In the previous article, when discussing the question of elderly care for parents for the specific case when the parents are either covenant-breakers or their actions reveal unredeemed heart, we started a discussion over the very nature and function of the family in the plan of God for dominion. We answered the following three questions: (1) Who is the true center of all Biblical commandments, including the commandment to honor our parents? (2) How do we define the institution of the family which is central to the tasks of welfare and elderly care? (3) What are the responsibilities of parents to children and of children to parents?
We will answer here the other two questions: (4) What blessings should follow from obedience and what sanctions should follow from disobedience to the laws for the family? And (5) What should be the long-term vision and goal for a Christian family, both nuclear and extended, and who inherits?
Covenantal Blessing and Curse
A law that has no sanctions attached to it is as good as no law. Therefore the laws for covenantal responsibilities within the family have sanctions attached to them. In every covenant, blessings come in the form of fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. And curses come in the form of separation from the covenant.
Since the family is a trustee of the economic wealth of the society, its blessings and curses are primarily in the form of economic blessings and curses. The Fifth Commandment which protects the family is the first one with a promise attached to it, and the main thrust of the promise is economic: that it may go well (i.e. prosper) with you and your days will be prolonged. Material resources and time – the two factors of economic growth. The parents themselves, if they are obedient to God and train their children, expect economic return from them in the form of support in their old age. Children must obey their parents so that they inherit from them. The child that takes up the task of caring for his parents in their old age – usually, but not always, the first-born – receives an additional economic compensation in the form of double portion of the inheritance. Finding a good wife in the Biblical social order requires an economic compensation to her parents, and she comes to the family of her husband with her dowry; also, she is expected to be economically savvy and increase her family’s fortune (Prov. 31). The family is the economic agent in the society, its functions are primarily economic, and therefore the blessings are primarily economic.
But there are also curses when a person refuses to fulfill his responsibilities to the family. To start with, it is not a coincidence that the punishment the parents can use against their disobedient children is the same as the punishment used in the economic relationship between a master and his slave – corporal punishment (Ex. 21:20, 26). Indeed, as long as the child is under the protection of his parents, he is no different from a slave (Gal. 4:1). Parents who fail to educate and train their children to prosper righteously will see a decline in their economic well-being in their old age. Children who have broken the covenant must be disinherited, that is cut off from the economic blessings of the family. A widow who doesn’t do her obligations as a widow must also be cut off from economic support; and the solution to her situation is for her to get married again and thus come under economic protection (1 Tim. 5). The family is a trustee of the economic capital, and the family must and does mete out economic sanctions for obedience and disobedience to the family covenant. When obedient to his responsibilities, the family member participates in the economic blessings, when disobedient and irresponsible, he is cut off from the blessings and is cursed.
This leads us to the conclusion that there are no automatic entitlements in the family covenant. The story of Esau and Jacob must teach us that no one is entitled to a blessing by default. While Esau by rule had to receive the birthright – that is, economically, a double portion of the inheritance – God decreed even before they were born that it was the younger brother who would receive it (Rom. 9:11). And as if that was not enough, the Scripture expresses it in economic terms: “The older shall serve the younger.” (In Gen. 25:23, the Hebrew word for “serve” is exactly the same word as used for Adam’s economic task of “cultivating” the Garden in Gen. 2:15.) The heirs do not automatically inherit, they need to show character and faithfulness to the covenant to be worthy of being able to benefit from the family’s economic inheritance. People who could not take care of themselves could be adopted in a family for permanent care, but only after they have become slaves, and therefore took certain economic obligations to the family (Ex. 21:2-6). The only notable exception to that rule was the “adoption” of a Levite in the family where no specific economic obligations were listed on the part of the Levite, but only the duty of reading the Law of God for family devotions; but then again, that privilege came only with a specific commandment for the Levites to never have and pass inheritance to their children. Even the older widows, those worthy of support, were not automatically granted the status of welfare recipients by the church but only after meeting specific requirements (1 Tim. 5:4-5, 9-10).
In the lives of Naomi and Ruth, we have an even clearer confirmation that even widows didn’t automatically get entitled to support. Both of them widows – and Naomi in her old age as well – they returned to Israel in complete poverty. Even though they had the family land, they did not have the strength to cultivate it nor the funds to pay workers to do it. Ruth had to go glean from other people’s fields, which was an activity reserved to the poorest of Israel, and for the strangers (Deut. 24:21). Naomi had a close male relative who could take her to his house and take care of her; if she was automatically entitled to care at his house, she would have appealed to her position as an unprotected poor widow. But such appeal wasn’t issued, and no one objected to the apparent lack of compassion on the part of her relative. If Paul’s injunction in 1 Tim. 5:8 is applied to this situation, the closest relative must have been considered worse than an unbeliever. But we don’t see Naomi appealing for help; nor do we see anyone in Bethlehem concerned about the situation.
