Beyond the Lectionary Text: 1 Timothy 5

by Bill Sytsma

Comments and Observations:

Children have an uncanny ability to notice differences and point out perceived unfairness.

Imagine a father who desires to support each of his three children as they graduate.  When his oldest son graduates, he co-signs a loan to help him pay for his education.  Two years later, when his daughter graduates, he buys her a new car and gives her money for a down payment on a home.  Three years later, when his youngest son graduates, he hires a contractor to build him a new home, and gives his son a job.

At first glimpse, this looks unfair.  The oldest son could complain that his dad merely cosigned a loan for him, while he gave his younger siblings vehicles and homes.

We carry the basic assumption that treating children fairly means that parents must treat each child equally, offering them the same gifts, benefits, and opportunities.  To give one child a vehicle while making another child repay a loan seems to violate the basic assumption that fair treatment requires uniformity.

The problem with applying the principle of “fairness” is that the standard of treating everyone uniformly does not allow consideration for unique circumstances.  We might believe the actions of the father mentioned above seem unfair, but would our opinions change if we discovered that his youngest son was afflicted with a severe disability?  Would we believe the decisions were “fair” if we learned that the oldest son had received a fellowship that paid him a stipend while attending graduate school that would prepare him for a lucrative career, and that his daughter was preparing for service with a non-profit agency that was providing water filtration systems to third-world nations?

When we are trying to apply our standards for fairness, it is important to know the specific circumstances.

In the early New Testament church, there were tensions that revolved around the welfare of widows.  To their credit, the early church took a stand to make sure that the widows in their midst had the provisions they needed.  The early Christians were unique because they cared for people who had no legal status.  However, their efforts to show grace to people who had no legal status proved to be difficult, because the amorphous standard of “fairness” is so difficult to apply.

In Acts 6, the complaints about unfairness rose to a level that caused the apostles to appoint new leaders to oversee the care of the widows, as they wisely appointed deacons (who seemed to have Greek names) to make sure that neither Greek nor Jewish widows were neglected.

In 1 Timothy 5, Paul is helping Timothy consider how members of a church family should demonstrate love for one another.  Everyone in Timothy’s church would have agreed that they should love one another.  We can assume that they would want to treat the widows in the church fairly, but Paul understood that this issue could become contentious.

The end result of Paul’s instructions will end up with a variety of considerations for widows, as well as other members of the church family.  Some widows will be enrolled and supported by the church family, while others will be expected to find help from their family members.  The results may appear “unfair,” because there will not be a simple uniform standard.

Textual Notes:

Thoughts for Preaching: