From Book of Leviticus:
You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 19:3 (NRSV) – May 21, 2014)
Time for me to put on my curmudgeon hat and unload a rant I’ve been promising myself for the better part of two weeks. It’s a matter of respect for elders, so this verse which links reverence of parents with reverence of God is a perfect entrée for me to set down what’s been bugging me.
Three times in the past couple of weeks I answered our home phone and was immediately asked: “Is Charles there?” (I could go off on another tangent about telephone etiquette and how inappropriate and rude it is to respond to someone’s “hello” with this sort of question, but that’s a cranky-old-man discussion for another time.)
There’s only one Charles who lives in our home, me. I don’t use my first name, so I immediately know this is someone who doesn’t know me. Since the caller has not first identified herself — all three calls were from women and I think all were probably in their 20s or early 30s, I ask, “Who’s calling please?” In one case it was a charity seeking contributions; in the second it was a lawn service looking for customers; the third, a vendor of “retirement services,” whatever those are.
Once I ascertained who was calling, I responded as I usually do, “This is Mr. Funston. What can I do for you?” In every case, the young woman replied, “Well, Charles . . . .” And that’s when I began to think about someone’s lack of respect for elders (especially someone who has implied by his self-identification that this call is not a “first-name basis” conversation).
I’ll grant that the charity solicitor probably would have no way to know the age of the person she was called. The lawn service lady wouldn’t either, although the fact that she was calling homeowners might have suggested that many, if not most, of her contacts would be older than her. The lady drumming up business for “retirement services,” however, was surely calling a defined demographic: the cranky and curmudgeonly, the decrepit, those nearing the time of kicking the bucket, the people whose useful working life is coming to an end . . . in short, people older than her!
When did it become acceptable to call strangers, especially older strangers, by their first names? When did it become acceptable for people to adopt a false attitude of familiarity toward those, especially their elders, with whom they are not familiar at all? And (to quoted verse leads me to ask) is this failure of respect for others (especially elders) related to the amply demonstrated decrease in the percentage of the population which describe themselves as “religious”?
In William Langland’s 14th Century allegory of Christian maturation, The Vision of Piers Plowman, respect for elders is portrayed as one of the stages along the way to salvation, one through which the pilgrim must pass before being able to show respect for God. So I am clearly not the first to wonder about this relationship, the connection set out so plainly in the linkage made in this verse from Leviticus.
In the Muslim tradition of adab (which can be loosely translated as “etiquette,” “good manners,” or “proper behavior”), it is a sign of respect to the Creator when we respect and love others simply because, like us, they are human. It is a part of adab to let one’s elders speak first in daily conversations and situations. In Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed is sometimes quoted as saying, “To show respect to an old Muslim with white hair manifests true respect for God.” In the Holy Qur’an, one can find a sentiment not dissimilar to today’s quoted verse from Leviticus; for example, “We have enjoined upon man care for his parents. * * * Be grateful to Me and to your parents.” (Surat Luqman 31:14)
Is there a connection between respect for one’s parents and other elders and respect for God? The holy texts suggest there is. Is there a relationship between a decline in respect for one’s elders and a decline in the population which is religious? One might need to have become a decrepit old curmudgeon to think so . . . so I guess I qualify and I do believe that.
What I can’t believe is how much I sound like my grandfathers! (I won’t get started on how contemporary parents — particularly my generation, the boomers — have failed to teach these things. That would keep me here all day and into next week!)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.