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Pure Religion: Caring for Orphans and Widows

Posted in: Law & Culture
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By Joshua Spurlock

Crop of The Widows Mite by James Joseph Jacques Tissot

A forty-day fast, praying three hours a day, ordination, and devoting one’s life to teaching others about G-d are all great ways to serve HaShem (the LORD). But they are not the definition of pure religion according to Him. Those wanting to be like HaShem must ensure they care for everything that He cares for.

As Ya’acov (James) says,

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God [Elohim], the Father [HaAv], is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
– Ya’acov (James) 1:27, ESV

Caring for orphans and widows is one of HaShem’s top concerns? Absolutely!

As Moshe (Moses) likewise says,

“For the LORD your God [Elokekhem] is God of gods [Elohei HaElohim] and Lord of lords [Adonei HaAdonim], the great, the mighty, and the awesome God [HaEl], who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:17-18, ESV

How, then, are we to care for orphans and widows? Parashat Ki Teitzei provides some key mitzvot (commandments).

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt [Mitzrayim] and the LORD your God [Elokekha] redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God [Elokekha] may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.  You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt [Mitzrayim]; therefore I command you to do this.
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 24:17-22, ESV

Justice and Mercy

The first mitzvah (commandment) that stands out above with regard to orphans and widows is to maintain the justice due to them. This is the responsibility of nations, provinces/states, and cities/towns at large. Orphans and widows are often the most vulnerable in any society and can also be neglected and even harmed by the justice system of their own communities.

On a personal level, we must all treat orphans and widows with particular care. Do you treat widows in your community with dignity, keeping them involved in your communal activities? Or do you ignore them because they’re older and lack resources or influence? Do you help them when they are in need?

If children get into trouble, are you more willing to believe the kid from the nice family over the adopted kid from abroad? Injustice against the orphans and widows can easily happen on a small scale in weekly interactions—even if you aren’t a government employee or elected official.

HaShem has serious words for those who mistreat orphans and widows:

“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.”
– Shemot (Exodus) 22:22-24, ESV

Yet treating orphans and widows fairly isn’t even the minimum requirement. HaShem commands us to go above and beyond in caring for them.

In addition to ensuring orphans and widows receive fair and equitable treatment at law, and always leave something for the orphan and the widow when harvesting, HaShem has also commanded us to lay up our ma’asar (tithe; literally: 10th) every three years in storehouses in every town/city, a portion of which is reserved for orphans and widows in need.

“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God [Elokekha] may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”
– Devarim (Deuteronomy) 14:28-29, ESV

What about your charity? What about your tithe? Does it go to supporting people and groups that provide for orphans and widows? Do you volunteer time to provide for them? They are high on HaShem’s priority list. Are high they on yours?

Communal Care

For many communities, there is an added mitzvah (commandment) and care that must be taken, because there are orphans and widows inside the community itself. Far from being a burden, these people represent opportunities for being and receiving blessings.

In our community, one family makes a point of bringing in young single people who don’t have families around to their Shabbat table each week. While not technically orphans, these young persons are blessed with the warmth and care of a family in a town where they have none. Widows need similar care.

Shaul (Paul) understood the importance of caring for widows, especially those who don’t have family around. He even laid out guidelines for an official community program to care for such widows.

“Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God [Elohim]. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God [Elohim] and continues in supplications and prayers night and day… Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.”
– 1 Timothy 5:3-5, 9-10, ESV

Shaul is obviously not encouraging people to refrain from caring for some widows, but understands that the community itself may need to prioritize its resources. The first century Jerusalem community even had to set aside special persons to care for the widow program to ensure everyone received what they needed (Ma’aseh / Acts 6:1-3).

Of course, it’s not only the community’s responsibility to care for orphans and widows. As Shaul says above, the children and grandchildren of widows have an even greater responsibility to care for them.

“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
– 1 Timothy 5:8, ESV

As Ya’acov says,

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
– Ya’acov 2:14-17, ESV

Ya’acov speaks of those who believe in the Lord Yeshua (Jesus) in general. How much more is this true of one’s own family!

Yeshua HaMashiakh (Jesus the Christ) had similar words for some of those who claimed to be religious in His day, yet while neglecting the needs of their own parents! As the Lord says, caring for one’s own parents comes before giving gifts to G-d.

“And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God [Elohim] in order to establish your tradition! For Moses [Moshe] said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God [Elohim])—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God [Elohim] by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.’”
– Mark 7:9-13, ESV

Pure Religion and Fake Faith

Caring for orphans and widows is so critical to HaShem’s plan for His people, He issues strong rebukes for those who ignore these commandments and great blessings for those who obey them.

As Yermiyahu HaNavi (the Prophet Jeremiah) says,

“Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.”
– Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) 22:3-5, ESV

And as HaShem says through Malakhi HaNavi (the Prophet Malachi),

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”
– Malakhi (Malachi) 3:5, ESV

HaShem even includes mistreating orphans and widows with immorality, idolatry, slander and bribery to shed blood in a list of sins done by the evil princes of Yisrael (Israel, Cf. Yehezkel / Ezekiel 22:6-12).

And just because people can appear righteous does not mean that their mistreating of orphans and widows will go unnoticed. Yeshua had this rebuke of the hypocritical members of the religious scribes in His day:

“And in his teaching he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’”
– Mark 12:38-40, ESV

So when Ya’acov describes “pure religion” as caring for orphans and widows, he was also implying a critique of those who do not. No matter how good they may appear, those who have the means yet fail to care for the most vulnerable walk in hypocrisy and a false faith. And how much more those who mistreat them.

Do Something

So it’s time to take stock of our actions. Do we care for the orphans and widows around us? Do we even know who they are? If we do know them, do we invite into our homes, provide them with charity and support, and give them the justice and respect they deserve?

When you do this, you do more than just obey HaShem. You are used by Him—because He always cares for the orphans and widows.

“Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
– Tehillim (Psalms) 68:5, ESV

May you extend your hands to those who need it in the spirit and grace of our Lord Yeshua HaMashiakh, and so prove to be his disciples. May you act like your Father in Heaven and care for those who don’t have providers of their own, and so prove to be His Children.

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