Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Timothy 5:1-10) transports me to some ad wars raging on the airwaves of battleground states in the presidential campaign. Two competing ads dramatically show a fictional “Granny” being wheeled over a cliff (I wonder if this is what inspired the Brits to air the Olympic opening spot of the Queen jumping out of a helicopter). The first ad to air was from an organization supporting the Obama campaign, with a Paul Ryan lookalike actor pushing Granny over the cliff, giving the message that his plans to do away with Medicare as we know it through privatization will be a death knell to little old ladies. The responding ad has a President Obama lookalike actor pushing Granny over the cliff, giving the message that the Affordable Care Act, with its plan to lower costs of Medicare and to give panels of physicians more say-so than insurance companies as to what procedures should be covered, is going to be the death knell for little old ladies.
Taking care of Granny has been an issue of governance for a long time, long before the Affordable Care Act took effect, long before Paul Ryan’s budget plan, long before Roosevelt signed Medicare into law, long before the British empire even had kings and queens. It was a front and center issue for the early church as they sought to govern themselves in the newly established beloved community. One of the first governing conflicts to arise within this fledgling community involved care for the widows, with the Greek grannies complaining that they were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution.The first board of deacons resulted, given the responsibility to keep grannies of every ethnic stripe well fed and far away from the cliff. We don’t hear a lot about how the system of daily distribution worked, but we do get another hint at a governing controversy here in Paul’s letter to Timothy. Apparently, some were complaining that too many grannies were taking advantage of the distribution, and that they shouldn’t be relying on the system to get their daily bread. If they had able bodied children and grandchildren, let the families take responsibility. And then we see a voice of meritocracy creep into the conversation. The daily distribution shouldn’t be for all the hungry and hurting widows who were bereft of family. Only those who had maintained lifelong fidelity to Gramps, and who spent their days washing the feet of the Lord’s people were deserving of compassion care. If Granny is living for pleasure, forget it. She’s as good as dead. Over the cliff. Oh, and there was an age limit, too. Needy widows under 60 need not apply. Suffering fifty-nine year olds: Go jump off a cliff.
It’s clear from reading the New Testament that there was a definite culture war going on, a campaign for the hearts and minds of the early church. Paul, with his Pharisee blood still pumping through his veins, represents the conservative side of the spectrum, reserving compassion only for the deserving poor. James, steeped as he was in the Sermon on the Mount, represents the liberal side, establishing the general welfare for all in need as a baseline commitment, irregardless of background. Whereas Paul’s budget plan for the early church set up clear constraints and hoops for widows to leap through, James lays out his plan succinctly: Religion that is pure and stainless according to God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows who are suffering, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. No requisite foot-washing or proof of marital fidelity to merit your Social Security and Medicare. Paul and James in their first century version of ad wars remind me of my own Granny Granddaddy. From what I have heard, Grandaddy was a stern man, with values of meritocracy at his core. He hated FDR’s newfangled entitlement programs, so much so that during the depths of the Great Depression, when a government agent drove up to his home to explain what the New Deal was all about and how he could benefit from anti-poverty programs, Grandaddy met him on on the porch with a shotgun and threatened him with a double barrel full of shot if he didn’t get off his property; he wanted no part of it. Granny, on the other hand, thought Social Security and Medicare were the greatest programs under the sun. She remembered what life was like for the old folks prior to these programs. They were warehoused in horrible conditions in what was known as the “poor house.” Prior to the New Deal, 48 states refused any aid to the elderly who had living children. All states had strict qualifications, including fidelity to spouses, for determining who the “deserving” poor were. My Granny’s only interest in politics, as I remember, involved her support for those who protected and strengthened the New Deal entitlement programs. It was not a partisan issue to her – she was a huge fan of Nixon for expanding and increasing Social Security benefits. I’d love to hear what Granny would say about the politicians today who equate such government support with socialism and want to privatize care for the widows and orphans. I suspect she’d want to send them to the poor house, or push them off a cliff.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.