Sunday, June 27, 2021

Other Fathers, Other Mothers

Almost three thousand years ago, Shechem was a bustling scene. King Solomon was dead, and the latter part of his reign had been exhausting. His heir... well, not everyone was so sure about him. But let's rewind. Three days earlier, after Solomon's funeral, representatives from every tribe in Israel had come to Shechem to meet with Solomon's son Rehoboam, a young man. And the Israelites were disgruntled. Solomon had taxed them – not in money, but in work – and all they wanted was a break. The temple was built, the capital city was built up in its defenses, the land was in good condition. If Rehoboam would just rule with a lighter hand, then he'd have their support. But, they had to admit, the presence of Jeroboam complicated things. Solomon had run this other young man out of Israel, threatening his life, all out of a rumor that Jeroboam, a kindly former taskmaster, was prophesied to steal ten tribes away from the kingdom. Now Jeroboam was back from the Egyptian court, allied to Pharoah Shoshenq, and that had its own seeming perks, compared to Rehoboam, Solomon's son by an Ammonite woman and married to a great-granddaughter of David whose own grandson he was.

Asked if he's willing to rule with a gentler hand, Rehoboam asks three days to consider. First, he goes to the old men – those who'd been counselors to his father Solomon, those who had experience and wisdom. They said he should take Israel up on the deal. A good king, after all, is a public servant in the public interest, and if he'll answer them softly, diplomatically – if he'll agree to govern accordingly – then he'll have a long and happy reign over the whole people, preserving intact what had been handed down to him. Good advice. But that good advice wasn't enough for Rehoboam. He wanted an outside perspective. So he got it from his friends, the guys who were his age – young, raised alongside him. They told him to barge ahead with swagger, to exalt himself at his dad's expense, to preen and strut and answer harshly, to intimidate Israel into submission, telling them he'd whip them with scorpions and weigh them down harder, and they'd better just get used to it, because he had big plans and a big vision. Now that sounded more to Rehoboam's liking. So that's what he did. The result was predictable. The kingdom fractured, the northern tribes disowned the legacy of David, and they called Jeroboam and made him their king. North and south – a nation divided (1 Kings 12:1-20).

Last week, we began looking at that commandment – it seems so simple – “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). And we talked about what God is teaching us about the ways we're supposed to treat the parents who represent him, hopefully well, in our lives – with respect, with submission, with support, with care. Rehoboam didn't do that. He let his buddies taunt his late father, as they advised him to say, “My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs” (1 Kings 12:10). No wonder things cracked apart. But traditionally, this commandment – to honor our parents – has been received as having implications that stretch outside of our own families. It's the basis of obligations we have to people besides those we were raised by. And so to keep it simple, today we'll look at only four of the ways this commandment was given to shape life outside our natural families.

First, this commandment has commonly been taken to suggest that we should honor, not just the father and the mother who raised us, but all people of their generation – all the elderly of our society deserve respect for their age, to be considered as other 'fathers' and other 'mothers.' God said outright, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:32). It clearly matters to God that those we today would call 'senior citizens' should be respected, dignified, supported, and cared for. Isaiah's picture of a troubled society is one where “the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable” (Isaiah 3:5). Jewish writers before the time of Christ advise on how to act respectfully “when among elders” (Sirach 32:9), declaring that “one who pays respect to an aged man or woman who isn't of his kin may be regarded as having remembrance of his father and mother..., and therefore, in the Holy Scriptures, the young are commanded not only to yield the chief seats to the aged but also to give place to them as they pass, in reverence for the gray hairs that mark the age to which they may hope to attain who judge it worthy of precedence.”1 And even the Apostle John, in his own older age, routinely addresses older members of the church as “fathers” (1 John 2:13-14). You could say that the elderly, the senior citizens, the old or aged, are – in a certain way – especially reflective of God in the way he appeared in Daniel's vision: as the Ancient of Days, as the God who is glorious because he is so very, very old (Daniel 7:9).

