Our topic is the fifth of the ten great commandments given by God to the people of Israel.
Exodus 20.12: "Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you", recalled in Deuteronomy 5.16, "Honour your father and your 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."
This commandment does not tell us to obey our parents. It instructs us to honour them.
The basic meaning of the word translated as "to honour" is "to make heavy", "to burden", "to weigh down." But, as in colloquial English, to describe something as "heavy" also implies importance. Thus this word has a positive meaning of heaviness and can mean "to honour" or "to esteem".
In its noun form, it often means "glory"-the glory, the honour, given to God. The same word is used in Psalm 91, which says that that God will rescue and honour those who love God and call upon God’s help.
The way we honour our parents changes as we and they grow older. For young children, respect, expressed in courtesy and obedience seems simple: young children should do as mother and father say. Yet, parents need to guide a child’s life wisely and gently so that courtesy and obedience are possible, even enjoyable, as part of a secure life, where there is nurture and freedom from anxiety and fear.
For older children, obedience and respect go hand in hand; parents return respect to teenagers most especially by giving time, and when possible, explanations, and above all, by listening.
As the teenager matures into an adult, respect is in the art of saying, "Thanks for your advice Dad, I’ll think about it." We see the wisdom of the command to "honour." It gives a child some liberty; for honour is not slavery.
As life goes on, we honour our parents by sustaining the relationship-talking, writing and visiting-and praying. When our parents grow old we honour them with care and mercy.
Parents need to be honourable-and respectful, too-not giving too much advice, not interfering needlessly, even in the play of a small child, let alone in the business of an adult. "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, don’t exasperate them" (Eph 6:4).
What then if one’s parents have been thoroughly dishonourable-or simply absent? What if they have been abusive or hateful? I can only suggest that the very best thing is not to curse, not to hate, but to forgive. From forgiveness comes healing for the one who forgives. No parent is perfect. No child is perfect. Every one of us has something to forgive in our parents and, if we have children, something to forgive in our children.
To forgive our parents is also to honour them. If it seems that you can’t find much about your parents to honour, to respect, grant them, or their memory, the deep and sincere honour of forgiveness.
The same applies to other things in the past that have made us who we are, in our culture, history and traditions. I appreciate the literature, art, music and faith I inherit from my Anglo-Celtic background, and the bravery of many of my forbears. I honour those things. But I am saddened, too, by the dishonourable things-the terrible wars, the great harm done to our aboriginal brothers and sisters. We honour the honourable, and are sorry for the dishonourable.
There can be a tension between our family and cultural customs, the expectations of our parents, and the demands of our work and our society on the one hand and, on the other hand, what we believe and understand to be the will and purposes of God. That was Jesus’ experience, described in our gospel reading this evening.
Jesus caused his parents not unreasonable anxiety by going missing. "Child," his mother said, "why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Yet the boy Jesus seemed quite astonished that his parents did not understand the call of God on his young life. "Why were you searching for me?" – In other words, "Surely you would know that I would be here in the temple!" "Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" The parents didn’t understand, the text says. Yet it also says that he went with them and was obedient to them, and that he grew in divine and human favour.
Later when the adult Jesus says, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother, sister, and mother" (Matthew 12:48-50), he doesn’t dishonour the natural family, but reveals a new family in which God is father, and we all are children.
When Jesus says "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me," he puts himself in the place of the law, the word of God. This could be done only by someone greater than the law. Indeed, Jesus said of himself that he came to fulfil the law. It is only because Jesus acts with the authority of God and is himself God, that his words make sense.
The fifth commandment promised those of the ancient Hebrews who had an honourable relationship with their parents the blessing of long life-and things that went well-in the land that the Lord their God was giving them.
Part of a healthy life, a good life, is to come to terms with all that has made us, together and each one individually, to be what we are-our heritage, our education, our life experiences, our faith and spiritual experiences, our families and, yes, our parents. As well as being grateful to my parents, who helped me to get to know the ways of God, I honour others who have blessed me in teaching me and forming my life as a Christian.
There’s a fine poem called Those Winter Sundays, written in 1962 by Robert Hayden (see below), about the unacknowledged love of a father who, even on a Sunday after an exhausting six days of work, got up very early to light the fires so that his family would be warm. When I heard this poem recently, it brought back to me the love and care my father gave me when I was a child, helping me to overcome the damage caused by polio. Every evening at bedtime, for years on end, he would put my damaged leg into a split, wrap it up, and assure me that all would be well.
I can’t recall thanking him then. Although I felt loved, I was too young to understand. So I wrote him a letter a couple of months ago to thank him, now, in his eighty-sixth year, for his love, that still goes on.
To honour what has made us who we are and what we are-all that is good in the huge variety and complexity of life and experience that has formed us-is, in fact, to honour ourselves. To honour our parents is part of accepting and giving thanks for what we are. And, as I have said, to forgive is also part of accepting, and acknowledging, and being grateful-always acknowledging, of course, that we also need forgiveness.
For the ancient Hebrews the land of promise was Canaan. For us, the land of promise is all that is embodied in the gospel, the inheritance of God’s people. We receive the promise of God in reconciliation with our heavenly parent. We participate in God’s promised new life every day. And we look forward to the inheritance of the kingdom of God.
Yet, I believe that the promise of the fifth commandment can apply quite literally in our present lives. A God-filled, reconciled relationship with our backgrounds and the people in them, contributes to our lives being peaceful and free of anxiety and fear.
We love because God has first loved us. We honour others because God has first honoured us, by grace. Psalm 91:
Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honour them.
That is the very same kind of honour that the fifth command instructs that we give to our parents. It is the same kind of honour that God receives.
"With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation," the psalm concludes. The promise is of a long life that satisfies, not a life of regret. Some dread long life because they fear aged feebleness and regret. I have physical problems that may enfeeble me in old age, but I look forward, God willing, to long life that will indeed be satisfying.
I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that good relationships, forgiveness, and respect for each other, contribute to a healthy life and, possibly, a long life.
As we respond to the fifth commandment, let’s also remember Paul’s advice to the Philippians.
Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4.8)
Those Winter Sundays (1962), by Robert E. Hayden (1913-1980)
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?