Perhaps in all the 10 Commandments, there is no commandment that is considered more outmoded than this: “Honor thy father and mother.”
We continue on our journey to identify the importance of the 10 Commandments both in the lives of the Israelites to whom the commandments were first offered, and for our lives as faithful disciples today. We have already considered the first four: have no other gods, make no graven image of God, do not use the Lord’s name wrongfully, and remember the Sabbath.
The commandment to keep the Sabbath begins a transition from the first three laws, which are explicitly connected to our worship of God, to the rest of the ten, which direct our relationships within our human community. Today’s command, to honor father and mother, is intentionally situated as the first of the neighborly commands. It continues this transitional focus from God to neighbor by identifying where our connection to the community begins – it begins in the family unit.
I go back to my opening statement: because this command has at its focus the the family unit, it is considered one of the, if not the, most outmoded commandments. Not to be confused with being outdated, the 10 Commandments should be understood as timeless. They still play an important role in shaping our relationship with God and with our community. However, to understand them best for faithful living today, we must understand them in the context they were first offered.
Let us dive deep into the family unit of the ancient near-east community to understand how this commandment would have first been understood, and then how we might understand its implications for faithful living today.
Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land. During these forty years of wandering, a full generation – likely two – would have been welcomed into the world, and a full generation, maybe two, would have died. During this time, there was no base camp – there was no place to call home. The community wandered as aimless sheep, setting up transitional camps throughout their wandering to provide shelter in inclement weather, shade in the extreme heat, and warmth in the cold nights.
The family unit did not simply consist of mother, father, and child. As was the case in most ancient near-east societies, the family unit was comprised of the full-generational enclave. From the matriarch and patriarch down to newborn infants, the family consisted of all who were born or married into the bloodline.
While every person in the family unit played a vital role, there is no hiding that the family unit was dominated and driven by the elder men. There was significant value placed on being the first-born son, for the first-born son would inherit the family leadership at the passing of, or the incapacitation of, the patriarch. Daughters had no legal right to the leadership of the family.
The life of an Israelite child was often predetermined for them, as they would follow in the direction given by the lead male. Young females were often given in marriage by their fathers to men in other families as business transactions. Females were treated as property to help men secure a greater lot in life. Young boys trained early to learn how to support the family. The younger brothers would always know they were second-rate – that the eldest would always receive the prime attention and focus, because the eldest would be the one to lead the family when the father died.
The family unit – the patterns of family living – were vastly different then from now.
Understanding the family patterns of the time helps shed some light on the commandments, especially those that are offered in regards to community living. We also see some clues in the individual commandments, in the wording that is used, but the landscape of societal norms gives us great insight into how the commandments were first received.
First and foremost, the societal norms lend us to believe that the commandants, while intended to be the foundational tenants for all faithful persons, were offered and directed primarily at the adult men who, at the time, were in charge of society. Younger members of the community weren’t excluded, but they weren’t the focus of attention.
A few added notes on how this belief has been formed.
The commandment regarding keeping the Sabbath says, “You must not work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the aliens in your town.” The commandment is clearly addressing a “you” – an individual person. Those named as belonging to the “you” – to the individual person – are children, slaves, and foreigners. So, the “you” we are left with can only possibly be one of two people – adult men or adult women. But children were seen as property of the father, not the mother. And, women were not expected to be “workers” at the time. That’s not to say they weren’t working, but in the ancient near-east, women weren’t defined as people who “worked.” So the command, “you must not work,” would have made little sense in being spoken to a woman.
We can see in other commandments hints that the commandments were addressed to the men as well. The tenth commandment says, “Do not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” There is no command to not covet thy neighbor’s “husband.”
In all cases, it seems clear that the commandments, at a minimum, were offered to adults – NOT children. And most likely, again, given the context of the family unit and societal norms of the time, the commandments were first and foremost speaking directly to the adult men in society.
When put into that context, what did it mean for adult men to “honor thy father and mother?” What did it mean for adult men, who were seen as the leading individuals in society, to be given a direct law from God regarding the care and respect of their aging parents?
What God is saying to the adult men – the privileged people of the society – is that your prestige, your getting ahead, your claim to fame is not more important than the proper care of anyone else in society – much less, your mother and your father. The commandment calls on the adult men of the society to provide the ongoing care that is necessary for aging parents as they begin to lose their faculties and self-caring capabilities. If you have ever cared for an aging parent, you know it can be a time consuming effort, and an expensive one at that.
