When Old is Not Wise
I was raised in Southern Ohio. That was "just South enough" that the prevailing culture was to call everyone older than you, "Sir," or "Ma'am." Alongside that convention was the assumption that youth would respect the elder. Didn't mean those elders were right or wrong, and what any of us hold in our hearts with regard to the way foolishness can perpetuate in human being regardless of age was irrelevant to the fact that what mattered was respect tendered across generations. In my youth I saw the wildest, most irreverent of my contemporaries-the real hell raisers, mind you-say, "Yes, Sir" and "No, Ma'am." Hijinks would resume the moment the elder left the vicinity, but for just a moment there was respect for the elder.
Poor Elihu (and to some extent, Paul), that they should find themselves in situations wherein the presumed wisdom of their elders rings are false in their ears and a concurrent echo of observed sin dances in front of their eyes; because the author of this foolishness are the very people that societal convention and personal convictions say must be respected and honored. Elihu has listened to Job and his three friends hammer each other and God with accusations as they attempt to discern what/who is the cause of Job's suffering. Paul is attempting to illustrate his place in the line of transmission of the Gospel to the people of Galatia in the wake of his contentions with Peter and elements of the circumcision party (those who believe that one must be under the Law if one wishes to be a follower of Jesus).
These men have a decision to make: do they honor the elder when the elder is foolish? When, and how are we to speak when what we know of God and the world is being contravened? How do we act, when to act is to upset the safety and assurance of society's conventions?
With fear and trembling, if we are to be fair and just. Elihu HAS to speak. His heart tells him that all the struggle means nothing when these men seem to be spending more time justifying themselves or their opinions when what matters is "Why God?" Paul HAS to speak, because if the path of Peter and those of the circumcision party prevail then any mission to the Gentiles-his specific charge from Christ himself-is moot and invalid.
Overcoming the "Sir/Ma'am" thing is not easy...partly because it means undoing conventions installed in us; but also because it means we have to be mindful that we speak and act just short of allowing youthful pride and arrogance to dominate our words instead. It means that we are willing to attempt to speak to our elders as servants to wisdom and truth...and to maintain that posture as people of faith throughout life.
Want to know what that looks like, in the end when faith, wisdom, discernment and prayer overcome our generations gap-driven human lives?
I had a parishioner once that I would visit as a young (read: very young) curate. She was over 100 years old...102, to be precise. She had seen and known more in her century than most of us will ever be able to ask or imagine. Her adamant will? She insisted that I be called "Mr. Shelly" to honor my role as her pastor. She also began each visit, and ended it, by taking my hand and looking me straight in the eye while saying, "Mr. Shelly, please promise me...the young people...teach them to know God. Teach them to follow God and to love each other. Promise me that, Mr. Shelly."
"Yes, Ma'am. Yes, I will do my best."