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.”

Continue reading “Honoring the Hoary Head”

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

“Why did the Lord Jesus Christ present this parable to us? He surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket. On top of that, he also did some extra pilfering. He caused his master further loss, in order to prepare a little nest of quiet and security for himself after he lost his job. Why did the Lord set this before us?” – Augustine

You Won’t Believe This One Thing the Rich Ruler Still Lacks

One can hardly escape the infectious Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, / And a wee little man was he” (I’m sorry if it’s stuck in your head now). Likewise, I don’t think I have gone more than a year without hearing a (sometimes clickbaity) sermon or short talk about the “one thing you still lack,” referring to the downcast departure of the rich ruler. These two stories share much more than being ingrained in Christian pop culture.

Luke juxtaposes these episodes in his account of the Gospel. We read about the encounter with the rich ruler in Luke 18.18-30 and about the encounter with Zacchaeus in 19.1-10. Their subjects are the same: wealthy rulers who meet Jesus and respond to Him. Comparing these two rulers will help us understand them both.

Both stories are concerned with the hereafter. The rich ruler of Luke 18 approaches Jesus to ask Him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Zacchaeus story ends with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” These eternal concerns bookend the stories.

Jesus’ response to the rich ruler seems brusque and perhaps too aggressive, like the man who demands “Did you die for that church?!” when you have the temerity to identify a congregation as “my church.” “Why do you call me ‘good’?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” What does this have to do with the rich ruler’s question? Why treat a seeker so roughly? A close reading of this text alongside the Zacchaeus text will show us why.

Both rulers are superficially measured by their obedience to the Law. Jesus’ first substantive answer to the rich ruler’s question is, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” In his own estimation, the rich ruler has passed this part of the test with flying colors: “All these I have kept from my youth.” This kind of faithfulness (or rather the illusion of it) inclines us favorably toward the rich ruler. Again, we ask, “Why has Jesus been so hard on him?” The answer will present itself.

Zacchaeus does not fare so well by this standard. The people of Jericho object to Jesus entering his house, as Luke tells us, “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”

In neither case does this superficial measuring against the Law have as much bearing as the people around Jesus seem to think it should. I say “superficial” because it becomes apparent by the end of both stories which of the two men is the more faithful.

This leads us to perhaps the most obvious contrast between the two: their treatment of their wealth. Jesus directs the rich ruler to sell his goods for the poor; the rich ruler is unwilling. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, has voluntarily sold half of everything that he owns on behalf of the poor—far more than the tithe that the Law demands of him. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold,” he says; the Law only requires double (Exd 22.4, 7-9).

In this regard, Zacchaeus has been faithful to the spirit of the Law, whereas the rich ruler has only been pretending. I think this explains Jesus calling the rich ruler out on his “Good Teacher”; not that Jesus is not good but that the rich ruler is too flippant in calling people “good”—most importantly himself. Jesus invites him to consider the true standard of the Law: the character of God, who is Good.

The greatest contrast comes at the end of both stories, when Jesus reacts to both men. “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says of the rich ruler, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Despite thinking he had passed, the rich ruler failed. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, receives Jesus’ blessing, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ judgment is consistent with a final, subtle difference between these two men. The Law often decrees that a criminal be “cut off” from the congregation of Israel. Our modern practice of excommunication preserves only part of what is meant by it. More than being condemned and shunned, the guilty party was forgotten. A man who died without heirs shared this fate, which is why children and land were so important in Israel. Boaz spells it out when he explains his decision to marry Ruth: “Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place” (Ruth 4.10). As a sign of his eternal condemnation, the man who was cut off from Israel had no name.

Who are these stories about again?

Continue reading “You Won’t Believe This One Thing the Rich Ruler Still Lacks”