Throughout the Bible, God's people are instructed to care for those who often cannot thrive on their own, most often widows and orphans. Because of the lack of honorable employment available for women in ancient times, widows were in an especially difficult position. Without secular institutions to care for these women, widows either relied heavily on family members for financial assistance or lived in poverty.
Throughout scripture, God instructs his people in no uncertain terms to take it upon themselves to make sure these women are provided for. No fewer than 66 Old Testament passages mention widows, saying (among many other things) that widows are not to be taken advantage of (Exodus 22:22), that God defends them (Deuteronommy 10:18), that food is to be left for them to eat (Deuteronomy 24:20-21), and that those who withhold justice from them are cursed (Deuteronomy 27:19). In the New Testament, Jesus - even on the cross - entrusts the care of his mother, Mary, to the disciple John, demonstrating even in his anguish the importance widows play in his kingdom (John 19:26-27). The church is implored on a number of occasions to take care of the widows in their midst. James' language is actually rather direct along these lines: "True religion" is taking care of widows and orphans (James 1:27).
Today, our world is quite different. Women have access to a formal education that prepares them for careers on par (though still not equal, sadly) with men in both pay scale and advancement. Even a less educated woman can receive a decent hourly job and provide for herself. In this way, a woman's options for provision have not run out should her husband or partner pass away.
I suggest we update our definition "widow" to include single mothers, perhaps the most vulnerable members of our contemporary societies and churches. I am not suggesting we cease our financial, spiritual, and emotional care for women (and men) who have lost their spouses. But as Christians who read our Bibles as "living and active" words from God for all people in all contexts, we seek to broaden our traditional understandings of certain scriptures based on changes in our context. In saying this, I am also not detracting from the strength and courage of many single mothers. For most single moms in America, though, the math just doesn't work in their favor: Even one child that is not yet school-aged can prevent the only able-bodied worker