The rabbis teach that it takes 3 forces to bring a life into the world, a mother, a father, and God. Honoring our parents honors God the Giver of Life. Hear the fifth and sixth commandments. “Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:12-13).
Kabad is The Jewish root word for honor, meaning “be heavy” or “give weigh to.” There is a gravitational pull, a weighty obligation, towards those who gave us the gift of life. Conversely, the Hebrew word for curse is “to treat lightly.” The fifth commandment instructs us to honor our parents, treat them as valuable, ascribe weight to them, acknowledge your obligation as heavy, and carry them one day if they become a burden.
My grandparents didn’t have electricity until my mother was 16 years old. The farmhouse began as a one room log cabin that, over the years, had four room additions, improvements like siding and plaster. The warmest room was in that old log cabin living room next to the wood burning stove. There was a comfortable rocker by the fire that the children fought to occupy in the dead of winter. However, as my Grandmother Clackie began walking toward the living room my grandfather would click his tongue against his teeth as if guiding a dog or Mule – get up child. If the child did not heed his gentle command, Grandpa Ark hushed an easy “Child, get out your mother’s chair.” Around age seven my mother tossed her lovely reddish hair, batted her blue eyes, and grinned an impish grin to see if through cuteness she might woo away the seat of honor. Her father leveled his eyes and with a firm “girl,” sent mom skedaddling out of the rocker- leaving the throne for her mother.
Honor is seen more in actions than feelings– vacating a prized seat, holding a door, standing when they enter a room, smiling, making eye contact, extending a hand, waiting your turn, tipping a hat, biting a tongue, listening to the same story, raising your hand, holding a hand, yes ma’am-ing, no sir-ing, thanking, blessing, and offering to help. Honor ascribes to a parent their proper place. Some rabbis define honor as “seeking to preserve the dignity of the parent”.
Honor your parents is a commandment – a religious duty – a moral necessity. It stands near, “you shall not murder”. Both commands preserve life. Our souls die a little when we take our connection to our parents lightly. When we forget those nourished our lives we drift into a narcissistic hollowness. When we forget those who gave us life we may forget who we are.
Now let’s address 3 misconceptions about our moral duty to honoring life.
1) The fifth commandment does not say obey your parents. The apostle Paul adds a new word, not used by Jesus, to refer to the fifth commandment. Paul uses the word “obey, with the qualifier “in the lord,” which is implied in a similar Colossians passage.
Children, obey (listen to, attend to, hearken to, open the door to, submit) your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a blessing—so that it may go well with you…. Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the discipline and pathways of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-2, 4)
When I was 16, through the grace of God, my father observed me driving my car in a way that did not honor my life or the lives of other motorists. When I arrived back home my father greeted me at the back door with an open palm commanding “give me your keys”. I protested “It’s my car”, meaning I had purchased it with the money I earned delivering papers from 4:30-6am every morning. Unimpressed Dad growled “You can’t afford the insurance” gesturing for the keys with his open palm. I surrendered the keys. Dad turned and simply hung them on their normal peg, but somehow there as a qualitative difference. During super Dad never spoke of my offense a full measure of his displeasure a silent parole board! My best friend called asking “what are we doing Friday?” I whimpered “I don’t know but we are doing it on our bicycles”
Dear teens and children, obedience is the Biblical norm provided you are kept safe and your parents are acting somewhat “in the Lord”. You owe a debt of obedience at least until you are able to pay your own way and are no longer draining their resources. When you do fully pay your own way, you have racked up a pretty substantial food, lodging, daycare, night nurse, counselling, education, and entertainment bill! Be grateful for the roof over your head!
The original fifth commandment is not to obey but to honor – to give weight to your relationship, to treat it as heavy. That leads to a question: can we disobey a parent and still honor them? Can we say “no” with dignity and respect?
In Mark 3, Jesus entered a house to teach and heal. The crowd grew so large that it was impossible for Jesus and his followers even to eat. No Jewish mother could stand to see her child not eat. Mary struggled to understand why Jesus was giving himself away so fully as to not even have time to eat. No mother could embrace Jesus’ self-giving that culminates in the cross! When his family heard what was happening, they came to take Jesus away from the crowds saying “he is losing his mind” (Mark 3:20-21). Here is an intergenerational conflict that many of us might identify with. How does Jesus respond to the wishes of his mother? Jesus does not go with his family; we do not learn when Jesus next eats a nice meal. Jesus keeps on doing the will of God by ministering. Jesus does not do the will of his mother. On the cross, Jesus thinks of and honors his mother saying to her “mother behold your son” and to John “son behold your mother,” entrusting the beloved disciple with the care of his mother.
2) The fifth commandment does not say to be subordinate, inferior or less, but to treat parents with deep respect.
Jesus elevates the role of children. “One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so that he might bless and pray for them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering the master. “When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, ‘Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13-16)
3) Indeed , the commandment does not say love or like your parents. The Bible commands us to love God, love neighbors, and love strangers. Nowhere does it tell us to love our parents. Agape love means offering redemptive goodwill, so surely we are to offer that to our parents, but the Bible does not command a sentimental love. It commands honor. Honor is not about feelings, but about actions ascribing respect, deference, and dignity to others. Honor is less about feelings than action. Honor is rooted in our actions. Honor is not a feeling.
When I was maybe 25, I sat on my parents back porch listening to dad’s two younger sisters share stories of their terrifying childhood. I sat in shock well past midnight. Dad listened, comforted, but hardly spoke a word until after “the Girls” retired. Dad and I sat another hour or more absorbing.
