Yesterday, I listened to a Dear Sugar podcast in which the topic of discussion was that invisible “line” in intimate relationships
— that edge at which your ability to stay with someone tips toward separation. Cheryl Strayed remarks that love in committed relationships MUST be unconditional — but even so, all of us do carry conditions deep within ourselves. This line is not the same for everyone, and we may not even know what it is until we are right up against it. It is much easier to draw the line when dealing with sin in the abstract than when dealing with the people we love who commit it.
My soul trembles in the midst of conflict with the people I love, and I spend even more time than usual looking inward, trying to discern the best way to proceed. Relationship gurus like “Sugar” offer conflicting advice, and I find myself turning to my faith, remembering that Jesus calls us to be boundlessly generous and endlessly forgiving. This, I know, is the Ultimate Advice on how we should conduct our relationships, but it’s scary to do in a world where we protect our own goodness out of fear that it will be used against us. So we find a place to draw that line, a place at which we will turn our goodness and forgiveness and generosity off.
I was surprised when I was reading my Bible a few nights ago to find that Paul, in instructing early Christian communities, drew his own lines about whom deserved boundless love.
1 Timothy 5:9-10 says, on the care of widows:
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
I was shocked at the many “conditions” widows were expected to meet if they were to receive support, especially since we often point to the “early Church” as a somewhat utopian community, where resources were shared amongst all, men and women both shouldered leadership duties, etc. But here we have Paul telling us that there is not enough love and generosity to go around, and so we must be judicious, we must decide who “deserves” to be helped and who will have to learn to fend for themselves.
And yet, wasn’t Paul also the one who said we could be saved only by grace? By his own admission, none of us are worthy of the good things that come from God. Why, then, should we make others prove that they are worthy of the good things that come from us?
This reminds me very much of the restrictions people attempt to put on the poor in our society — to qualify for “government handouts,” one must at least prove that she is TRYING to work; to stay in many homeless shelters, one must be clean of drugs and alcohol; to receive five dollars from us on the street, one must convince us that the money will go toward a hamburger or a bus ticket rather than a drink.
But all of that is beyond our purview. Jesus never calls upon us to determine any of these things. He calls for generosity, no questions asked.
I also understand that loving your neighbor as yourself means that you must, in fact, love yourself. This is where we must keep re-examining that line, and discerning when drawing it is the most loving thing to do — when the person you must show boundless love to ends up being yourself.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be what is going on in 1 Timothy with the worthy and unworthy widows. These are not instructions on personal discernment, but blanket statements meant to divide widows into two groups without pausing to know and love them individually, which is perhaps love’s highest calling. Clearly this text survived, but I get a bit of pleasure at the thought of Timothy crumpling it up and tossing it aside, anyway. I hope at the very least, he got to know each widow as a real person before deciding where that line ought to be drawn.