Ten Words to Live By

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The fifth word to live by is not simply a rule to keep children in check. This word to live by, just like all the others, is directed to believers of every age. So, the charge to honor our mother and father is aimed at adults also.

What does it mean to honor our mother and father?
To honor means more than demonstrating sentimental feelings. The word “honor” literally means to give weight or heaviness. To honor someone then means that we take them seriously.

That sort of honor may run against the grain in our culture. We find it easier to not take parents seriously. We laugh at parents. We lampoon parents. [Simpsons comic.] Marketing to teens and adults contributes to the myth that the older generation doesn’t understand. Or that older people are cranky and crabby. [Maxine comic.] The jesting and the marketing isn’t malicious, it just silliness. No one is supposed to be hurt by it. No one is supposed to take it seriously ... and there is the problem.

A little jesting and silliness isn’t the only way to dishonor mother and father by not treating them seriously. Locked up in our cultural mindset are certain stereotypical assumptions about what parents or grandparents ought to be. These are flat, simplistic assumptions. Sentimental concepts of “mom and dad” are a way of disregarding the fact that our parents, of any age, are real unique individuals with their own histories and needs. The danger of these assumptions is that they could become an unrealistic expectation. Likewise, to be overly sentimental can lead adult children to patronize their aging parents. It’s good to take parents as they age, but to pat them on the back as kindly old folks who mean well but have outlived their usefulness is dishonor.

When, for any reason, we fail to take our parents seriously, we dishonor them. And that becomes a problem not simply for our parents, but it infects our culture and community with some very negative values ...

The Brothers Grimm – 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 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 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.

We can teach our children how to honor us by the way we honor our parents. The fifth word to live by is foundational to teaching us how to live as a community of believers. The remaining words tell us how to live with one another. The foundation of all these words is the first word about God. The next layer of the foundation is the word to honor our parents.

Learning to live as a community with generations side by side is not easy for us. The way we structure our social life and our home life doesn’t encourage our sense of legacy and community. Politics and marketing tends to pit the needs of one generation against another. [I recall having a conversation with a elderly man years ago. I was delighted to see interest rates falling because it meant that my young family could begin to think about buying a house at a reasonable rate. But the older man was disappointed and worried because it meant that his savings and investments that represented his life’s work were barely earning enough to sustain him.] And those sort of imbalances are see-saw options are what we have in a society in which we see ourselves first and foremost as individuals.
When we regard ourselves ultimately as individuals and do not take our connections to others and other generations seriously, then we may see ourselves as members of a group, but we don’t find it very difficult to disconnect, withdraw, neglect, or push away others.

It is because this fifth word has implication for all of the community that we do not get a pass on honoring parents because they are not very honorable. A word of caution here – we do not want to interpret this word as saying too much - it is not a bludgeon for parents to use to demand authoritarian obedience, neither is there a loophole for those whose parents are bad parents. Honoring parents – that is treating them respectfully and seriously – is how we learn to be community – even when that isn’t easy ...

Honoring our parents teaches us that we are vitally connected to one another in bonds of community that are not so easily cut. For instance, it is a fact that you cannot divorce your parents. You can disagree with parents, you can reject them, neglect them, disown them, ignore them, but you cannot divorce them. I have a friend who has such bitterness toward his father that when we married he left behind his father’s family name and adopted the name of his wife’s family. I don’t criticize him for that, it was something I am sure he needed to do. And even though their relationship may change, his father is still his father and changing his name doesn’t alter that reality. There are all sorts of difficulties that come up between the generations, between children and parents. Our interactions within the home are where we first learn how to interact with community. The sooner we learn to take one another seriously and honor one another the better we will be able to live as community.

God spoke these ten words to live by and attached a promise to this fifth one. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. God’s timeless vision sees his community of people across time as well as space. This fifth word just gives us a glimpse of how we can see things across the generations. We need that sort of vision. It would serve us much better than our narrow focus as individuals on the here and now. Our limited vision convinces us that the crisis and anxiety of today is the way it always has been and the way it always will be. When both old and young have that sort of view we turn inward and get selfish and don’t think of the ability that God has given us to bless one another across the ages.

[Story attributed to Paul J. Meyer] – Once upon a time long, long ago there was an old country chapel that had been a part of the community forever. The worship house had been built by the community over 200 years ago. But now the roof began to leak and was the beams were starting to collapse. Many feared that they would have to take down the old chapel. They didn’t want to. They loved it. But they didn’t know how they could repair it. Then one day, the original plans for the chapel were found. They included instructions on repairs. But more than that, the plans included a detailed note and a map explaining that a forest had been planted nearby. In this forest the future generation would find a specific type of tree now matured that the original designers recommend for fashioning new support beams. The people who followed the map found the trees planted there in neat rows just for them by a generation that had lived 200 years before them. They set about repairing the chapel – not for themselves, but to honor their fathers and mothers.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 28 October 2007

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