Respect for Parents

Ten Commandments - 5

Respect for Parents

The Relevance of the Fifth Commandment

(Exodus 12:12)

The Bible’s relevance to life is very apparent in the fifth commandment. Illustrating the importance of leading by example, it shows that the way we treat our parents is how our children learn to treat us. In this message, given at St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 18 October 1998, Rob Yule deals with the foundational social relationship of parents and children.

A Grim Tale

Once upon a time there was a little old man. His eyes blinked and his hands trembled. When he ate he clattered the cutlery, his spoon missed his mouth, and he dribbled food on the tablecloth. Lacking anywhere else to live, he lived with his married son, but his son’s wife was a modern young woman who knew that in-laws oughtn’t be tolerated in a woman’s house. ‘I can’t have this,’ she said to her husband. ‘It interferes with my right to my personal happiness.’

So she and her husband took the little old man by the arm and led him to a corner of the kitchen. There they put him on a stool and gave him his food in a crockery bowl. From then on he always ate in a corner of the kitchen, blinking at the bench with sad eyes.

One day his hands trembled more than usual, and the crockery bowl fell to the kitchen floor and broke. ‘If you want to be a pig,’ said the daughter-in-law, ‘you can eat out of a trough.’ So they made him a wooden trough, and from then on his meals were served in that.

This couple were fond of their four-year old son. One meal time the young man noticed that his little boy was playing with some bits of wood. ‘What are you doing, son?’ he asked the child. ‘I’m making a trough,’ he said, looking up for approval, ‘to feed you and mummy out of when I get big.’

The man and his wife looked startled, but didn’t say anything. Then they began to cry. They went to the corner of the kitchen, took the little old man by the arm and brought him back to the dining table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate. From then on nobody scolded him when he clattered his cutlery, spilled his food, or broke the crockery.

One of Grimm’s fairy tales, this story has the crudity and simplicity of old times. The modern method would be to pack Grandpa off to a geriatric hospital, where his senile dementia wouldn’t disturb the tidy house and busy lives of his family.

Lead by Example

‘Honour your father and your mother’ (Exodus 12:12). Here is the commandment parents want me to expound to their kids. But it’s really a commandment for parents. It calls us to lead by example. How we treat our parents is how our kids will treat us. If we want to be honoured by our children, we must set them an example by honouring our parents. Our parents may be deceased, but we can still honour their memory. Some of us may never have known a father - like my wife, whose father walked out before she was born - but he too, vagabond that he was, can be spoken of with respect. Experience is the best teacher. Children learn by modelling how to treat us. Your child’s experience of how you treat your aging parents is their best lesson in how to treat you, when the process of growing old catches up with you.

‘Honour your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land.’ To care for elderly parents is to invest in your own future security. The fifth commandment is surprisingly relevant to the current debate about superannuation and retirement provision. It predates the welfare state by millennia, before there was a welfare net of any kind. The Grey Power movement hadn’t been thought of, and the grey were often regarded as an economic liability. This commandment ensured that the elderly would be cared for, throughout the generations, in ancient times and today.

The importance of this commandment, however, extends beyond social welfare to the very welfare of society itself, because the family is the basic unit of society. Just as a body’s health is dependent on the health of its cells, so the vigour of a nation, the body politic, is directly related to the health of the families that make it up. The parent-child relationship that this commandment speaks of is the foundational relationship of society.

A noticeable feature of the fifth commandment is its reciprocal form. It encourages us to do something, so that something might be done to us. It is a specific example of Jesus’ Golden Rule, ‘Do to others, as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12). The basic principle here is that if we want our children to honour us, we must set the example and honour our own parents. It points to the importance of modelling in the learning of moral behaviour. For better or worse, we learn by what we see and experience. How we were parented is how we in turn will parent our children.

Considerable attention has been given recently in our own society to the observation that dysfunctional families produce dysfunctional children, and that, unless broken, this cycle becomes an ongoing one through the generations. A recent Family Life Conference Christene and I attended mentioned an American study of the family of a particularly notorious nineteenth century criminal, and noted how many criminals, murderers, rapists, prostitutes and drunkards there were through the succeeding generations of his family. By contrast, the large family of Jonathan Edwards, the famous minister and theologian of the New England Revival in the eighteenth century, and his remarkable wife Sarah, produced many United States senators, college presidents, ministers, doctors, lawyers, missionaries, and spouses of such leaders. For good or ill, our model of parent-child relationships is passed on through the generations. To secure our family heritage we must honour our parents. When we dishonour and neglect them we squander our heritage.

