America’s entitlement system is going to collapse. We all know it. Social Security and Medicare will go bankrupt soon. One in 7 Americans are now on food stamps. Unless it is repealed, government healthcare is in our future. So, at the very time when entitlements are going bankrupt we are adding millions more to the burdened system. When the system collapses, there will be thousands of “entitled Americans” clamoring for someone’s head. What has happened in Greece will happen here – protests and riots. Look no further than Wisconsin. Foolish Americans will line up to demand the benefits they are “entitled” to. When the government has no more money to dole out, these people will not suddenly understand basic economics and the realities of a thing called a budget. They will continue to cluelessly believe that the government is simply withholding the money.
How will this affect our churches? Churches will likely see many more visitors, but not the kind we hope for. We hope for visitors who will come because they are burdened about their sin and are looking for a Savior. We hope for visitors who are looking for a place to find truth and those who are looking to serve. Instead, we will likely see visitors who are coming for no other reason than to ask for money. Once they give up on the government, many professional beggars will come to the church for handouts. I have known people who devote all their “work ethic” to the great cause of not working. It’s not that they don’t have any skills or energy or creativity or resourcefulness. It’s that they devote all resources to the one job they really know how to do -- work the system. They would rather “work” this way than work at a job. Most churches have met such people already. But we haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till the government buffet line closes. We are then likely to see these people showing up in droves. At that point, we will have to decide whether to give them what they ask for or send them on their way.
Let me say that I think we should do what we can to help those who are truly needy. But it can be hard to determine who is truly needy. As a pastor, I have seen a few people come to the church doors who seemed to have a genuine need. Unfortunately, they have been greatly outnumbered by those I felt were dishonest. One man in particular actually cried for me in telling me his sob story. He could have had a good career in theatre. After giving him something, I decided to do some research. I made some calls and found out that he was scamming the local churches – an estimated 14. It is this kind of person that churches are likely to see more and more of in the coming years.
Some say this will be the church’s finest hour. It will be a great opportunity to minister to people and show the love of God. Perhaps. But what happens when your church budget starts to buckle under the demands? How do you make sure those who are genuinely needy are taken care of, when so many liars are showing up asking for “help”? Pretty soon, the emotional buzz of the “church’s finest hour” is going to dissipate and we’re going to be in a very ugly reality. We’ll have hard decisions to make. And we’ll need a strong scriptural conviction to guide us.
The Bible has a lot to say about taking care of the poor, but are "scammers" the ones the Bible is referring to when it speaks of the poor? Actually, no. The vast majority of references to taking care of the poor are in the context of the church community. In Israel, taking care of the poor meant taking care of genuinely poor Israelites – usually widows, orphans and sojourners. It did not mean taking care of poor Philistines and Edomites. In the same way, in the NT, the exhortations to care for the poor are in the context of the church. The church is supposed to take care of its own poor. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the church’s job to take care of the unbelieving poor. Even more interesting is the fact that the church is not even supposed to take care of Christian widows unless certain qualifications are met and certain steps are first taken. For those who believe it is the church’s job to take care of the poor of society, I’m sure this is quite shocking. Let me provide scriptural proof.
1 Timothy 5:3-16 says: “Honor widows who are truly widows. (4) 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. (5) She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, (6) but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. (7) Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. (8) 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. (9) Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, (10) 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. (11) But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry (12) and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. (13) Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. (14) So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. (15) For some have already strayed after Satan. (16) If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.”
There are many important lessons from this text. Consider that Paul is discussing widows. Widows have genuine needs. Widows were more needy in Paul’s day than in ours. They would not have received social security and life insurance checks after the death of their husband. It was also not as common for women to be in the workforce. And yet, even in that day, widows were not to be put on the list of church support unless they had no family to take care of them. Children, not the government, are supposed to take care of their aging parents. Children were the nuts and bolts of a good retirement plan. Of course, saving for retirement can be a good thing. It can be used to help pay for expenses. But one’s children are supposed to learn to “practice piety” (verse 4) and “make some return to their parents.” People in their 40s or 50s should not be dreaming about how free they will be once their children are out of the home. They should not be planning on huge trips and how they’ll spend their money this way or that. They SHOULD be planning to take care of their aging parents. We are talking about real life here, not fantasy world. Suppose an aging widow has no children. Maybe the children have died. Paul also mentions grandchildren. What about them? Did you know that it is your responsibility to help take care of your aging grandparents? Paul says that this is the practice of piety. He says God is pleased with this. He says children and grandchildren should make some return to their aging parents and grandparents. We are debtors to our parents and grandparents. They did many things for us in raising us up. They provided for all our needs. They took us to the doctor. They changed our diapers. They taught us. They sacrificed for us. We owe them, and if we want to do what is pleasing to God, we will accept these obligations and do our duty when our parents and grandparents get older. Family is God’s ordained provider for the poor. The church comes in when there is no family. If government or church always comes to the rescue, they bail the family out of their obligations in a way that is not truly helpful. Children need to “learn” to practice piety. They will never learn if the government and church always steps in first.
Another interesting thing about this passage is the qualifications a widow must meet before she is put on the church support list. This defies our conventional wisdom. We think the doctrine of grace eliminates all requirements of merit. Not so. Widows must be the wife of one man, have a reputation for good works, have brought up children, have shown hospitality to strangers, have washed the saints' feet, have assisted those in distress, and have devoted themselves to every good work. Then they can be put on the church list, if they have no children or grandchildren to take care of them. There is also an age requirement. Widows must be at least 60. Younger widows should marry. Marriage is the means God has ordained for the support of younger widows, not the government and not the church.
Why? Why such stringent standards? Paul gives the reason in verse 16. “Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.” The church does not have endless resources, and the resources it has needs to be preserved for those who are REALLY needy and have no family remedy and no other option. We might like to think that since God is our Father, the church will always have enough financial resources to give to every need. If that is the case, then why did Paul give these instructions? Certainly, God does have endless resources. But, apparently, God is not going to provide the church with those endless resources so that she can take care of people God told her not to take care of – namely, people who have children and grandchildren who must learn to practice piety.
The point is this. Taking care of widows is very important. So important that the apostle James says this: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” – James 1:27. Even so, the church is not supposed to take care of widows that are young enough to remarry and widows who have children and grandchildren that can take care of them. If this is the case, then how much less is the church supposed to take care of bums and panhandlers that come to our doors wanting nothing more than a free handout?
2 Thessalonians 3:10 says this: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” If someone will not work, then don’t give him handouts. Let him wait until his hunger motivates him to get a job. Sounds graceless to many, I’m sure, but it is the express teaching of scripture. This was spoken to a church. This is what Christians are to do with fellow Christians who are being lazy. If lazy Christians are not supposed to receive handouts, then how much less are lazy unbelievers? In Gal. 6:10, we are commanded: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We are to give first to believers, then to unbelievers, as we have opportunity. How strange would it be then to give to lazy unbelievers while we refuse to give to lazy believers, as we are commanded in 2 Thes. 3:10? The church needs to ponder these things and prepare for the coming onslaught of entitled Americans.