I’ve heard a preacher say that retirement isn’t Biblical; that saving up for a post-employment period of relative ease is self-indulgent and ungodly. He compared the idea of building up an IRA account, or similar instrument for the purpose of investment income during retirement to Jesus saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” (Matthew 6:19). I think that preacher was very much mistaken.
First off, what does “treasure” mean? The original Greek word used here implies a repository for things of precious value. But how much money does it take to make it precious? At what point does your bank account balance go from prudent savings to “treasures”? Joseph stored up enough food during the seven years of plenty so that during the seven years of famine there was enough food for all of Egypt and the surrounding peoples. On a much smaller scale, it’s not uncommon (and certainly not un-biblical) to save up for “a rainy day” (unforeseen circumstances). But that isn’t the same as storing up treasures.
Storing up treasures is hoarding — keeping something precious to yourself, beyond your needs, just to relish having it, and perhaps lord it over others. Jesus gave us a parable about this in Luke 12:15-21. The bottom line in this parable is not the amount of things a person stores up for himself, but whether or not he is “rich toward God”. This parable of Jesus isn’t saying it’s wrong to amass a fortune. But rather, it’s saying that with wealth goes the responsibility of being generous toward God. Everything we have, whether little or much, belongs to the Lord. So we should be good stewards of all that we have, particularly in good works for God.
This idea is clearly stated in 1 Timothy 6:17-19. Rather than saying it is wrong to be rich, it teaches that a godly attitude towards wealth can enable the rich to be righteous. Rather than loving money, being arrogant or trusting in their own wealth, the rich are to be content and put their hope in God. “Be generous and willing to share” is the command to those who are rich. The mirror image of this is seen in James 5:1-6. Here we read about rich people who did not use their wealth to advance the kingdom of heaven. They were not fair. They did not pay what they owed, even while living in luxury. They did not minister to others. They condemned and murdered the innocent. This all reflects the attitude in their hearts, not the money in their wallet.
Conclusion 1: Saving up for retirement isn’t a sin.
The preacher I mentioned said he had no intention of ever retiring; that getting old didn’t mean you shouldn’t work. But I detected an ever-so subtle ambiance of pride in his statement — perhaps a shade of moral superiority. While I think it must be wonderful to have a vocation one loves, the reality is that most careers are a function and expression of necessity, not personal fulfillment. Therefore, most of us look forward to the cessation of our careers so that after all those years of doing what we had to do, now we have the time to do what we want to do. Of course it’s not all that hedonistic. The limitations of our aging bodies are realities we simply must learn to live with. We all eventually slow down, even those who keep on working, rather than opting for retirement.
The book of Numbers begins with the Lord telling Moses to take a census. They were to number “all the men in Israel 20 years old or more who are able to serve in the army.” Although there is no upper age limit given, this number would exclude any man who was unable to serve in the army because of disability or being too old. How old is too old to be able to serve in the army? A soldier had to be able to march, carry a weapon and when called upon, attack and fight an enemy. I’m sure there were older soldiers, but fewer 40 year-olds than 30 year-olds, and fewer 50 year-olds than 40 year-olds.
[UPDATE]: In Joshua 14:11 Caleb, at age 85, said, “I am still as strong today as I was in the day Moses sent me” [age 40]; “my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming.” This was not just talk. Joshua 15:14 records that Caleb did in fact drive out the descendants of Anak from his allotted land. But as Caleb was especially obedient to the LORD, and especially rewarded as a result, I consider his example to be extraordinary, rather than typical.
The Levites were counted differently from the other men of Israel. All males one month and older were counted, because, as Numbers 3:11-13 explains, God claimed them as his own, in lieu of every firstborn male in Israel. But in chapter 4 of Numbers, we read much more detailed instructions for counting the Levites. The Lord told Moses and Aaron to, “Count all the men from thirty to fifty years of age who come to serve in the work in the Tent of Meeting.” Here, God didn’t want men who were either too young or too old. Perhaps the twenty-year span for service represented devoting the best years of one’s life to the service of God. Perhaps it was when they were best suited to do the ‘heavy lifting’ involved in moving portions of the disassembled tabernacle. The beginning age for service was lowered from 30 to 25 years at Numbers 8:24, suggesting there may have been a 5-year apprenticeship. Nevertheless, 8:25 & 26 set the retirement age for all Levites: “at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the Tent of Meeting, but they themselves must not do the work.”
Conclusion 2: Levites retired at age 50.
Leviticus 27 contains some fascinating references to setting values on human beings, animals, houses and property. These values were for the purpose of religious vows. A person could make a vow to consecrate to the Lord the value of himself, his family, his house or his land. By paying the priests the specified amounts, it would be as if he were giving the person, animal or property to the Lord.
Land value was set by the amount of seed required to plant it and the number of crops it could produce before Jubilee (when all land reverted to it’s original owner). House and animal values were set by the priests, who judged them by their good and bad qualities. But the values of human beings were set strictly by gender and age (with the caveat that the priests would assign special rates within the means of those who were very poor). Below is a graphic illustration of Leviticus 27:1- 9:
1 month to 5 years old 5 to 20 years old 20 to 60 years old 60 + years old
male: 5 shekels 20 shekels 50 shekels 15 shekels
female: 3 shekels 10 shekels 30 shekels 10 shekels
I don’t know what the reasoning was for consistently valuing females less than their male counterparts, but old women were valued the same as girls. Perhaps the work they did was consistently undervalued. But what I find particularly interesting is that a man over 60 was valued less than a boy between 5 and 20. That surely is an indicator of the relative worth of an old man in that culture. In fact, it’s very much in line with today’s attitudes about retired folks. Oh sure, today we have many more options. Supposedly we’re healthier and live longer. We don’t have to retire if we don’t want to. But,
Conclusion 3: Retirement is Biblical.
[UPDATE]: Just to clarify a point, there is a difference between a vocation and a calling. Just because a person retires is no reason to stop ministering to others for the LORD, as he directs you to. Remember, Romans 11:29 says the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. And 2 Thessalonians 3:13 says we are not to grow weary in doing good. Retirement provides a wonderful opportunity for believers to spend time listening to God and responding to his Holy Spirit.
[Reasoned comments are welcome.]