Measuring Our Parents’ “Heaviness”
It’s been a couple of weeks since we’ve thought together about the Ten Commandments, which we’ve interpreted as ten commitments made by those who choose to enter into covenant with the Living God of the Bible. We’ve also suggested that these are ten outcomes of living normal life with God in Christ within such a covenant. Today, we deal with commitment # 5 about parents and children. Since it has been a while since we worked on these, let me take a few minutes to talk about this list as a whole. I suggest to my seminary students who are learning to read and interpret the Bible professionally that the form in which an author expresses a text makes a difference to how we should read that text. Certain forms imply certain contents.
(Present a coke bottle.) What are the likely contents of this bottle? What’s the important clue? The distinctive shape of the bottle strongly suggests that it’s Coca Cola, doesn’t it? Form and content are related. Just so, if we look carefully at the form of this list of ten principles for covenant life, we can see some important clues for reading them. For example, the first three and the last five are put negatively: “You will not.” Nonetheless, although they share that characteristic, these eight also have differences in form. The first three are longer and have what we call “motive clauses” that tell why these are good ideas. The last five are very brief, except for the last one which rounds out the list. Furthermore, the subject of first three commitments is God: “No other gods, no imaging God by anything less than God (which is everything), no co-opting this incomparable, imageless God “for nothing,” or “in vain” – for anything less than that which promotes God’s values.” The last five, which we haven’t covered yet, deal with human conduct with neighbours: no killing, no stealing, no false witness, etc.
Between these are two distinctive principles (commitments 4 and 5) that are put in positive form (“You will…”). They deal with both God and neighbour, and both contain distinct outcomes. These two positive statements form a bridge between the parts about God and neighbour. The 4th commitment deals with the fact that God created the world with a space for rest (Sabbath) and wholeness (Shalom) at its very centre, and covenant partners are committed, regularly and devotedly, to come to this quiet centre. The commitment which we take up today is the second of these positive ones.
Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Whereas the 4th commitment had to do with the kind of social sphere in which we relate, the 5th has to do with how we relate both to God (pointing to the first three commitments) and to our neighbour (pointing to the last five). Our parents are, in fact, the first neighbours with which we are to deal well.
Our Old Testament Lessons intend to show that the 5th commitment is related to both the first four and the last five. Leviticus 19 repeats our words about parents (and interprets the word “honour” by the word “revere”). Reverence for parents is then related to keeping Sabbaths, shunning idolatry, and recognizing God’s uniqueness, as in the first three commitments. Ezekiel 22 recognizes that the abuse of parents leads to abuse of other neighbours, and to other injustice (pointing to the last commitments), and also to violations of relationship with God. Both these texts (and many others) affirm that it is important to “honour” our fathers and our mothers. So where are we?
Our review of the form of our ten commitments has suggested that all ten are interrelated, and that the two positive ones are important bridges between those that deal with God and those that deal with neighbour. These two sets affirm that the real Policy for covenant partners is that we love God intensely and love neighbours with as much care as we love ourselves. Jesus also affirmed that these are the “Great Commandments.”
Now, we must be very careful how we understand this 5th commitment. It has been interpreted (especially by those who take it as a sheer command) as, first of all, directed to young children. Such would not have been the case in ancient Israel. The Torah was mostly directed to adults. All of us, of course, are sons and daughters of someone, but children of a young age are not yet mature enough to make the decision to commit themselves to becoming sons and daughters of the covenant. In the ancient world, this commitment was really for adult children to honour their aging parents. This commitment is certainly not an imperative for children to submit to whatever a parent wants to do, even to the point of obediently accepting the most abusive psychological and physical damage. This is a terrible misunderstanding and misuse of this commitment and one that sometimes has been perpetrated on little ones by abusers. For one thing, God’s values are not those of abuse, but of peace, love, grace, mercy, and wholeness. Fathers and mothers who are themselves committed to a covenant relationship are God and neighbours adopt God’s values. If fathers and mothers wish their children to honour them, then they themselves must, first, act in honourable ways toward their children, otherwise how will the children know what it means to honour them?
