Care of the Aged in a Culture Devoted to Self

Introduction

Parents are a great gift from our heavenly Father. God has given parents an amazing amount of love for their children. Who else would be willing to wake up two or three times a night for the sake of another person over the course of several months? As parents we need an incredible amount of patience and willingness to make numerous sacrifices to provide for our children as they grow up. But the time comes, when the tables are turned. As our parents reach old age, they face many limitations. They can’t see and hear as well. They get various diseases. They experience pain and are limited in what they can handle mentally, physically and emotionally. It is the task of the children then to assist their parents in their old age and ensure that their needs are met. So what does that mean real life?  Let’s first consider the Biblical mandate, and then work that out in our context.

Old Testament Background

Biblical understanding of age

In his book on The Elder, Dr. C. VanDam shows us that generally, the Bible divides life into three separate phases[1]:

  • Children – refers to nursing infants, boys and girls (Deut. 32:25; Psalm 148:12)
  • Youth    – refers to those who are fully grown and sexually mature, but still youth.  (Psalm 148:12; Ezek. 9:6; 1 Tim. 4:2 – word refers to someone between 25-40)
  • Mature    – refers to those who have a full beard (Psalm 148:12; Ezek. 9:6) and includes those who have grey hair. In the Greek culture of the New Testament, those under forty were considered young.  The boundary to old age was somewhere between forty to fifty.

Family context

In order to understand the place of the aged and the respect due them it’s necessary to understand the role of family and kinship in Israel. In Israelite society there were three levels of kinship structure.[2]

The smallest unit was the father’s house. It consisted of all the descendants of one male ancestor. It included his wife, sons and their wives, their sons and wives, their children and any unmarried daughters.  A typical family unit would consist of three to four generations having 50-100 people.[3] 

The clan is a group of related households. They often lived in the same village or territory.

The tribe was the largest kinship grouping, with each of Jacob’s sons being given a certain part of the land of Israel.

Society was comprised of twelve tribes (the sons of Jacob), which were made of various clans, each containing numerous families. In Joshua 7:14-18 for example, we are told that Achan (who was married with children) was the son of Carmi (father), the son of Zabdi (family head), the son of Zerah (clan), of the tribe of Judah. 

The reason the family was so important is because it fulfilled numerous spiritual, social, political, judicial, and economic roles.[4]  The parents were primarily responsible for the education and discipline of the next generation, teaching them to walk in the fear of the LORD (Deut. 6:6-11, 20-25; 11:19; Ps. 78:1-7; Prov. 1:8-9; 6;20).  People in Israel lived and socialized with their families. They sometimes married within their clan or tribe (Gen. 24:38; Num. 36:8). If a man died without leaving any descendants, then his brother was to marry his widow, and the first son born to them would retain the name and inheritance of the brother who had died (Deut. 25:5-6; Ruth 4:10).  In political and judicial matters, they were represented by the heads of families (Ex. 24:1; Lev. 9:1; Josh. 7:6; 24:1; Judg. 11:1-4; 1 Sam. 8; 11:3). In judicial matters, the primary agent of prosecution for crimes was not an independent police force, but the next of kin (Num. 35:16-38; Deut. 19:1-13; Josh. 20; 2 Sam. 14:20). In economic matters, those who were poor or in distress were helped by their next of kin – their brother, father, uncle or cousin.  A next of kin could redeem the land sold by another family member (Lev. 25:25), or a person if he became a slave (Lev. 25:47-49). You were to lend to your brother without charging him interest or usury (Lev. 25:36). 

The head of the clan was usually the oldest son, although not always.[5] It is recognized throughout the Bible that wisdom is found among the aged. Job says in chapter 12:12, “Wisdom is with aged men, and with length of days, understanding.”  It is the older counsellors who give good advice to the young king Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:6-8). But at the same time, the Bible notes this doesn’t always happen (Job 32:6-9; 42:7). As a result, leadership could go to a younger son if he had the necessary gifts, authority, ability to lead and represent the interests of the family or clan. 

As a result, the elderly were highly revered and respected. As people got older, they grew in status and dignity. Although a husband had authority over the immediate affairs of his wife and children (Num. 30:6-8), the grandparents, and others in their generation were afforded great authority and honour and were well cared for in their old age. The glory of the elderly is often attested in Scripture. In 1 Chronicles 29:28 Scripture says of King David, “He died at a good old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth and honor.”  Proverbs 16:31 says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (ESV). Proverbs 17:6 says, “Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children is their father.” 

