Sermon: “Honoring Parents: It’s Complicated” (5th Word) July 23, 2017
Psalm 131: YHWH, my heart has no lofty ambitions,
My eyes don’t look too high.
I am not concerned with great affairs or marvels beyond my scope.
It’s enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet like a child in its mother’s arms;
My soul is as content as a nursing child.
Israel, rely on YHWH like a child, now and forever!
Deut. 5:16: Honor your father and 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.
Over the last weeks we’ve been working through the Ten Commandments, today we are on #5. You may notice that as we go along, they tend to get shorter with less commentary, but not necessarily less complicated to interpret for our lives!
I’d like us to step back for a minute and remember a few things we’ve talked about in regard to the Ten C: (1) The Commandments as a whole are about helping the people of Israel to become a moral community. Now that the people of Israel have been brought out of bondage, they’re trying to figure out how to live together as moral people in covenant with YHWH. (2) And so all the commandments in one way or another are about loving God and loving your neighbor. (3) We see a kind of flow with the Commandments, that they begin with a focus on God in the first 4, and then the movement is toward a focus on neighbor relations in the last 6. The form itself of these Ten, teaches us is that loving God is always connected to loving neighbor and loving neighbor is always connected to loving God.
So the 5th Commandment, “Honor your father and mother” is the commandment we are on today, and so we have now shifted to a focus on neighbor relationships. And we are starting close to home – literally – in the home, with family. Specifically, our relationship with our parents.
Our families, as we know, have tremendous influence on our lives. Our family shapes us – for better or for worse. Those of us who have been to therapy know that your therapist will at some point ask you about your family and your relationship with your parents. Why? Because of their great influence – for better or for worse. There really are no wounds that run so deep as those related to our family, there are few arguments that can be so bitter and lasting as those arguments we have with family. Some of the deepest pain and suffering we carry come from family. And our sources of joy, some of our fondest memories, our sense of safety and loving home, can also come from our parents. And all of these things – the good and the bad- are wrapped up in our relationship with our parents.
Considering the intimacy of these relationships and incredible power that our parents hold in our formation, perhaps it is not surprising that this relationship as addressed as one of the Ten.
And yet given the huge range of experience we have with our parents, interpretations will vary, and in fact need to vary in terms of what this commandment mean for each of us. What does it mean to honor your parents? YOU must reflect on that question, because only you have your parents!
Hopefully we will reflect on this question in conversation with others we trust and maybe even with our parents if they are still living. But ultimately we do have to respond to this question in our own particularity.
There are some important things to know about this Commandment that will hopefully help us as we interpret what it means to honor our parents.
First, it’s important to think about what “honor” means. And looking at the Hebrew word here does help us. Honor does NOT mean:
- Obedience to your parents – that you do what they say you should do.
- Jewish Sages have also pointed out that the commandment is not about having affection for your parents. In other words, you don’t have to have good feelings toward them or even like them in order to honor them. (we will talk more about this in a few moments)
The word is kabbed in Hebrew – translated as “honor” and it means to “give weight to” or “Give value to” something or someone.
In other words, “give value to your parents. Give weight to them.”
Second, the commandment is directed at adults. This is not a commandment for children. The commandment assumes adults are hearing this, it assumes that there is some distance created between you and your parents that you reflect on what it means to value them and give weight to them. Consequently, it means that the commandment has in mind adults who are asked to honor their aging parents. Aging parents in this context would be moving toward the margins in terms of their ability to be “productive” members of society.
And this bring me to a third point which is that this commandment is connected to the Sabbath command.
You may remember from last week we discussed how the Sabbath commandment functions in part to guard against our workaholism, and our identity being wrapped up in endless productivity and consumption. Most aging adults are entering a time of slowing down, and toward more Sabbath. (Some feel that they are pushed into the Sabbath kicking and screaming!) And so to honor aging parents is part of the Sabbath in that it is asking us value those who within our capitalistic society are not considered “productive” or “useful” members of society anymore. The commandment to honor your aging parents, works along with the Sabbath command: that our value, our worth is not tied to what we can produce and consume. Neither your value, nor your parents value is tied to their ability to produce. To honor your parents is to “give value to them” even as some of their abilities diminish. Being a moral community in covenant with YHWH is to value people not according to their productivity but according to their being human beings, beloved by God.
It’s important to acknowledge that times have changed in terms of what families look like today and how they looked in ancient Israel. We may have two mothers or two fathers, we may have a biological mother that we do not know well or at all, but we have an adoptive parent who raised us and nurtured us, we might have grandmother who became our true parent because our biological parents weren’t there for us or couldn’t care for us. Your teacher or coach or another mentor stepped in and functioned as our parent when our own parents failed us. There is room in the text for us to think broadly and deeply about who are parents are and what it means to honor them.
I also want to say aloud this morning, a word to those of you who have had to suffer abusive parents. I want to recognize you this morning. And I want you to hear this: The commandment does not ask you to honor abuse or the abuser in your life. Neither God nor the commandment asks this of you. Chris Hedges in his book on the Ten Commandments writes a short reflection on this and I’d like to quote him. He says: “Those who were abused, who wince at the name of father or mother, cannot be asked to honor the memory of the abuse or the abuser…We cannot undo abuse, but we can find a way to honor life, even [the abusers] lives, by turning that abuse into compassion not only for ourselves, which is necessary for healing, but more important for all who suffer. Those who take the experience of sorrow and the suffering and use it to lead a life of compassion, honor their parents, even as they rise above them.”
This is why it’s important to distinguish between “honoring” and “obedience.” If you did suffer abuse from your parents, you can bring honor to your parents by taking a different path than they did, by taking your suffering and using it to lead a life of compassion. When you lead a life of compassion and that is shown in turn toward your children, then you are bringing honor to your parents, honor to yourself, honor to God.
This week, I asked my Mom and my Dad and my in-laws –Heather’s parents – what it has meant to them to honor their parents. And what I found was that just asking that question and listening to their responses was meaningful and enriching to me. And maybe one thing I learned was what a great question to ask our parents! Every response was different, because their parents were different. And I also found it powerful to think about how our parents – mine and Heathers- are still thinking about what it means for them to honor their parents –even though they are no longer living. Heather’s stepmother Linda shared this:
My parents are no longer around to care for and love and so I see honoring them and their lives to mean being the best I can be at whatever I choose. ..Honoring them is to allow God to shine through my cracks and make things brighter…. I do believe that they would be both happy and proud of my passions and the choices that I am making in my life. By applying the lessons that they so lovingly (and often painfully) lived, is the best way to honor all that they gave me …their name, their character, and their love for others.
I hope I can pass on those lessons to Cooper and to anyone whose life touches mine. That is my prayer.
I give thanks for these stories. And I also want to give thanks for all of you this morning, who I know are often hard at work – in ways you may not even know –to honor your parents. Many of you in this room have aging parents or parents that have recently died. You’ve told me stories about how you’ve cared for them, visited them regularly, you’ve cleaned out their houses, and have spent hours going through boxes helping them get ready to move, you’ve helped them move into an assisted living facility and been with them in the pain of saying goodbye to the house you grew up in, you’ve loved them and listened to them, you’ve valued the stories, you’ve put sweat and tears into being there for them, and you carry their wisdom and teaching with you in the way that you are choosing to live your life. You have honored them. And for that we give thanks.
Chris Hedges’ quote on the front of the bulletin gives us powerful closing words on this day. May we remember that “each of us carry imprinted on our faces, like the mark of Cain, our origins, our link with the past, wanted or unwanted. We cannot wash it away. It is rather a matter of what we do with it, how we honor it, how we redeem the experience to protect and create life.”
May it be so.