The Older Ones First
So, coronavirus is on everyone’s minds these days, not least due to the deluge of media coverage that ensures that this remains the case. Like many, I’m washing my hands a little more vigorously, looking askance at suspicious sneezers, pondering travel plans for the rest of the year, etc. It helps that I’ve been off social media for Lent, but coronavirus still seems to be front and center at every turn.
One thing I’ve often heard—perhaps you’ve heard it, too?—is something along the lines of, “Well, you know, it’s just old people who are dying.” Which is mostly true, I gather. But it sort of seems like the kind of thing that young(er) people like to repeat ad nauseum to convince themselves that they’re not vulnerable, that the virus isn’t that bad, that it’s not that different from the regular flu, etc. All of which, again, may be true. But the more sinister implication—one that people would never speak aloud but which is no less true for our reticence—is that old people are, you know, knocking on death’s door anyway, so this just speeds things along. It’s not like it is young, active, productive contributors to the economy that are dying, right? It’s the older ones that are the first to go.
As a culture, our approach to “older ones” is notoriously shallow and dismissive. We worship the young, the strong, the attractive. We inexplicably seem to think that young athletes, actors, pop stars, etc. are worth listening to because they’re good at keeping us entertained (this despite being supplied with abundant evidence to the contrary). We don’t expect much from our older ones. We don’t look to them for wisdom. We don’t honour them. We mostly just fruitlessly try to avoid becoming them. We think that we can diet or exercise our way to avoiding frailty, sickness and death. The inconvenient existence of “older ones” is a reminder that this isn’t actually possible, so we warehouse them in institutions and mostly try to keep them out of sight.
Speaking of the “older ones,” I’ve written often here about the story in John 8 of Jesus’ interactions with the woman caught in adultery and the religious leaders who were all-too-eager to stone her for her sin. Moses said it must be done, Jesus. How about you? The religious leaders figure they win either way—either the woman will be judged for her sin or Jesus will be exposed as the fraud that he is because of his disregard for the law. And then Jesus blows away their well-laid plans by uttering his famous words that have echoed down through the millennia: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Most of us love this story, and rightly so. Jesus puts those judgmental religious experts squarely in their place and we cheer him on as he does! But in all the writing and reflecting I’ve done on this story, I’ve never paid much attention to verse 9:
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first…
Why did the older ones go first? Perhaps because they were all too aware of their sins. Perhaps because they weren’t the one-dimensional villains that people like me often portray them as but were capable of moral honesty and spiritual sensitivity. Maybe because, as “older ones” they had been through a great deal and had accumulated some wisdom along the way. Maybe they knew themselves all too well and Jesus’ one sentence had unearthed all kinds of unsavoury struggles and secrets and failures that they preferred not to think about. Maybe—against all odds!—this was a transformative experience for them where they came to see themselves as not so different from the woman in the dock, as sinners in need of mercy. Maybe the older ones went first because they were showing the way.
It’s entirely possible that I’m reading far too much into one little sentence fragment. Four lonely words probably can’t support the weight of that much optimism. The more likely tale is surely that the older ones really did slink grouchily off, upset that their plans had been foiled, and only too eager for another opportunity to trap Jesus again. It’s not at all hard to imagine that their hunger for judgment and pious vindication remained.
But the gospels are full of strange stories, aren’t they? And stranger things have happened—then and now—than self-righteous, judgmental sinners being transformed by the mercy of Jesus.