The trouble for us now is that we live in a Rehoboam society. Rehoboam wasn't content with respecting the advice of age and experience. He wanted to hear the voice of his own desires reflected through the brashness and ignorance of youth. So he asked them for their fresh perspective, and immediately bent his heart to their foolish ways. So too modern America. Our society trends toward imitating Rehoboam: 'new' and 'improved' are words that naturally belong together. 'Young' always implies 'better,' being loaded with all hopes of a future. Therefore, it's no wonder that it's become so fashionable to demean and neglect the elderly, as if contemptible symbols of outmoded resistance to progress toward a better day. In the past year, we've seen it at work in how some for a while brushed off the coronavirus as something that 'only' old people were likely to be killed by, so who cares? But we've also seen it at work in the imprisonment of the elderly in nursing homes – to say nothing of those nursing homes, including some in our county, that in the past year were hit with lawsuits or negative media attention over suspiciously high death rates among residents. Meanwhile, frauds and scams targeting the elderly cost them multiple billions of dollars each year. If we were a godlier people, that would be a national scandal, a matter of severe shame in the council of the nations. As it is, we yawn and flip the page. Because as a nation, we demean old age, treating it – and not its abuse – as the greater grounds for shame. But it is a lie. Be proud of that gray hair! Age isn't merely a painful ordeal – though I think I've heard nearly every person here at some point utter the phrase, “It's no fun getting old.” No, be that as it may, age is also an honorable calling and blessing. God commands respect and honor for the elders among us. And we have many among us.

Second, this commandment has always been stretched into the realm of worldly society. Those tasked with the rule of a people have often been addressed as 'father' – or 'mother,' as the case may be. We have ancient letters from a Hittite prince where he addresses his political backer, Egypt's pharaoh, as “my lord, the king of Egypt, my father.”2 Another minor town king addressed even an Egyptian official by insisting, “You are father and lord to me.”3 In the Roman world, the Senate awarded first Augustus and then later emperors like Claudius and Nero with the noble title 'Father of his Country.'4 And it isn't foreign to the Bible, either. David, when he was still a private citizen, addressed King Saul as “my father” (1 Samuel 24:11). So down through Christian tradition, it's been common to apply this commandment to how we treat the government and those who govern in it. From a civil-society perspective, they are fathers or mothers to us. And so, to choose just one example, one English bishop in the 1600s commented that this command is broken by everyone who would “murmur, mutiny, rebel, and dishonor the king, either by denying reverence to his person or obedience to his laws or due maintenance to his state.”5 Where's he get that?

Well, look at what Scripture tells us. Those in government have a God-given authority and dignity, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). That implies, first, a duty of financial support for the public authorities and their work; and the amount of that support and care is dictated to us through taxes of various kinds. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed” (Romans 13:7). “Render to Caesar what is Caesar's” (Matthew 22:21). Not only do those taxes purchase assorted goods and services, but they go to provide a living for those who govern. Refusing financial support to the public authorities would be breaking this commandment.

The command implies, second, a duty of submission and even obedience to the public authorities. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). “Whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). “One must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13). Within the domain of the public sphere, we obey the laws and the orders of our public authorities, except for those that conflict with obedience to a higher authority – God's authority. We don't disobey because we just don't feel like obeying. Nor are we allowed to act and speak as if the public authorities have no claim on our behavior. “You can't tell me what to do!” is not a Christian attitude by any stretch of the imagination.

The command also implies, third, a duty of respect and honor to the public authorities. “Honor the emperor,” says Peter (1 Peter 2:17). “Pay to all what is owed them: ...respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed,” says Paul (Romans 13:7). Even when we voice disagreement, even when we voice critique, even when we protest, we do so in an attitude of respect and honor. Even when we don't like the person, we do honor to the office by dignifying them and treating them accordingly. In honoring them, we honor the One whom the Bible calls “King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16).

This challenges us, because our culture has become one of routine disrespect toward those in political authority, making them the commonest butt of our jokes. It's like the attitude of those northern tribes who, unimpressed with Solomon's son, cried out, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David” (1 Kings 12:16). Today, we'd translate that as, “Not my president!” The tribes refused to recognize the lawful king's authority. They rebelled. They even started stoning his officials to death, rebelling against the crown (1 Kings 12:18-19). Today our expressions of the attitude are mostly less violent, but equally defiant. It's true that our presidents and our governors and our senators and representatives don't always make honoring them easy. We've had our fair share of Sauls and of Rehoboams. But it remains a commandment that we honor the president, that we honor the governor, that we honor senator and representative, as if – in the realm of civil society – they were each a father or mother to us. And yet, I have to say, I frequently overhear people – maybe especially Christians – who talk about these public authorities in disrespectful, mocking, even cruel tones – tones that, if used to speak of natural father or mother, would be in 'mouth-cleaned-out-with-soap' territory. Have you shown an attitude of honor toward this governor, this president? How about the last one? We each ask ourselves if we're fostering the culture of respect this commandment calls for. “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28).