Old Testament teaching regarding the elderly

The LORD clearly teaches us to respect the authority of parents and the elderly and warns us about the punishment that will come on those who neglect to do so. Consider the following passages:

Command to honour and care for the elderly

Exodus 20:12     – “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

Leviticus 19:3     – “Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and keep My Sabbaths: I am  the LORD your God.”

Leviticus 19:32   – “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD.”

Proverbs 1:8-9   – “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother.”

Proverbs 23:22  – “Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.”

Examples of those showing respect for the elderly

Genesis 48:1-2, 12 – “Now it came to pass after these things that Joseph was told, ‘Indeed your father is sick’; and he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.  And Jacob was told, ‘Look, your son Joseph is coming to you’; and Israel strengthened himself and sat up on the bed. … So Joseph brought them from beside his knees, and he bowed down with his face to the earth.”

1 Kings 2:19        – “Bathsheba therefore went to King Solomon, to speak to him for Adonijah. And the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand.”

Ruth 4:14-15      – “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day    without a close relative; and may his name be famous in Israel! And may he be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you, who is better to  you than seven sons, has borne him.’”

Punishment for those who do not respect parents/elderly

Ex. 21:15, 17       – “And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. … And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.”

Deut. 27:16         – “’Cursed is the one who treats his father or his mother with contempt.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’”

Prov. 20:20          – “Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in deep darkness.”

Prov. 30:17          – “The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it.”

New Testament teaching – Role of family and church

In the New Testament era, family was still important.  The composition of the congregation centered on the family unit, rather than simply individuals. Salvation was promised to Cornelius and his household (Acts 11:14). It was Lydia and her household as well as the jailer and his household who were baptized (Acts 16:15, 33-34). The same was true of Crispus (Acts 18:18) and Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15). Such households would typically include not only the immediate family, but also the slaves and labourers as well.  As the synagogues closed, house churches developed in people’s homes (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). 

One of the developments in the New Testament era is that God now intends his church to function as an extension of the family.[6]  In fact, he uses the language of a family to describe his relationship with us and our relationships with one another. He has adopted us as his sons and daughters (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7). The church is now called “the house of God” (Heb. 3:2-6) and those who believe in Christ are now called “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 4:17). The children of God find their home in the church (John 1:12; Eph. 2:19; 1 John 3:1-2). Believers in our Lord Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters of one another. Furthermore, he commands us to treat one another as family members. In 1 Tim. 5:1-2 God uses the language of family to describe the relationships we should have with one another in the church. “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger as sisters, with all purity.”  In Philemon 1:15-16, Paul encourages Philemon to receive his slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother.”  God calls us to show our brothers and sisters in the church the same love, affection, care, and sense of belonging that we have for our immediate family. 

Care for the elderly

This has important implications for the way we treat the elderly in our congregation. They are to be shown the same respect and honour that we show to parents. We must also ensure that they are never ostracized or estranged, but that they experience the same sense of connection and belonging that they would have in families. This is particularly true of those members who have been alienated from their families because of their faith in Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught his people that following him was to have precedence over family relationships.[7] His calling for his disciples to leave their parents and families would have been understood as scandalous and irresponsible (Mark 1:19-20). The way he distanced himself from his mother and brothers by calling his disciples his mother and brothers in Mark 3:31-35 would have been shocking in that culture. Christ’s word to the young man to let the dead bury their own dead in Luke 9:59, would also have been extremely offensive to his hearers. His teaching that a man must be willing to leave his family for the sake of the kingdom of heaven would have been outrageous (Mark 10:29-30). It is our task to ensure that those members, and especially those elderly members, who have lost relationship with family members for the sake of the gospel are included in the family of God and experience our care and affection.

Application for today

As those who have been afflicted with the acid of western individualism, we have little understanding of the traditional role of family. Our primary social network may be family. It may also be friends, neighbours, coworkers, those with whom we enjoy sports, those who share a certain ethnic background, fellow gamers or some other online community with whom we share a particular interest. We are not dependent upon family for judicial support but look to the courts and judges. We do not rely on family members to prosecute crimes that have been committed against us but look to the police. We do not look to family members for financial aid and assistance, but look to banks, insurance companies, government programs and investment corporations. The traditional roles of family have been undermined and replaced with many other people and institutions.[8]

I am not suggesting that family is always a blessing. The Bible is clear that the worst in people often comes out in their families.[9] In Genesis 12-50 we are told of horrendous acts of violence, betrayal, sexual immorality, exploitation, slavery and murder that occurred in the patriarch’s families. Although David was a man after God’s own heart, he and his family members committed many atrocious sins against one another. We shouldn’t nostalgically look at families as the one thing that will fix all that ails our society.

