Sermon for September 8th, 2013
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 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.
Ten Laws, One Love: Honor Your Father and Mother
Raise your hand if you have a bellybutton. If you have a bellybutton, then the fifth commandment is for you. If you have a bellybutton, (and you should look at it every now and then to remind yourself of this) that's a pretty good indication that once upon a time you were literally connected to a parent. (I'm guessing it was your mother). You were connected by an umbilical cord to a parent and your very life depended on that connection. When you were born, the cord was cut but that connection, that lifeline still continued in many ways. Your parents fed you, dressed you, sheltered you, taught you how to walk, talk, read, write, sing, dance, how to appreciate Star Wars movies and write computer programs in BASIC. Ok, so maybe those last two were just my parents, but still--your parents gave you life, and were the first ones to show you how to live it. Not everyone has children...but everyone has, or at some point has had, parents. And so the fifth commandment is an important one for all of us.
Before we jump into it, however, we are now halfway through the commandments; halfway through our sermon series on Ten Laws, One Love: Understanding God's commandments through the light of God's love. Just to review, we've talked about how the Ten Commandments--despite what we call them in English--were never intended to be "commandments" or laws. In Hebrew they are the "Ten Words" or ten sayings. The ten commandments are not about rules--they are about relationships. The first three express God's ideal for our relationship with him, and the next seven express God's ideal for our relationships with each other. Jesus summarizes them by saying "Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself."
So we can divide all the commandments in this way--those about how we related to God, and those about how we relate to each other. But there's another way to divide the commandments too. Actually, there are as many ways to divide the commandments as there are preachers in the world, but here's a way I divide them: Positive Commandments and Negative Commandments. Most of the commandments are negative (don't do this), but a few of them are positive (do this). And here's my theory: The positive commandments come first, and are the most important ones, from which all the negative commandments flow. So for the commandments that teach us how to relate to God, the first one is: "I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me." For us as protestants, that one seems like it has a negative built into it, but remember the Jewish people separate that into two commandments, and lump "no other gods" together with "no idols." So their first commandment is "I am the Lord your God." But wait, you say, that's not a commandment! Of course not, they're the ten words, the ten sayings, remember? So "I am the Lord your God" is the first commandment and if we take it seriously, then it logically follows that we would have no other gods, not make idols, and not take God's name lightly.
No on the other side--the commandments that teach us how to relate to each other--we also begin with two positive commandments, from which all the others, the negative commandments, flow: Honor the Sabbath (your restfulness) and Honor your parents. And if we really, really focused on just these two things--making sure everyone had adequate rest from work and stress, and asking ourselves in every situation "would what I'm about to do bring honor or shame to my parents?"--If we did those two things, I believe there would be no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying, and no coveting.
Taken in this light, the fifth commandment is supremely important: We all have parents, and all the remaining commandments derive from and build upon this one.
Ok. If the second half of the commandments are about how we relate to each other, then it makes sense to start with our very first relationships. Remember your bellybutton. Your relationship with your parents, your interactions with them, began even before you were born. In your earliest years, your family was your first school, the safe place where you first learned how to relate to other people--and it's a good thing, too: Imagine if you were introduced to someone today for the first time, and this person immediately burst into tears screaming, peed all over you, and then fell asleep. Thank God for parents who love us and are patient with us: Learning how to relate to other people takes time, and lots of practice.
Often when we hear the fifth commandment, we think it's directed primarily at children. In Ephesians, the Apostle Paul does give a version of this commandment directed to children: "Children, obey your parents in the Lord" (our kids did a great job of singing it, too!). But the verse in Deuteronomy is not specific, and in fact (like the other commandments) is addressed to all the people of Israel who have gathered to hear Moses speak to them on behalf of the Lord. His audience would likely have included children, adults with children, adults with no children, and even adults whose parents had already passed away. And yet all are asked to honor their fathers and mothers.
So what does that look like? What does it mean to honor your father and mother? For that matter, what is "honor?" I think if you ask ten different people, you'd get ten different answers. Honor means different things to different people, and a sign of honor in one culture is often a sign of insult in another culture. Honor is not a monolithic, universal concept. It's personal...it's relational. To know what might honor or dishonor someone...you have to get to know that person. You have to develop a relationship.
As an example of this, when my parents were children, their parents (my grandparents, on both sides) expected to be addressed "sir" and ma'am" in all situations. In their generation, that was showing respect to your parents. My parents expected to be addressed as "sir" and "ma'am" only when we were in trouble, or when we were being told what to do. I know this because as a smart-alecky teenager, I tested this theory: My parents did NOT appreciate it when I would say, "I love you, ma'am!" or "May I have a goodnight hug, sir?" And we definitely ruined it when we bought a dog and named him "Sir" (what else to you call a 200 pound Saint Bernard?). So now when anyone calls me sir, I imagine a large, hairy, drooling dog--I've asked my son to please never, ever call me "sir." I much prefer "Dad" or "Reverend Dad" (just kidding). To honor your parents means to know them, to understand them, to have a relationship with them.