Third comes an area I find awkward to talk about, for reasons that will be obvious. But Paul never said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God except for the awkward bits” (cf. Acts 20:27), and God willing, neither will I have to. Because the third application of this commandment beyond the family is in the religious world – in the church. We see this already in the Old Testament. When the prophet Elisha was on his deathbed, even Israel's king humbled himself to weep over him, crying out over him, “My father, my father!” (2 Kings 13:14). Jeremiah's depiction of a social catastrophe is summed up as, “No honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders” (Lamentations 4:16). One Jewish writing follows instructions about honor to our parents by immediately extending that command like this: “With all your soul, fear God and revere his priests; with all your strength, love your Maker and do not neglect his ministers. Honor God and respect the priest; give him his portion as you have been commanded: firstfruits and contributions, his portion of victims and holy offerings” (Sirach 7:29-31).

In the New Testament, Jesus announces that Peter will be to him what the prime ministers like Eliakim were to the Old Testament kings who sat on David's throne: just as they had the keys to the kingdom, so Jesus will give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). Jesus is looking back at how Isaiah described what would be given to Eliakim. But not only does Isaiah describe Eliakim as wearing a robe and sash like a high priest, Isaiah also says that Eliakim will be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isaiah 22:21). So Jesus established Peter in a fatherly role toward all the people of the New Jerusalem, which is the Church. But the other apostles also had fatherly roles. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I have begotten you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” as their father in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:15); he describes his treatment of the Thessalonians as “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11); he says that Timothy “served with me in the gospel... as a son with a father” (Philippians 2:22). And as the apostles departed to be with Christ, they refused to leave their churches as orphans, so they left behind those who would be fathers to each church.

From the earliest days of Christianity, we read commands to “not despise [bishops and deacons], for they are the honored men among you,”6 and calls that each church should “respect the bishop as representing the Father.”7 Even outsiders recognized one early bishop, John's disciple Polycarp, as “the father of the Christians.”8 And by the end of just the third century, those trends were developed into these commands:

Know your bishops... Love the one who, after God, has become your father and your mother, for “whoever despises his father and his mother shall die with the death.” You then should honor the bishops, those who have set you free from sin … These you should revere and honor with all honor, for they have received authority from God over life and death.... Therefore, love the bishop as a father, fear him as a king, honor him as God. Offer him the fruits and the work of your hands so as to receive a blessing, giving him your tithes and your firstfruits and your vows...9

In time, as the Church grew and it was rarer for Christians to be in direct contact with their bishop, this fatherly role of care and guidance was extended more and more through the pastor of each church, who came to be seen as the spiritual father of the flock there. And the New Testament is very clear about how pastors should be seen and treated, in light of it. Paul describes them as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), telling the Corinthians to “not pronounce judgment” on them (1 Corinthians 4:5). He reminds the Thessalonians to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). He says, “Let the presbyters who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). The Hebrews are reminded to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). And Paul brings things full circle by looking back to the Old Testament priests as an example: “Don't you know that those employed in temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offering? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

By analogy with what's due to public authorities, we find at least three things due to church authorities, whether the bishop or the local pastor. First, we find the duty of financial support – just as the priests were owed tithes and firstfruits and a share in offerings, so today we tithe and offer as a way of showing honor. Second, we find the duty of submission and obedience in matters pertaining to the spiritual and moral life and to the life of the church. And third, we find the duty of respect and honorable treatment – the way we speak about the spiritual fathers whom God has placed over us. In honoring them, we honor the Jesus whom the Bible calls “the Pastor and Bishop of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

But, going back to that old story, think of what Jeroboam did after he dragged the ten tribes away. He broke faith with the religion God had appointed. And he did that by inventing new priests who weren't successors of Aaron, weren't even Levites at all. “Any who wanted, he ordained to be priests of the high places” (1 Kings 13:33). In other words, he rejected the authority of the Aaronic priests. Likewise, he made up his own holiday “in a month that he had devised in his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33). And when the Lord sent a “man of God” to admonish and discipline him, Jeroboam behaved not with submission but with contempt, giving orders to seize this spiritual father to harm him – leading to God's curse (1 Kings 13:4). Like Jeroboam, I've sadly witnessed scenes in churches (not this one), and have heard stories from others, about people yelling at their pastor, denouncing and slandering their pastor, disregarding their pastor's instructions and directions, leading rebellions in their church against the pastor, and so on. But if a pastor is called as a father, then behavior like that is a sin against the commandment, a sin not unlike Jeroboam's sin.

