As we move toward the end of our series on Exodus and the Decalogue, we now look at the first of the Commandments which relate to our relationship with others.
The Fifth Commandment, which is verse 12 of Chapter 20, reads: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You will have noticed by now that, as much as we might wish that the Ten Commandments were a "recipe book for moral living," the truth is that they are all necessarily subject to interpretation. This is especially true of the commandments concerning how we relate to others. In other words, they do not provide the clear-cut guidance that so many people think that they do.
Much of what I write about the remaining commandments will be interpretation. But, while the Commandments do require interpretation, they are not just random thoughts on how we should live. They are instruction, teaching, as to how God wants believers in him to live. That much is clear.
But what is not so clear is just how we are to obey these instructions. The how of obeying the Commandments is a matter for continuous reflection by the community of faith. It is never to be only the opinion of one self-righteous individual, out to set the world straight according to his or her own preferences. And that goes for theologians, rabbis, priests, pastors and church leaders.
The first thing you need to know about the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and your mother, is that it is not primarily about how minor children are to relate to their parents.
I remember statements from my mother like, "As long as you live under this roof, you are going to do what I say, young man! Remember, the Bible says you are to obey me!" But, "honor" does not necessarily mean "obey." That was a convenient "interpretation" by my mother and by many parents. And it was mostly wrong. Minor children are supposed to "honor" their parents, but obedience is only a tiny part of the Commandment.
When you are young, obedience is certainly one way to honor your parents. And a disobedient child does not honor his parents. But, nowhere does it say that the Commandment, or the Bible for that matter, is to be used as a club to beat kids into obedience.
This provides us with a good example of having to interpret the meaning of the text. "Honor" in Hebrew means a whole lot of things, and obedience is way down the list when translating the word into English.
Other English words and phrases capture the idea better, for example: respect, esteem, appreciate, be considerate toward, have regard for, have concern for, show affection to. All of these words and phrases capture the flavor of "honor" better than "obey." And there is one more English phrase that captures the essence of the Hebrew word most often translated as "honor." That phrase is "give weight to."
The Hebrew word for "honor" is "kabed" and literally means "to be heavy," or "to give weight to." That is, we are to give weight to our fathers and mothers and their ideas. That is not the same as saying that we are to be subservient to them, obeying their every whim. But it does mean that we are to take them seriously, and to treat them and their ideas with appropriate seriousness and respect.
Thus this Commandment clearly deals with the age old struggle between generations. On the one hand the older generation wants to cling to "the way we were," and their response to almost everything can often be, "No. We've never done it that way before!" On the other hand, the younger generation often says, essentially, that "Nothing important ever happened on earth until I got here!" And, "Frankly, Dad, you just don't get it."
But the assumption of this Commandment is that what our parents have to say does mean something, and, that our parents do "get it." The Bible is here teaching us the not so popular idea that our parents, by virtue of knowledge and wisdom they have gained through the years have acquired a certain "practical wisdom" that is actually valuable to us.
In the original setting of this commandment, it was assumed that parents know things about God, and how to relate to God that children do not. We'll come back in a little while to just how realistic that assumption is in today's world. But first we should look at why this was so vitally important at the time the Commandments were given.
To the Israelites this loyalty of a new generation to the world view of the last generation was a key to survival as a nation. It was emphasized over and over to the Israelites that they were to remember what God has done for them, to write it on their foreheads, and on their door posts, and to pass on that remembrance to their children, and to their children's children!
Accepting that instruction is precisely how Israelite children, both minor and adult children, were to "honor" their fathers and their mothers. In turn, they were to pass on that word of God to their children in an unbroken line of succession within the faith community.
By respecting, by giving weight to, by taking seriously, the religious teachings of the parents, Israelite children inherited the blessing, the instruction (Torah), and the promises of God. This is precisely why the Fifth Commandment does not stop with "Honor your father and your mother," but goes on to explain "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you."
Only by honoring the teachings of the parents, and by honoring the parents themselves, could the next generation inherit the land and prosper in it. The phrase "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you," was seen as less of a "carrot" to get the children to honor their parents, and more as a statement of fact.
That is, if they honored their parents then this would, in fact, happen. Why? Because, by honoring them, and by listening to and living by the religious precepts they teach, the Israelites would be living according to God's will.
The irony of that original setting when the Commandment was handed down is that it was the generation of the original Israelites who decided not to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, and thus God commanded the Israelites to wander in the desert until that generation was dead and a new generation would then have the courage to enter the Promised Land.
But while the first generation did not have the courage to cross over the Jordan that generation did teach their children the Shema and the Commandments so that the second generation knew what was at stake when they did cross over.
One final thing before we talk about how realistic all of this is in the modern day. The second phrase of this Commandment, "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you," was not written to apply to individuals.
