Once upon a time, there was an old man whose eyes blinked and whose hands trembled. When he ate he clattered the silverware, missed his mouth with the spoon, and dribbled food on the tablecloth. He lived with his married son, for he’d nowhere else to go. His son=s wife was a young woman who barely tolerated an in-law in her home. “I can=t have this”, she said. So she and her husband took the old man gently but firmly by the arm and led him to a corner in the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food in an earthenware bowl. From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking at the table with wistful eyes. One day, his hands trembled more than usual so that his bowl fell and broke. “If you’re a pig,” said the daughter-in-law, “you must eat out of a trough”. So they made a wooden trough and he got his meals in that. The young couple had a four-year-old son of whom they were very fond. One supper-time, the young father was watching his boy play with some bits of wood and asked what he was doing. “I=m making a trough”, he replied, smiling up for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big”.
Welcome to Mother’s Day, or Christian Family Sunday as our denomination calls it. In recognition of the day, it’s fitting that we look at the fifth commandment: ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord is giving you’. Honoring parents is obviously a good thing to do. The key word is >honor=. In Hebrew it means weighty. What the commandment says is that our parents carry weight; they bear significant responsibilities, so they ought to be treated with honor. Good! But over the years biblical commentators have made heavy work of this commandment. Listen to John Calvin:
>…when honor is spoken of here, it doesn=t…mean that children ought to make a display of affection for their fathers and mothers, to tip their hat and make a bow, for God does not care to be entertained in such a way...In brief, a child ought to understand that he is not at liberty with respect to his father and mother...rather [the child] must be subject to them and serve them to their fullest capacity.’
Is that what Adam and Cassandra want from Isaac and Michael, their servitude? Some parents think the commandment calls for the unquestioned submission of their children, and that parents thus have biblical permission to bully or even abuse! No, no! We’ve met too many people damaged by parents to buy that line. So how do we interpret the commandment?
The first thing we need to know is the context in which the commandment first appeared. You know the story of Israel=s brutal slavery in Egypt. God heard Israel=s cry, intervened through Moses, and delivered Israel from Egypt. That Exodus story preceded the giving of the Ten Commandments. Note the sequence: Israel had a problem called slavery; God stepped in to deliver them and bring them to a life of freedom. Only then did God give commandments to shape that freedom. In other words, God=s love was prior to the giving of the law. The commandments aren’t there so that in keeping them we might persuade God to love us. Their purpose is to shape the life God wants us to live, a life marked by love for God, focused in commandments 1-4 and love for neighbor focused in commandments 5-10.
But who is my neighbor? According to the Bible, we can’t limit those whom we treat as our neighbor. Yet this we do know: our nearest neighbors are those with whom we live as family, and they’re sometimes the toughest ones to love! The word that God has given to shape how we live with family is honor.
A second thing we need to know is that the Fifth Commandment wasn’t directed to children primarily; it was directed to the adults of Israel. It addresses the need for adult Israelites to honor their aging parents. According to the fifth commandment, no one in God’s community, whether young or old, is to be despised or discarded, especially not aging parents. ‘Honor your father and your mother’. The fifth commandment isn’t so much addressing the submission of children as the need to care for the elderly. By the way, I’ve made two copies of this sermon to be given to and read by Michael and Isaiah in twenty years time so that they receive the command to care for their then aging parents, Adam and Cassandra!
Caring for parents was of great concern to Jesus according to Matthew 15. He was concerned that the pious Pharisees and Scribes had emptied the commandment of its purpose. How? Instead of caring for their aging parents, these Jewish experts in the law had found a way to avoid the straightforward meaning of the command to honor parents. They did this by going to their parents and saying. “Sorry Mum, sorry Dad; the support I’d like to give to you, given that you’re past your productive years, and given that there’s no government-run old-age security system, I’ve decided to give instead to God” In the name of piety, these Jewish leaders were refusing to give elderly parents the honor that was their due.
In our generation, we’ve found other ways of ignoring the fifth commandment. The spirit of the age makes us chafe at the idea that we have responsibilities for our parents, or for anyone else; we resist assuming any responsibilities that limit our freedom. “>It=s my life; I want my freedom.” To which the commandment replies: true freedom is found in serving others. In God’s church, we honor one another.
What does it mean to honor parents? As I said earlier, the word honor means to treat others with respect, and to treat others with respect means giving them our attention. But what does that mean in practice? Well, it depends; it depends on how old we are. The Bible understands the command to honor parents as obedience when we’re little children. In Bible passage after Bible passage, children are told to obey their parents. So the Apostle Paul writes to the Colossian church: ‘Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord’. Most of us accept this as it stands. But we ought to note that in the very next verse Paul added: ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children.’ Paul urges that we practice a mutual honoring within families; if little children honor parents through obedience, fathers [and by extension, mothers] honor children through conscientious parenting.
But what does it mean to honor parents when we and they are adults? Does it mean that we must still obey them? Not necessarily. Consider Jesus. The single incident we have in the Gospels about Jesus= boyhood shows him obeying his parents. But as an adult, Jesus left home and mother Mary behind to take up his ministry; and on at least one occasion during that ministry, he refused to leave what he was doing in order to do what his mother wanted him to do. For Jesus, honoring his mother didn’t mean that as an adult he always complied with her wishes. Honoring parents in childhood means obedience; honoring parents when we’re adults means that we give attention to our parents, still consider them, and still give them their due, even though we may have to agree to disagree.
As our parents approach old age, the way in which we honor them changes yet again. This time, instead of us being dependent on them, parents may be dependent on us. Honoring them at this stage will mean a refusal to forsake them. Again, consider Jesus. At the end of his earthly life, while on the cross, he commended his heartbroken mother to John the disciple so that he might care for her. Even in death, Jesus honored his mother and obeyed the fifth commandment. If I may broaden this issue a little, that sort of honoring suggests that caring for and advocating for the elderly ought to be a mark of the Christian community.
Honor your father and your mother, maybe especially as they age. Listen to these words of an eight-year-old boy about grandparents: ‘A grandmother is a lady who has no children of her own: she likes other people's little girls and boys. A grandfather is a male Grandma. He goes for walks with boys and they talk about fishing and stuff like that. Grandmothers don't have to do anything except to be there. They are so old they shouldn't play hard or run. If they take us for walks, they should slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars. Usually, Grandmothers are fat, but not too fat to tie your shoes. They wear glasses and
funny underwear. They take their teeth and gums off. Grandmothers don't have to be smart, only answer questions like “why isn't God married?” and “Why do dogs chase cats?” And when they read to us, they don't skip or mind if it is the same story over again.’
A final question: what about honoring parents who don=t deserve to be honored? What if your parents were, or are, bullies, or even abusive? To be frank, the fifth commandment doesn=t say, >Honor your father and mother if they deserve it=. It simply says >Honor your father and your mother’ full stop=.
What would honor look like in those circumstances? To honor someone doesn’t mean that we always approve of their behavior. The opposite of honor isn’t disapproval but contempt. Honoring dishonorable parents means that we will oppose their behavior, and if necessary distance ourselves from their behavior. It may also mean that we must forgive our parents. Parents, even the best parents, are never all they should be. Nor are we as children. We all hurt others; sometimes parents wound their children; sometimes children wound their parents. Though it’s not mentioned in the fifth commandment, living with our closest neighbors, that is, our families, will mean learning to forgive and asking to be forgiven. And what’s true in our biological families extends also to the spiritual family we call church.
Honor your father and your mother. It=s not the straightforward commandment it may have appeared. Nevertheless, God has a good word for us here, a practical word, about how we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially those neighbors we call family.