This month I’ve been thinking about the Fourth Commandment, Honour thy father and thy mother. At first glance that seems straightforward. It could be translated as ‘Be quiet and obey your parents’. In most cases that would be good advice (speaking as a parent). However, life is not always so straightforward. What if you are an orphan? Who should you honour then? Logically you would be required to honour your legal guardian or those in authority over you. So it’s not just about father and mother then.
The implication is that we should honour those in authority. What if those in authority, even parents, are not a good influence? We surely should not obey in matters that are wrong. So honour is not simply a matter of obeying. Did you always just obey your parents or did you question what they told you? I certainly questioned things and sometimes my questioning led me to a better understanding of what was right and sometimes it raised issues questioning our assumptions.
Now, honour is not a term we normally use. What exactly is meant by Honour in this commandment? It certainly implies deferring to our parents or those in authority over us. But it also tells us more about our relationship with our parents as we get older. It’s not only children who should honour their parents adults are also under this obligation. The nature of honouring our parents changes as we become independent of them. As parents get older their children take on responsibility for looking after them.
This can take the form of dropping in to see that they are doing okay, helping with tasks that are now beyond them and generally looking out for them. This will just seem normal behaviour to many of you who have family fussing over you or even bossing you about. I used to imagine that all families behaved in this sort of way but recently I have begun to see things differently.
There seem to be lots of stories of children being abused or even killed by family members, even parents. Surely if children have to honour their parents the other side of the coin is that parents must love and honour their children. I was disturbed by an item in the news recently about a child who had killed a small boy. He is an adult now and finds himself in trouble for having indecent images. It made me wonder how a child could develop into someone who could do terrible things. I can’t believe that he was born with a terrible urge to do harm. What happened to that child to cause him to be the person he now finds himself to be?
Are we now becoming a people who regard children as a possession rather than someone who has been given into our care? Medical advances have given us the ability to make choices we never had in the past. Embryos can be frozen to be implanted when it is convenient. We may soon be able to choose the design of the baby by genetic engineering.
We have seen cases of marital breakup where one parent has killed the children so that the other parent will not have them. These are examples of people in desperation. They are not behaving as they would in a normal day. However we see examples of people in famine ravaged countries walking for days without food and water in the attempt to find help for their child. We see parents sacrificing their own lives to save their children. Now those are desperate situations. Where have we gone wrong?
Perhaps the wording of the commandment is misleading. It could be seen as putting the onus on the child to be obedient. Have we lost sight of the implication that to be honoured the parent must first be honourable? If someone in authority is to be honoured then they must first be honourable. If a government passes a law which is morally wrong we would not be expected to obey it. Parents teach their children by example. If parents do not act in an honourable way then that’s how the children will learn to behave.
When I think about it I realise that this is not a commandment about children or about parents. This is a commandment about family. The vision encompassed in it is of a traditional family unit with parents and children and the extended family too. The relationships between the family members and their responsibilities are fairly well understood. But the traditional family is fast becoming a thing of the past. Lots of children are now growing up in different sorts of families. There are single parents taking on the responsibilities of both father and mother. There are split families where children live with two separated parents and other less conventional units too.
Where a family is split up as a result of infidelity where is the example of behaving honourably? Where there is acrimony in the breakup what pressures are put on the children? People today are pressured into thinking about what is best for ‘me’. We are constantly being urges to look better, dress better and be more successful. That is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when these things are taken to extremes that we get trouble. If I’m persuaded that doing what’s good for me takes priority over everyone else then that is a problem.
A lot of this is about selling us stuff. We should buy this shampoo because we are worth it. We should drive this car because it creates the right impression. The other night I saw and advert on television where a man declares that he has begun to ski; spend kid’s inheritance. I suppose it’s meant to be funny but it has a serious side. What do our children inherit from us? Money is the least of their inheritance (it will be in our family anyway). Our children inherit attitudes and values that will be with them long after they have spent the cash.
Today it’s all about promoting ‘me’. Christ’s example to us is one of putting us before Himself. He died on the cross to save us and showed us that we too must put our family before ourselves. That was my experience in growing up. As a parent bringing up children in a house I was able to buy and able to provide them with simple luxuries, I was compelled to wonder at how my parents managed to provide for us in the way they did. They did it by putting their children before themselves. They left us an example of how to be a parent, an example I struggle to equal.
So the commandment that I initially thought was really quite straightforward turns out to be nothing of the kind. If these commandments really are God’s guide to happiness then the fourth is the one that brings happiness to everyone involved. Selfless parenting results in children whose attitudes and values will stand them in good stead to face the difficulties in life. Strong family units will tend to produce a society based on honouring and respecting each other. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?