There was a reason for it. Naomi had to prove that she had remained faithful to the covenant. The community in Bethlehem probably had the right to be suspicious: She and her husband had left Israel in times of distress, only to emigrate to a nation that was hostile to Israel (Num. 22; Judges 3). They had allowed their sons to marry Moabite women, well known at the time for their promiscuity (Num. 25:1). As if that wasn’t enough, Naomi also brought back with her one of those Moabite women, a widow, attractive, and still young enough to marry again (Ruth 2:5-6). From the perspective of her family and of the Israelite culture in general, Naomi had to go a long way before she proved she was eligible for support by her closest relatives, irrespective of her old age and her deep poverty. No one received welfare automatically; a person had to present proofs that he was part of the covenant.
That’s what Ruth set out to do. She had to show family loyalty: Taking care of her mother-in-law even in her deepest poverty (Ruth 2:11). She had to present a clear case of superior work ethic (2:7). She had to overcome the reputation for promiscuity Moabite women had, and display humbleness and self-restraint (2:10, 13). She had to display a good knowledge of the custom and the social conventions in the Hebrew society, and her willingness to abide by them (3:6-9). Only after she did all this, she could say she had proved that, indeed, the God of Naomi was her God, and the people of Naomi were her people (1:16). Her original declaration that she belonged to the God and the people of Israel had to be supported by her showing her works of faith, for her to be able to participate in the blessings of being part of Israel. When the visible proofs were presented (3:11), she didn’t even have to defend her case that she and her mother-in-law deserved protection: Boaz, deeply impressed by the true conversion of the young woman, himself took up her case and vowed to not stop until she was economically protected and provided for (3:18). No one was automatically entitled to support; all support had to be lawfully deserved by faithfulness to the covenant.
Focus on the Future
Christianity’s uniqueness as a religion is in its view of the future. Not that it has a unique view of the future but that it does have a view of the future. No other religion has it, at least not consistent with their own presuppositions. Christianity is the only religion that is not bound to the past and actually looks to the future in history with positive expectations, and therefore has the time, the resources, and the emotional fuel to build a future. Its success in the first centuries after Christ was due to a great extent to its optimistic outlook concerning history. The pagan world had nothing to offer except a desperate obsession with the past, with the imagined Golden Age of the forgotten antiquity. Time, change, future were a threat to the pagan mind and the pagan social order. They weren’t for the Christian mind and the Christian social order. It was only the Christian who could say together with Paul, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13). No pagan could afford to forget the past; the past was his anchor, his hope, his only means of finding meaning and purpose in a dangerous world of change an uncertainty. But the Christian knew that the present and the future belonged to him (1 Cor. 3:22), and he was not bound to the past. Christianity lost its impetus only when pessimistic eschatologies – amillennialism and premillennialism – became dominant in the church, and thus its unique characteristic, its view of the future in history was lost. At the same time, pagan ideologies arose who parroted the Christian historical optimism; not for long, because optimism can not be sustained on any basis but the Trinitarian God of the Bible. But Marxism, Nazism, secular humanism, and today even Islam, flourished for a while, borrowing the Christian optimism and adjusting it to their own purposes.
The family, as the basic and central earthly institution of the Christian social order, has an important role to play in this focus on the future. As we mentioned above, its function in the plan of God as an institution is to be a guardian, a trustee of the wealth of the society, and especially of the transfer of that wealth to future generations. This inevitably defines the family in relation to time – the Bible allows for no stagnant view of the family, as an institution that is focused entirely on the past. To the contrary, in the Bible the family is always defined, described, blessed, admonished in relation to the future. Adam and Eve were created as a family not to enjoy themselves in a timeless bliss, but to “replenish the earth,” a task that obviously will take time. Even after the fall, the family still had a task to fulfill in the future, a victory to win, that of of the seed of the woman crushing the head of the serpent. Abram was chosen by God with a view of the future, way beyond his own expected lifetime. David looked forward to his descendant Who will save Israel. Families were commanded to leave inheritance to their children, and teach them to teach their children to teach their children and so on, in the way of the Lord. The most important future-oriented, optimistic event in the history of Israel – the Exodus – was to be celebrated in the family, not in the church or in the nation as a civic entity. Family in the Biblical sense means nothing if it is not related to future fulfillment of promises, and that in history and on earth.
Modern pagan cultures may have and cherish the institution of the family. Much has been written about the social position of the family in ancient Rome and China. Modern Islam reportedly has a strong focus on the institution of the family (although this is arguable). Modern Judaism (very different from the old Jewish religion of the Old Testament) also imputes very high value to the family. But in all those, the family is not a guardian of wealth that has to be transferred to the future, and therefore develop and build that future, whatever changes would be necessary to put in effect. All these cultures were and are stagnant because the family – however valued and strong – is a guardian of the past, a trustee of the old rituals and beliefs and superstitions which have to remain unchanged no matter what. In some places this is combined with very strong veneration of the ancestors – and the ancestors, being in a place where nothing changes, undoubtedly would be very unhappy if the world changes beyond recognition.
