By God’s design, human beings all grow older and face the problems of aging. How do you view the elderly? And what is your responsibility as you age?
Imagine for a moment being in your car, driving down a busy freeway. You drive competently, change lanes smoothly, maintain a legal speed—you are confident in your skills.
One day, though, you realize you’re no longer keeping up with the vehicles around you. No matter what you do, you can’t make your car go any faster. Traffic speeds along beside you, swerving around you—sometimes rudely. But you know you must continue down this highway. You try to stay out of everyone’s way, but other vehicles seem oblivious to how close they come to you. At times it seems like they’re trying to force you off the road.
A pleasant drive has become a frightening journey!
Sometimes aging can seem like being in that car. Life becomes very disconcerting when your physical body starts to slow down and you can no longer keep up with those around you. We feel like a clunker as technology zooms past us like a hot sports car (sometimes even for those who aren’t so old). Cultural norms rudely cut in front of you as they change for the worse.
When, as Ecclesiastes 12:3 states, the parts of the body age and become weak, it is easy to become discouraged and to feel that there is no longer a place for you “on the road.”
Some cultures customarily show great honor to the elderly; but, sadly, many do not and tend to simply cast the aged aside.
What place does God intend for the elderly to hold? How should they be treated, and how should they themselves respond? The answers to these questions will help us as we work with the elderly—and as we become elderly ourselves.
The commandment to honor
This issue is so important to God that it carries the weight of one of His 10 Commandments—“Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Notice this command has no expiration date! Honor is due parents until and, in some ways, even after their death.
By definition, honor means to show respect—to recognize our parents’ God-given position. The original Hebrew word here (kabad) carried with it the meaning to be heavy or weighty. In other words, we have a weighty or solemn responsibility to honor and respect our parents (and grandparents).
How can we show honor?
For adults with a good, healthy relationship with their parents, respect and honor may take the form of keeping open lines of communication, being aware of their needs at each stage of their lives and helping fulfill those needs. It can include spending time with them to talk, comfort, encourage and help. Healthy families show deference to and care for one another—especially to those who are older.
But some family relationships between parents and their children are not healthy. If it is at all possible to repair or improve our relationship with our parents, it is important to strive to do so in the spirit of honoring them. Repairing family breaches is a righteous, and very rewarding, goal.
Tragically, though, some children and parents are completely estranged, and in some cases it would not be healthy (because of abuse or safety issues) to pursue a relationship. In other cases a person may not even know the identity of one or both parents. These are sad realities of our society, but it’s helpful if someone else can fill that void as a parental figure.
However, troublesome circumstances do not nullify the commandment. It doesn’t say honor your parents only if they are good parents. If nothing else, we can honor our parents by how we live our lives—by choosing to be honorable people. How we live reflects on our parents, and we can show them honor even if they never acknowledge it or are even totally unaware of it.
By contrast, deciding to disregard the commandment and “curse” or “revile” our parents brings on serious penalties from God. Such actions, in effect, bring a curse on our own heads (see Exodus 21:17; Matthew 15:4; Proverbs 20:20; 30:17).
A way around the commandment?
In Mark 7:9-13 Jesus Christ addressed a practice of His day that allowed people, in essence, to get around the responsibility to care for their parents. Someone could dedicate his goods or property to the temple, then call it “Corban” or “a gift.”
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains that if a person declared something “Corban” it technically belonged to the temple, but the individual could keep the item (money, land, etc.) in his possession and use it as long as he was alive.
Apparently, some people felt that by dedicating their personal resources to the temple they could justify not supporting their parents and finagle their way around the commandment. But Jesus stripped away this excuse, making it clear that by intent and practice they were rejecting the commandment of God!
Is this just an archaic practice with no modern application? Some people today still seem tempted to try to dodge their financial responsibilities. And what about other areas of life, such as how we spend our time? Are we ever “too busy” to spend time with our parents (or our children, for that matter)? Can we dedicate ourselves to other things (hobbies, entertainment, etc.) that rob us of time with parents or children? The “Corban principle” is still something to carefully consider.
The Bible places the primary responsibility of caring for elderly family members on the children and grandchildren. It does not prohibit us from seeking help in giving this care—professional, medical or other care certainly may be needed at times—but seeking help does not mean handing off the responsibility to others. The apostle Paul’s statement that anyone who “does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, … has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8) is rather powerful!
Respecting the elderly in general
Although this article focuses on parents and grandparents, it should be mentioned that the principle of honor and respect extends to all who are older. Through Moses, God commanded the people to stand up before the “gray headed”—the elderly (Leviticus 19:32). That gray (or white) hair is a symbol of someone who is to be respected.
The other side of the coin
Of course, there’s another side to the aging coin. Learning to honor the elderly early in life will likely help us learn to be honorable as we age. This is very important as the elderly, with wisdom and patience, can fill valuable roles as mentors and examples to the younger.
Long life is a blessing, but we are expected to learn as we age. “Age should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom,” we read in Job 32:7. Realistically, though, aging sometimes teaches wisdom, but sometimes it doesn’t.Long life is a blessing, but we are expected to learn as we age. “Age should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom,” we read in Job 32:7. Realistically, though, aging sometimes teaches wisdom, but sometimes it doesn’t. The key factor is, “The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honor is humility” (Proverbs 15:33).
We find a little more explanation of the “fear” of the Lord in Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “What does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?”
As we humbly walk in this path, as the years go by we can earn the honor that should come with aging.
Roles of the elderly
What are some of the roles older people can and should fill?
Topping the list is setting the proper example. In Titus 2:3-5 Paul instructs the older women to admonish (teach and encourage) younger women to love their husbands and children. After decades of life, older people should have the experience to show the next generations how to build good relationships, how to heal damaged ones, and how to avoid repeating mistakes made by those before them.
One aspect of teaching is called mentoring. Consider the working life of the Levitical priesthood (Numbers 8:24-26). From ages 25 through 50, they performed the full service of the tabernacle, including physically demanding work such as sacrificing large animals.
At age 50 they effectively retired from the physically demanding part of the work; but they were not, however, “put out to pasture.” They continued to serve in the tabernacle, but took on a more supervisory role teaching and mentoring the younger Levites. What a wonderful example!
Today many skills, lessons and knowledge are being lost from one generation to the next. How much heartache and grief could be avoided if a wise older generation could help a younger generation by, for example, giving practical advice and mentoring on avoiding marital conflict?
What about child rearing? By the time we are grandparents, we have learned many lessons that can help our children if we are able to impart them in respectful, nonmeddling ways, and if they are willing to listen in a productive way. But it takes wisdom and humility on everyone’s part for knowledge to be passed along.
Many today fail to recognize the need to transition from one role to the next as we age. Many older people resist passing the reins of “active service” to the younger generation and may have no idea how to “mentor.” Many younger people do not have the wisdom to seek out and learn from the older generation. Some are so focused on “being in charge” and doing it their own way that they fail to learn from the past.
The most important passage of knowledge lies in an area that, sadly, Western culture is often not doing well—the spiritual.
In Psalm 71:18 the psalmist wrote, “Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come.”
What an awesome responsibility the older generation has to point the next toward developing a healthy relationship with God!
The conclusion of the matter
No matter our current stage of life, God has a role in mind for us, and He’s given us instructions on how to fulfill that role. At every stage of life, we have responsibilities to others.
The conclusion of the matter is that there is room for all of us to drive comfortably on that busy freeway, provided we each fulfill our responsibilities and give proper honor and respect.
Learn more about showing honor to parents in the article “Fifth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Your Mother.”
Learn more about growing older in the article “Growing Old Gracefully.”