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Friday, 3 February 2012

Honour your father and your mother



After a lengthy hiatus, we are continuing our series analyzing the Ten Commandments and their relevance to us as people living in the fast-paced digital world of 2012. The Fifth Commandment reads as follows:

"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

This commandment is a transition of sorts, since the first four commandments concerns worship and “vertical” relationship with God, while the final five commandments concern “horizontal” dealings with fellow humans. This Fifth Commandment, in a sense, is both vertical and horizontal: it concerns dealings with parents, who are fellow humans and yet are in a position of authority over us. God also relates to us as a father, and even invokes this commandment in Malachi 1:6: “"A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, 'How have we despised your name?'”

That this commandment is still fully applicable today is apparent from the teachings of Jesus. He mentioned it among the commandments which should be kept in Luke 18:20. Even more importantly, he defended the commandment against a tradition by which the scribes and Pharisees tried to circumvent it, in Matthew 15:3-6:
“3 He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' 5 But you say, 'If anyone tells his father or his mother, "What you would have gained from me is given to God," 6 he need not honor his father.' So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
The scribes and Pharisees had a tradition whereby if one verbally committed himself to using money for God, he was freed from any responsibility for caring for his parents. Jesus condemns this behaviour and thus establishes that the commandment to honour one’s parents was still in force. Jesus exemplified the commandment himself inasmuch as he made sure his mother was cared for even as he suffered the agony of the cross (John 19:26-27).

Paul also endorses this commandment in his writings, and notes that it is the first commandment with a promise attached:
“1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 "Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land."” (Ephesians 6:1-3)
This promise demonstrates that obedience to parental authority is a precursor to a long and happy life, both on an individual and national level. Conversely, “disobedience to parents” is mentioned among the vices that would prevail in the last days (2 Timothy 3:1-2).

A number of maxims in the Book of Proverbs enjoin sons to honour their parents, and here a particular focus is taking to heart the wisdom and instruction received from one’s parents (see, for example, Proverbs 1:8-9; Proverbs 15:5).

A survey of biblical commentary on the Fifth Commandment shows us that this commandment remains very much in force, and that it applies to the way we treat our parents both as children and as adults. As a child, we honour our parents by obeying and respecting them. (Paul’s qualifier, “in the Lord,” may reflect the fact that there are unfortunate cases where a parent does not merit obedience.)

As adults, we honour our parents by applying ourselves to the wisdom, advice and values that they instilled in us as children: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). We also honour our parents by making sure that, when they lose their independence in old age, we give them the same love and care that they gave us when we were dependent on them.

Once on a Saturday morning when I was about 15, my mother scolded me for my idleness and ordered me to go down to the nearest old age home and volunteer my services. This became a very memorable experience as I met a 93 year old Scottish lady named Martha with whom I developed a close and unlikely friendship. I visited her regularly for about a year until she died. Martha had nine children and was very sad that all of them were too busy to take her in and had instead banished her to spend her final days in this oblivious home. She used to tell me regularly, “Tommy I’ll give you three rules to live by: Never smoke, never drink, and never put your mother in a home!”

So, whether we are young or old, and whether our parents are young, old or even deceased, let us reflect on how we can honour them.

Note: I'm not saying it's intrinsically wrong to put an elderly parent in a home; I'm merely calling for people to think about their motives for doing so.

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