Charity and Triage

1 Timothy 5:3-16 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

Some of Paul’s writings can seem difficult to process or even irrelevant because they are so tightly bound to cultural circumstances that seem far behind us. In today’s example, a reader might want to explore what it meant to be a widow in the early church as it existed in Ephesus, and what particular challenges the church faced at that time.

A trustworthy commentary or study Bible can help a reader uncover some of these important details of history, and such a learning process is always useful. That’s not where I am going today, though. Instead, I want to see if this seemingly anachronistic passage might hold some general principles that remain valuable now.

Let’s begin with a common point every church through time shares: Some churches may seem rich and some may seem poor, but all churches ultimately have finite resources. This means some care must be taken in how resources are distributed among people in need.

If we are to be good stewards, a form of charitable triage is required. In medicine, triage is a process where the wounded or ill are ranked for treatment so as to maximize the number of survivors. I see a kind of triage happening in this passage.

Of lowest priority would be those who demonstrate or express a need, but who also clearly have the ability to resolve their problems on their own. When encountering these situations, a church’s efforts should focus largely on education, showing people the path to independence.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul gave this very direct comment regarding idleness: Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”

In situations where people cannot resolve their problems on their own, church leaders still need to carefully analyze the family dynamics, exploring whether some sort of healing needs to happen in  the relationships there. The continuing importance of the family unit within the church comes through clearly in what Paul wrote to Timothy.

Where there is family, church support of people in need would again have to be somewhat conditional. As a pastor, I have seen families try to pass along responsibility for an impoverished or ill relative to the church, wanting to be free of the stress caused by the family member.

The family as a whole could very well need financial and spiritual assistance in supporting the relative. But the family still should take a demonstrably active role in the process, particularly if that family claims to abide by Christian values.

Of highest priority would be those who are truly alone and unable to help themselves. With careful stewardship of resources, a church should be able to offer these people God’s love in powerful and comforting ways.

In all of these situations, grace and gentleness should prevail, of course, with the goal of bringing everyone closer to God constantly in mind.

Dear Lord, may your Holy Spirit help us navigate the often difficult circumstances surrounding charitable work, and may your kingdom be glorified in all we do. Amen.

The Open Door

Revelation 4:1-11

By Chuck Griffin

As part of my preaching on Ascension Sunday, I referenced Christ reopening Paradise for us. Much can be seen through an open door.

When John of Patmos looked through the door, what did he see? Well, God, of course. And despite seeing, he could not find words for what he saw. The best he could do was describe exotic items of our world—jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal—and say they somehow look like God and what surrounds God in heaven.

John’s vision reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, written 380 years before Christ. Plato compared unschooled people to people who have lived all their lives shackled in a cave, their backs to the opening, seeing nothing but shadows against the wall before them. The shadows would be their reality.

If one of these prisoners were to break his shackles and escape through the cave’s mouth, he would find reality incomprehensible. There would be no way initially to connect the movement of the beings and objects outside with the shadows that had seemed so real. And if the man were to go back to his shackled friends and try to explain, they would think him mad.

John of Patmos was like Plato’s escaped prisoner. Instead of a cave opening, he looked from our shadowy world into heaven. And he found it very difficult to describe in words the glory he witnessed.

There are aspects of his vision that remain familiar, however, and we’re reminded we can get at least a glimpse through the now-open door. We have moments where we’re lifted just high enough to peek over the threshold, particularly while in worship and prayer.

In John’s view of heaven, God is the point of worship, as God should be here on earth. In heaven, beings both bizarre and familiar to us sing of God’s holiness and exist in a constant state of pure and perfect worship.

There also is evidence in John’s vision that our worship here lets us participate in worship there. As we read in chapter 5, we see the prayers of the saints—those of us here on earth—used as incense, our smoky praises and petitions floating before God.

We also see Christ in the midst of this vision, described as the “Lion of Judah” but appearing as a slain lamb. Having come to earth to be with us and die for our sins, Christ then returned to heaven at the ascension, carrying our humanity with him. He has complete power over our fates and how history is to unfold.

A view of heaven changes everything, doesn’t it? At least for as long as we can remember the view, cherish it, and revisit it through worship and prayer.

People who once looked lost to us suddenly have infinite potential. Situations that looked hopeless are actually full of promise. This shift in thinking happens because we see those people and situations against the backdrop of the open door. The light that shines through, twinkling as if it has passed through jasper and carnelian and crystal, recolors everything in this world.

A view of heaven is one powerful benefit of being among the church, the collection of people who look toward the open door.

Lord, grant us new visions of the life Jesus has unlocked for us. Amen.