Honor Thy Father and Mother


TEXT: Exodus 20:12

Honor thy father and mother...the fifth commandment. It is a commandment that comes to us fully loaded with emotional baggage--baggage from our personal lives and relationships with our own parents or children--baggage from authoritarian teachers who interpret honor as strict obedience--baggage from a culture where parents murder and abuse their own children and vice versa.

Yet it remains the task of the church to proclaim a command to honor parents in a world where we often don’t even know how to define parents anymore. There are the biological parents, who may or may not live with their children. There are step-parents and in-laws. There are adoptive parents, surrogate parents and people of no relation whatsoever that have taken the role of parents in our lives. Who is this commandment talking about?

And further, once we determine WHO they are, does it matter WHAT KIND of parents they are? Suppose they are abusive, neglectful or criminal? Can a parent have their right to honor waived by their behavior? Suppose the parents are making unreasonable or hurtful demands or suppose the demands of two sets of parents are in conflict? When my biological father and my biological mother are divorcing and ask me during a custody battle who I want to live with, or one is asking me to be unkind to the other, what does it mean to honor my parents?

The questions surrounding this commandment are very real and very urgent. Does it mean, for instance, that when my elderly parents need round the clock care, that I must somehow provide it no matter what the cost to the rest of the family? Is it dishonor to put a parent in a nursing home? What about turning in a drug-abusing parent or a parent molesting a sibling to authorities? For most of his life, my grandfather smoked several packs of cigarettes a day. But when he came to visit our house in Rhode Island, my mother always made him smoke outside. No matter if it was 10 degrees outside and a blizzard was raging; if he wanted a cigarette, out he went. Was that dishonor?

It would be easy to adopt a simple answer and say that this commandment means that young children should do what their parents tell them, but that was not the issue. There were other laws that demanded the obedience of minor children to their parents. This commandment is aimed at adults, and the issue is not obedience but honor.

First, I think it is important to look at the word “honor.” The word in Hebrew means “heavy.” That sounds odd, but we do have something similar in English: “gravity.” The law of gravity, which we have courtesy of Sir Isaac Newton and an obliging apple, is a law concerning weight or heaviness. Gravity on a planet determines how heavy something is.

We take that notion of heaviness in the word gravity, and we use it in other places. When we say that an issue has gravity, we mean that it is serious, that it weighs heavily on the mind. A grave concern is a serious concern--one that we should drop everything else to pay attention to. We talk of worship having “gravity”--a seriousness about it that will not tolerate flippant attitudes or idle talk. There might still be joy and laughter, but it is never laughter that mocks or makes fun of the issue, event, or person.

I think we can learn from this what it means to honor. To honor a person is to consider everything about that person with gravity--with weight--with seriousness. When a parent asks a child for something, it is dishonor not to treat the request seriously. When my mother who, as many of you know, has Alzheimer’s asks me a question that makes absolutely no sense, honoring her means not blowing off the question or making fun or her for it, but taking it seriously. I try to figure out what it might mean and to give her an answer that will bring some peace, even if the answer is as much of a fiction as the question.

Back in November, we had to put her into a nursing home. Was that dishonor? I can tell you that it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but I don’t believe it is dishonor. When you’ve made a serious effort to provide care and finally seek out a quality home where you visit your parents whenever possible, that is honor--even if the parents are not happy about the decision. On the other hand, when a parent is left to waste away in a nursing home where the children never visit and do not inquire after her care--when a nursing home, no matter how grand, is used by the children as a place to dispose of a nuisance, that is dishonor. It is not treating the concerns of the parent with seriousness, it is not giving weight to their needs.

We can turn it around. Sometimes it can be dishonor to keep a parent out of a nursing home, when their condition is such that they could do damage to themselves or others or when they are not really receiving the care they need. The same goes for dealing with parents who are driving and who should not be, with parents who abuse drugs or alcohol, or parents who have committed criminal acts. Honor thy father and mother does not mean automatic obedience and it does not mean always doing whatever your parents want. It means considering all the needs and conditions of your parents with utmost seriousness and striving to do what is best.

