Editorial: March 2010
Bill Powell, a US Journalist, went to visit his father in a US Nursing Home, along with his Chinese wife, Junling, for the first time, a few months ago. Junling was shaken by the experience, and said, "You know, in China, it's a great shame to put a parent into a Nursing Home." In China, for centuries, the social contract has been straightforward: parents raise children; then the children care for the parents as they reach their dotage.
When the real estate developer Jiang Xiao Li recently bought a new, larger apartment in Shanghai, he did so partly because he knew that, in a few years, his parents will move in with them. Jiang's parents will help take care of his daughter, and as they age, Jiang and his wife will help take care of them. Though China is developing a better-funded and more reliable social security system for retirees, to reduce the economic necessity of generations living together, no one believes that, as China gets richer, the cultural norm will shift significantly.
In China, senior-care costs are mostly borne by families. For millions of poor Chinese, that is a burden as well as a responsibility. There are benefits that balance the financial hardship: grandparents tutor young children, while Mom and Dad are working; they familiarise the younger generation to the values of family and nation; they provide a sense of cultural continuity that helps bind a society.
In contrast, 20th century America became a mobile and rootless society. It has become hard for them to care for their parents since they now live far apart. It is estimated that the number of elderly Americans will soar from 38.6 million in 2009 to 71.5 million in 2030. In the overwhelmed Nursing Home System of the U.S., "there won't be enough spots for them." Nursing Home care in the U.S. now costs about $85,000 (Rs. 42.5 lakhs) annually per resident. Recognising the magnitude of the coming crisis, the U.S. government has begun to respond. "The trend will be into home care, because Nursing Homes are too expensive," in the U.S.
Many old Americans, who dreamt of retirement, continue to work, often because their investments have plunged in value. There are now more Americans who are 65 and older, 6.6 million compared with 4.1 million in 2001. Nearly half a million of them want to work, but cannot find a job. The age to obtain full social security benefit has increased to 66 from 65. While social security keeps most seniors above the poverty line, there are a substantial number near poverty.
It is estimated that there are 81 million senior citizens, above the age of 60, in our country. The government has introduced schemes such as higher tax exemption limits, travel concessions on railways, higher interest rates on fixed deposits, for them. However, there is no proper social security scheme. It is pitiable that many of them are lonely and are confined to old age homes for stay, security and safety. In Kerala alone, there are 229 old age homes with 10,516 inmates. Day homes are also in vogue. Many parents are made to find company and comfort in Nursing Homes. As we make the brutal decision about sending ageing parents into Nursing Homes, a dose of the Chinese ethos will be most welcome.
In the commandments that God gave the Israelites through Moses, the list of man's duties to his fellow men begins with his duties at home in regard to his parents. This was regarded as one of the most sacred obligations by the Israelites. In some ancient societies, the helpless seniors were thrust out of the homes of their children, to be eaten by beasts or die of exposure. But respect for parents and for old age was traditional among the Israelites. This respect received the support of divine command. "Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Exo.20:12). Well-being and prosperity are the blessings and reward for honouring our parents. In subsequent legislation, this commandment was applied very strictly. It was the responsibility of parents to instruct their children in the faith of the covenant (Deut.6:7), so that the faith could be passed on from one generation to another. But instruction in the faith required an attitude of honour and respect from those who were being instructed. The commandment serves as a reminder of the need for harmonious family life and the responsibility of both parents and children for spiritual growth. The Word of God enjoins us to respect the elderly. "You shall rise before the gray headed and honour the presence of an old man..." (Lev.19:32). "Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father..." (1Tim.5:1). This was strictly practised in our midst, till recently. But such things are considered old fashioned now by the younger generation. We forsook age-old practices as well as Biblical instructions and mistook westernisation as civilisation. It is never too late to get back to the Bible.
A curse was pronounced on him that dishonoured or despised his parents (Deut.27:16). 'Cursing his father' was considered as a capital offence. Capital punishment was executed only in extreme cases. This shows the divine attitude toward the offence. He that cursed his father or mother was to be put to death (Exo.21:17; Lev.20:9; Pro.20:20). It is considered as a grievous violation of the 5th commandment. Even a son who wilfully and stubbornly disobeyed his parents was to be brought before the elders of his city and stoned to death (Deut.21:18-21). Obstinate rebellion is considered akin to repudiation of divine grace. The parents are required to bring the charge before the leaders appointed to arbitrate at the gate.
Much of the book of Proverbs is an inspired commentary on this commandment. "Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old" (Pro.23:22). Jesus approved this commandment by His own subjection to His earthly parents (Lk.2:51). He reaffirmed this commandment and rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for circumventing it with their traditions (Mk.7:1-13). The law concerning duty to parents was plain, but the Jews had devised a means of evading it, under the cloak of piety. They tried to circumvent the commandment by putting in its place a religious requirement that drew a lot of attention to themselves. For them, it was not a matter of pleasing God, but of positioning themselves as the central focus and exhibiting their piety for all to see. They were prepared to sacrifice their parents to their own pious selfishness. A son could pledge his money to be paid into the temple treasury. This could be done without actual payment. He could even do it in a fit of anger, and could then tell his old parents, in their time of need, that he could offer them no help since his money was dedicated under oath. In so doing, they substituted human legalism for the law of God.
Paul rephrased it and called it as the first commandment with promise. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph.6:1-4). "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord" (Col.3:20-21). A person is obligated to honour his parents as he does God, and to assume responsibility for them as he does for his fellowmen, "that you may live long on the earth." Children are to obey their parents for several reasons: (i) it is right; (ii) it is commanded; (iii) it brings blessings; (iv) it is well pleasing to the Lord. The wise King Solomon says, "Children's children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children is their father" (Pro.17:6). The father who honours the Lord will have little trouble winning the love and respect of his children. In the lives of nations and individuals, the destruction of the home marks the beginning of the end. The Word of God reminds us, "In the last days, men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money... disobedient to parents..." (2 Tim.3:2).
A father's duties are displayed, both negatively and positively. There is a warning against irritating children and thus leading them to exasperation. An injunction to train them in disciplinary education follows. Paul warns fathers to refrain from provoking their children with undue demands. He exhorts that "the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience" (Tit.2:2).
Home discipline is not a matter of rigid enforcement, but of relating the parent-child relationship to Christ. In an age when parental authority is being challenged, the Christian home should be an example of healthy discipline. Paul recognised that this is possible only if fathers avoid provocation. He emphasises that harshness should find no place in a Christian household. Children must be treated like people, and not things. Fathers are to discipline (nurture) children and counsel (admonish) them in the Lord.
Children are to obey their parents for Christ's sake, to please the Lord. It is sad to see children, who are professing Christians, rebel against their parents and thereby sin against Christ. Christian children should live up to their high position in Christ as members of His body. The restoration of parental authority is a much needed corrective for the rampant increase of juvenile delinquency. The revival of filial respect for aged parents would do much to solve the financial and emotional needs of the ever-increasing older generation.
People who pay heed to God have no other choice. They cannot rebel and go against their parents. Nor can they throw into the balance all the mistakes their parents may have made while bringing them up. Parents do not make mistakes intentionally, but because of shortcomings in their youth and many other circumstances. This is also not about the younger generation knowing better and being right, but about mutual understanding.
The commandment to honour one's parents involves the gratitude and respect we have for them for all the trouble that they willingly and joyfully took upon themselves in bringing us to life. In most cases, they have even become models for us so that we would like to emulate them.
People who honour the elderly honour God. Those who fail to honour them rebel against God's will.