Multiculturalism has a fascinating way of messing with our presuppositions. We find to our surprise that what is normal to one person is foreign to another, that what is good within one culture is evil within another. We find that much of what we believe to be objectively good and true has actually been filtered through a subjective cultural lens. We find that we need to look to the transcultural Bible to ask, “What does God say about this?”
When I was a child and I was forming a sense of how the world works, my part of the country was still largely monocultural. My culture was fully Western and with it I inherited the idea that the ideal relationship between generations is one of independence. One generation was to give birth to the next, fulfill the duty of getting them through college, then pursue the “Freedom 55” dream of a long and lazy retirement. There would be very little overlap between the generations beyond the occasional Easter or Thanksgiving meal. Certainly there should be very little sense of duty or obligation toward grown children or elderly parents.
But then Toronto changed. The world was invited to move to Canada and I began to see that other cultures view the relationship between the generations very differently. Where in my culture the circles of grown children and elderly parents barely overlap, in other cultures they are barely separate! As my church began to reflect the massive multiculturalism of Toronto, the pastoral questions became much more difficult to answer. I quickly realized there was a missing piece in my understanding of family. I just hadn’t put enough thought into the relationship between the generations. I was living according to culture, not scripture.
I began to find myself wondering, How should I relate to my children in the inevitable days to come they are the strong ones and I am the weak one? How should I prepare them to relate to me when they are increasingly capable and I am increasingly needy? Does the Bible have anything to say about children and their aging or elderly parents?
I went looking and landed on 1 Timothy 5 where the issue gets addressed as clearly as anywhere. Paul tells how children are to care for their parents in such a way that they “make a return” for all their parents did for them. It seems Paul does not see a total separation between the generations, but rather a healthy overlap. One generation does become independent of their parents, but then reaches back with love and care.
In many ways this cuts hard against what I’ve always believed to be good and normal. But in some ways it also cuts hard against what other cultures consider normal. As is so often the case in the Christian life, I found it’s important to battle for the middle ground between two extremes.
On the one side is proud independence, as if becoming dependent upon my children is a mark of weakness or failure. If I lean to this side, I will think I’ve failed if I place any expectations on my children at all. But that sounds like pride to me. The fact is, I am weak today and will only get weaker. God has promised he will provide for me in my weakness, and I’m beginning to see in his Word that it’s his will to provide through family. After all, God designed family to be a network of mutual care and support from birth to death. I had the duty and privilege of caring for my children when they were young and they’ll have the duty and privilege of caring for me when I am old. That’s God’s design. So I need to prepare myself to depend upon them.
The extreme on the other side is selfish entitlement, acting as if my children bear all the responsibility. It’s the entitlement mentality of, “I provided for you, now you provide for me,” or, “I’m your dad so you owe me.” But Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children” while in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul says, “children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.” It seems wisdom dictates that as their father I work hard and attempt to provide for the needs of my children when they are young and for my own needs when I am old. So even as I prepare to depend upon my children in some ways, I need to try to make their load as light as possible through diligent labor, careful saving, and wise planning.
Somewhere between those extremes of proud independence and selfish entitlement, I think Christians can find a beautiful balance. We raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. We work hard and provide for them and for ourselves to the best of our abilities. We discharge our responsibilities to our children. Then, as we grow older, we rely upon them so they can discharge their responsibilities to us. They make a return to us in time, in love, in care, and, if necessary, even in money. And if for some reason they are unable, God’s family, the church, will joyfully step in to assume care. There’s something beautiful about this when it’s working right.
We cared for our children as they entered this world and it falls to our children to care for us as we leave this world. We were there for them when they drew their first breath and they’ll be there for us when we draw our last breath. We laid them in the cradle, they will lay us in the grave. We will have to say farewell, but if we know Christ and they know Christ, it will be farewell for just a little while. When their own generation gives way to the next and their time comes, surely we will be part of the welcoming party that greets them at the gates of heaven. There we will be together forever, not first as fathers and sons or mothers and daughters, but as brothers and sisters in the great family of our great Father. May the Lord make it so…