(This article was published in Baptists Today a few years ago, but never in my blog.)
Old Man Jesus—the very idea grates. The sound of the phrase is somehow offensive. Jesus did not get old. He died young. An aging Jesus? That image, that reality, would be a challenge to our theology. No resurrection! No Easter!
What do we think about Jesus becoming gray-haired?
The idea of following Jesus as we get older, as our model, requires some mental and theological gymnastics. We have to make some guesses about “what might have been.” Would he have mellowed? Would he have continued to rail against unjust and uncaring religious traditions? What would the followers of the Jesus-faith have looked like, over a period of centuries, had Jesus not been crucified? Would it bear any resemblance to the church as we know it? How would Jesus have lived out his own journey into old age? The words “Jesus” and “compromise” do not go together easily. I can’t imagine Jesus becoming “tame” or “domesticated” by further exposure to the bad habits of the religious leaders of his day. They showed few signs of being converted.
The bottom line is that I failed at following Jesus. I am still alive. Had I followed Jesus fully, I would be dead, having picked up my own cross some time during the past 30-40 years. I did not sell all I have and give it to the poor. I make a mortgage payment every month. I have insurance. I put money away for a retirement income, storing some in figurative barns. I never plucked out one of my eyes or cut off one of my hands.
I have a friend who once lamented to our ministerial support group that we just aren’t as committed to following Jesus as we were when we were younger. Maybe he was right, but I argued that I have additional commitments now, none as important as my obligations to God, but loyalties nonetheless. I am married. Sally, while a tolerant woman, prefers that I come home at night. Sober. That is a commitment.
Jesus never had teenagers. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by saying that, but he didn’t! I did. Raising two daughters required a commitment of time, energy and money. I don’t begrudge anything I ever gave to them.
Maybe my most serious conflict of interest is that I took a salary from religious institutions for over 45 years. As a dedicated employee, I felt called and committed to nurturing and protecting the churches where I was investing my life. Often, that meant learning how to get along with people who did not seem to measure up even to the minimum standards of a faithful disciple. Greedy, angry, racist, malicious: the churches I pastored had them all. Was I wrong to maintain my loyalty to the church, when the institution and the people in it were so flawed?
How would Jesus have advised an aging band of disciples to live? Jesus could draw a crowd, but he could also offend and alienate them. Jesus had a very small core of serious followers. The church as we know it was not established until after his death, resurrection, and ascension. More truthfully, the church as we know it bears little resemblance to the church of the first century.
The Bible does have some positive models of good old age, but Jesus isn’t one of them. We can read about Abraham, Sara, Moses, Naomi, Dorcas and Gamaliel, but we will never know what Jesus was like at age 60, 70 or 80. All we can do is speculate. Reverently. Humbly.
We get hints in the New Testament of some of the issues faced by people who expected the quick return of Jesus, concerns ranging from diet to marriage to work ethic to moral behavior. We have nuggets of advice from the Apostle Paul and other early church leaders that are relevant to aging Christians:
“Be temperate.” Yet, I don’t see a lot of moderation in a thirty-year-old Jesus.
“Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” Frankly, Jesus doesn’t sound very patient in some of his sermons.
These kind words from the apostles came later, after the earthly ministry of Jesus. Jesus cannot be our example, our model, our pattern, for how to live as a gray-haired elder. He died too young.
The truth is we don’t know that much about him as a teenager or as a young adult, either, so we have to fill in the blanks. Did Jesus, young or old, ever have a hobby or was he always, relentlessly, about his Father’s business? What sense of humor did Jesus have? What did Jesus think about passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that said such things as this proverb: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth.”? Christians believe those words were inspired by God, but they are not the words of Jesus. I have been married to Sally for 43 years, and I am glad we are both alive to have fun in our retirement years together. Is that okay with Jesus? It is certainly not something he ever modeled.
We don’t know the answer to those questions or dozens of others. What would Jesus have learned between the ages of 33 and 73? Did he ever work “within the system?” We have hints that sometimes he did. I am glad because my entire life has been within the ecclesiastical system! Yet, literally, I failed to follow Jesus. I’m still alive.
Is there anything we can learn from Jesus about being an older person who is a wannabe disciple?
Was growth possible for Jesus or did he emerge from the womb of Mary, as I know some believe, knowing everything there was to know? We have an answer to that in the Gospel of Luke. As a teenager, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor.” It would be very frustrating if I were challenged in my faith system to follow a leader who was and is static, who was a know-it-all from the get-go. I never knew it all and never will. It helps me to know Jesus was a growing, learning, changing person. It may shock people who believe in a static God to learn that even the adult Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, changed. The Evangelist tells the story of Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman. Jesus appears to have an “Aha!” moment, and alters his point of view because of the conversation. How many of those transformative interactions happened to Jesus daily? Weekly? How much might Jesus have changed, and in what areas, had he lived another 40 years?
Jesus was a critic of his culture and faith traditions long before the age at which I began to acknowledge the limitations of my family, my faith and my culture. As a result, labeled as a rebel, Jesus was executed as a young man. I accepted my culture uncritically for much longer than Jesus. When I finally began to challenge the bad habits of my church and my world, I was fortunate enough to live in an era and location where we do not execute dissenters. So here I am, still living, not completely sure how to make Jesus my model for living into my 7th and 8th decades.
My decision has been to latch onto two huge biblical themes that, when all is said and done (since the Bible is a big book, a lot is said and done) seem to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
The first of these two notions is that, whatever our age, we are always a work in progress. For whatever reasons, God isn’t finished with me yet. There are family and friends still to be loved, strangers to turn into neighbors, gardens to be planted, injustices to fight, celebrations to be enjoyed, jokes to be told, kindness to be shared, and good causes that need the investment of my time, energy and money.
The second notion, a divine impulse, I believe, is that I am surrounded by God’s grace, no matter my age or station in life. The Bible tells us to “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We aren’t told to grow, at least in this passage, in good works or doctrine or warned that we had better become perfect—or else! Some of the saddest people I know are old people who have never discovered God’s grace for themselves or others.
It seems that, after the human existence of Jesus, the church began to realize, in spite of our best intentions, we would not reach faultless righteousness. Jesus knew that, too. Had we been paying attention, Jesus gave us plenty of reminders that God’s grace is sufficient and never-ending. We have stories such as the Prodigal Son (and the ever-loving, ever-patient Father). We have what has become one of my favorite passages of scripture in another of Jesus’ parables, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus’ response includes even me as a recipient of God’s grace. Failure that I have been, and failure that I still am at following the perfect will of God, I am forgiven and counted among the saints.
Jesus said so.