - your husband dies! Of course you are going to grieve - but then comes the question - how are you going to survive?
Well, thankfully there are some systems put in place for this very occurrence, after all a premature death wasn’t all that uncommon.
You see, when you get married the brides father pays a dowry. To our modern and western ears, this just sounds wrong, but it actually served a good purpose.
But while you’re imagining you’re in this first century setting, you would be aware that there are laws governing the use of this dowry and that it clearly defines what happens upon the death of the husband.
You see somebody would take control of that dowry, usually another man, whether that’s her son, a close relative or possibly even her father, and then that dowry would be used to support the widow.
Now it wasn’t a perfect system, but for the most part it worked. The reason it worked was because society placed a big level of importance on family.

When Christianity enters...

So, you’re in this society with this system, and then comes along this new religion called Christianity which you learn has come from a Jewish rabbi. You’re attracted to this religion because you hand everything over to God. In Christ you can find freedom from all your burdens - a freedom like no other.
In this religion, you don’t have to work for your salvation - and you don’t have to put your hope on the whim of what a certain god is feeling, rather you can have assurance just by putting your faith and trust into Christ.
Now, as you come into these new faith communities, there is a shift in culture, but unfortunately with such a change, on some matters it’s easy to lose perspective.
What are the new role expectations? And how does this fit in with existing societal structures?
In fact, in our modern day, these exact same questions need to be addressed as the gospel moves into new unreached groups around the world.
Well, as we try to imagine how they tried to adapt, the attempt became a bit misguided. It would seem that the caring role of the church was seen by some as a license to hand over their family obligations to the church.
Applied to widows, families realised that they didn’t need to waste their dowry money on these widows when the church would pick up the bill for them.

Paul’s response

Well, the apostle Paul has caught wind of this. And he has realised how they have taken some good ideas and made them bad.
It’s a sad thing, but unfortunately humans have a tendency to make good things bad. If you were here last week we saw how Paul addressed some misguided views about sex and food - both good things given to us by God, but unfortunately, so easily able to be abused.
Now remember that this letter is addressed to Timothy. But as Paul made clear at the end of chapter 3, he’s concerned that he isn’t going to be able to get to the church at Ephesus any time soon, so he is addressing the issue he is seeing.
Well, after some generic advice, he goes in for this issue of people being misguided by their responsibilities to the widows.

Relationships 101

But before he does he sets out some basics about our relationships with others.
It starts with an exhortation: “do not rebuke an older man harshly” - but then it follows with we should view others.
It’s quite simple really - older men should be treated like your father, younger men like your brother, older women like your mother and younger sisters like you sister.
In other words, treat others like family. If we looked at everyone as either our father, mother, brother or sister then I don’t think Paul would need to say anything more.
Unfortunately, back then, just as it is today, people don’t treat others as they should, because at the end of the day, we struggle to put others before ourselves.

