In the first epistle to Timothy, the author includes this challenge and encouragement:
Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
It’s interesting there that the writer assumes that this will be advice that Timothy will need — that some will, in fact, “despise” his youth. And these despisers, the writer suggests, may well be among “the believers.”
The writer was most likely not actually Paul, but there’s a Paul-esque logic at work there. Don’t let the haters “despise your youth” — it’s wrong for them to do that. But haters gotta hate, so do your best not to give them the slightest excuse. They shouldn’t be so despicable, and it’s not your fault if they insist on doing what they do, but try not to make it easy for them.
[Update: I botched that pretty good. That came across as more or less the opposite of what I intended to say. I’m sorry for doing that. Let me try that again.]
I think the writer of this epistle — who most likely was not the apostle Paul — is echoing a line of argument Paul took in the mini-Sermon on the Mount section of his letter to the Romans. “Live peaceably with all,” Paul wrote.
And then I imagine he stepped back and re-read what he had just written, realizing it was inadequate. It’s a lovely piece of advice — “live peaceably with all” — but it’s not really up to the Roman Christians whether or not they could do this. Paul knew all too well that the world is full of people who refuse to allow you to live peaceably with them — people who are determined not to allow you to live peaceably, period. So then, I imagine, Paul rewrote that section as the passage we have now:
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Paul provided that double qualification to ensure that he avoided the sloppy victim-blaming implications I slipped into in the original version of this post. He was clarifying, emphatically, that “living peaceably with all” isn’t always possible and often doesn’t depend on you. This takes place within the context of that larger passage, which is all about responding to the hostility and evil that Paul assumes and acknowledges to be an unavoidable fact of life for the people he’s writing to.
I think the writer of 1 Timothy is doing something similar here. “Let no one despise your youth,” is a piece of advice that can’t stand alone because it’s not something the reader is responsible for. How, exactly, are you supposed to go about disallowing this? You can’t withdraw permission for something for which you never granted permission to begin with. It’s not up to you whether or not the despicable despisers decide to despise your youth. Despisers despise — it’s what they do, no matter what you do. Youth is just one pretext — one of many concocted, imagined or invented so that they can do what they do. If you’re too old for them to despise your youth, they’ll latch onto whatever other flimsy excuse they can conjure up and go right on despising just the same. It really doesn’t have anything to do with your “letting” it happen.
The latter half of that passage from 1 Timothy, I think, simply means “you’re better than they are, so remind them of that.” And I think there’s a strong implication there, too, of “rub their noses in it.”
This is another echo from that same passage of Paul’s. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” he wrote. And “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”
Much like all the cheek-turning, extra-mile, also-your-tunic, love-your-enemies business in Jesus’ original Sermon on the Mount, all that overcome-evil-with-good stuff can sound a bit too … well, too something. And a bit not-enough something, too. It seems naive, namby-pamby or ineffectual, or too blithely unconcerned with correcting injustice.
But Paul acknowledges that objection and even affirms it by appealing to that objection as the basis for everything he’s saying. Love your enemies, he says, “for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
“Never avenge yourselves,” Paul writes, and then — in the very next sentence — he says, (and here I’m paraphrasing) “I know, I know, you want to heap burning coals on their heads, don’t you? Of course you do. And you should, they deserve it. But this is even worse for them!”
I think that’s the same line of argument that the writer of 1 Timothy is offering.
Don’t let the bastards get you down. And don’t ever let them forget who’s better.
Let no one despise your youth …
Let no one despise your gender …
Let no one despise your sexuality …
Let no one despise your legal status …
Let no one despise your poverty …
Let no one despise your [ ____________ ] …