[Watchtower study for the week of May 19, 2014 – w14 3/15 p. 20]

The thrust of this article concerns identifying who should care for the elderly among us, and how the care should be administered.

Under the subtitle “The Family’s Responsibility”, we start by quoting one of the ten commandments: “Honor your father and your mother.” (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:2) We then show how Jesus condemned the Pharisees and scribes for failing to observe this law due to their tradition. (Mark 7:5, 10-13)

Using 1 Timothy 5:4,8,16, paragraph 7 shows that it is not the congregation but the children who have the responsibility for caring for aging or ill parents.

To this point all is well and good. The scriptures show—and we fully acknowledge—that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for dishonoring their parents by putting a tradition (a law of man) above the law of God. Their excuse was that the money that should have gone to care for the parents was instead going to the temple. Since it was to be eventually used in God’s service, this breach of divine law was permissible. In other words, they felt the end justified the means. Jesus strongly disagreed and condemned this unloving attitude.   Let’s just read that for ourselves to have it clear in mind.

(Mark 7:10-13) For example, Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Let the one who speaks abusively of his father or mother be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother: “Whatever I have that could benefit you is corban (that is, a gift dedicated to God),”’ 12 you no longer let him do a single thing for his father or his mother. 13 Thus you make the word of God invalid by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”

So by their tradition, a gift or sacrifice dedicated to God exempted them from obedience to one of the ten commandments.

The scriptures also show, and we again acknowledge, that it is the children’s responsibility to care for the parents. Paul makes no allowance for the congregation to do this if the children are believers. He lists no acceptable exemptions to this rule.

“But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let these learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to repay their parents and grandparents what is due them, for this is acceptable in God’s sight….8 Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her assist them so that the congregation is not burdened. Then it can assist those who are truly widows.” (1 Timothy 5:4, 8, 16)

These are strong, unequivocal statements. Caring for parents and grandparents is considered “a practice of godly devotion.” Failure to do this makes one “worse than a person without faith.” Children and relatives are to assist the elderly so that “the congregation is not burdened.”

From paragraph 13 on we consider information under the subtitle “The Congregation’s Responsibility”. Based on the foregoing, you might well conclude at this juncture in the study that the congregation’s responsibility is confined to situations where there are no believing relatives. Alas, not so. Like the Pharisees, we too have our traditions.

What is tradition? Is it not a common set of rules to guide a community? These rules are enforced by the authority figures in the community. Thus traditions or customs become an unwritten but universally accepted pattern of behavior within any community of humans. For example, our Western tradition or custom used to require a man to wear a suit and tie, and a woman a skirt or dress, when going to church. It also required a man to be clean shaven. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we followed this tradition. Nowadays, businessmen rarely wear suit and tie, and beards are widely accepted. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for a woman to buy a skirt these days because pants are the fashion. Yet in our congregations, this tradition continues to be enforced. So what started as a custom or tradition of the world has been adopted and preserved as one for Jehovah’s Witnesses. We continue to act this way giving the reason that it is done to preserve unity. To a Jehovah’s Witness, the word “tradition” has a negative connotation due to Jesus’ frequent condemnation of it. Therefore, we re-label it as “unity”.

Many sisters would love to go in the field ministry wearing an elegant pantsuit, especially in cold winter months, but they do not do so because our tradition, enforced by our local community authority figures, will not allow it. If asked why, the answer will invariably be: “For the sake of unity.”

When it comes to caring for the elderly, we have a tradition as well. Our version of corban is the full-time ministry. If the children of an aging or ill parent are serving in Bethel, or are missionaries or pioneers serving far away, we suggest that the congregation may want to take on the task of caring for their aging parents so that they can remain in the full time service. This is considered a good and loving thing to do; a way of serving God. This full-time ministry is our sacrifice to God, or corban (a gift dedicated to God).

The article explains:

“Some volunteers divide the tasks with others in the congregation and care for older ones on a rotation basis. While realizing that their own circumstances do not allow them to engage in the full-time ministry, they are happy to assist the children to remain in their chosen careers as long as possible. What an excellent spirit such brothers show!” (par. 16)

It sounds nice, even theocratic. The children have a career. We’d love to have that career, but cannot. However, the least we can do is help the children remain in their chosen career by filling in for them in caring for the needs of their parents or grandparents.

We can be sure that the tradition of corban sounded nice and theocratic to both the religious leaders and their followers in Jesus’ day. However, the Lord took great exception to this tradition. He does not allow his subjects to disobey him just because they reason they are acting in a just cause. The end does not justify the means. Jesus doesn’t need a missionary to remain in his assignment if that individual’s parents are in need back home.

True the Society invests a lot of time and money in training and maintaining a missionary or Bethelite. All that could be wasted if the brother or sister has to leave to care for aging parents. From Jehovah’s view, however, this is of no consequence. He inspired the apostle Paul to instruct the congregation to let children and grandchildren “learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to repay their parents and grandparents what is due them, for this is acceptable in God’s sight.” (1 Tim. 5:4)

Let’s analyze that for a moment. This practice of godly devotion is seen as a repayment. What are the children paying back to the parents or grandparents? Simply caregiving? Is that all your parents did for you? Fed you, clothed you, housed you? Perhaps, if you had unloving parents, but for most of us, I daresay the giving didn’t stop with the material. Our parents were there for us in every way. They gave us emotional support; they gave us unconditional love.

As a parent nears death, what they want and need is to be with their children. Children likewise need to repay the love and support that their parents and grandparents lavished on them in their most vulnerable years. No congregation, however loving its members, can substitute for that.

Yet our Organization expects aging, ill, or dying parents to sacrifice this most human of needs for the sake of the full-time ministry. Essentially, we are saying that the work a missionary does is so valuable to Jehovah that he views it as trumping the need to show godly devotion by repaying one’s parents or grandparents what they are due. That in this instance, one is not disowning the faith. We are basically reversing Jesus’ words and saying that ‘God wants sacrifice, and not mercy.’ (Mat. 9:13)

I was discussing this topic with Apollos, and he made the observation that Jesus never focused on the group but always the individual. It was never what was good for the group that mattered, but always the individual. Jesus spoke of leaving the 99 to rescue the 1 lost sheep. (Mat. 18:12-14) Even his own sacrifice was made not for the collective, but for the individual.

There are no scriptures that support the viewpoint expressed that it is loving and acceptable in the sight of God to abandon one’s parents or grandparents to the care of the congregation while one continues in full-time service in a faraway land. True, they may need care beyond what children can provide. It may be that professional care is needed. Still, leaving whatever care can be provided to be handled by “congregation volunteers” while one continues to uphold the tradition that the ministry is of overriding importance flies in the face of what Jehovah clearly states in his word is the obligation of the child.

How lamentable that like the scribes and Pharisees, we have invalidated the word of God by our tradition.