Growing up, we were never emotionally close to my father’s father. Once a year, we traveled to Kansas to spend a few days with Papa and my dad’s step-mother. Mom tells how when we were young kids visiting Papa’s, she pulled us into a little room and declared “no matter what happens tonight you will not laugh at the dinner table.” Evidently, our childlike behavior the previous evening deeply upset my step-grandmother. So now mom was banishing us to silence with stern warnings. We sat down at the table in fear: mom scanning our little cherub faces for any encroaching giggles. My grandmother, who seemed like a tyrant the night before, laughed and smiled. I realize now she was chemically enhanced. She sat down at the table, pulled out the Sue B Honey jar and chortled, “Boys watch this!!” She put honey on rocket-shaped red cap of the squeezable plastic bottle, placed the bottle between her outstretched hands and smashed her hands together forcefully, shooting the honey dipped cap rocketing towards the 12 foot ceiling. The cap stuck to the dining room ceiling like a red lunar lander. My grandmother squealed hysterically. My brother and I sat avoiding each other’s gaze and trying to suppress our laugher all while considering mom’s stern lecture “no matter what happens don’t laugh.” Mother cried inside and tried to conjure up our laugher, but “no matter what happens do not laugh” stuck. Dad in his wisdom took us all out to diner the next night.
I have no words to tell you how deeply I admire my father for honoring his troubled father. First Dad took a vow deep in his soul to never to lay a cruel hand on us. He never did, breaking a cycle of abuse. I think it would’ve been morally acceptable if Dad had never gone back home. However, empowered by deep faith and a loving partner, Dad did not abandon his pretty lousy father. Dad’s offering a sort of undeserved dignity to his father propelled Dad into kind of a role model to all his younger siblings. I will never forget after my father’s funeral, how his surviving siblings toasted Dad – naming him with loving stories as a righteous beacon guiding their journeys. Dad inched all his life toward a deeper inner peace with his unpleasant past – through the moral power of doing the right things. It is a strong person who vows never again, unclenches his fists, folds his hands in prayer, looks the oppressor square in the eye and so powerfully turns the other check that the adversary is disarmed and a cycle is broken. My father had the strength to love (offer redemptive good-will) one who perhaps deserved dishonor.
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Christians and Jews view the family as the basic building block of a civil society. Perhaps you agree? Honor may be the key component in a harmonious family, maybe more valuable than affection. Honor, not love, is God’s commandment for the family! At home, one learns best to hold a door, smile, listen, say grace, pat a back, make eye contact, extend a hand, tidy up, help out, wait your turn, tip a hat, bite a tongue, raise your hand, hold a hand, say yes ma’am, no sir, thank you, atta boy, you can do it, give me a minute, please, bless you, and to offer help.
Honoring is not reserved for the family.
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10). Honor everyone….Honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:17). So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12).
Today, our world tilts towards rude self-absorption while teaching that honor is earned. If honor must be earned then all social relationships begin in debt and dishonor. If honor must be earned then the clerk must prove themselves worthy of my politeness. When honor must be earned we withhold our respect until the person earns our respect- such a world cultivates dishonor and rudeness. The Bible prescribes a different ethic “Honor everyone….Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Made in the very image of God, everyone deserves basic respect.
There was a great article in the New York Times about the impact of the incarnation upon the world. “The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image… we have value because God values us… human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; he is a God of wounds. All of this elevated the human experience and laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights. …. We Christians would do well to remind ourselves of the true meaning of the incarnation. We are part of a great drama that God has chosen to be a participant in, not in the role of a conquering king but as a suffering servant, not with the intention to condemn the world but to redeem it. He saw the inestimable worth of human life, regardless of social status, wealth and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin. So should we.” Peter Wehner: “The Christmas Revolution”, NYT, December 25, 2015
Everyone has sacred worth. We can honor people we disagree with and even dislike. I get disheartened when religious folks speak harshly about the president, senators, professors, teachers, judges, coaches, officers, elected officials, pastors, lawyers, doctors, reporters, business leaders, and other public servants! Is it not strange that church people blast leaders and lament the fraying of our social fabric? Friends, we are weaving the social fabric. If Christians fail to offer an alternative to our current crassness, rudeness, shamelessness, individualism, anger, outbursts, and meanness, then who will teach our children to respect their neighbor and honor the emperor?
I surely cannot promise that your seeking to honor others will change your world. It might take a critical mass. Your polite driving may not end road rage. We need a revival of Christian decency, honor and respect for everyone. Will you teach honor? Practicing everyday honor might not even change your family or your colleagues, it likely will, but honoring others will always change you into an honorable person.
Jesus bestowed honor on others. He spoke to the thief on the cross. To a woman excluded from church from 12 years Jesus ascribed her a tender title, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you” (Matthew 9:22 ). Oh to be on the unclean margin and be named daughter! When Jesus encountered the rich young ruler, who will not follow him, Mark tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21). About to face the hypocritical religious institutions and corrupt government leaders that will take his life, Jesus looks over the city and laments “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers, comforts, and shields her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matthew 23:37). At the cross and his trial Jesus will set a silent example. How did some of us grow so angry? How have we forgotten our own unworthiness? Let us show honor and respect even to enemies. Let us teach our children and each other to respect leaders, themselves, and everyone else. Let us honor everyone and become honorable people.
Will we be like Jesus – honoring others as people of sacred worth?
Will our words ascribe unearned dignity to everyone, even an unelected occupying emperor?
Will we honor parents and grow honorable?
Will our actions bring honor, dignity, and respect to everyone and grow dignity within ourselves?
Friends we are weaving the social fabric.
Shine dignity . Tie family bonds with strong, sacred and weighty knots. Scatter respect into conversations and actions. Measure others remembering that we are all made in the image of God. Revive respect. Mind manners. Honor everyone. Let us weave a respectable social fabric! Practice honor and become honorable. Amen!