|The Arrogance of Rehoboam, Hans Holbein the Younger|
The Bible has much to say about the wisdom that comes with age: “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32). “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. . . . They still bring forth fruit in old age” (Ps. 92:12,14). These are not just isolated proof texts. The wisdom of old age is a theme found throughout Scripture.
Moses, we learn in Exodus, was 80 years old and his brother Aaron 83 when they were called to liberate the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt (Ex. 7:7). In Canadian terms, Moses would have been eligible for his CPP pension 15 years earlier, after having laboured for more than half a century. Yet God still had work ahead for him – vastly more important than anything he had accomplished as an adopted prince of Egypt. Jews, Christians and Muslims alike regard Moses as a hero of their respective faiths, recognizing that God’s call can come even when we assume that our fruitfulness is declining or at an end.
In 1 Kings 12 we are told that, after King Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam was faced with rebellion by the northern tribes and was confronted with a stark choice: to continue the misguided policy of his father in conscripting only non-Judahites into forced labour, or to treat them more equitably. The elders in the kingdom advised him to acquiesce in the legitimate demands of the northerners: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever” (vs. 7).
But Rehoboam also consulted the young men with whom he had grown up, and they gave him different advice: “Thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than myfather’s loins. And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’” (vs 10-11). Rehoboam was undoubtedly impressed with the intellectual brilliance and youthful vigour of this second group of advisors in contrast to the less appealing demeanour of the first. Yet following youthful advice resulted in his losing most of the old kingdom of Israel, with only Judah and part of Benjamin remaining under his sovereignty.
Today many organizations – from churches and businesses to schools and governments – are tempted to run with the young. After all, they are less expensive, their formal education is more recent, and they are brimming with new ideas with potential benefits for all stakeholders. And, face it, the young present a fresher appearance to the outside world, ready to tackle the challenges ahead and to put aside the past. Christian organizations are not immune to the pressure to rejuvenate their images and to sideline those with more experience.
While many jurisdictions have enacted legislation prohibiting age discrimination, it is not too difficult for organizations to find ways around this. But this should not be the main issue. The fact is that no community, whatever its purpose, can afford to reinvent the wheel and to keep repeating the mistakes of the past. It is for this reason that the Bible associates wisdom with age and experience. We should too.