Orphans by Choice

Harold Shank
National Spokesperson for CCFSA

The words used to describe at-risk children provide an insight into the cultures of different times. In an earlier generation, Americans often spoke of “orphans.” That word is used less often in contemporary society, but has been replaced by phrases such as “parentless children” or “children left alone,” or children who are “wards of the state.” Perhaps we have dropped our use of the word “orphan” because to most English speakers it connotes the loss of both mother and father, which does not fit the description of the majority of at-risk children today. It is difficult to use the word “orphan” to describe a child whose mother and father are still living, but simply do not want or cannot care for the child.
Our English word “orphan” comes from the Greek word “orphanos” (used twice in the New Testament) which means to be deprived of one’s parents. Jesus used the word to assure his followers that they would not be left alone, that is, we would not be deprived of our Father’s care (Mark 12:40). James links such children with widows as the objects of true religious practice (James 1:27). Widows are deprived of a husband just as children are deprived of parents. The use of the word suggests that such children are vulnerable economically and socially.
Usually translated as “fatherless,” the Hebrew word “yathom” (which appears 42 times in the Old Testament) comes from a root that means to be alone or sad. It is often  thought that these children lost a father to war. Imagine, for example, the number of eighth-century Jerusalem children left fatherless after Pekah killed 120,000 Judeans in battle (2 Chron. 28:6). Children who lost their fathers in the present war, whose mothers were then solely responsible with their upbringing were called by this term. There is no case in the Old Testament where a child has clearly lost both parents. 
The similarities between the different times are clear. Whether in the Old Testament age, or the time of the origins of Christianity, or in recent or current American history, there are children who experience some loss of their parents. Whether a child lives knowing his father fell in battle outside Jerusalem or died of disease, or whether a young person grows up realizing that she lost both parents in a tragic accident, or that neither of her parents wanted to raise her, the aloneness, sadness and vulnerability are the same. Yet each age seems to have its own tragic circumstances that provide opportunities for the practice of pure religion. God’s people cared for those whose fathers fell in war then just as the spiritual community today adopts those children who parents chose in some way not to be involved in their lives.
As the circumstances of vulnerable children vary with culture, there seems to be one constant: God’s concern for these children. Whatever word we choose to use, whatever circumstances put children at risk, let us rise up to practice pure religion.


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