America wants to be younger! American movies have a recurring theme as middle-aged persons try to recover their youthful exuberance. People whom are no longer teenagers trying to find the fountain of youth. America wants to be younger! “Teenager”—that is really a new modern, Western concept, only a little more than a century old, when the Industrial Revolution came about and children no longer worked with their parents in the fields. Many children, at least in well-off households, went back to school, had less chores and more free time. Before long adolescence began to be associated with fun and a carefree attitude. Before long, it just seemed natural, being young means having fun! America wants to be younger, but God wants America to honor those who are young no more.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth. Ephesians 6:1-3 (NRSV).
This morning we are going to continue our study of Ephesians by examining the relationship of the young to the old, children to parents, children to grandparents, young Christians to older Christians, or young to old more generally. Here is the main question I want us to wrestle with in the next few minutes together. How can a people who are so fixated with becoming younger really understand what it means to honor fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers and, well, anyone older than themselves?
To begin with, let’s look at the biblical context…
First, the Old Testament…The Old Testament stands in direct opposition to 21st century America when it comes to honoring the elders of society. The Ten Commandments stand center stage in the culture of ancient Israel. If we want to know what was important to these people, this has to be the first place to look. It defined their worldview. Deuteronomy 5:16 says:
Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land that Lord is giving you.
Notice an interesting thing about this commandment—it is the first one given with a promise attached. Each of the preceding just says, “do this” or “don’t do that”. But no immediate consequences are listed. Here, the command is given and a promise, this is what will happen if you do this, if you honor your mother and father, you will live long and it will go well with you. What does that mean? If someone asked you how to describe the ancient Israelite view of the after life, how would you respond? They didn’t really have a concept of heaven and hell like we do. When you died, you went to Sheol, the place of the dead. That’s really about all we know. The people of Israel tended not to stress the afterlife as much as the present life. What mattered was “NOW”. The way to attain immortality was not in heaven after death, but through many descendents here in this life. Family relations were extremely important to the ancient Hebrews. If those lines were strained, one’s access to immortality was in jeopardy. If those lines were strained, the fabric of their society would unravel. They were so serious in fact, there is this story later in the book of Deuteronomy about the rebellious son.
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NRSV)
How could a society be so cruel? Again, this goes back to the centrality of the family in this society. If those lines are strained, things don’t work right. It was important for the younger generation to respect the older generation. Children watched how their parents treated grandparents. Each generation respected, cared for, and honored the one before. I’m not saying we need to stone our disobedient children, but perhaps this ancient culture understood the importance of honor and respect in a way many of us do not. Instead of wanting to be younger, the ancient Hebrews honored those who were young no more.
The New Testament tells a similar story. We’ve already read the Ephesians text. It basically repeats the passage we just read in Deuteronomy. So, this principle of honor did not die with the cross. The most convincing evidence of this comes not in this exhortation by Paul, but through the lives of the New Testament characters. Remember the story of Jesus as he is hanging on the cross in the Gospel of John? Picture Jesus dying in agonizing pain, yet right there in the end, He did something that still puzzles me. He honored his mother and he took care of her. He made sure that His disciple John, His friend, would take His own mother into His home. Joseph had disappeared. We believe James, Jesus’ brother, was not a fan of his big brother’s ministry! He wasn’t around either. Without Jesus, Mary was in trouble in the first-century, and Jesus made sure John would honor his mother in his absence.
So, we seemingly have to reconcile two worlds here: The world of the text, where age equals respect and honor, and the world of today, where just the opposite is true. Youth is valued and age is devalued. Many times when we come to this point, the application, we can usually buffer all comments by saying, “We are not the only one’s who struggle with this.” This is a 21st century problem; everyone needs to work on this one. But with this issue, I am convinced most of the world continues to understand this principle. In Asian societies, the matriarchs and patriarchs of families are still afforded great respect. In African tribal nations, the elders of villages are still the most honored figures in a society. Yet, Western society has turned this principle on its head. For some reason, we have it all backwards.
When I was ministering in Stamford, Texas, there was a man in our congregation who was the custodian of the church. He had been there for decades, LG. He was in his early 90s and still cleaning the building every day. I’m convinced this man was legally blind, yet he still drove to work every day. When I saw him coming down the road in his car, I turned the other way! He still climbed tall ladders to change light bulbs in the building. Once, I heard a noise in the worship center when I was studying in my office. All the lights were out; I thought I was the only one in the building. It was well after normal “business hours” so I went looking around, and there in the sanctuary was LG, vacuuming in the dark! When I really thought about it, it really didn’t matter anyway, he couldn’t see in a fully lighted room anyway! LG was a great man who died not long before Kim and I moved away. The saddest thing in the world, to me, was to watch each month as his daughter came in to visit from Dallas. LG and his wife had worked hard to put Jennifer through graduate school. They basically lived in squalor. Every month, Jennifer would come riding into Stamford, Texas with her brand new car. And when we saw the car, we went into hiding. We knew what was coming. Every time Jennifer came into town, she made it a point to tell me, the elders, and anyone else who would listen that we weren’t taking care of LG like we should be. Here’s the sad part. She wanted anyone else to take care of her father but her. She managed an upscale assisted living center in Dallas, yet she refused to bring her father closer to help. In her mind, that was not her job. Her job was to enjoy her life. And allow her father to undergo the last years of life alone.
Brothers and sisters, the church is supposed to be different. If you’ve been following in our study of Ephesians so far, you’ve probably noticed that this theme of “being different” comes up again and again. Paul says, “Our world is filled with divisions, but the church will show the world what unity looks like.” The church is a picture of the world as God intended for it to be. As I said last week, that is a pretty radical challenge! In our part of the world, youth valued over wisdom. So, practically speaking, how can we begin to offer a different picture to the world?
Children, I have a job for you today. This afternoon, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to write a note to your mom and dad or your grandparents. Tell them what you have learned from them and tell them how much you love them. If you have not learned the entire alphabet yet, you get a pass. But if you do not write a note, you have to tell them. And when I say “children” I recognize that some of us are older children. Adults, if you are able, send a note to your parents as well. Or, to someone older than you who has made an impact in your life. Tell them how important they’ve been in your life. Let’s begin to give honor where honor is due, and when we do, Paul says “It will go well with us.” May it go well with you, with this church, and with our witness to the world.