The Widows in Need

In verse 3, Paul then gets into the issue that he has noted as being an issue - and so tells them to give proper recognition to the widows who are really in need.
Now there are a few things to point out in the verse.
Firstly, what the NIV has translated as “give proper recognition to” you’ll notice is translated in many other versions as “honour”. That’s because that’s what the word means. It is in fact the same Greek word used here as when Jesus talks about honouring your mother and your father, as in the 5th commandment.
It seems to me that the NIV translation is a bit weak, as it is more than just recognising a person in need, but actually doing something about it.
But the other clarification necessary in this verse is the word “really in need”.
It’s possible to make too much of this because Paul isn’t trying to say that if you’re not needy enough then you don’t need help, however, as will become evident as we go through the next few verses, Paul knows very well that there are cultural and legal systems in place that should help here, and it’s not his intention to take from that. He knows that if the church tries to take on every case, then it will become overloaded to the point of dysfunction - but why do that when the systems already exist?
You see on one hand, we should help everyone
But, so I don’t take that logic too far, let’s see how Paul explains it.
In verse 4, he points to whether or not there are children, or even grandchildren who can help out.
And here he addresses one problem directly - those who think that Christianity was a means of getting out of family responsibilities should think again - in Paul’s words, “[they should] put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.” It is after all the fifth command.
I recall Jesus correcting the Pharisees in a like manner - in their zeal to please God, they had been neglecting their own family - but Jesus rebuked them for this.
If I just momentarily jump over verses 5 to 7 and go to verse 8, you see Paul again hammering this point home: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
The point is, even unbeliever are caring for their families, and if you think that in the name of Christianity you can stop, well you are sadly mistaken!
If I just quickly come back to verse 5 and 6, you see Paul comparing the widow in need with the widow not in need.
Interestingly, Paul puts a different slant on things. Where up to now he’s considered whether their are relatives that can help or not, in these verses he puts an ethical slant on it.
In verse 5 he says, the widow in need will put their trust in God, whereas verse 6 compares this woman with the widow who lives for pleasure.
This raises a very pertinent question: do we only help the godly Christian? Or do we help anyone?
To answer that question properly, I believe we need to go further afield than just this passage. Particularly once we get to the teaching of Jesus, we see him teaching to love your enemy and be kind to them. We see this also in his actions and how caring he was even towards foreigners.
So I think it is wrong to conclude that we don’t care for the ungodly, however I don’t believe that contradicts Paul’s writing here.
You see, while we are to care for the ungodly, when they are living for pleasure, there is not much we can do. The real help we can offer will not be accepted - its like Paul says, they are dead even while they live.
You see, there is a real correlation between seeking God and finding help. That help might come through a human agent, but it is only as we seek God that we truly find it.

Enrolled Widows

Now I want to quickly move on because I want to spend some time looking at the application for us.
So as we move to verse 9 Paul moves onto a related but slightly different issue. He talks about the widows who should or shouldn’t go on the list of widows.
The big problem for us, is that we don’t really know what this “list of widows” is, and we’re forced to guess by the context of what is said.
Some suggest that its a carry on from the previous paragraph and talks about the women who qualified to be “recognised”, however I think there is evidence that there is more to it then that.
I suggest, on the basis of the advice that follows, that this list of widows were widows that made a pledge to the church and dedicate themselves to the service of it.
In verse 10, Paul lays out a number of qualifications for this role, however, quite possibly, where getting clues as to the way these widows serve the church - namely, by helping to look after the children, showing hospitality, washing feet, and helping those in trouble.
This makes a bit more sense of the age requirement of 60 - based on this reading, it’s not as if we don’t help widows under 60, but they are not as suitable for this specific program that is being run in this community.
I won’t go through these verses in detail, but it’s perhaps worth pointing out that Paul is actually encouraging re-marriage in verse 14, in contrast to a line of thought which suggests re-marriage is wrong.

How it applies to us

Well, we could explore this a bit further but what I want to do now is to take a step back and think how this applies to us.
Now the reason I tried to take you back into this time, is to attempt to show that Paul is addressing some particular issues that applied to that culture.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that our system is obviously quite different. We don’t have a dowry system where a close relative is obliged to look after a widow with it. Women now can get work, or if for whatever reason work is not viable, there are pensions or other benefits that they are eligible for. You might complain about the rate of the pension, but we’ll leave that complaint for another day.
So if the specifics of this passage aren’t of direct use to us, what do we take home from this?

Don’t shirk responsibility

Well, as I read through this passage, one of the main errors that I feel Paul is trying to address is: don’t avoid your responsibility to others.

