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.”

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Through the Eye of a Needle

Andy Warhol’s final completed commission was a series of over 60 variations on Leonardo da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper (1496). Warhol is best known for his pop art, which often includes commercial images, such as Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962). The above variation on The Last Supper combines two of Warhol’s greatest fascinations: American commercialism and Jesus of Nazareth (Warhol was a Ruthenian Rite Catholic).

This particular variation is too deep to cover sufficiently in this space, so I want to focus on the way Warhol relates the two sets of elements in the painting: the colorful commercial images–a red “59ȼ” advertisement, two pink Dove soap logos, and a blue General Electric logo–superimposed over an austere black-and-white outline of Jesus and the apostles taking the Supper.

We are intimately familiar with both sets of elements. Da Vinci’s The Last Supper is one of the most identifiable pieces of art in the world, and it represents one of the centerpieces of Christian worship. How could we not recognize our Lord revealing to the twelve that one of them would betray Him? Likewise, how many of us would fail to recognize the logos for Dove or for GE? How often have we seen “value prices” advertised in shop windows?

What shocks us is the way in which Warhol combines these otherwise familiar elements. We do not expect to see a bubblegum pink Dove logo hovering over the Lord’s right shoulder. But that is precisely the point. By shocking us in this way, Warhol is opening our eyes, that “seeing, we may perceive.”

The piece’s commercial elements do two important things: they obscure Jesus and the apostles, and they distract from Jesus and the apostles. They do both of these jobs so well that Warhol challenges us to identify the piece’s true subject. Is this a depiction of the Last Supper, like da Vinci’s original, focused on Jesus of Nazareth sharing the Passover seder with his apostles? Or is it about something commercial, essentially an ad for Dove soap or for General Electric? By making us ask these questions inside of the artwork, Warhol invites us to take them outside of the artwork and into our own lives.

Brands and their advertisements dominate modern life. This is what one means by “commercialism” in the cultural sense: that we live and experience the world predominantly in terms of profit-making mechanisms, such as brands, logos, and ads. Answering simple questions like “What shall we have for supper?” inevitably involves a parade of brand names, whether we choose to eat out at Chick-fil-A or McDonalds or to stay in and pull out some Johnsonville brats or DairyPure milk from the Frigidaire. Brands, logos, and ads are so ubiquitous that we don’t even bat an eye at them. We hardly notice them–and the incredible worldly wealth they represent.

Jesus exclaimed after the sullen departure of the rich young ruler, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Our wealth, like the logos in Warhol’s The Last Supper, distracts us from the Lord and from the inspired teachings of the apostles. It obscures what ought to be clear and plain to us about God and the life eternal.

Branding is merely repackaged materialism. It is the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life wrapped in cellophane. And it depends entirely on you thinking of your life in material terms: what shall I eat? what shall I drink? what shall I wear? Your life consists of more than these things. Turn your attention instead to Jesus and what the Supper teaches us. He gave His body and blood for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

May God always rouse us when we sleepwalk into idolatry.

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