The Command to Honor Your Father and Your Mother

The Command to Honor Your Father and Your Mother

The fifth commandment is “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

The context of the Exodus story is concerned with future generations remembering the miracle of liberation. It is written with an invitation for children to marvel at the way God creates a people from scratch. You find phrases like “when your children ask you” and “from generation to generation” scattered throughout the narrative. The fifth commandment instructs the young, yet mature, adults with aging parents to honor their mothers and fathers so that their lives in the land will be long.

The word “honor” is kabad. It means the same as the old hippie expression, “heavy,” which meant serious. The Hebrew word actually means “heavy, gravity, importance, significance, to be taken seriously.” It is the polar opposite of qalal, which means “lightness, slightness, and insignificance.” These polar pairs are often used in the same sentence in the Old Testament. God honors (kabad) those who honor Him but despises (qalal) those who treat Him in contemptible ways.

To take the parent seriously and to respect the gravity of his or her presence could mean several things. Primary among them in the Exodus context is to listen to the stories he or she tells. The parents have seen the activity of God and are shaping the next generation by telling the stories. There were no personal blogs, Instagram accounts, or YouTube channels in the wilderness. As they circled waiting for a generation to die before entering the Promised Land, the stories were being buried along with the parents.

Unless the young respected the words of the dying generation, the narrative of the God who brought His people out of the land of Egypt would be soon forgotten. Unless they listened to the stories and understood their weight, they would soon be rootless nomads without history who did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

Defining Our Identities

Honoring the parent also has something to do with identity. In America, we define ourselves as individuals. Our cultural definition of a person would be I am an individual, distinguishable from you. I make choices in line with my ruling desires.
 I enter relationships that are meaningful to me.
 I seek out experiences that are relevant to me.
 I am not obligated to you unless I choose to be, and you have no right to expect anything from me unless I give you that right. 
I am responsible for myself, and myself only.

Does something about that definition seem a little off? Maybe our definition of a person is all wrong.

In the Bible, a person is identified not by his or her separateness from others but by his connection to others. An Israelite is a son or daughter of Abraham. Saul is named as one who belongs to the tribe of Benjamin. Covenants unite people and give them their identity. Personhood is not our radical difference from each other but our radical belonging to one another.

The biblical definition of a person would be, I am a child of God. 
I belong to the parents who birthed me.
 I belong to the people of God by baptism. I exist as a body in a body. 
I take interest in the lives of my brothers and sisters.
 I seek to be faithful to the ones I love and the ones who love me.
 I am obligated. People have the right to expect certain things of me in light of the covenant that exists between us.
 I cannot think of myself apart from them. 
I am a new creation of God by way of the narrative of liberation.

To take our parents seriously, to honor them, is to recognize that our own identity is rooted in them and that our very name, body, and breath are their doing. Bonds of this sort are the kind of rope that can tie a family, a clan, a community, a people, and a nation together. It’s no wonder the commandment suggests that those who honor the parents in these ways will live long in the land. In a nomadic world, the clan would be strong, the stories formative, the ground holy, the bonds sacred, and the land passed down from generation to generation.

If parents can be easily dismissed or discarded, then we each define ourselves without the vote of our ancestral history. Our self-made story eliminates and trumps all previous ones. It’s as if nothing important ever happened until we came along. We take credit for our successes while blaming our parents for all our failures. The past has no claim on us. Our parents do not live on in us. They are insignificant, weighing almost nothing, and our bond to them is certainly not heavy.

The Fifth Commandment and The Exile

It may be that the second context of the commandments, the Babylonian exile, has even more to say in our understanding of the fifth commandment. Could it be that the people find themselves in exile because they stopped listening to their parents?

They forgot who they were. They developed amnesia for lack of a formative history. They lost their guiding narrative. They cannot get home because they have forgotten the way. They are no longer living long days in their land but are slaves once again in another’s land.

Exodus is being recalled to remind them of the basic structure of covenanted life that got them through a wilderness into the Promised Land. They must gather the elderly, listen to the stories, and remember their God who hears the cries of exiles. This is the way back. The commandment calls upon them to cease all action that denigrates the elderly parents.

When we view life as something that can be discarded, especially the lives of those who give us our identity, we are on a dangerous path; we are on the way to exile. If our elderly parents can be easily dismissed, how much easier does it become to dismiss life in the womb, the poor on the streets, the starving in other countries, the imprisoned, the dying? Once we learn the art of dehumanizing the sacred creatures of God, we have little time left as a bonded community. Some power will seize us and treat us as we have treated each other. And who is left to care when everyone is looking out for self?

Today’s post is an excerpt from Dancing with the Law: The Ten Commandments.

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