“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”–Exodus 20:12
“All stories come back to fathers and sons.” I read the quote somewhere in an exploration of narrative storytelling. For my purposes, I’ll realign it as “all stories have to do with parents and children,” but the point is still the same. We wrestle with those relationships, we grow out of them and into them, and learn them in new ways. We want to figure out our story.
This would have made a great Father’s Day sermon, but in the formation of the Ten Commandments, this fifth word came here and now, in between keeping the Sabbath holy (#4) and the order not to kill. It takes us from the words intended to help the Israelites, the recently freed slaves and all of us, to figure out how to follow God by loving him… to figuring out how to love God by loving others.
Honor your parents. It sounds so easy, so small, so minuscule- how could it matter enough to God to be one of “the Ten”?
This week, I read a great commencement speech. Maybe the best I’ve ever read, by a Navy Seal-turned-Admiral. This was his opening:
“The University’s slogan is, ‘What starts here changes the world.’
I have to admit—I kinda like it.
‘What starts here changes the world.’
Tonight there are almost 8,000 students graduating from UT.
That great paragon of analytical rigor, Ask.Com says that the average American will meet 10,000 people in their lifetime.
That’s a lot of folks.
But, if every one of you changed the lives of just ten people—and each one of those folks changed the lives of another ten people—just ten—then in five generations—125 years—the class of 2014 will have changed the lives of 800 million people.
800 million people—think of it—over twice the population of the United States. Go one more generation and you can change the entire population of the world—8 billion people.
If you think it’s hard to change the lives of ten people—change their lives forever—you’re wrong.
I saw it happen every day in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A young Army officer makes a decision to go left instead of right down a road in Baghdad and the ten soldiers in his squad are saved from close-in ambush.
In Kandahar province, Afghanistan, a non-commissioned officer from the Female Engagement Team senses something isn’t right and directs the infantry platoon away from a 500 pound IED, saving the lives of a dozen soldiers.
But, if you think about it, not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn—were also saved. And their children’s children—were saved.
Generations were saved by one decision—by one person.
But changing the world can happen anywhere and anyone can do it.”
The Admiral, William H. McRaven, went on to talk about how his instructors, all Vietnam vets, would inspect his bed making skills at SEAL camp. His bed making skills! He said that if it was done correctly, “the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.”
An amazingly simple thing but it was required by these hardened instructors for their students. It was the first thing they completed each day, the first of the many little things that would add up to a single day of SEAL training, of a week of SEAL training, of not ringing the bell that signaled you were giving up, of becoming a Navy SEAL. Because, Admiral McRaven says, “If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”
Maybe that’s why the Word about parents comes shoehorned in between Sabbath and “thou shall not kill.” Maybe it’s because the family unit is defined by the family, the most crucial building block of society, whether it’s the Jewish one or ours. Maybe it’s because if we can’t figure out where we come from then we can’t figure out where we’re going. Maybe because if we can’t do the seemingly “little” thing of honoring our parents, then we can’t get any of the other things done.
Let’s begin with “where do we come from?” I know, relatively speaking, where I came from.
I was born in Lancaster, PA, to Robert and Christine Sahms. For much of my adolescence, my dad was a biology teacher and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. But do those things define who they were or where I’m from?
No, I mean something more. I think our parents provide the nurture part of where we come from. I think the fact that the fact that if the church was open, we were there, provided me with an understanding of what my parents felt and thought about church. I think that the fact that we read the Bible before breakfast every day impacted the way I looked at the Bible, in community and as stories that mattered. I think that the fact that my parents saw taking care of shutins as what they should do opened my eyes to others in need.
I know our nature, who we are knit together biologically, matters, too, but our nurture, wow, our nurture matters for sure. But what happens when we get older? Do we continue along the way that we’ve been shown, or do we divert from it?
I know that there are decisions we have to make to follow or to change, but our decisions honor or dishonor our parents.
Honor. It’s a funny word. We talk about as an adjective- an honor guard or an honorary member. But honor is a word that means “to make heavy” or “weighty.” To honor our parents means to hold them in esteem, to give them a special place where we will hold them dear.
We often say that Jesus took the Ten Commandments farther, as we’ll see when we look at the Beatitudes starting in July. But Moses words just a chapter later, in Exodus 21:15-17, elaborate on these ideas about how the new nation of Israel was intent on creating a different view of taking care of ones elders: “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death,” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” That makes the weightiness of the parents so much more: if you attack your parent (physical implied) or curse them (verbal abuse) you would be put to death in ancient Israel.
Do we value our parents that much?
Before the parents sit up a little straighter and take notes to pass on to their children (I see you grinning over there!): it’s not just children to parents. Malachi 4:6: “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children.” Ephesians quotes the fifth word, right before 6:4, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” The parents have the responsibility in following God to make sure that their example is worthy of being honored.
