“Do not rebuke an older man, but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).
All of us meet people daily from the above categories—older men, younger men, older women, younger women. Paul dispenses good preemptive advice for social intercourse, and it has already come in handy at the restaurant where I work. I carried the verse with me, meditating especially on the phrase “in all purity” and its alternate rendering, “absolute purity.” “All purity” and “absolute purity” sound quite unbending, do they not? Procter & Gamble for years has boasted that Ivory Soap is 99 and 44/100 percent pure. God’s bar is higher, purer. He wants us to watch out for even that remaining .56 of 1 percent:
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity … because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3 NIV).
There is a relationship at the restaurant that could have gone either way. One of the delivery guys has a tendency to use borderline bawdy language, and that flies OK with most people. He tried it with me and I didn’t wink at it, so now he has my number: Andrée doesn’t like bawdy humor.
Every human encounter with a new person involves a moment of testing, or of feeling out the other’s character. Infinite possibility is slashed to a very small range of impressions very early in the game. This is where the message of “absolute purity” is best sent. I have heard the elementary school teachers’ motto, “Don’t smile till Thanksgiving.” Whether you agree with that policy or not, I believe the idea is one of establishing a no-nonsense climate from the first week of September.
Sometimes we may think our conduct is purer than it is. It is possible for a lady to vaguely flirt with a gentleman, and he with her, without ever speaking an untoward word, but simply by a kind of smile or by other nonverbal signals they send out. They may hardly be aware of the small leaven of flirtation in the exchange.
On the other hand, there are people you talk to whom you can tell right off the bat are incorruptible; they send out no iffy vibes at all. It immediately sets you straight, as well. And it feels right. How can you tell absolute purity from a smidgen of impurity? Former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, while admitting that he couldn’t define “obscenity,” famously said, “I know it when I see it” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964). It is the same with Paul’s standard of “absolute purity” and of “not even a hint of sexual immorality.” You know when it’s absolutely pure.