There is a phrase that rings throughout the bible like a cadence: take care of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. There are blessings promised for those who care for these groups and curses promised for those who don’t care, or worse, take advantage of them.
In Exodus God commands the Israelites to treat strangers well because they were strangers in Egypt. God warns the Israelites not to afflict the fatherless and the widow. God says He will hear the cries of those who are afflicted and promises to orphan and widow the wife and children of those who afflict them (Exodus 22:21-24).
The command and promise for justice is reiterated in Deuteronomy. It is phrased from the perspective of God’s action, rather than the action of the Israelites. God loves the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. God clothes them and feeds them. He loves these people, so should you (Deut. 10:8-19).
God sets up a portion of the tithe from all the people to be used for the care of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. He promises to bless all their work if they keep this command. Again, God takes care of the widows by commanding the Israelites to leave the corners unharvested, and to leave a sheaf here and there in the field. In fact, He commands them to leave some of every type of harvest behind in the fields, vineyards, and gardens so that the stranger, fatherless, and widow can come behind and reap that bit of harvest for themselves (Deut. 14:28-29, 24:17-22). We hear a personal account of how this practice sustained the widows, Ruth and Naomi in the book of Ruth.
Over and over, God calls His people to look out for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow throughout the history books, the Psalms, and the prophets in the Old Testament. God is even named, “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5)
Not only does God consistently look out for the widows and call for His people to join Him in looking out for these women, God involved widows in key points of the overall story in the bible. The prophet Elijah stayed with a widow and her son for several years and performed two miracles for them (1 Kings 17:8-24). The prophet Elisha performed one of his miracles for a widow in debt (2 Kings 4:1-7). Tamar was a widow and she remarried Judah, Ruth was a widow and she remarried Boaz. Tamar was King David’s ancestor and Ruth was King David’s great grandma. These two widows, whose stories are told in Genesis and Ruth, were ancestors of David who was an ancestor of Jesus. These women are named in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew. When you look at all the other genealogies in the bible its fathers and sons only, except when it comes to Jesus’ genealogy. The fact that three women were named in Jesus’ genealogy is an emphasis on this message about caring for the widows, fatherless, and strangers (the third woman was Rahab, the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho, who interestingly enough was a stranger among the Israelites after that victory). God cares for them, and has a purpose for their lives. (Genesis 38, Ruth, Matthew 1:3,5)
Why does God care so much about these groups of people? Why is God the “defender of the widows”? I think it’s because they were the absolute most vulnerable people in ancient times. Without a husband women could not earn income and had no advocate in society. Which was important because they had no legal rights on their own. The same is true of the fatherless, not to mention the loss of a father figure in their upbringing. A stranger had no connections, no advocate, no standing in society so they too had difficulty creating income and establishing themselves. These were the vulnerable people who fell through the cracks of society and were treated like refuse. God wanted there to be a safety net for them so they would not fall through the cracks. God wanted there to be special care for them so they would not be treated like refuse, but rather as valued people who were loved by God.
What about the New Testament? Do widows still matter in the new covenant with Jesus? The answer is, of course, yes. After Jesus is born and brought to the temple, the prophetess Anna was a widow who lived at the temple. When she saw Jesus, she thanked God and told everyone about Jesus and the redemption He was going to bring (Luke 2:36-38). Jesus noticed a widow giving all she had at the temple and used her as an example for having a right heart in giving (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead during a funeral procession in Nain (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus tells a parable about the persistent widow to teach us not to give up in our travailing prayers (Luke 18:1-8). In the early church there was some conflict over whether to favor Hebrew widows over Gentile widows and a committee of seven Godly men was put together to sort the problem out. The church experienced growth and blessing after caring for these women in the church (Acts 6:1-7). Paul sends instruction to Timothy for his church’s ministry for widows (1 Tim. 5:3-16). James goes as far as to say, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27 NKJV).
Clearly the message is the same: Look out for the widow and the fatherless. Care for the most vulnerable just as the Father cares, so they know they are loved by God.
I have thought about this message over the years and wondered whether it is still important today. Now women can earn an income, and have legal rights. Who are the most vulnerable? Who are the widows now? I think the answer is single moms.
Some single moms are in fact widows, but some are not; and the children of single moms are often quite fatherless. Some single moms have support systems and help from family and friends, but many do not. Even if they do, it is still so hard to manage raising any number of kids alone; making sure they are safe, fed, and well-adjusted people. The vulnerability gap is enormous and who is there to stand in the gap?
I think God is watching over these women. I think His anger is just as hot against those who abuse them as it was in the Old Testament when He promised curses over those who afflict the widows. Conversely, His blessing is just as abundant for those who help God to stand in the gap and come along side these women.
When you look at the bible, it seems like standing in the gap of vulnerability for our modern day widows should be next to evangelism in the forefront of ministry in our churches. Yet, in my experience that is not the case. Single moms are at best quietly helped by the people who already know them, and encouraged to join groups that will bring some sort of validation. At worst they are publicly shamed and shunned by everyone. I have seen both ends of the spectrum play out for unwed single moms or divorced single moms. Who is standing in the gap then?
I recently came alongside a single mom in my neighborhood who has no support system in her life. I was able to draw on connections to various charity groups through my church to find her some help. But I wished there was something at my church too. A specific ministry for the modern day widow that could speak the love of Christ into her unique vulnerability as a single mom. Ultimately she needs Jesus, the Rock of Salvation, on whom she can rest with assurance.
How can we look out for the widows in our communities now? How can we be Jesus’ hands and feet for the single moms and the fatherless here and now? I believe God has given someone in every church a heart that burns with compassion for these widows. They are the leaders, who like the seven elders of the early church should step out in boldness and faith to stand in the gap of vulnerability.