I heard the story of a little boy who sobbed on the way home after the baptism of his kid brother in church. His mom and dad asked him three times what was wrong, getting no reply, only more sobbing. Finally, the boy replied: The preacher said he wanted us to be brought up in a Christian home, but I wanted to stay with you guys!” It seems they do actually pick up more than we think. That goes for the whole ‘cloud of witnesses’ that is the nature of adults who surround children in church.
Too often, we think it’s someone else’s time, someone else’s turn to lead. We think that we’ve paid our dues and now it’s someone else’s turn. Another story went like this. Martin had just received his brand new drivers license. The family troops out to the driveway, and climbs in the car, where he is going to take them for a ride for the first time. Dad immediately heads for the back seat, directly behind the newly minted driver. “I’ll bet you’re back there to get a change of scenery after all those months of sitting in the front passenger seat teaching me how to drive,” says the beaming boy to his father. “Nope,” comes dad’s reply, “I’m gonna sit here and kick the back of your seat as you drive, just like you’ve been doing to me all these years.”
We don’t ever get to turn off the responsibility of being fathers and mothers, biologically or within our church family.
The fifth word doesn’t just say, “honor your dear old dad,” or “honor them until you’re grown.” It’s like my dad told me a long time ago: I’m always going to be your dad and you’re always going to be my son. It seems so simple but we sometimes lose sight of the depth of that relationship, of that mentoring, of that growth from caregiver/provider to fellow road-traveler and friend. (Although, you know, my dad still pays for dinner…)
It can’t be overstated. From a Biblical perspective, the family unit, as we’ll see again in the seventh word, is paramount to the understanding of a community’s survival. To love God is to be a family man or woman. To love God and love your family is to help build the kingdom of God on Earth. We see the flipside, the consequences of failure from Ezekiel’s perspective in Ezekiel 22:7-8: “In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. You have despised my holy things and desecrated my Sabbaths.” You may not be a parent but you are someone’s child!
Everything, everything, boils back to that relationship between parents and children. But boy, do we have a lot to learn about our kids! We have to learn what it means to teach them, what it means for them to hear us, and what it means when we actually listen to them. Here’s a typical interaction you might hear in my house, or any house with little boys…
My youngest is sent to bed. Five minutes later….
“I’m thirsty. Can you bring me a drink of water?”
“No. You had your chance. Lights out..”
Five minutes later:
“I’m THIRSTY. Can I have a drink of water??”
“I told you NO!” If you ask again, I’ll have to spank you!!”
Five minutes later……
“When you come in to spank me, can you bring a drink of water?”
My mother tells me any stubbornness I see in my children is just a reflection back at me. But I digress…
Before we go any further, I need to note that not all parent-child situations are the same. How do we relate to a parent who walked out on us when we were a child? Or drank too much? Or abused us verbally and tore us down? How do we honor that kind of relationship?
During the America’s Got Talent premiere for this season, a young man played the guitar and sang John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change.” He talked about being shuffled from foster home to foster home, begging people to adopt him. He talked about how his parents ultimately stopped coming to their visitation periods at all, about how he felt like someone’s luggage. Sure, he’d been adopted by now and was clearly loved, but what does the Scripture say to him about honoring his birth parents?
Maybe it’s in forgiving them but in refusing to allow them to poorly treat us again.
Maybe it’s by being who we wish they would’ve been.
Maybe it’s in making sure that we care for those who lack the mothers and fathers that we wished we would have had.
I know I’ve had several conversations with grown children who longed to have that relationship restored. Several of college students met my dad over my years in campus ministry, and they wanted to know how to develop the kind of relationship I had with my dad. They wanted to know how to start the conversation with men who had never been the kind of father that they knew they should honor. And they came to understand that their faith was what could ultimately give them the foundation level to create a new family paradigm out of their old family structure.
It’s the way to healing built on the teachings of Jesus, underscored by the reliance on God’s words.
Jesus recognized that in God, our families are bigger than blood, as he says in Mark 3:33-35: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus held onto honoring his parents, the whole way to the cross, when he instructed John to watch after his mother upon Jesus’ death. He wasn’t booting his family to curb, but he was pointing toward a new family, founded in God’s love. His death was that seal that adopted us into the family of God, that claimed us as his brothers and sisters in God’s sight.
Stop and think about that adoption metaphor for what Jesus did on the cross. I’ve been thinking a lot about adoption lately. I have a good friend from high school who adopted and whose kids I watch grow up… through Facebook. Another minister in the conference and his wife just returned from China with their new baby boy. His wife blogs (my high school friend has ongoing commentary) about their experience: I see how what was rejected has been made new, has been claimed, has been restored, renewed, returned to the kind of family God had intended in the first place. Adoption: the metaphor for the way God loves you– he would pay any price, travel anywhere, endure anything, to bring you back.
