How should a society treat its widows? The ideal answer to this is, the way it treats every other human being. But we know that for most widows, reality has fallen brutally short of this ideal. Through the ages, and in too many cultures, widows have generally been a vulnerable and often savagely exploited group. The question of who should care for them, especially older widows, has been the subject of much debate. For Christians, the architects of the early church set these instructions:
These verses from the Bible are part of a broader set of rules for the administration of the early Christian communities. There is a distinction made between widows with children and grandchildren, and true widows – women with no relatives at all. The latter were meant to be the responsibility of the church, or in today’s context, various social agencies or governments. But the former are clearly meant to be taken care of by their families, with both adult children and grandchildren being held accountable.
My grandmother Mercy devoted her life to her family. Their interests and well-being were always above her own, to the extent that she has no savings in her name, all my late grandfather’s earnings having been spent on raising their children. Today, she is left with three of her four children alive and well, four children-in-law, nine grandkids (myself included), one grandson-in-law and two great-grandkids. By most standards, she’s been abundantly blessed with family. But how many of them are actively involved in her life? And if they are not involved in her life, how can they justify their neglect and still proudly proclaim they are Christians?
My mom, supported by my dad, has always fulfilled her responsibility to her mother. And during her moods of benevolence, so has Daughter 2. However, because both daughters are homemakers who don’t personally earn money, some people belittle my grandmother for what they term “living off her sons-in-law”. It is a moronic claim, but one that she nonetheless has taken to heart.
It is one of the reasons she has retreated to her old flat in Mumbai, choosing to live alone instead of with either daughter. Stronger and wiser folks might be able to shrug off ignorant taunts, but Mercy never was a savvy person. Accepting that you are financially dependant is a difficult thing for anyone. Deeply entrenched Indian cultural norms make it more difficult for her to be dependant on her daughters. Son 1, a generous and caring man, is no more. And so she feels forced to depend only on Son 2, who has ordered her to live only off the funds he sends and not accept anything from her daughters. Her quiet sense of pride does not allow her to ask outright for money. If not met with compassion and sensitivity, it is a humiliating position many widows find themselves in.
When she first moved to the US, I’d often encourage her to take up some hobby to keep herself busy. She’d just brush it off or change the subject. I’d wonder why she wasn’t more active, naively not realising that all hobbies cost money – money she didn’t have and felt embarrassed to ask her sons for, especially knowing their wives begrudged her presence in their homes. Every practical suggestion my parents made to ensure she had some financial freedom and dignity, was shot down by the others. So she spent years like that, intentionally made to feel like a burden, unloved and unwanted, trying to get through life making as few ripples as possible.
To you who are parents, I ask: when you spend on your children, to see them educated, entertained, happy and taken care of, do you do it joyfully? Or in anger and resentment, making them feel bad for every penny spent on them? I know most of you will fall into the first group. So when we spend unreservedly on our young dependants who don’t have the capacity to earn yet, why can’t we do so for our old dependants, who are past the age of earning or fending for themselves? Why do we forget that it was they who made us capable of earning in the first place?
In just a few short weeks, every member of my family will join Christians around the world in reflecting on Jesus’s final hours during the solemnities of Holy Week, as we’ve done countless times before. I want to draw attention to the part where He entrusts his widowed Mother Mary to one of His followers. His disciples were good men and women, who’d surely have looked after this grief-stricken mother even had He not said anything. But He did not simply assume they would. He did not abandon His mother. He made specific arrangements for her care even as He hung in agony on that cross.
The verse at the beginning outlines our responsibility towards our widows even more clearly. It places the onus of care on children and even grandchildren. Most of my cousins have now crossed into adulthood, or are on the brink of it. And so this message is for each one of us. Before we make any external show of faith – flocking to churches or leading prayer groups or engaging in social service – we are first called to “show godliness” by tending to the needy within our own families. Or else we’re not Christians. Faced with this directive, what excuse can any practicing Christian have for ignoring old, widowed mothers?