V. Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
That morning, I woke up so excited. I was in my yellow footie pajamas. I slid past the rail on my bed that made sure I didn’t fall out and ran down the hall to find my parents. It was my birthday and I was so excited to see them. I must have been three or four at the time, but already I knew this was a very big day. Somehow I managed to stop and slide into the kitchen where they were sitting at the table, camera ready in hand. As they exclaimed, “Happy Birthday,” they pointed to the corner where a brand-new toy kitchen was sitting. It was white, with a little green roof, and a tiny yellow telephone on the side. It was perfect. And as I walked slowly over to examine my gorgeous new gift, I turned back to look at my parents, and immediately… burst into tears. I then proceeded to try to give the present back.
You see, the day before I had gotten into some sort of trouble, Lord only knows what, and they had put the fear of God into me. I had disappointed them. And I did not feel worthy of such a wonderful gift.
With this commandment, we move into the second table of the law – the one that deals with how we are to live with one another. The first table or tablet gave careful instructions on how we are to live and grow in our relationship with God.
But, God does not stop there. Part of the covenant has always been the way we are meant to live with each other. All God’s children together. Because we cannot do one without the other, honestly. And God has always known that.
So, God begins these six commandments at the beginning. Well, our beginning. Where most of us start out in life: with our parents. Some of us may be saying, e-oh-boy, but you gotta admit, there might be something to this method.
Let’s think about this for a minute: the house we grow up in, whoever is raising us, is going to have a profound effect and affect upon us. They will teach us how to walk, talk, eat, drink, hopefully how to clean ourselves (though a whole lotta middle schoolers seem to miss that step). Whoever raises us, cares for us when we cannot care for ourselves. Provides our first understanding of how we are to relate to others. Shows us our first vision of how we can be in this world.
In the ancient world, around Jesus’ time, the Romans had a terribly horrific practice surrounding the birth of a child. When a baby was born, the child would be laid at their father’s feet and he would either pick it up and claim responsibility for the child, or, if not, the child would be cast out into the wilderness. Birth defects. Too many children. Little girls when you could only afford one or two children. The Romans did this well. And most of those left out were then abducted. Sometimes by wealthy families who could not have a child of their own. But far more often by the arenas for the boys. Or by brothels for the girls. Or by others who would maim them and use them for whatever else. The ancient world was not kind to children.
When I was a little girl, every night after I would take my bath, my mom would wrap me up in a towel, pull me up into her lap and sing: I love my baby, oh yes I do. I really love her, oh yes I do. I love her, I do. Janie McElwee, I love you. I can still hear her voice. Years later, as I was driving between pastoral visits one day, we somehow got to talking about that practice. And she told me this, “I just wanted to make sure you knew you were loved. More than you could possibly imagine.” I realized then that was my first real introduction to who God really was. Because our parents or those who raise us in love, are given to us as gifts from God, in order that they might fill those needs we have until we can stand on our own two feet. And the most basic and most important of all those needs is love.
That is what is missing when we look at this commandment on its face. It appears to be an order to blindly obey your parents no matter what they do to us, how they treat us, or what they command us to do.
The New Testament writers knew better. As they wrote about honoring our mother and father, they also ensured that parents knew their responsibilities to their children. For us, it is always a reciprocal relationship. It is never a blind hierarchy.
Family is built on mutual love and respect. Parents ensuring enough resources for their children and proper boundaries. Children learning their limits and how to show courtesy to people of all ages. And the children learning how to be loving, healthy, hopefully fun, and servant-minded adults by watching their parents.
Because we learn from what we see. And we teach people how to treat us, even as parents.
So here is what I will say about the fifth commandment. It has been badly abused over the years and used to cause irreparable harm. Because it is never, ever the child’s responsibility to be the bigger person. To be the grownup in the room. To blindly accept disrespect as a human being from those who are meant to love them totally, completely, and without reservation.
What is more, we should remember that we are Presbyterians. We do not accept things blindly on faith. We do not shy away from questions. Or from outright rebellion when something is truly wrong (never forget that the American Revolution was nicknamed the Presbyterian rebellion for a reason). Our mothers and fathers going back generations have taught us to show respect for those who have gone before, for those who raise us, but also for those around us. To do right by them. And to do better whenever we can.
That is our calling as individuals. That is our calling as Christ’s church. To honor our ancestors, as our children will honor us if we have shown them the remarkable all-encompassing wonder our God truly is and keep on reforming in that understanding. This day and always.