The social gospel problem

I think there is a problem that can be particularly prevalent in conservative evangelical churches, and that is that we can swing away from our social responsibilities.
It’s sad because in our eagerness to show that we are not saved by works, and seeing that some churches have diluted the gospel to the point that it is just about being nice to one another, we highlight our point of difference by somehow avoiding the social responsibility.
I find it a strong indictment against the church, that now we find the strongest voices for some of the most marginalised in our society coming from deeply secular groups like the Greens and political activist group GetUp!
But into the mix came liberal theology. By liberal theology, I’m talking about a very different approach to the bible, where at best, it’s a nice guide book, but don’t take it too seriously.
As this theology spread, the gospel became very watered down, and today you will hear all sorts of people calling themselves Christian, but only now a distant shadow of what the Bible says.
However, (and this is the fascinating part), with this liberal theology, the focus shifted from salvation by grace, to this general feeling of being nice to one another.
By contrast, those who maintained the authority of the word of God, of which we are part of this legacy, were keen to show that being nice and doing good works isn’t enough. Salvation can only come through Jesus and Jesus alone.
But in the eagerness to show this difference, there can be a tendency to shun those good works which were a defining mark of the bible-believing church prior to this liberal movement.
The result being, conservative evangelical churches have all too often lost their social responsibility.
I find it a strong indictment against the church, that now we find the strongest voices for some of the most marginalised in our society coming from deeply secular groups like the Greens and political activist group GetUp!
Just look at the words Paul wrote in verse 8 - the neglect of proper responsibilities has reduced them to being “worse than an unbeliever”.
Imagine what Paul would say to us, knowing that our social responsibility is not even on the same level as these unbelieving groups.

Being systematic

Now I also want to draw an application from verses 9 to 15. You see, I argued that Paul was talking about a system in place - but it’s not a system that should necessarily be replicated for us.
But there are two things I think we can draw from it. Firstly, it is wise to be systemic about our help. There is a logic to the system and it makes sense for their culture.
This might mean for us, looking at ways in which we can identify the most vulnerable and making sure that as far as possible, no one is falling through the cracks.

Using the vulnerable

But there is another thing as well. Based on my reading, that is, that this list was actually a list of widows who were to dedicate themselves to the church for service - we can see that there is value in allowing the vulnerable a chance to serve.
Sometimes we can mistakenly divide people into those who need help, and those who can give help. But these people who are struggling, for whatever means that might be, aren’t beneath us - rather they have much to offer, and sometimes, as is the case with the widows here, quite likely have more time and energy to ue.

NAIDOC Week

Before I bring things to a close, I thought that this being the start of NAIDOC week it is worth applying these thoughts to our treatment of Aboriginals.
If you look at the collonial history, its a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the way the church supported Aboriginals. On many occasions, churches were right behind many of the great atrocities that occurred. At other times, we saw Christians standing up for their rights.
Today however, while it is really great to hear the wonderful stories of what is happening amongst the Aboriginal communities, we also know that there is a legacy of the generational abuse that has occurred.
We now have a responsibility to reach out to these hurting communities and show them that we care. I believe that the churches should be at the forefront of this push. When we neglect them, sadly I feel that Paul criticism applies to us: we become worse than the unbeliever.
But I also had the application from verses 9 to 15. Remember, this is where the widows themselves were used for service. Just like the church back then was best served when the widows were used in this way, we will be at our best when Aboriginal voices are given a voice.

Common Grace

You may or may not know there is a group that has relatively recently formed called Common Grace. They are a group of Christians from a variety of different traditions, but who have come together to take up this social responsibility. They deal with a number of different issue including refugees, domestic violence, creation care, but also justice for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders.
Well, this week during NAIDOC week, they are going to be sharing stories of Aboriginal women (women because that is the theme of NAIDOC week this year), telling their stories and giving them a voice.

Conclusion

In many ways I think groups like Common Grace are putting passages like the one before us into practice in a modern setting.
They are not shirking their responsibility, but instead allowing the most vulnerable a place where they can be safe, but more than that, to have a voice.
We have recently adopted our vision of Love, Share and Serve. If we are serious about such a vision then when we read passages like this one in , we should be moved to really love like God wants us to love - a love that reaches out to those that are hurting the most.
Let’s pray...
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