Nevertheless, in our fragmented society, we may do well to fortify the role of the family in our lives and in the church. This would not only bring blessing to family members and the church as a whole. It would also elevate the role of the elderly and lead to renewed respect and care for our parents and grandparents in their old age. In our society, it has been common for most people to move away from their parents and live independently. While this is healthy on one level, since God commands a man who marries to leave his father and mother (Gen. 2:24), it can also lead to isolation and neglect of the elderly. As God’s people, we have a calling to care for and show respect for those who are elderly. In Mark 7, our Lord Jesus reprimands the teachers of the law who followed their own traditions as a way of escaping from the Biblical teaching to support their parents. Although they were responsible to provide for their aging parents, these hypocrites said that they could designate the gift as something Corban, a gift devoted to God. As a result, they exempted themselves from the responsibility to look after their parents. Christ condemns this hypocrisy in the strongest terms as disobedience to the fifth commandment.

Similarly, in 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives explicit instructions about the care we ought to show for our parents in their old age. In 1 Tim. 5:3-4 he says, “Honor widows who are really widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God.” It is the responsibility of the children of a widow to look after her. This is good and acceptable before God. In verse 7, Paul tells Timothy to command the congregation to do this, for then they will be blameless. And then he shows how important this is in verse 8, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” You have denied the faith and are not one of the children of God if you do not take care of your parents in their old age. God’s people look after the elderly in their families.

In the next verses Paul also spells out the role of the church in caring for the elderly. He says in verse 16, “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.” If we have the means, we must look after our parents in their old age. That way the church can use its resources to look after those who are not able to get help elsewhere.

Now we may wonder how much this applies today. In an age when people move away from their parents, of old age security, superannuation plans, concession cards, public hospitals, government support and retirement homes, what role does the church and the family have to play in the care of the elderly? I would suggest that as children and grandchildren and also as a church community, we have an enormous responsibility to care for our aging parents and grandparents. God has entrusted the children in the first place with the responsibility to care for their aging parents. In the second place, he has entrusted the church with the care of the elderly. Although we can seek assistance from government programs, retirement homes, medical personnel or others, at the end of the day, God will hold us accountable for the care of our parents in their old age. The buck stops with you as a family and with us as a church community. We need to provide for them or advocate for them ensuring that things go well.

Personal reflections

What does that mean for us? How can we best care for our parents in their old age? As a pastor I have had more than a thousand visits with seniors. Here are some reflections:

