TEN COMMANDMENTS: (5) LIVING WITH HONOUR
The Brothers Grimm tell the following story:
There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the table-cloth or let it run out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it. And he used to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears. Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed. Then they bought him a wooden bowl for a few half-pence, out of which he had to eat.
They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather together some bits of wood upon the ground. ’What are you doing there?’ asked the father. ’I am making a little trough,’ answered the child, ’for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.’
The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry. Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.
“Honour your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” So says the fifth of God’s Ten Commandments.
If there’s one thing we should understand more than anything else about the fifth commandment, it’s that it’s not just for kids. It’s for all of us. In fact, like the rest of the Ten Commandments, it’s directed primarily at adults.
Somewhere along the line, this aspect of the commandment became obscured. Perhaps that had to do with the way the word “honour” was understood. Countless Sunday School children were taught that “honour” meant “obey.” They were taught that honouring their father and mother meant obeying them. And the Sunday School teachers who said this weren’t just making it up. They were quoting from that verse in Ephesians which says, “Children, obey your parents.”
When young children obey their parents, they are following the fifth commandment. They’re respecting the authority their parents have over them. Their parents know better than they do what is safe and what is right. It’s for their own good that children need to be obedient to their parents. It’s by following their parents’ instructions and adhering to their rules that children learn how to live.
At least, that’s the way it should work. In many families, loving parents do provide the structure and guidance children need in order to learn and to grow. But sadly, that’s not the case in every family. Sometimes there’s no structure given. That’s what’s called neglect. Sometimes what’s demanded of the child is not for the child’s own good, but instead is for the benefit of the parent. That’s what’s called abuse. When there’s abuse or neglect, the words of the fifth commandment ring hollow. They become words of oppression rather than words of life.
This wasn’t lost on the writer of Ephesians. After Ephesians says, “Children, obey your parents”, it goes on to say something equally important. This second instruction isn’t directed to children – it’s directed to the parents – or more specifically it’s directed to the father who was the head of the household in that patriarchal culture. “Fathers,” Ephesians says, “do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
What Ephesians shows is that the fifth commandment is a two way street. If the parent is going to be obeyed, that parent must use his authority as God intended. He must not use it to exasperate his children. He must use it to lead his children closer to God. He must not demand obedience simply because he can, or simply because he enjoys the power or wants to be in control. And he absolutely must not abuse his children. If his children are to honour him, he must also honour them. He must remember that he doesn’t own his children. His children belong to God.
When parental authority is exercised as God intended it, it’s much easier for children to obey their parents as the fifth commandment would have them do. But how does all this fit with what we said earlier about the commandment being primarily directed towards adults? Is the commandment saying that even grown children are supposed to obey their parents?
For us in North America, that sounds like a silly idea. But in some cultures it’s not so silly at all. In some cultures the parent never loses that parental authority, no matter how old the child is. In North American culture, of course, it’s very different. In fact, one of the measures of achieving adulthood in North American culture is that you make your own decisions, and no longer simply do what your parents tell you. That, by the way, is why the teenage years are such an interesting time in family life. Teenagers are going through a natural process of pulling away from their parents’ authority. “Asserting their independence,” we call it. The problem is that this step into independent adulthood doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in neatly defined stages. That’s what can make it so confusing and so frustrating for parents and teenagers alike.
But even as adults it’s not good for us to completely ignore what our parents have taught us. The word we have for this is tradition. Tradition is that set of values and practices that one generation hands down to the next. It’s one of the follies of youth to think that we can completely tear up all the traditions of our parents. But all that does is set us adrift on a sea of confusion. Sometimes the best advice we can get is, “Listen to your mother!” – at least, when that means “Listen to the deep wisdom that’s been passed down from generation to generation – a wisdom that’s born of many lifetimes of experience.” We honour our fathers and mothers when we take seriously the traditions they’ve handed down to us.
Though, of course, there’s a limit to this – a limit that Jesus himself identified. At one point Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” It’s a difficult saying, one that hits us like a blow to the solar plexus. It runs against all our natural inclinations, and it seems to contradict the fifth commandment to boot. Instead of honouring your father and mother, Jesus says, you have to hate your father and mother.
We need to emphasize that Jesus is employing a deliberate exaggeration here to make a point about the cost of discipleship. He’s not really telling people to turn against their parents, but he is telling them that being his disciple takes precedence over all our other allegiances. Perhaps that takes some of the edge off his words, but it still leaves us with a hard teaching. And it’s not some abstract idea. It really does touch people where they live. We see it in operation when Jesus calls James and John. In order for James and John to follow Jesus, they have to leave their father Zebedee behind in the boat.
