Grimm’s Fairtytales includes a very poignant story that goes as follows:
“There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled. When he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and often 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 they made the old man sit at last in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his meagre portion of food in an earthenware bowl. He would to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears.
On one occasion his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him and bought 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 you and mom to eat out of when you are old."
Struck by what they had heard from their little son, the man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry. Quietly, without saying a word, they took the old man to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise saying nothing if he did spill a little of anything.”
Joy Davidman writes that the crudity of this fairytale helps to illustrate the what she believes is the naked and crude point of the 5th Commandment: Honour your parents, lest your children dishonour you. It is a stark conclusion to a thought provoking fairytale.
The injunction to honour and respect one’s parents and one’s elders is not unique to the 10 Commandments. It could be said to be a fairly universal cultural norm in almost al traditional cultures and societies around the world. My experience of African culture is that respect for one’s elders is really important. Parents and Elders in African culture traditionally not only command a lot of respect, but have a lot of power and authority in the family structure with most of this power and authority vested in the father, and in the extended family, in the most senior male figure.
In Tibetan society, which is dominated by Tibetan Buddhist thinking, honouring one’s parents takes on an interesting twist for it is the mother figure that is regarded with highest honour. Even in popular Tibetan culture, today, I understand that modern pop songs in Tibet are not about romantic love, as they are mostly here in the West, they are all about the love for one’s mother. This tendency is rooted deeply in Tibetan Buddhist thinking where all living creatures are regarded as having potentially been one’s mother in a previous life. From this perspective the Tibetan’s tendency to honour their parents, and especially their mother’s, flows out of a great debt of gratitude. Mother’s they would say deserve our highest honour because we owe them our very lives. When we were helpless babies we could not have survived without our mother’s care, attention and protection or learnt even the most basic skills of how to walk and talk.
But before we stray too far away from the 5th commandment itself, I would like to get back to it and firstly look critically at this commandment:
The first critical examination of this commandment comes again when we realise that in Deut 21:18-21 there is yet again a brutal and barbaric law that accompanies the 5th commandment suggesting that those who disobey the 5th Commandment should yet again be stoned to death.
In fact, I could have said the same thing about last week's Commandment to rest on the Sabbath, but it felt a little tedious and gory week after week to emphasize the same gory and brutal consequences for disobeying various laws contained in the 10 Commandments.
But it is difficult to avoid, and it is another reminder that the books of the Old Testament can’t be used as a neat and ready-made moral authority when it contains laws with consequences as barbaric and one could even say, as evil as death by stoning.
The second critical examination of this commandment comes in the form of criticism that this commandment does necessarily not foster loving, caring, mutually respectful family values. In fact it when read in the light of Deuteronomy 21, it commands unthinking obedience, regardless of right or wrong, under fear of being stoned to death.
If honouring one’s parents was originally conceived of in terms of unthinking obedience and unquestioned respect (as is the case for many traditional cultures), this would have been, and would continue to be very difficult especially for those whose parents may have been less than honourable and less than caring and nurturing, apart from the fact that it would stunt the full psychological growth of a child.
The Apostle Paul, in light of his new found faith in Jesus clearly had this question in mind when he was giving instructions to Christian families in the Church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 6 he first addresses children reminding them to obey their parents in the Lord. His first appeal is not because it is commanded by God, but because he says it is right. Only then does he mention the 5th Commandment and that it is the first commandment with a promise, that it will go well with you in the land.
But straight after, unlike the 5th Commandment, Paul addresses the parents as well… or more specifically fathers who would have held most of the power in the family. In verse 4 he says: Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger and in Col 3:20 he adds “...lest they become discouraged.”
Paul in these passages is beginning, I believe, to make a few baby steps forward. He has clearly come to learn from his own experience of the love of Christ, that truly loving relationships require some degree of mutuality, even between parents and children. It can’t just be that parent-child relationships have only a one way responsibility, but if parent-child relationships are to be truly loving, it requires not just children honouring their parents, but also that parents should in some way be honourable and loving in the way they treat their children. Truly loving relationships do indeed require mutuality.
This is quite a major new insight that Paul has come to. Certainly in Roman culture, father’s had absolute power. Carol Ashby describes the power as follows:
“The paterfamilias (father) had the power to tell any of his children to do something, and they were required to obey him. He had the power of life and death over all except his wife. He had the right to kill his child of any age... the right to decide whether a newborn would be allowed to live or would be exposed to the elements to die, and the right to sell his children into slavery. It was not uncommon for an unwanted or defective baby to be exposed. Although it was legal, killing one’s children after infancy was generally frowned upon without extreme provocation.”
Writing to Gentile Christians in Ephesus and Collosae who were part of the Roman Empire, Paul’s small movement towards mutuality and love in family relationships would probably have been received by most as something quite revolutionary even if his writings were only baby steps in the direction of truly mutual and fully mature loving relationships.
In closing, I would like to leave us all with the question: What might it mean for each of us today to honour our mothers and fathers? For each of us our answers might be different. For some it might mean wrestling with what it might mean to honour parents who are still alive, and how to live and engage with such parents in ways that are hopefully truly loving and mutual. For others it might raise questions for how one might honour parents who are growing frail and who are becoming more and more dependent in the twilight of their years. For some it might mean wrestling with how one lives in healthy relationship with parents who may not have been the best parents in the world. Possibly distant, manipulative or even abusive? For others it might mean honouring the memory of a parent who is now deceased. What might it mean for you?
As the apostle Paul says, the 5th commandment comes with a promise: “That is may go well with you in the land”. I wonder if that could also mean, “...That you might live with a sense of well-being, peace, and love in you heart?”
What in your own unique circumstances might it mean for you to honour your mother and father, that you might live with a deep sense of well-being, peace and love, that you may live long on the earth.