God likes family metaphors for understanding love.
Jesus comes back to the parent relationship again in Mark 7:1-13. The Pharisees are stalking Jesus, trying to find a way to trick him into saying or doing something that goes against the law. They want to find a way that he messes up so that they can discredit him and the way that has gained popular attention. Today, they hop up and down and clap their hands because the disciples are, gasp, eating without washing their hands first!
Jesus doesn’t even bother responding to their question about “living according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He just quotes Isaiah back to them: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions. You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
Jesus is talking about the fifth word, about the fact that Moses handed down the strict consequences about what would happen to someone who disrespected their parents. But he also references Corban, a word for giving over some of their money or possessions to God, a status that likely was the equivalent of being ‘not taxable.’
So, if a son said that this amount of money was ‘corban,’ then it couldn’t be used to say, support his ailing parents, to pay for medicine or provide them with food. It was using the ‘holy,’ putting it on being obedient to God so that they wouldn’t actually have to spend the money to take care of their parents.
The Pharisees were taking their interpretation of something, their tradition, and making it more important than the other, original word handed down by God through Moses. They were encouraging grown children to pay into the synagogue coffers rather than care for their own families. They were allowing the elderly, those considered to be less worthy or valuable, to fend for themselves so that the synagogue itself would survive. Traditions can be dangerous, can’t they?
So can the insidious whisper that people are valuable as much as they can produce, put out, work hard, provide. Think about the way we ward off old age, the skin crèmes, the regimens, the anti-aging drugs, operations, and fixes that come along. It’s tied up in our mortality, and our understanding of self. We fear that we too might be “put out to pasture,” forgotten, or left behind.
That’s the situation that the newly freed Israelites found themselves in. A slave is only as good as his or her work abilities. The old, the weak, the infirm, they are cast off so that the resources necessary to care for those who can produce are maintained.
If we’re realistic, we can see that those ideas circulate through society in cycles. We can see that in our own communities. And the Ten Words show up and say, “you matter regardless of how old you are.” And Jesus echoes, “Respect your parents. Respect your children.”
And then Jesus, who refers to God, the Creator of the Universe, goes to the cross and says, “Daddy, Papa, Father, your will and not my will be done.” And he takes on the mission that his dad gives him, and he stays nailed to the cross when he could’ve gotten down, and he dies for you and me. In that moment, Jesus honored his Father.
So we return to the question: what can we do to honor our father and our mother?
-Recognize that we honor our parents by what we are and what we are not. It’s nature and nurture, versus nature and nurture, and some combination of all of the above. We, and our parents, are made in God’s image but fall into sin; no one is perfect. But what we learn from our parents’ example can help us to become who we’re supposed to be.
-Protect the independence of the aging. See things from their point of view. Refuse to look down on those with lost economic value. Visit those who can’t get out. Embrace our Methodist heritage of being “the priesthood of all believers” and carry the light of Christ into the homes of those who can’t seek it for themselves.
-Intentionally model and example what we believe for our children. Recognize that as parents, we should make sure we are honoring our children.
-Treat others as you would want to be treated if you were them. Complete the mission. Follow through with the best your parents have taught, and what your Heavenly Father has taught.
-Recognize that it’s not too late to get it right.
The Brothers Grimm always seem to be able to get to the heart of the matter. I want to share with you the parable of an old man and his grandson.
There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the table-cloth or let it run out of his mouth. His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it. And he used to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears. Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed. Then they brought him a wooden bowl for a few half-pence, out of which he had to eat.
They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather together some bits of wood upon the ground. ’What are you doing there?’ asked the father. ’I am making a little trough,’ answered the child, ’for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.’
The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry. Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.
There’s a word of peace there, wrapped in the Brothers Grimm wisdom for those of us who have not always been the children that we wanted to be. We haven’t always respected our parents, regardless of what kind of role models they were; we haven’t always honored our Heavenly Father either. But the thing about this parable, about our lives in general, is that there’s always a chance to change.
If Jesus died on the cross for our sins, if the second thief could turn to Jesus on the cross to repent, if the death of Jesus on the cross is part of our final adoption into God’s family, then mixed up in this glorious mystery is one final truth: what we do next matters the most.
Honor your father and mother today.
Forgive them for their mistakes.
Care for them in their need.
Care for the elders of the church.
Lift high those who have been neglected by others, who are left to fend for themselves.
Carry your family name, that of your earthly parents and your heavenly one.
May your parents be ‘heavy’ to you as you grow into the person you have always been intended to be.
For more on the Ten Commandments, check out Sean Gladding’s book, Ten.