Fourth and finally, this commandment can be applied to cherishing tradition. Think not about Jeroboam but about the kingdom he founded. Dynasties rose and fell quickly, and in time, Elisha anointed a commander named Jehu to take over. After Jehu destroyed the clan of Ahab, he met a man named Jehonadab ben Rechab, and became fast friends out of their shared zeal for the Lord (2 Kings 10:15-16). This Jehonadab was a Kenite, an outsider to Israel whose people used to dwell in tents and roam the land, but who had started to settle in cities and change their way of life. Jehonadab wanted to buck the trend, wanted to stand athwart history and tell it to stop, so he commanded his children to keep to the old ways. We don't hear about them again, until Jeremiah 35. There, God sends Jeremiah to test the Rechabites, Jehonadab's descendants, by offering them wine in the temple – but they tell him they can't accept, because they keep to everything Jehonadab commanded them. Now, by this time, it's been as long since Jehonadab's days as from George Washington to us! And because they were faithful to their ancestral traditions, God blesses the Rechabites in words of joy (Jeremiah 35:18-19).

When God's Law tells us to honor our father and mother, the assumption is that the father and mother are also bound to honor. To honor what? Tradition. They stand within a living tradition, they act within it, they pass it on. That's why the assumption can be that they've got wisdom to share – it's the accumulated wisdom that was handed to them, about the way things can best be done. And so God prescribes that certain traditions must be passed down to children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; 11:18-19), and that certain answers should be given to questions that children ask about this or that (Exodus 12:26-27; 13:14-15; Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Joshua 4:6-7). And yet, in our day, we have a hard time relating to the Rechabites. Whether in society or in church, we chase after fads – whatever is newest, freshest, most cutting-edge – and forget the old ways.

A bit under a hundred years ago was the first time that a distinctive 'youth culture' formed in America, because we changed the way we arranged our schools, so for the first time, teenagers were separated out from others and corralled into peer groups increasingly devoid of adult influences. In response to the so-called 'youth problem,' American churches in the 1930s began obsessing about fears of losing this new 'youth culture' to ungodly ideas, so they began a determined campaign to appeal to youth culture. In doing so, they increasingly tailored all the aspects of church life to catering to the younger generation and its ways of thinking while still young, creating a youth group subculture. Generation after generation since then, as each age cohort has grown up to become the leading generation in America's churches, their understanding of the faith (and their approach to its practice) has borne the stamp of the youth-group subculture they grew up with – it's fundamentally the youth-marketed version from their own youth. At the same time, to reach the next generation down, they've each tried to simplify and sentimentalize Christianity another step, pandering again to the new young generation, telling a story about how these youth are destined to wield real power and influence in the world. One effect has been that, generation after generation, America's churches have become more and more immature. One scholar who studies this has called it “the juvenilization of American Christianity.” Here's what he says that means:

Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.10

Not a one of us here grew up before this process started. And so, perhaps now more than ever, we're called to honor tradition – to learn to value it, learn to get deep in history, learn to surrender our culture's fashionable idolatry of youth. We must rediscover a serious faith, not one worn lightly; a committed faith, not a consumer good. We must strive after stability and maturity, not the relentless razzle-dazzle of the recent. We must dig up the deeper roots, and instead of adapting to the changing currents of our culture, we can cherish the Christianity that was around in the year 35 and the year 300 and the year 1300, taking our cues not from the latest and hippest but from the tradition that has stood the test of time – like the Rechabites did, and Jeroboam didn't.

For Christian tradition is nothing less than Jesus Christ, through his Spirit, faithfully standing with the Church our Mother down through the ages. And it is this Jesus, and no one else, who can perfectly fulfill the commands of God in us – including this command to honor tradition, to honor the fathers and mothers in the spiritual and the civil realms, to honor elders, and to honor, yes, our own natural parents. It is Jesus who forgives us where we've fallen short, as we confess and repent and fall on his mercy. And it is Jesus who enables us to give proper honor where honor is due, in all these realms of society, through respecting, submitting, supporting, and caring. And it is to the glory of Jesus, who in different ways is glimpsed in each, that we aim to live the will of God for us, in turning to an honorable and honoring life. Amen.

1  Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 2.237-238

2  EA 44, letter from Hittite prince Zita to Pharaoh, translated in William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 117

3  EA 73, letter from King Rib-Hadda of Byblos to the Egyptian official Amanappa, translated in William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 141

4  Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti 6.24-27 (translated in Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field [Clayton Publishing House, 1982], 269); see also, on Augustus, Dio Cassius, Roman History 55.10.10 and Suetonius, Life of Augustus 58.1-2. For Claudius, see inscription translated in Danker 1982:224. For Nero, see inscription translated in Danker 1982:284.

5  John Cosin, A Collection of Private Devotions in the Practice of the Ancient Church, Called the Hours of Prayer... (R. Young, 1627), 35

6  Didache 15.2

7  Ignatius of Antioch, Trallians 3

8  Martyrdom of Polycarp 12.2

9  Didascalia Apostolorum

10  Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 4

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