My mother’s mother abandoned the family to run off with the local undertaker when my mother was just four years old. It was a month before anyone knew what happened to her...she just left. My mother grew up not knowing her...she was raised by her great grandmother. I never met my grandmother until I was in college. But when my mother became an adult, she found her mother and made a point of keeping up contact, even though it was always one-sided. My grandmother had a stroke and my mother flew down to Florida to see her. If there were not children from other marriages who lived nearby to care for her, my mother would have provided that. She flew down again for her funeral. That is honor. There was not the affection that we hope would exist between a mother and a daughter, but there was still honor for the woman who brought my mother into the world.

The reason we are called to honor our parents is out of respect for the fact that without them, we would not be here. They were the channels by which God gave us life and the channels by which God brought us to adulthood. I think that anyone who has had a part in fundamentally shaping our identity is a “parent” to us and needs to be treated with honor--not unquestioned obedience, not doing everything they want--but giving their requests and needs weight and a serious response. “Forget it, Dad, I don’t have to do what you say anymore” is not a serious and dignified response. It may be understandable if Dad is unfair and demanding, but it is not honor. You can deny the request while still honoring the parent. “I’m sorry, Dad, but I just can’t do what you ask. I’ve thought about what you said, but it’s just not what I think is best. I’m glad you still care enough for me to be interested, and if it turns out that you were right, I’ll let you say, “I told you so.”

As with any passage of Scripture, we have to consider the message of Scripture as a whole and not just any one passage. Living the Christian life is a matter of balance. If I do what my mother wants, are there any other laws of Scripture that I am violating? If I take my elderly parents into my home, will I still be able to love and care for my spouse and children? If as an adult I continue to do everything my demanding parent wants, will either one of us be able to grow in Christ’s freedom and love?

Just as I think this commandment can be broadened beyond just those who are our biological parents, so I think it can be and should be applied beyond people dealing with our biological life. I think “Honor thy father and mother” can also be applied to our parents in the faith...not just those who have had a personal influence on our own personal faith development, although it certainly includes those. But also those who have come before us, who have paved the way for our journey.

I am thinking first of the Jews. Jesus was a Jew, remember, and had no intention of starting a new faith. The Christian faith was born Jewish and makes no real sense apart from an understanding of Judaism. Anti-semitism has no place in the Christian faith. We must honor our faith-parents, and the Jewish faith stands first and foremost among those. Also standing there is the Roman Catholic church. They and their Orthodox sisters carried the message of Christ for 1500 years before we Protestants ever appeared on the scene.

We do not completely agree theologically with either the Jews or the Catholics...that’s why we’re United Methodists instead...but we are betraying our very roots if we neglect to give honor to the faiths that gave us birth. Anti-Semitism has no place--neither does anti-Catholic sentiment. We can respectfully disagree, we are not bound to obedience, but we are called upon to show honor both to the faith that gave us Jesus and to the faith that made his name known across the earth.

Honor your father and mother. This is what I would call the “swing” commandment. It takes us from the first set of commandments which focus on our love of God and moves us to the second set of commandments which focus on the love of others. Here in the middle, is a commandment that addresses both issues at once because our family is one of the primary places we learn both about loving God and about loving others.

One of the primary images for God in Scripture is as a loving parent, and as we learn to relate to our parents in a way that shows love and honor, we are learning how to relate to God. Unfortunately, some families fall tragically short of that ideal and sometimes giving honor to a parent means learning to love our enemies. But the family is still the proving ground for faith. It’s where we first practice community, love, nurture, and care for both ourselves and others.

We are not to honor our parents just because they deserve honor. Many times they don’t deserve honor. We are to honor our parents because that proclaims the nature of God...a God who gives honor to us--who treats our requests and our needs with serious consideration, even when we don’t deserve it. We call that grace.

God patiently listens to us and gives our desires and needs serious consideration, even when we are whiny and demanding...even when we have never given God so much as the time of day...even when we fail to remember what God told us the last sixteen times we asked...even when we are trying to tell God how to run the world. God may have to tell us “no.” But it is always said with love, with honor, with full remembrance of our limitations. Honoring our fathers and mothers is no more than doing for them what God does for us every day...and in this crass and violent and vulgar world, what a witness that is to the God whose nature is love. Amen.

Sermon ©2005 Anne Robertson

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