At bottom what’s going on here is a reminder of the true order of things. The fifth commandment always has to be seen in light of the first commandment. The first commandment tells us to give our full allegiance to God alone. Nothing, not even our duty to honour our parents, can be allowed to get in the way of that.
I read this week about a missionary who was visiting a church in a country where Christians are in the minority. There was a baptismal service the day the missionary visited, and a young woman was being baptised. The missionary noticed that over in the corner of the church was an old suitcase. He said to the pastor, “What’s with the suitcase?” The pastor said, “This young woman was told by her father that if she gets baptised in Jesus’ name she will not be allowed to live in his home again. She brought her suitcase, just in case.”
If all this sounds like Jesus doesn’t care about the fifth commandment, well, that’s really not true. Jesus wants the commandment put into proper perspective, but he doesn’t want it done away with. In fact, Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees for not living up to this commandment.
One day the Pharisees confront Jesus about his disciples’ table manners: the disciples don’t follow the tradition of giving their hands a ceremonial washing before they eat. Jesus turns this back on the Pharisees, telling them that they have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men. As an example, Jesus points out that the Pharisees have been doing an end run around the fifth commandment. They’ve been doing this by using a practice known as Corban.
Corban was a gift that was dedicated to God for religious purposes. But in Jesus’ day this gift didn’t actually have to be put into the temple treasury. You could keep your possessions, but declare they were Corban, meaning that God would get them at some undefined future date. Some people were using this as a way to avoid helping their elderly parents. They were saying to their parents, “I don’t have anything to give you. It’s all Corban.” It was bit like somebody saying, “I’d really like to help you, Mom, but all that money I’ve saved up is going to the church – some day - after I’m dead.”
Jesus says that’s a fundamental breach of the duty to honour father and mother – and what’s worse it’s being done by someone who’s claiming to be serving God by doing it. Jesus says, “This is not one of those situations where you can say honouring God takes precedence over honouring father and mother. In fact, you’re not honouring God unless you take care of your aged parents.”
In the world of the Bible, there was no social safety net. There were no government programs to assist the elderly – no pensions, no income supplements. If you were no longer physically able to look after yourself, you would be in dire straits unless your family helped you.
In those circumstances, honouring your father and mother went far beyond a childhood duty to obey them. It was an adult duty to treat aged parents with dignity. Honouring father and mother means treating them as if they matter – treating them as persons of worth - treating them as human beings, created in the image of God. They may no longer be able to manage on their own. But that doesn’t mean they should be treated as if they are a burden, or a nuisance, or an embarrassment. You should treat them as you yourself would wish to be treated if you were in their place.
I find it hard to avoid thinking about this whenever I visit a nursing home. Many of the residents there have been placed there by families who are dutifully covering the costs of their accommodation. But is that all there is to honouring aged parents – just paying the bills? How many of those families go and spend time with their elderly fathers and mothers? Many do – I’ve seen them. But I’ve also seen other residents who’ve been practically abandoned by their family members – who don’t even pay them the honour of visiting them.
The fifth commandment touches on a very sensitive subject in our society – the subject of aging. Being around those who are elderly and infirm reminds us that we too are aging, and that can make us very uncomfortable. The fifth commandment keeps the subject of aging right in front of us, whether we’re comfortable with it or not.
While the commandment talks specifically about the duties of family members, it also points us towards a wider issue. It’s interesting that, in scripture, the most emotionally powerful example of the fifth commandment being put into effect is the story of Ruth. In the story of Ruth, Ruth pledges her commitment to Naomi. But what’s remarkable about this is that Naomi is not her mother – she’s Ruth’s mother-in-law. The whole story has to do with Ruth’s efforts to provide for herself and for Naomi, her mother-in-law. Ruth is well and truly honouring Naomi – not because they are bound by ties of blood, but simply because Ruth cares deeply for her.
This broadening of the reach of the fifth commandment has implications for the church. One of the names we apply to the church is the Family of God. It’s a family that has many parents – many elderly members who need to be treated with honour.
As he was dying on the cross, Jesus saw his own mother standing nearby, together with the disciple that he loved. With practically his last breath, Jesus said to Mary, “Dear woman, here is your son”, and to the disciple he said, “Here is your mother.” It was Jesus’ own personal fulfilment of the fifth commandment, ensuring that his mother would be provided for in her old age. But it was also a lesson to the church – a lesson that, if it is truly going to be the Family of God, the church will have to care for its elders. It doesn’t matter whether they have anything left to contribute. What matters is that they belong to God. If we show them that they are still important in our eyes, then we honour them – and more importantly, we honour God.