Monday, May 8, 2023

Widows and Orphans

A thought, the other day, as I was meditating on the scriptural grounds for a deep and sustained care for the elderly among us.  I mean, sure, yeah, there's plenty of "honor thy father and mother" and the like in the Torah and Writings, but what about texts that are more explicitly Christian?

Jesus, after all, didn't seem much for the traditional niceties of familial obligation.  Nor did he encourage his followers to spend any of their time tending dutifully to their aging parents.  "Let the dead bury their dead," he said.  When family came a lookin' for him, Jesus ignored them.  "Who are my mother and brothers," he said, turning to those gathered.  "You are."

Which is a fine thing for a crowd to hear, but Mary, being a Jewish mother, couldn't have been pleased.  "What am I, chopped liver?"  "Yes, mom.  Chopped liver."

The challenge in the Gospels and Epistles, as we consider our care for our still-living-ancestors, is that the radical message of Jesus pushes us to extend our love to all.  Not just our blood, our family, our tribe, but to the outcast and the stranger and the enemy.  

It's a radical redefinition of neighborliness, one that assumes the care for kin is just a given.  The emphasis is newness, is a putting away of the old and embracing something yet unseen.  

Which, of course, it ain't, not any more.  Being a caregiver is a burden.  It's something that gets in the way of our careers, of our self-fulfillment, of the living of our Best Lives Now.  The old are an inconvenience to be managed, rather than a duty to be fulfilled.

So where do we find a commitment to care for the aged in the teachings of Jesus?

That seems to rise from two places.  First, from the Gospel commitment to the outcast and the marginalized.  Our culture has no use for the old old.  Age is hidden away, compartmentalized and separated from the endless rush and busyness of consumer culture.  Caregiving does not contribute to our productivity.  There's no significant return on investment.  It does not serve our immediate self interest, and it's hard, and it's draining, and we just can't right now.

But Jesus, pesky pesky Jesus?  He always challenges culture, in any era.  Our culture's shallow self-obsession and churning, family-shattering careerist diaspora is no exception.  When Jesus calls for us to care for those that have been forgotten and set out on the margins, that moral imperative extends to the forgotten, isolated elderly among us.

Second, from the broader demand to care for widows and orphans.  It's a fundamental theme of Torah, one picked up by the Gospels and Epistles.  Widows and orphans are members of society who find themselves disconnected from society by circumstance.  The basic protections that come from participation in a culture are no longer theirs.  They are not, for reasons of ability or cultural expectation, able to provide care for themselves.  So into the sacred teachings of scripture is etched the demand to provide care for those persons.  It's a basic metric of a just society, and a fundamental duty of the righteous.

Because what human beings have always known is that those circumstances could befall any of us.  Sudden misfortune could happen to any person at a time of vulnerability, and only a nation of brutes and monsters would allow those who were part of it to suffer in such a way.

You might be thinking, hey, that's a stretch.  But is it?  I mean, sure, many older women are widows, but orphans?  Oliver and Little Orphan Annie pop to mind, which isn't exactly the demographic of most residents in nursing homes.

Then again, pretty much everyone in their seventies and eighties is an orphan, technically speaking.  Their parents?  No longer alive.  Their ability to care for themselves, increasingly reduced by physical and mental limitations.  

So there you are.  What awaits us, all of us, in the arc of our lives, is a time when we will find ourselves on the margins of consumer culture, no longer relevant, suddenly strangers in a strange land.