The same fear of change and future can be seen also in the modern secular humanist culture. Abortion, same-sex marriage, cohabitation, have the same ultimate religious drive in their very foundation: The fear of change that will bring the future. And since the change obviously comes through the birth of a baby – or many babies – the modern culture is frantically searching for ways to re-create the family without the danger of having children. Not that secular humanists hate children – although many of them do, with a passion. But there is something more that they hate: the change, the newness of life, the inevitable future that comes with it. The scene of a wife breaking out the news that she is pregnant is one of the simplest and yet most dramatic scenes in the world of movie-making; it spells c-h-a-n-g-e. And this change is what unbelievers hate the most: because it means that the future is going to destroy the past, the good old known world of certainty and leisure.
Needless to say, on a practical level, this focus on the future for the Christian family is expressed in its ability to procreate, and leave inheritance to the children. It is the children who must inherit, and it is the children who will be the projection of the family into the future (Ps. 127:4-5). At the end of the day, when all other responsibilities have been fulfilled, one remains that will carry on the family name and capital in the future: the upbringing of children, teaching them in the Lord and equipping them to prosper righteously and fill the earth.
Knowing this, we should expect that the attack of the pagan world against the Christian family will come mainly in the form of attacking either the children themselves, or the inheritance the parents would leave to the children. The former is attempted in the different ways modern governments use to separate the children from their parents: mainly the government school system. The latter comes as attempts to destroy the legacy or the inheritance left to the children; the spiritual, intellectual, and material capital transferred to the future generations.
But sometimes it comes in a different form: in the form of addiction to spending. In fact, in much of the Western world the loss of the vision for the future has resulted in a frantic drive on the part of the parents to spend and acquire new things. The credit card crisis and the mortgage crisis for the individual citizens, and the massive fiscal debt on a government level are all the result of that obsession with spending. Spending is looked upon as a substitute for the promises of the future that were lost with the lost optimism. The drive to spend is primarily religious; but its results are economic. And one of the most terrible economic consequences of it is the destruction of the family capital and transfer of wealth.
Knowing how important it is to leave inheritance to the children, a Christian family must be careful to identify the threats to that inheritance. Sometimes they are government taxes and regulations. Sometimes they are the lack of self-control on the part of the parents themselves. Sometimes they are excessive demands by an elderly parent for support. In all cases, while the present needs must be met in a reasonable way, the focus must remain on the future.
To return back to my friend’s question: Are the children of an aged parent who demands an unreasonable amounts of money, above and beyond the normal level of support, obligated to comply unconditionally with his demands? Or, to answer the broader question: Are the children who are believers, unconditionally obligated to parents who are unbelieving and rebellious, or who exhibit traits of behavior that are not in accordance with the Christian faith?
The answer is no.
First, no human relationship can be absolute, and therefore there can be no unconditional obligation or responsibility to other men, even of a child to his parents. All relationships must be redefined in terms of God and His covenant. Only God is our ultimate and absolute relationship, and human relationships that violate His covenant must be considered null and void.
Second, the Biblical pattern for the family is the nuclear family: a man and his wife. There is no absolute loyalty to the extended family, the clan, because only the nuclear family has the mandate to fill the earth and have dominion over it. All relationships with other families – or even with the parents of the husband and the wife – must be subjected to that basic human institution, even the care for the elderly parents.
Third, the Bible clearly identifies the responsibilities not only of children to their aged parents but also of the parents to their children. There is no one-way responsibility in the Christian social order. Any relationship of such one-way responsibility is illegitimate for it violates the Law of God.
Fourth, as a covenant institution, the family has its blessings for covenantal obedience and curses for covenantal disobedience. Since the family is the trustee of the economic wealth of the society, its blessings and curses are economic: inheritance, support, economic protection, etc. But it is not autonomous: the family’s sanctions must be in accordance with God’s Law. It is not allowed to reward covenant-breakers with blessings, nor administer curses on covenant-keepers. No one, not even the true widows, is automatically entitled to support and economic protection; they must prove they are in the covenant before the family decide to support them.
Fifth, in everything, the family must be focused on the future. In fact, take away the focus on the future, and the Christian family ceases to exist as a concept. Therefore, the family must guard its wealth from any relationship that attempts to destroy its inheritance, whether government taxation or individual addiction to spending. The actions or addictions of an aged parent that war against passing inheritance on to the next generation must be rejected, and his children must support him only to the reasonable level of support.