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Our Nearest and Dearest Neighbors

San Williams

July 17, 2011
Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16

07-17-2011 SermonHonor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord is giving you.

Jan and I have a framed print depicting the Ten Commandments.  The illustrations for each commandment resemble those antique Sunday School posters some of us remember.  The picture for the commandment to honor father and mother shows a little boy helping his dad rake leaves while the young daughter sweetly hands her mother a bouquet of flowers. As this picture shows, we typically think of the commandment to honor father and mother as being addressed primarily to younger children. 

Well, while honoring our parents applies to children of any age, biblical scholars agree that this commandment is primarily directed to adult children with aging parents.  So let’s draw a different picture to illustrate this commandment.  In our minds, picture adult children who have come to that stage of life when our parent’s health begins to fail and they can no longer take care of themselves.

Such a re-orientation of the fifth commandment is actually more consistent with the overall thrust of the Ten Commandments and with biblical teaching in general. As you know, the Bible repeatedly draws our attention toward the most vulnerable members of society—the sick, the poor, the disabled, the hungry. While our neighbors are any people in need, the commandment to honor father and mother suggests that our parents are our nearest and dearest neighbors.  After all, they are the first humans with whom we have contact, and the ones to whom we are most closely identified genetically.  No wonder, then, that neighborly love includes—and even begins with—our parents especially when they become frail and vulnerable.     

And what does that word “honor” imply?  Surely it has a broad meaning, implying respect, affection, caring for physical and emotional needs, and so on.  In his book on the Ten Commandments, Patrick Miller tells us that the Hebrew word that’s been translated as “honor” literally means “to make heavy.”  In other words, our parents’ welfare is not a matter we can take lightly.  In God’s eyes, the care children give to their aging parents is a weighty matter, not one that can be easily dismissed or cast aside. 

Now, while we can all appreciate the moral weight of this commandment, we are also aware of the issues it raises. It’s a sad fact that not all children have loving parents. In some cases, abusive parents have even misused this commandment to demand obedience and submission to the parents’ destructive use of authority. Think, for example, of the street youth who populate our UPC neighborhood and meet each week in our building.  Many of them have suffered parental neglect, abuse and even abandonment. Many have been shuffled from one foster home to another until they aged out of the system.  What does this commandment mean to them?

Or think of countless others whose experience of parental love is at best complicated and at worst non-existent.  A teacher of biblical studies who struggled with this commandment because of his own experience with abusive parents wrote, “From my…work with the Hebrew of Exodus 20, two facts are clear to me: the first is that honor is not a synonym for obedience, and the second is that the Commandments are not addressed to children.” Surely we can accept the weight of this commandment, while at the same time acknowledging the troubling issues it raises for many.  

But for most of us, honoring our parents is a welcome task, even though it isn’t always easy.  As I look out at the congregation, I’m aware that more than a few of you are currently involved in caring for aging parents.  Some of you have been through this stage of life and still others will one day be confronted with this weighty matter. As many of you will confirm, parenting our parents can be one of life’s most difficult transitions, one that often creates confusion, guilt and fear. Think of the teenage son whose dad takes him out on a country road, tosses him the car keys and patiently teaches him how to drive a car.  Then the day comes when this same son has to turn to his dad and say, “Dad, we’ve taken away your car keys.  You can’t drive anymore.” Or imagine how emotionally wrenching it is for adult children to sit in the house where they grew up lovingly cared for by their parents, and have to  say, “Mom, it’s time to give up the house.  It’s simply not safe for you to live alone.”

Add to this the challenge of negotiating the complicated, murky worlds of medical care, housing options, scheduling caregivers, financial stress, sibling conflicts over care-giving decisions, and so on.  These and countless other matters may arise when we are called on to honor our aging parents. Loving any of our neighbors is challenging.  Loving our closet neighbor, our own parents, is no exception. 

Yet interestingly enough this is the only commandment that includes a promise:  “…and you shall live long in the land I am giving you.”  This commandment implies a reward for those children who care for their parents in their later years. One aspect of this promise is simply the cyclical nature of love. The love we give tends to be the love we get back.  If we model how to love and care for our parents in their old age, our children will learn from us and become our caregivers. In her book, Smoke on the Mountain, Joy Davidman begins her treatment of this commandment with a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm:

“Once upon a time there was a little old man.  His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware distressingly, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth.  Now he lived with his married son, having nowhere else to live, and his son’s wife was a modern young woman who knew that in-laws should not be tolerated in a woman’s home.

“I can’t have this,” she said.  “It interferes with a woman’s right to happiness.” So she and her husband took the little old man gently but firmly by the arm and led him to the corner of the kitchen.  There they set him on a stool and gave him his food, what there was of it, in an earthenware bowl.  From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking at the table with wistful eyes.  One day his hand trembled rather more than usual, and the earthenware bowl fell and broke.

“If you are a pig,” said the daughter-in-law, “you must eat out of a trough.”  So they made him a little wooden trough, and he got his meal in that.  These people had a four-year-old son, of whom they were very fond.  One suppertime the father noticed his boy playing intently with some bits of wood and asked what he was doing. 

“I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling up for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while and didn’t say anything.  Then they cried a little.  Then they went to the corner and took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.” 
(Smoke on the Mountain, 60-61). 

Generally speaking, the honor we give to our parents will come back to us. The blessings we give will be the blessings we receive.   

Friends, the Ten Commandments represent God’s desire for human well-being.  They are intended to bring us into a loving relationship with God and with all our neighbors.  May God give us the grace and the strength to love our neighbors as God has commanded beginning with our nearest and dearest neighbors—our mothers and our fathers.