In his first letter to Timothy Paul discusses the pastoral care of widows (5:3-16). His concern arises from the Old Testament mandate to care for widows and orphans as an expression of God’s justice.James expresses a similar focus in his definition of “pure, undefiled religion” as “care for orphans and widows” (James 1:27). Paul begins his directions to Timothy on this matter by articulating a basic principle. He casts it in the form of a general condition: “If any widow has children or descendants (grandchildren?), let them learn first to practice their religious obligations with their own household and to repay recompense (amoibas) to their parents. For this is pleasing before God” (my translation).
Widows who have relatives in close proximity should receive their care from those relations. Paul expresses this as part of their religious obligation as Jesus followers. God takes pleasure when children and grandchildren demonstrate their commitment to the fifth commandments, showing respect to their parents. The fact that such behaviour “should be learned” suggests that church leaders should not expect this to occur “naturally.” This principle needs to be taught and modeled so that believers understand its importance with God. The verb translated “learn (manthanetōsan)” reflects the concept of discipleship (cf. 2 Timothy 3:14). Becoming part of the “household of God” does not justify a believer’s avoidance of the responsibility to care for naturally family members.
Paul, however, adds a second explanatory element to support this principle. He indicates that such care “repays recompense to their parents.” Given the various investments that parents have made in raising their children, it is only right that children as they mature reciprocate as there is need and opportunity. While the noun translated “recompense (amoibē) only occurs here in the New Testament, we encounter it frequently in Classical Greek writers, as well as in the papyri contemporary with the New Testament.
Hesiod (Opera et Dies 334) in the eighth-seventh centuries B.C. talks about the person who abuses and attacks his father in helpless old age and warns of the danger from Zeus will bring severe requital (amoibēn) upon the perpetrator. Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica IV. 1327 encourages Jason, the one who acquires the golden fleece, that he should “pay to your mother a recompense (amoibēn) for all her travail when she bare you so long in her womb” (translated by Douglas Killings, www.OMACL, The Argonautica).
This noun does not occur in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but in second century A.D. new translation by Aquila it is used to gloss Hebrew terms meaning “recompense” (Psalm 27(28):4; 102(103):2; Proverbs 12:14; Isaiah 49:18. In Psalm 27(28):4 the Psalmist pleads for God to “repay” the wicked for their evil work. In Psalm 102(103):2 the poet urges himself “not to forget all [Yahweh’s] benefits (which Aquila renders with a form of amoibē.
In New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Volume 4 (p. 14) the noun is read as a reconstructed word in first century A.D. inscription from Kyzikos in Mysia (line 35). The editors note that amoibē “is often used where a city honours someone in return for philanthropic benefactions conferred.” Josephus uses this noun in a similar sense when he retells the story of Rahab. The spies express their gratitude to Rahab for protecting them and “swore to repay her in future by recompense in act (tēn amoibēn apodōsein)” (Antiquities 5.13.2). In his recapitulation of the story about Abner’s murder (2 Samuel 3:28ff) Josephus tells how David protests his innocence and declares that “the Deity will inflict upon them just punishment (apodōsei tēn…amoibēn) for their lawless deed” (Antiquities 7.45.6).
The sense of “exchange, substitution” finds expression in Josephus’ Wars 1.520 where he describes how the Spartan Eurycles engineers Herod’s execution of his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Eurycles claims to Herod that “he came to bring him life in return for his benefactions to himself, the light of day in repayment (amoibēn) for his hospitality.”
The meaning of the term is clear and when used in conjunction with the verb “repay (apodidōmi) it have a positive sense of reward or a negative sense of punish.
Paul’s use of this expression in 1 Timothy 5:4 suggests then that the support given by adult children to aged parents and widows in particular is just and appropriate benefit that the diligence and care of their parents has rightly earned. That he uses the plural form may suggest that this recompense may take a variety of forms. This duty for adult children to care for parents is a standard motif in Greek ethics (New Documents 8, 113-16). Philo Decal 112 discusses the fifth commandment and asks “for to whom else will they [children] show kindness if they despise the closest of their kinsfolk who have bestowed upon the greatest gifts, some of them far exceeding any possibility of repayment (amoibas).”