Honoring the Hoary Head

Most biblically literate people know that the Law of Moses commands, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19.32, KJV). I want to consider this week why the Law commands us to respect the elderly, because I think that it will inform the way we follow the commandment out.

My impression growing up was that the elderly merited respect because of the wisdom and status gained from long, fruitful years. This sentiment is consistent with the Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Pro 16.31, ESV); “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Pro 20.29). The idea is that men and women age like wine.

The sentiment strikes us as unusual, though, when we consider that the Law of Moses was Israel’s statutory law which God implemented for the governing of the nation. One generally does not write laws against things that people aren’t doing, which is why the Law of Moses doesn’t explicitly prohibit one from chopping off one’s own head. It follows that the Israelites tended not to respect the aged, and there must have been a reason for their not doing so.

The commandment also strikes us as odd when we consider that the Law doesn’t ask Israel to respect the wealthy or the powerful. It doesn’t even explicitly ask Israel to honor the priests, though it may be implied in Exo 28.2, 40. In short, nowhere does the Law tell Israel to honor people because they have merited respect according to worldly standards.

The Law does command Israel to honor certain people based on their status. It explicitly commands Israel, “Honor your father and your mother,” because they are father and mother. It implicitly commands Israel to honor the Lord because He is the Lord. It also implicitly commands Israel to honor another set of people for an entirely different set of reasons: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner.

Consider the context of Leviticus 19, which is the only place in the Law that commands respect for the aged. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.9-10). “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev 19.14). Most importantly, consider the commandment immediately following the commandment about respecting the aged: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19.33-34). In Leviticus 19, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head” isn’t about honoring someone who is especially wise or high-status; it’s about protecting someone who is relatively helpless and potentially a target for abuse.

We look for people to age like wine; the Law recognizes that most people age like milk. To the world, gray hair means frailty and senility. It means becoming a burden. To the unscrupulous in the world, advanced age sounds like the “ka-ching” of a cash register.

I invite you to read Rachel Aviv’s article, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” Aviv describes a system of court-sanctioned private “guardians” who can force seniors out of their homes, sell their assets, control their lives—and charge their estates for the privilege. Be sure to sit down when you read it, because it will make your blood boil.

The system of guardianship in this country is abhorrent, but it’s nothing new. It is not uncommon for Americans to abandon an aged parent to a nursing home, and it is not uncommon to see videos of nursing home staff abusing their wards. In the ancient world, the elderly were just another mouth to feed. Like young children, they couldn’t produce anything to make up for the effort of looking after them. Ancient Near Eastern law codes offered them no protections. Then, as now, the world often saw the aged as human refuse. God calls us to better things.

We are to honor not just the “shiny-looking” elderly, the ones who have accomplished great things, who are enjoying a luxurious retirement, who are still “setting the world on fire” in their life’s winter—the ones the world is proud to show off. The Law commands us to honor the feeble, the frail, the senile—the “useless” according to the world. Not just care for them but honor them by doing things like standing in their presence.

Some of the first to recognize the glory of the newborn Messiah were an elderly man and an elderly widow (Luke 2.25-38). The Gospels honor and bless the elderly along with the poor, the widow, and the foreigner. In the spirit of the Gospels, look to “rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man.”

Image: Old Woman, Giorgione (ca. 1500)

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