Soft hearts and hard heads

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need… No widow may be put on the list unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds… 1Timothy 5:3, 9-10

The early church took seriously its responsibility for the practical care of members who were in need. You’ve only to read the wonderful second chapter of Acts to see that (especially verses 44-45). This applied particularly to widows.

Certainly this was the case in the church at Ephesus, where Timothy was the pastor, for here in 1Timothy 5 Paul has quite a lot to say on the subject. It seems that there was some kind of official or semi-official register (“the list”) of such women, and that it was quite strictly controlled.

You need to read verses 3-16 as a whole to get the details. It’s not my aim to go into it, but simply to highlight a principle that applies to many other situations as well. It can be summed up like this: the church should have a soft heart but a hard head. By which I mean, simply, a heart full of compassion – and a head that’s realistic.

Times have changed enormously over two thousand years, and we need to remember as we read these verses that in the world of the New Testament an elderly widow who was “left all alone” (verse 5) was in a pretty desperate state. There were, of course, no state pensions or social security, no lunch clubs or food banks. How would such widows manage if not with the support of the church?

Paul takes for granted that Christ-like compassion must be shown to them – of course: but he also makes clear that the church shouldn’t become a soft touch for those who are just out for what they can get. Hence the quite strict “qualifications” he suggests for “widows who are really in need” (verse 3).

I remember how, many years ago when I was a new minister in my mid-twenties, and no doubt very naive, I sometimes gave money to people who came to me with hard-luck stories. Some, perhaps, were genuine, and the money was well-used. But I soon discovered that on other occasions I had simply been taken for a ride – and that the command of Jesus to “give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42) needed to be treated with – shall we say – a little discretion!

Of course, Paul is not talking here about one-off acts of kindness. No, he explicitly mentions that “list” of widows who might be entitled to help (verse 9), suggesting ongoing support. So perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad about my misplaced generosity – after all, surely it’s better to be taken for a ride now and then than to miss a real opportunity to show the love of Jesus? Better to err on the side of generosity than of meanness.

But the principle remains. The church’s business is primarily to proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen; it is not, as I’ve heard it described, “the religious arm of the welfare state”.

This principle doesn’t only apply to money. At one time I was involved in quite a thriving church youth club. Intended mainly but not exclusively for church kids, it gave them somewhere safe to be together, to enjoy themselves, and to build relationships – and, we prayed, to feel the love of Jesus.

But then things changed. A number of local youngsters began to come along, and some of them had serious problems. Quite suddenly we were in a new and very difficult situation. But… we were Christians! It was our duty to make these youngsters welcome! Which we genuinely tried to do.

But, putting it briefly, they pretty well wrecked the place – not in a physical sense (though there was bit of that), but in terms of mood and atmosphere. The original members began to stay away, and the club ceased to be what it was intended to be.

Don’t get me wrong. “Open” youth work, designed for young people with no church background or affiliation, is a great, indeed vital, ministry – but it needs to be done by those who are called and qualified to do it. And the fact is that that just wasn’t us. We simply weren’t equipped.

Our hearts, I’m sure, were right. But we lacked know-how and realism, and as a result we came unstuck. Our efforts were of no value to the church – and (much more to the point) they were of no value to those needy young people. I suspect they just ended up laughing at us.

You can probably add your own examples. It’s up to all of us, as individuals and in our various churches, to ask God for guidance as to how to get this delicate balance right.

The basic rule has to be: soft hearts, yes – but not a soft touch. And hard heads, yes – but never stony indifference.

Lord, help us to get it right!

O God, give me the faith of Abraham, the courage of Moses, the passion of Elijah, the wisdom of Solomon – and, above all, the love, tenderness and compassion of Jesus. Amen.

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