Honor your father and mother

Chapter 5  DISHONORING our roots

In some societies an essential rule of morality is that parents are honored when they die, and this requires elaborate funeral rites. In North America the buying of a very expensive casket can atone for many years of neglect. But funeral directors complain that these days more and more children say "just get rid of it" and they have to dispose of the body of a parent without any kind of religious service.

As given in the Bible, the fifth of the ten commandments is given very little content. "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you" (Exodus 20:12). In the New Testament Paul picked this up when he wrote "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honor your father and mother' - this is the first commandment with a promise: 'so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth" (Ephesians 6:1-4). This is part of the proverbial wisdom of many nations: "My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you" (Proverbs 3:1­2)

Obviously little children have to obey the commands of their parents long before they can understand the reasons for them. "Don't throw your food on the floor. Say please when you want something, and thank you when you get it. Don't put your finger in the electric socket. Never cross the road till we say so." But this is only for a few years till the kids begin to fly on their own. But to give the principle a wider application we note one kind of submission to parents that applies throughout life. We have listed this as :

(5) We should honor the genes and early nurture of our parents.

We don't have to approve all that our parents did to us or believed in. In some cases parents are ignorant and behave abominably. But at least we can recognize that we received our life from them. Every gene in our body comes from one parent or the other. And our early upbringing, however defective, governed the personality we began with. Psychologists say that if we rebel against our roots we will have serious problems throughout life. We should not hide from or be ashamed of what we have been given. But if we can recognize and honor all that made us what we are, we are then freed to move in creative new directions.

If we believe in God, we will honor what God has given us through our parents and early upbringing. In a way our parents were used by God the Creator to create us. But if we are constantly resentful about what we have received, it is very hard to have a faith relationship with our Maker. On the other hand it is very moving to see some who were born with terrible handicaps enjoying a radiant love for God. That is not to deny that many who are severely handicapped, without a faith in God, can also live out their lives with great courage.

When Paul pictured the relationship between members of a family he used the category of mutual submission. In a passage that begins "Be subject to one another out of reverence for the Messiah" (Ephesians 5:21) Paul described the mutual submission of wives and husbands (Ephesians 5:22-33). He worked this out in another letter by picturing an astonishing and very revolutionary new mutuality: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).

To grasp the continually changing mutuality that is involved we might compare the many different kinds of mutual submissions in a football team where equality is not a useful category. Each player has a function in relation to the other players and the coach in many different ways. And this is the way an effective family works.

Paul requires a similar mutual submission between children and their parents. We have already quoted "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" and Paul linked this with "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). The long submission of parents begins long before their children begin to understand. Mothers have sleepless nights, many hours of minding and feeding and listening to childish chatter, much anxious care in sickness and accidents. There are also the submissions of teaching language skills and early childhood education. The submissions of parents during the teen age years, marriage, and caring for grandchildren will go on for many years.

Children very soon develop a sense of fairness and justice, and Paul warns parents "do not provoke your children to anger" (6:4). Submission must not be enforced in a way that children find unreasonable and upsetting. This implies sharing in the decision making which makes sense in each situation.

What then are the submissions of children to their parents? It is easy enough to see this on a farm where sons and daughters share in many chores, mind the animals, drive the tractor, and do what is needful when the parents are sick and infirm. It is less easy to see what honoring parents might mean in North America when married children live in their own nuclear family often hundreds of miles away in another city. And much that children did for the parents is now taken care of by government social service agencies. The honoring often means telephoning to check on each other's health, making sure they have adequate care, housing and nourishment in their old age. This is far more demanding than the big effort to lay on a golden wedding anniversary.

A safe and creative way to think of submission is by beginning with prayer. If we pray for others we focus on them and their concerns. And often as we pray we can see what their real needs are. Instead of mere presents and cards, the real needs will often turn out to be such indefinable qualities as recognition, companionship, understanding, the sharing of family stories. The Bible gives no definition or agenda for submission, but the New Testament shows us how that can be filled out by the Holy Spirit working deep within our heart.

Chapter 6   KILLING another unlawfully