  • The first and most important thing we can do for our parents in their old age is to walk closely with the LORD ourselves. The greatest stress in the lives of the elderly is their children who do not walk in God’s ways. I have sat with the elderly for hundreds of hours, listening to the elderly pour out profound pain about the foolish and godless choices of their adult children. If we walk closely with God that will give life and vitality to our parents in their old age! Proverbs 23:24-25 says, “The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice, and he who begets a wise child will delight in him. Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her who bore you rejoice.”
  • Support your parents spiritually. As our parents get older, they prepare to die and go home to be with the LORD. This is a time of reflection. Often, they recognize the sins of youth which may even have led to some of the foolish choices of their children. We need to be godly people who are trustworthy so that our parents can share their burdens with us, and we can comfort them with the promises of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Further, many widows long for a man to pray with them. All their lives they have had their husbands lead them. Now that he is gone, they really miss this leadership. They long for someone to read and explain God’s word to them. They long for you to help them in their walk with God. When I was starting out in the ministry, I did an internship with Rev. Cl. Stam in Hamilton, Ontario. Next to the church was Ebenezer villa, an old age home. He taught me that whenever I visited the widows, the most important part of the visit was that I read and pray with them. This is also our role as children.
  • One of the things that widows miss the most is the guidance of their husbands. As one widow said to me, “He was my wisdom. He made sense of life for me. Now I have to make sense of life on my own.” In their old age, widows have to figure out how to think about developments in the church, how to advise their children, where to spend their time and where to spend their money. Many widows find this a difficult task. It is important for us as children to walk closely with the LORD so that our parents can trust us for advice and assistance.
  • Have patience with the limitations of your parents in their old age. It is particularly important to have your parents’ trust in order to help them deal with these limitations. At one stage, they are going to have to stop climbing up ladders, they may lose their license, have to move in with one of the children or into Fairhaven. If we do not have a relationship of trust with them, where they know that we have their best interest at heart, they are not going to be able to accept our help in making these decisions.
  • Seek to understand the fears, challenges and worries of the elderly. Seek also to understand the diseases they face and walk alongside of life with them through that. It’s hard to get old (Eccl. 12:1-7) and one of the best ways we can help is by understanding what they are going through.
  • Support your parents emotionally. As we age, we not only become physically weaker, but also emotionally weaker. The elderly are often more troubled by difficult emotional matters and they are less resilient in recuperating after difficulties.
  • Give your parents a central role in your family. Include them as much as possible in family affairs. The elderly are often not able to see or do as much as before. Share your life with them and let them live vicariously through you.
  • Recognize that wisdom is a gift of the aged. Although we live in a culture that is devoted to youth, and prizes the technological developments championed by the youth, realize that wisdom is grounded in the fear of the LORD and often found among the aged.
  • Give the elderly an opportunity to contribute. They were young at one point and they have decades of experience to share if they have the opportunity.
  • Rise when grandma or grandpa comes into the room and give them the seat of honour in your home. Serve them first at mealtimes as a sign of respect.
  • Take primary responsibility for the physical and financial needs of your parents. If they can still look after themselves, check to make sure that things are going well for them, and if they need help, then give it. This may include helping them financially, building a granny flat, advocating for them, assisting them with taxes or official paperwork, fixing the broken drawer or sagging gate or doing other similar things.
  • Spend time with your aging parents. As their health deteriorates and their mobility decreases, they are increasingly isolated and estranged from others. It is our task to provide companionship in their old age.
  • Teach your children to love their grandparents and be involved in supporting them.
  • Keep a special eye out for those elderly members in our congregation who have no support from their family, particularly if they are estranged from their family for the sake of the gospel.
  • Give the elderly in the church a place of honour by including them, visiting them, providing for them, asking for their advice, and serving them. In a previous congregation where I served, the deacons used to host a senior’s tea once per month and a Christmas dinner for the seniors at the church in order to give them the opportunity to chat, sing, play games and enjoy fellowship with one another.
  • Thank God for Fairhaven. We are very blessed that we can cooperate together as a church community in supporting our parents and other senior members in their old age. Let us also make sure that this is the best institution it can be. If we need to invest money in staff, buildings, programs or infrastructure, then let’s make it the best institution possible. Let’s also invest our time and effort to visit with the elderly, support, encourage, do devotions with them, share stories, laugh with them and play games with them. The task of visiting and encouraging the elderly among us should be a matter of first priority, not just for family, but also for the rest of the household of faith.

Our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated profound consideration for his aging mother. In the hour of his greatest need, despite the agony he experienced in bearing God’s wrath against our sin, he ignored his own need and cared for his mother. He looked down from the cross and entrusted the care of his mother Mary to his disciple John. Thankfully, he not only gives us the example of what it looks like to care for our aging parents. As we abide in him, he will abide in us. He will fill us with his Spirit so that we can take very good care of our parents in their old age.

Questions for reflection

  1. What kinds of things do you do in caring for your parents or grandparents?
  2. Do you need to do anything different in caring for your parents or grandparents?
  3. Do we give sufficient respect to the elderly in our church, or does something need to change?
  4. What do you do to include your children in the lives of their grandparents?
  5. Do you think that the deacons have a role in the care of the elderly?
  6. Would you be willing to have your parents move in with you if they are no longer able to live on their own? Is that desirable? Is it best?
  7. Are you able to provide the spiritual and emotional care for your aging parents that they need? Do they feel comfortable confiding in you about the concerns they have?
  8. Do you think that you have financial responsibility for your parents if they are in Fairhaven?
  9. Do you think it would be beneficial to fortify the role of family in your life? What might that include?
  10. Do you often pray for the elderly in your family or in our church?

Rev. Dirk Poppe

FRC Southern River


[1] Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder. (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing Company, 2009), p. 28.

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2004, p. 354-355. In writing this paper I have benefited from C. Wright’s fuller description of the place of family in Israelite society, in chapter 10, p. 327-362.

[3] Van Dam, The Elder, p. 32.

[4] Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, p. 341-342.

[5] Cornelis Van Dam, The Elder, p. 31.

[6]Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. p. 360-361.

[7]Ibid. p. 357-358.

[8] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. p. 354-355.

[9] Ibid. p. 343-345.

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