That is, one individual could not honor his parents and then assume that he, personally, would live a good and long life in the Promised Land even if no other Israelite did. The "you" here means "you all." "All of you Israelites, are to honor your mothers and fathers. And if you do, good things will happen to you all."
I point this out only because we have a very strong tendency in this country to see the Commandments as having to do only with individual morality, when they, in reality, are much more concerned with how the entire faith community behaves. In this case, the commandment is concerned that all of Israel inherit the Promised Land!
So, having discussed the meaning of "honor" and the application of the Commandment to the original generation of Israelites, the question remains: "How does it apply today?"
Let's start by admitting the obvious. Many of us Jewish and Christian believers are going to run into all sorts of problems trying to live by it. Lots of people have truly terrible parents; or have one really good parent and another parent who is just pond scum. We read in the paper every day about dead-beat dads, child abuse, molestation, and neglect. We read about drunken or stoned mothers, some carrying babies while on crack or heroin.
And, even if you have parents that are quite fine, if you were born in the last 25 years, the fact is that many parents have absolutely no clue about religion or the moral values that stem from religious teaching.
In fact, most of those parents will be unchurched. If you doubt that consider that most of the members of a typical Protestant congregation don't go to worship, or, if they do, they may go on Christmas and Easter. I'm talking about church members and not about all the millions of nonbelieving parents in this country.
For those who are not practicing believers the Commandments do not apply to them unless they accept them as something they intend to practice.
But they do apply to practicing Jews and Christians. So, for example, just how is a Christian child, minor or adult, supposed to receive religious blessings and instruction from parents who purport to be Christian but in reality are nowhere close to practicing the faith? The truth is that many will not. And it is also true for Jewish children of non-practicing parents.
But if a Jewish or Christian child, minor or adult, receives religious instruction via the Church or Synagogue then they should understand the Commandments and seek to apply them in their own lives, with or without practicing parents.
And now we come to a difficult, unpopular topic which all believers, Jewish and Christian, should view through the lens of our faith. We must understand that all issues have at least two sides. And on the other side of the parenting coin is the fact that parents are not the only people in a family who can be ignorant, willful, inconsiderate, selfish, prideful, and mean.
Let me start this discussion looking at a common problem between parents and adult children. What do we do with our parents when they get too old and frail to care for themselves?
I have a lot of personal experience with that question and some of the not so charitable truth about how it is often handled by children. It was particularly hard for me as a pastor to visit parents of adult children in nursing homes and to know that I saw those parents far more often than did their children. In fact, many children never once visited their parent in a nursing home.
Many was the time when I sat vigil in nursing homes with parents as they waited to go to their Lord and I was the only person who did so. That is a sad commentary on too many children whose parents were, in fact, practicing Christians.
One of the reasons a Pastor should always visit with nursing home residents and at-home shut-ins is so that s/he can be aware of the level and consistency of care by the family, and follow up with the children when they neglect their parents. One would think that there would be good reasons for the lack of visitations but I seldom heard any. Some lived far away from the parent and it was understandable that they could not visit frequently. Others had no such an excuse.
Part of the original purpose of the Fifth Commandment was to ensure that the children not kick out the parents when they became too old to work, and were therefore a "burden" on the children.
Today most of us would not "kick out" our parents in that way. But many of us do remove them from our immediate care. When the burden becomes too great, when we literally can't provide the care, and, sometimes when we just don't want to provide the care, mom or dad ends up in a nursing home.
I understand that sometimes that is actually best for everyone. As much as we don't like to admit it, too much of the elder abuse that is reported in the United States comes not from dead-beat children who won't try to take care of mom or dad, but from good children who snap after trying to do too much for too long. It starts with yelling, escalates to slapping and worse. And we are talking about people who would never think that they would do such a thing to an older person, let alone to their own parent.
It should be clear that this issue of elder care is not a simple issue, A recital of the Fifth Commandment provides little guidance beyond that the burden of proof falls upon those who decide not to be available to their aged parents.
There is no "one size fits all" solution to these problems. There are no good, clean, "easy" answers. At times there is no real choice but a nursing home if we cannot adequately provide for our parents. But that should never be an excuse to place a parent in a nursing home, walk away and never come back.
We deal with our elderly parents today far differently than when I was growing up. Nursing homes were not really an option then. And families took care of aged parents at home. But with Medicaid and Medicare those options are now available to most of us. And the government sets standards of care that shift some of the obligation of "honoring" our parents to the nursing homes.
But we would do well to ask ourselves if our parents are truly being "honored" by the elder care system to which we have entrusted them, and by our involvement with our parents who are in such care. I can't see how we are going to know how our parents who are in institutionalized settings are doing unless we stay actively involved in their lives.
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Next: "Thou shall not kill?" What can that possibly mean? How can it possibly be applied?