Listen to your father who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Proverbs 23:22)
If you are considered “young,” I am considered “older.” I’m a grandma seven times over already. Last week, my 6-year-old granddaughter and I were jumping on the trampoline when she stopped, examined my feet and hands, and asked with a child’s sweet compassion why they had those wrinkles and why those veins show up.
Entering one’s sixties gives a great perspective on growing older. I’m not young, but not yet what many call old — like my mother, who is a widow in her nineties. Growing old is not a topic many of us like to think about. Perhaps especially with women, the topic often seems off-limits in polite conversation. In the retirement community where I regularly spend time with my mom, many of the female residents retain a certain reticence about their age. (My mother will be fine with everybody knowing — she’s 93!)
Being old is a topic that Scripture does not shy away from. Proverbs, for example — such a valuable book for young people — addresses it directly. As one who is both learning and observing a mother’s experience of growing older, I want to ask you to think in particular about old women, while you are young — in order to encourage clear vision now, and farsighted vision for the years ahead.
Proverbs is well-known for its addresses from father to son, but it’s good to notice that this Old Testament wisdom book regularly acknowledges parents’ joint responsibilities, joys, and sorrows. Proverbs’s opening instruction calls the son (with whom the reader of Proverbs identifies) to hear the father’s instruction and not to forsake the mother’s teaching (Proverbs 1:8).
A similar parallelism comes in Proverbs 23:22: “Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” The fifth commandment — to honor your father and mother — evidently reaches throughout life’s stages, as does its accompanying promise (Exodus 20:12).
But it is the mother I’m writing about, specifically this “mother when she is old.” Why this call not to despise her? As a woman like me enters the category of “older,” she begins to know why, in very personal ways. And if she’s “old,” like my mother, she absolutely knows why, often in very painful ways.
Some of the reasons have to do with an increasingly wrinkled face (and so on), a slowed pace (or no pace) in games and races in the park, not getting (or not hearing) all the quick jokes about the latest songs or movies, fear or ineptitude with the latest (or not even the latest) technology, and eventually things like having food on your face while you’re eating. To “despise” the elderly is not always to scorn openly; sometimes, it’s just a matter of treating older ones as quietly laughable, ignorable, or invisible.
Both men and women struggle with this process of aging, even if the struggles are sometimes differently experienced. But we do well to consider this unique call in regard to a mother: not to despise her when she is old. We could go many different directions in thinking about this call, but here are three.
- Do not despise the fading of youthful beauty.
Women who are older no longer have the beauty associated with youth. Many women spend many years trying to deny this truth as it relentlessly stalks us. In today’s commercialized culture, we are insistently and publicly taught to prize and to hold on to the appearance of youth. Without a doubt, youth’s beauty is a treasure to be enjoyed, both by the one who has it and the one who relishes seeing it. But especially in an age full of anti-aging creams for women, people (both men and women) can find themselves struggling to celebrate a woman’s value when her youthful beauty fades.
It’s not easy, young woman, to fit into our busy lives the daily cleansing and toning routines that result in “the imperishable beauty” the apostle Peter talks about (1 Peter 3:4). It’s not easy, young man, to develop eyes for that kind of beauty when you’re young. Now, we can spend a lot of time arguing about the implications of Peter’s call for the adorning of “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.” Better for all of us to pray to know what those words mean, and to learn to value that kind of beauty in women — young and old — for “in God’s sight [it] is very precious.”
- Do not despise the end of fertile bodies.
Women who grow older experience the shutdown of a part of their bodies, the reproductive part, in a way that men do not. How do women view this process in themselves? How do others view it? For some, the process represents a kind of release; for many, it simply heralds the bad news of aging and the onslaught of anxiety. For all, at least implicitly, it represents a kind of loss, a change that marks the end of potential for more life.
Even as we in the church celebrate babies born and God’s faithfulness through generations, how crucial for women, all women, to be nurturing new life — and practicing to nurture new life — as long as we have mind and strength, even if only to pray. I’m talking about nurture and prayers for spiritual life, life found only in Christ our Savior. And how crucial for younger men and women alike to value that nurture, especially those prayers. They need them as much as they needed a mother’s milk.
I have been raised by many godly mothers in God’s family, and I want to be that kind of mother, to the end. Young woman, I pray that you will be that kind of mother. Young woman and young man, I pray you will value those kinds of mothers. Now there’s an identity that lasts: being “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).
- Do not despise the women-filled landscape.
Women who are old often outlast the men. According to the Institute on Aging, these days about two-thirds of Americans over 85 are female. Without any eternal perspective, and especially peering into various residential facilities for elderly folks, the landscape might look dotted with discarded women. There are so many of them. We’ve extended the human lifespan, and we’ve ended up with a crowd of women too often lonely and despised.
How crucial for those of us in the church to love and honor elderly women as mothers in Christ’s family (1 Timothy 5:2). They have great wisdom to share. I have been enrolled in a good school as I’ve listened to my mother and her friends, so many of them faithfully living out Paul’s description of the widow who, “left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Timothy 5:5). What a crowd to value, to learn from, to minister to — and to draw into the family if they are not yet a part.
The Bible shows us a landscape dotted with women faithful and honored to the end. Right in the center is Jesus himself who, even as he bore our sins on the cross, took thought for his mother, entrusting her to the care of John (John 19:26–27).
And there in Luke’s spotlight is beautiful Anna, “advanced in years,” who worshiped in the temple with fasting and prayer night and day — and who got to welcome the Messiah (Luke 2:36–38). Looking back, we can’t miss Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who with laughter and faith bore the child of God’s promise, even when she was way past her childbearing years. And there’s Timothy’s grandmother Lois, to whom the apostle Paul gives specific mention as a woman who passed on the faith (2 Timothy 1:5).
The biblical landscape gives us perspective. It reminds us of the larger redemptive story in which we women and men are called to play our various parts, from youth into eternity. It helps us laugh like Sarah, only with the fullness of faith. It instills in us the perseverance of Anna, to seek Jesus night and day. It inspires us to pass on faith as Lois did — faith in the Son of God who came down to us, who was born of a human mother, who knew no sin but bore our sin for us on the cross, and who rose from the grave, our risen Savior and eternal King. In our beautiful Savior are life and strength and beauty enough for all of us in his family, forever.
It is good to consider these things when you are young, as the wisdom literature calls young people to do, in order to prepare for a whole life of following the Lord, to the end. It is also good to think on these things as younger and older together, women and men in the body of Christ, all heading toward a Day when our resurrected bodies will not age ever again — at least in the way we know aging!
Until then, we age, we women and men, in our various stages. I pray in particular that the church would be filled with beautiful women young and old. And I pray that all of us will do the opposite of despising our mothers when they are old.