When I was younger my grandmother and I would visit with, as she phrased it, the “old people.” Spry and lively up into her early 90s, my grandmother spent over a decade running errands and caring for her older friends. One of the many ways she served was by visiting those who were hospitalized, and she liked to bring me with her. She told me it was helpful for older people to talk with young people. I found this rather puzzling at the time, but as an adult I realized I served as a novelty, a distraction from the reality of their failing bodies. I remember the many hospital rooms, the generic, blank walls made all the more stark by the occasional vase of vibrant flowers, the sounds of busy doctors striding down the hall, and how happy the patients were to have visitors.
What is notable is who I don’t remember, although I know they must have been present. I don’t remember nurses bustling about, checking machines and changing sheets. I don’t remember adult children trying to spend as much time as possible with their dying parents. In general, when thinking about end of life care, we often focus exclusively of our ailing and aging friends and loved ones—which we should do. But we also need to remember and honor those who care for them, the caregivers.
This is the first of a series of three blogs about the importance of caregivers (the second in the series is about the burden of caregiving and the third is about creating a culture of care). For the sake of clarity, I’m defining “caregivers” as anyone who is directly responsible for the care of aging and ailing people. This can include nurses and physicians, adult children caring for parents, and those who are responsible for helping friends and loved ones make end of life decisions. This week, we’re going to be looking at the Biblical meaning of caregiving.
Like many “topical” subjects, the Bible does not have a chapter devoted to caregivers. But the Bible is full of verses about caring for those who cannot care for themselves. These people are usually defined as being “sojourners,” the “fatherless,” and the “widows.” The first two groups are self-explanatory. However, the definition of “widow” can trouble contemporary readers. Does this mean only a woman who has lost her husband, or is this relevant to a man who lost his wife? Yes and no. According to Bonnie Bowman Thurston’s work, The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church, the Hebrew word for “widow”—almanah—comes from the root word alem, meaning “unable to speak.” Effectively, “widows” in Biblical times meant someone who had no power or advocate (husband or father) to protect them. How does this apply to Western culture? While widows can also be in need of protection and care, the underlying moral idea is to care for those who have no voice or have lost the ability to defend themselves. Unfortunately, elderly or ailing people can often fall into this category. So, when we are looking at the Biblical principles of caring for others, it is best to view these specific groups as a larger ideological concept of people in need of care.
The Books of the Law lay out how the Israelites must care for the widows and fatherless. “And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow… shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” (Deuteronomy 14:29) Proverbs also frequently extols the need to defend the weak. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute, speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9). In fact, a person or a culture that does not care for those in need are condemned and judged accordingly. “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you…I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries.” (Ezekiel 22:7-15) Showing mercy and compassion for others is not an option in God’s kingdom—it’s a command.
There are two notable examples of caregivers in the Bible. The first is the story of Ruth. After Naomi’s sons and husband die in Moab, she releases her daughters-in-law back to the families. But Ruth “clings” to Naomi and refuses to leave her. Her decision to go with Naomi was a great sacrifice. Rather than remarry among her own people, Ruth leaves her homeland and goes to Israel as a widow, the very lowest member of that society. Still, Ruth dutifully goes out to the fields and provides for herself and her mother-in-law. It is an act of great courage on her part, as well as a loving sacrifice—to care for the needs of Naomi, while her own future was anything but secure.
Still, there is no greater example than that of Christ Himself. His ministry saw the healing of the diseased and the restoration of the broken. He spoke not with the powerful but with the weak. He felt compassion when He could have expressed condemnation, and He showed mercy when He could have—rightly—shown judgment. He demonstrated to His disciples the importance of having a servant’s heart. “No one has greater love than the one who gives his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). A caregiver sacrifices his or her time, energy, and love every day. The attributes of Christ, His mercy and compassion, are all critical to caregiving. While we can never measure up to His example perfectly, we should always remember that caregivers aren’t just doing good work—they are doing God’s work, exemplified in Christ.
My grandmother didn’t meet the standard definition of a “caregiver”, but I think she served as such. She met with the lonely and brought joy. She saw their needs and did her best to meet them. She freely sacrificed her time and gave them her love. She, like many caregivers, do not always receive the recognition they deserve. But they, as James wrote, live out “true religion.” “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27) Celebrate the caregivers in your life and remind them that they are serving God in all that they do for others.
By Robin Ferguson, AFL Administrator