To say it again, this commitment is directed to adult children to honour their parents in their old age. In Israel’s Mediterranean culture, the extended family was the primary support system, transcending all human loyalties. Without such family support, when parents could no longer work, unless their adult children watched out for them, they would have been swallowed up in poverty and lost. When that happened, the family would lose not only wisdom but honour – which would have been considered far worse than economic disaster in that ancient world. Children have a responsibility to honour their parents by giving care. As a general principle that is still true.
Unfortunately, we all know of examples of bad parents who have abused their children, and who have demanded sheer subservience to their tyranny. How do children “honour” such dishonourable parents? It is important to know that, in Hebrew, the verb most often translated as “ to honour” (kabbed) and the noun translated as “honour” or, mostly with reference to God, “glory” (kabod) come from a root meaning of “heaviness.” To honour someone is to grant them the “heaviness” that is their due. Honour is what makes people “heavyweights” in their world. God’s glory, God’s heaviness, is justice, mercy, love, grace, and power. The more one imitates the God of the covenant, using as these ten commitments as broad principles, the heavier, the weightier, the more honoured one is. Again, “to honour” parents is to give them the “heaviness” that is their due. In that ancient culture, it meant granting them their place in family as a source of wisdom, caring for them when they couldn’t work any longer. For us, it may mean that. On the other hand, those who act in abusive ways will never enjoy the outcomes found in the ten commitments, but will have outcomes that are the result of their own abusive behaviour (no matter how religious they make these abusive criteria sound). To “honour” such parents with the heaviness that is their due, is to understand what they are doing is not God’s will and, if possible, to refuse to comply. Of course, great damage may still be done, but God’s will is not simply obedience. Where there is no honourable behaviour, there is no heaviness, no honour, and no necessity to conform.
Of course, there are many imperfect parents that are not abusers (which parent is perfect?) These, too, should be granted the heaviness that is their due. If we are having a hard time with our experience of parents, I would suggest (and many others have said this, too) that we stop for a moment of reflection. Can we name two or three positive qualities about our parent(s), even if we have to work at it a while? It’s worth the exercise. Write these things down and remember them. Give your father and mother the heaviness that is due them.
The passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians that we read earlier this morning is interesting in a couple of ways. First, in line with what has been said, the Apostle recognized that parents (the word is really “fathers” in Greek) ought not to provoke their children to anger as an important condition that accompanies granting honour to them as parents. It must go both ways. Honour of parents is the result of honourable parents. The Ephesians passage also pushes in another interesting and, for its day, radical direction. It begins: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Since earliest days, this text has been understood to be ambiguous. Is the apostle enjoining obedience of “parents in the Lord,” those folks who nurtured us in faith? Or is the apostle saying to obey (earthly) parents “in the Lord,” that is, in ways consistent with Christ’s teaching? Most people think it is the latter, although it could be the former. Most scholars think it is the second of these, but either is possible, and the first may claim support from Jesus.
Our Lord had a radical interpretation (or reinterpretation) of this 5th commitment. In our Gospel Lesson from Mark 3, at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus ministry work was interrupted by his mother and his brothers who wanted his attention instead. We must understand that it would have been expected and socially required that Jesus would stop what he was doing and tend to the needs of his mother and brothers, his family. This would be part of following the precept of honouring (understood as obeying) his parents. Jesus took a position here that says that the community of faith that he was building transcended the earthly family. “Who is my mother”? “Who are my brothers”? His answer is “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister (and even) my mother, my parent.” Honouring them is an equal duty. Such a teaching as this would have run counter to Jesus entire culture, and is one of the most radical thing in the Gospels. It has had limited result in our culture, other than in the practice of some churches using the terms brother and sister for other members of the community. In some of our African American churches the terms father and mother are used for senior members.
What we can learn from this is not necessarily that we walk away from our parents when they’re inconvenient. Indeed, that would not conform to other teachings of Jesus. It is that we not only honour our families by granting them the heaviness (or importance) in our lives that is their due, but also that we grant those in our community of faith the heaviness, the honour that is due to them, and take care of and for them as well. The expectation is not only that we honour, but that we are honoured, and so find our true importance in community. Something to think about.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.