That said, since Moses addressed this commandment to people of all different ages and circumstances, I do think there are some life-stages we all go through, each with its own tendencies and special needs. The famous psychologist Erik Erickson identified each life-stage with a crisis that we must successfully navigate in order to move on to the next one in a healthy way. I think the way we honor our parents in each of these stages is part of that healthy navigation.
As young children, when we are first forming our own individual identities, pushing the limits in order to discover who we are, our tendency is to be defiant toward our parents. The word "No" is almost always first directed at a parent, and by early adolescence, defiant, rebellious behavior toward parents is so commonplace we make jokes about it. I think this is why the Apostle Paul, specifically says to children, "obey your parents." At this stage, the need for the child is to begin to forge his or her own identity independent from the parent. But the need for the parent at this stage is obedience...and finding the careful balance between those two needs has filled entire libraries with books.
In late adolescence and early adulthood, once independence has been achieved, the tendency is to dismiss or ignore one's parents. Mark Twain talks about being embarrassed as a young man about how little his father knew about anything. And then as Twain moved from his 20s into his 30s, he describes his amazement at how much his father learned in such a short period of time. In young adulthood, to honor our parents is to listen to them, to remember in the midst of our busy lives all they have taught us, all the values they worked to instill in us, to seek out their advice and wisdom in all things.
Now, I need to make an important clarification to parents of young adults: Obedience is what Paul asks young children to give to their parents. It's not necessarily wrong for adults to obey their parents, but it is wrong for parents at this stage to demand obedience from their adult children. At this stage, when your children have grown up, moved out, married and have children of their own, the role of parents is to advise--to step back and trust that you have done a good job of parenting...to let that parenting now speak for itself, and especially NOT to insert yourselves in between your child and his or her spouse, or in between your child and your grandchildren. To do this makes only makes it harder for your children to honor you and at the same time give their spouse and children the honor owed to them.
But to those young adults, a warning for you as well: Be forgiving. It's sometimes hard for your parents to make that transition after 21 years of hands-on parenting. If they cross that line, even if you don't obey, you still have to do it in a way that shows honor and respect. And they'll be less likely to cross the line if you are seeking them out, listening to their advice, and living in the ways they taught you.
While we're on the subject of crossing the line, what about "bad" parents? Parents who do horrible things, whose actions are destructive to their children and to themselves. Are we still supposed to honor them? The short answer is yes...but in cases like these, sometimes honoring your parents means honoring what they should have been. It means forgiving, at a distance and with proper boundaries if necessary, and it means taking care to pass on to your own children a different example, humbly, and respectfully, still grateful for the life your parents gave you, if not the way in which theirs was lived.
For mature adults, whose parents are entering into the twilight of life, the sad tendency (especially in our geographically dispersed culture) is to neglect one's parents. To honor them in this stage means to care for them, with your time, your resources, and most importantly your love. This is an ironic time of reversal--when children feed their parents, bathe them, help them to walk, and listen patiently as they repeat themselves over and over again. The parent becomes the child and the child becomes the parent...much as Jesus said that the first would become last and the last would become first in God's kingdom. When you were newly arrived in this world, you were closer to God then. Now they in turn are drawing closer to God. When your parents reach this stage, remember your bellybutton. You are their lifeline now; honor them, and be connected to them.
The fifth commandment is a commandment with a promise: 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." Long life is good, and I appreciate that promise. But there's another promise that comes from honoring your parents--it's found in the book of Proverbs, and it's the passage I'd like to close with today.
My own mother is coming to town later this week, and I look forward to seeing her, to talking with her, and asking for her advice. But my father, as many of you know, passed away 15 years ago, just two weeks after I graduated from college. He was a good father; he raised me well and taught me many things. I didn't have much opportunity as a young man to seek out his advice and wisdom. I regret that I won't be able to hold his hand and help him walk into the twilight of his elderly years. But even now, I can still honor him--in fact, by standing here today, I hope I'm doing exactly that.
If your parents are still with you, I hope Proverbs 6 can offer you hope and direction as you honor them at each stage of your life, and theirs. If your parents are already gone, I hope Proverbs 6 offers you the same comfort and promise it does to me, as you continue to honor your parents through your own life.
Proverbs 6:20-22 - My child, keep your father’s commandment, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. 21 Bind them upon your heart always; tie them around your neck. When you walk, they will lead you; when you lie down, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk with you. For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light.