In a society like that of the ancient near-east, adult men had a self-derived purpose to not provide care for aging parents. First off, the eldest son did not receive the respect given the patriarch in the family unit until the father either admitted his incapacity to be the decision maker for the family, or until he died. The quickly aging sons, now aging adult men themselves, saw their frail parents as being of no consequence, as being a time and resource suck, and thought life would be so much better were they gone.
The intent of the commandment was to protect some of the most vulnerable of the society. It calls on the community to “refrain from any action that would denigrate the life and worth of anyone, even those who may have lost much of their ‘commercial’ wealth [like aging and frail mothers and fathers].”[i]
The commandment calls for the responsibility to care for father and mother – not because of a named need by the parent, but because God (who is the one offering this commandment) has a bent toward ensuring the safety and well-being of all of God’s created, especially focusing on those considered the least and the lost.
While the privileged adult men of the ancient Israelite community are perhaps best understood as the direct recipients of the commandments, they should by no means be understood as the exclusive audience of the commandments. It was, in the fashion of the time, their responsibility to pass down the faithful teachings of God generation by generation. And so we look to see how this teaching should perhaps best been understood and applied in faithful living today.
First, we must be honest regarding modern use of the fifth commandment. “The commandment whose purpose is centered on the protection from abusive behaviors is the one commandment most open to being a vehicle for promoting abusive behavior.”[ii] The law to honor thy mother and father has historically been the most mistreated command, as it has been the foundational agent that leads parents to feel justified in abusing their unruly children. When taught to children, it is used to claim why our youngest must listen and behave as we – their parents – tell them. So long as the relationship between parent and child is healthy, it certainly is important for the child to listen to their parents – but that has nothing to do with this command. Make no mistake, this command has little (if anything) to do with misbehaving young children. It’s time we reclaim the purpose and underlying intent of this commandment, and put an end to the unfaithful use of scriptural claims that are used to commend or support the abuse of any person – regardless of age, social status, or any other distinguishing feature.
Understood faithfully today, this command expands upon the original intent for the Israelite community to offer us a better and more holistic understanding of value as created persons of God. It calls on us to see human beings as more than just workers. “[People] retain their full value [even] when they no longer [are able] to earn their keep.”[iii]
This call, as governed by the fifth commandment, begins in the family unit. If you can’t find the worth in the ones who brought you into this life, how will you ever see worth in persons surrounding you in community?
Yet, in centering us in the family unit, we have to be open and honest about our understanding of the family unit today. “The situation of elderly parents is particularly difficult, for many parents will have given ample cause to their children to return evil for evil received.”[iv] Each of our family situations is quite different. Some have great joy in their family – great relationships with mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, and others. Yet, “the family can be a terribly hurtful, increasingly violent place for many, [especially] children and women. [In such violent situations,] is it wise to tell the most vulnerable to honor the more powerful?”[v]
It gives us reason to wonder, how, in the midst of a vastly different society, and a greatly different picture of the family unit, are we to understand what it means to honor? Is the command to honor synonymous with other such words, such as obey and love?
I think for us today, to exemplify this fifth commandment faithfully, even when our example in the Israelites comes from a vastly different society, our faithful adherence boils down to one primary emphasis that results in a question: how are you showing your gratitude for life?
“All parents, for better or worse, shape our lives. They condition our responses years after they are gone. Children who were loved, or not loved, who yearned for approval that was never sufficient, who fled the harsh oppression of the home, who rejected all their parents had pressed down on them until they became, as if in a cruel reversal, simply what their parents were not, live out these yearnings as adults.”[vi]
The commandment calls on us to acknowledge and, perhaps even when it is most difficult, to offer thanks for the someone else who brought us in to life. The command reminds us that we are not the source of our life. It reminds us that life is a gift, it is God’s gift, and it’s a gift not intended to be taken or treated lightly. Simply placing one’s finger on their belly-button is in and of itself a reminder that we all have fathers and mothers – regardless how close or distant. It’s as if this physical part of the human anatomy was intentionally placed to be a constant reminder that our life is a gift. Just as the command to keep the Sabbath calls on us to be reminded of God’s good work in our lives – to reflect back to all God has done, this command to honor our father and mother calls us to give thanks for life as we look ahead. It calls on us to be thankful and to express our thanks for the gift of life that offers us a tomorrow.
So may you hear God’s command to honor your father and mother. May you be reminded of the great gift of life. And may you use that gift to offer the necessary and commanded care of those who can not longer care for themselves. For such a gift as life, offering life to others is but a small word of appreciation. Thanks be to God, and to all our mothers and fathers, for giving us life that we may ever live in the joy of our Lord. Amen.