Worse Than an UnbelieverFr. Barnabas Powell
Ever heard someone say “I’m hoping for the best, but expecting the worst?” Yeah, me too. In fact, I’ve said it! And the truth is it’s never happened, the worst I mean. That thing that I’ve feared the most has never happened. And yet, isn’t it amazing how our minds can conjure up these “worst case” scenarios, and then we worry about something that hasn’t happened and probably never will!
We humans can be a pessimistic bunch. And yet, there is something that CAN happen that is truly worst of all!
Look at our lesson today in 1 Timothy 5:1-10:
TIMOTHY, my son, do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are real widows. If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; whereas she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this, so that they may be without reproach. If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.
St. Paul is, once again, encouraging his spiritual son St. Timothy, as Timothy leads his first parish. And what I find fascinating about this pastoral direction given by Paul to Timothy is that all of his words insist Timothy pastor based on relationships, not mere clinical theology. Now careful, that doesn’t mean theology isn’t important. It’s actually the opposite. The theology of the Faith is absolutely indispensable, BUT, the theology has to be practiced in real, everyday life! In other words, to be true theology, it has to be practiced. As we Orthodox say “To pray is the be a theologian, and to be a theologian is to pray!”
Notice the strata of people Paul teaches Timothy to deal with: First, older men. See Timothy was a young man. Earlier in this letter Paul tells Timothy “don’t despise your youth.” Timothy was a young priest in his first parish, and he was going to have to do the hard work of dealing with all kinds of people at all the stages of human life. And the first group Paul mentions CAN be the toughest for a young man. How do I pastor men who are older than me? I treat them like I’d treat a respected father. Not arrogant or bossy, but encouraging these older men to follow, not me, but Christ.
Then Paul tells Timothy to treat the men his own age as brothers and the older women as mothers and the younger women as sisters.
Paul mentioned widows next. And here is where it gets interesting. You see, there were a lot of widows in the days of Paul and Timothy. Men would go to war and not come back. Illness would take men as well. Plus, the particular Christian challenge at the time was the wives of martyrs. When a Christian man was martyred for the Faith, the Church felt a particular call to take care of the widow. After all, all the teaching of about the Church as the “Body of Christ” and the “Family of God” all insisted that our attitude about the Church be as a family, not a corporation or club.
It’s in this light that Paul makes his most provocative statement. He tells Timothy to make sure his parish knows that someone who doesn’t take care of his own family “has disowned the Faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” You see, the Orthodox Christian Faith isn’t a club or a corporation; it’s a family, and if the Faith hasn’t changed a person into the awareness of this truth, that person simply isn’t Orthodox. They are, in fact, worse than an unbeliever BECAUSE they have all the Truth of the Faith without ANY of the change!
Today, are you Orthodox in more than just name? Do you take care of your family, and is your definition of “family” informed and transformed by your Orthodox Faith? We Orthodox are called to be known in our communities as those who love one another. And this hard work of relationships is meant to make us Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Christmas is just a few days away. And this is the last day to order Fr. Barnabas’ new book in time for the holidays. Go to store.ancientfaith.com and order a few copies of “A Faith Encouraged” and give the gift of Purposeful Orthodoxy for Christmas! Thanks.