I am the oldest child of a family of eight. I left home when my youngest brother was only two. Despite so little shared time at home, what has held our extended family together over the years has been the ‘tribal holidays’ that my parents would organise in the summertime, often hiring an old campsite to make it possible for so many of us to assemble in one place. Right up until my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary our scattered extended family has gathered from all over the country to share these gatherings, the cement which binds our family together. We are glad to make the effort to travel the length of the country for such reunions, because we all know, instinctively, how much Dad and Mum have sacrificed themselves for us.

Family Breakdown

The breakdown of family ties which is such a marked feature of the modern world is very largely the result of industrialisation. In pre-industrial society the family was necessary for economic survival. The family was an economic unit, and every member, even the children, contributed their labour to the economic viability of the home. There used to be dozens of activities that bound parents and children together: rearing sheep, spinning wool, weaving cloth, making clothes; growing trees, cutting timber, gathering firewood, making furniture; planting crops, harvesting produce, bottling fruit, brewing cider; learning trades, reading books, making music, having family devotions. The old taught the young and were respected by them. The young honoured the old for their knowledge, yet were also valued as being useful members of the household in their own right.

Now most of this creative work has been taken away from the family and placed in factories. Even on farms children are now no longer really valued as workers contributing to the family income. There are few bonds linking children to their parents. The speed of change is mind-bogglingly fast. In agricultural times, what a man knew was of use to his son. Now, in the age of information technology, the son probably knows more than his dad by the time he turns twenty one. So family bonds are under acute stress. Children are viewed by parents as an economic liability. Parents are viewed by children as dinosaurs from a bygone age. If ever there was a time when we needed to honour our father and mother it is today. The fifth commandment is a social necessity if our culture is not to implode in a meltdown of dysfunctional families. Those who’ve known little love when they were small are unlikely to show much love when they grow big.

At the heart of the fifth commandment is the need to care for parents in old age, to protect them when they can no longer provide for themselves and become an economic liability. This is just as relevant today as it was when God thundered it to the Israelite tribes at Sinai. In our selfish, hedonistic, pleasure-seeking society people who are economic dependents - whether they be children, the elderly or the socially disadvantaged - are increasingly seen as an impediment to our economic freedom and personal happiness. I predict, as the debate hots up over whether we can afford national superannuation, as the ratio of retired people to working people increases into the next century, that there will be increasing pressure in our society to view the elderly as an economic liability. This commandment enshrines our foundational duty to protect them, to honour our father and mother, and to care for them on into old age.

Fatherhood and Motherhood

This commandment can also be applied more generally, for it reminds us that nothing can replace the love and guidance of a father and mother. Schools, churches, community organisations, youth groups, sports clubs, childcare facilities, government welfare programmes - none of these can ever take over the crucial role that parental love plays in developing personality, nurturing character, and forming people of emotional stability . The joys of home and family life are irreplaceable. This commandment therefore means that we must not only honour particular fathers and mothers; we should also honour fatherhood and motherhood.

Many New Zealand fathers struggle with the responsibilities of fatherhood, they avoid the role of nurture and example, they leave family life and the upbringing of their children to their wives, while they are busy working at the office or socialising with their friends. Is it any wonder that so many women have adopted a radical feminist denial of motherhood, when they have been left to carry the burden of parenting alone. Who can blame women who, when left by selfish men to an enforced solo parenthood, have rejected motherhood, and with it something essential to their own femininity and to their heritage of family life. Fathers, your children are immensely more valuable to you than making money or a name for yourself. Mothers, your caresses are as important as your careers. Your boss might thank you in the weekly staff meeting; but your children will sing your praises for generations!

The term ‘honour’ used in the fifth commandment is a noble and exalted term. To honour is to ‘prize highly’ (Proverbs 4:8), to ‘show respect’, ‘glorify’ or ‘exalt’. It is a much broader term than ‘obey’. It is a word used frequently in the Bible to describe how we are to show respect to God, and is akin to worship, yet here it is applied to parents.

This points to the mystery and privilege of parenthood. The Bible recognises that the quality of parenthood we experience while growing up is crucial for forming an adequate understanding of who God is. Parents are visible representatives of God, ‘from whom’ (as Paul says in Ephesians 3:15) ‘every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.’ Similarly, the promise attached to this commandment speaks of an extended life in the land given to us by God. The phrase ‘so that your days may be long in the land’, found chiefly in the book of Deuteronomy (6:2-3, 11:9, 25:15), not only refers to chronological extension of time, but indicates the rich blessing which comes to a society that keeps God’s ways.

In some deep and mysterious way the family is bound up with faith in God: the two are interdependent The Marxists knew it, and tried to undermine the family. The devil knows it, and would try to destroy the family. Would that we too knew the importance of family life, and would invest more time and effort to enhance it.

Rob Yule
18 October 1998

© 1998, St Albans Presbyterian Church,
Palmerston North, New Zealand