We’ve come to the fifth commandment this morning. First, God gives the four commandments that focus on the nature of God and our relationship with him. Now we see the fifth commandment that comes directly after that. What is the nature of our relationship with our family? It’s almost as important as our relationship with God.
After the fifth commandment will be the description of our behavior within a broader community or tribe but this relationship – family – is central to our lives and the life of our community. That is why it follows immediately after the first set of commandments. There can be no society without strong families and there can be no strong families without children who are instructed and disciplined. I think we can see the proof of that all around us. Children with no fathers. Children on their own. Orphans. Latch-key kids. Child centered homes. All of these are indicators of how important this commandment is for our whole society.
It is important to understand what Scripture means by honor. The Old Testament took honor and obedience seriously. In fact, there were situations where a child (probably a young adult) could forfeit their lives for cursing or dishonoring their parents. In Exodus 21:17 and Deuteronomy 27:16 we read that anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. Other passages talk about the consequences of a thoroughly rebellious person. The Bible is serious about honor and respect for parents. Without these there is chaos.
We can read in the papers today about honor killings that are the result of a family being shamed by the behavior of a child – mostly women and mostly in the Middle East. In Pakistan alone there are over 1,000 honor killings every year.
“The family is viewed as the main source of honor and the community highly values the relationship between honor and the family. Acts by family members which may be considered inappropriate are seen as bringing shame to the family in the eyes of the community. Such acts often include female behaviors that are related to sex outside marriage or way of dressing, or even being raped. The family loses face in the community, and may be shunned by relatives. The only way the shame can be erased is through a killing.”
Typically these killings are carried out by family members and the victims are thoroughly dishonored by torture, gang rape and beatings before being killed. This is what shame does. But, it is not honor – or honor as God defines it.
The root word for Honor is the same as that used to describe the glory of God. It means weight or substance. It is actually something we earn by being honorable and for which we should be worthy. It says that God is worthy of honor and glory. He has that by virtue of being honorable himself and having the right to receive honor. The commandment assumes that the parents will have earned the respect and honor of their children. The children are not slaves. The children are not equals. But the parents are not obligation free.
Let’s look at the way Paul handles the commandment in Ephesians 6:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
This is part of Paul’s long discussion about relationships that begins with the premise of “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That is the basis of the relationship. We adapt to each other. Husbands and wives. Children and parents. Slaves and masters. The entire relationship is built on appropriate submission out of reverence for Christ. Not fear. Not shame. Not power or force but out of reverence for Christ.
What is the promise? If you are obedient to your parents out of reverence for Christ you will have a long life in two ways. First, the Old Testament passages probably meant you would not forfeit your life because of your rebellion and that rebellion jeopardizing the well-being of the tribe. There is also a second meaning for a “long life” and that is the quality of life. Learning to obey and honor early in life leads to a different kind of life than constant rebellion. The quality of life for people who respect others is different from those who never learn those lessons. People who learn respect for parents learn respect for themselves and for others.
Obedience is not an end in itself. It is like what we talked about a couple of weeks ago. It is playing the scales. It is keeping up the basic skills. It is not the end but the means. What is the purpose of obedience and discipline? It is always maturity and wisdom. Paul says in Ephesians 4 that all the gifts are given “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
The Old Testament proverbs are about becoming wise – not just prosperous. And that wisdom does not come by revelation. It comes from parents. It is passed along through generations by real people.
Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction;
pay attention and gain understanding.
I give you sound learning,
so do not forsake my teaching.
For I too was a son to my father,
still tender, and cherished by my mother.
Then he taught me, and he said to me,
“Take hold of my words with all your heart;
keep my commands, and you will live.
Get wisdom, get understanding;
do not forget my words or turn away from them.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
love her, and she will watch over you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom.
Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
Listen, my son, accept what I say,
and the years of your life will be many.
I instruct you in the way of wisdom
and lead you along straight paths.
When you walk, your steps will not be hampered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
Hold on to instruction, do not let it go;
guard it well, for it is your life.
My son, pay attention to what I say;
turn your ear to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight,
keep them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them
and health to one’s whole body.
Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.
I think that is why Paul’s instruction to the children is followed immediately by his instruction to the fathers. “Do not enrage your child”. Do not make it impossible for him to learn wisdom from you. Do not be so harsh that you create a permanent anger that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
I don’t think we can calculate the amount of harm that has been done in the world due to children who grow up angry and that anger controls them. The life defined by anger is dangerous not only to the person but to everyone around them. It is more than being undisciplined. It is lethal. The whole basis of ISIS is the ability to attract angry young men who have no understanding of real honor – only shame and loss of face.
Every destructive leader you can name has been, I suspect, motivated by anger, resentment and shame. The importance of finding the balance between discipline and harshness has monumental consequences and that is why Paul always comes back to our relationships with each other being based on reverence for Christ and not pride or privilege. Shame and shame-based culture creates and fuels anger and destruction. True honor brings life.
It is important to understand the difference between shame and guilt because we want our children to know when they should feel guilt. Guilt says, “I have done something wrong.” Shame says, “I am a bad person.”
Guilt is the ability to know you have broken a rule.
Brene Brown: “Shame is feeling you are worthless. Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Here’s what you even need to know more: Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”
People with a healthy sense of guilt can repent and change. People who have been shamed as children become narcissistic bullies who can only shame other people and attack them personally. They don’t feel guilt but only shame. They can never truly feel a sense of worth.
But for most of us here this morning it is not a matter of training our children in the Lord. I think the question is really how do we as parents and grandparents be deserving of honor from our adult children and grandchildren? What does it mean for our children to honor us now and for us to be honorable?
I think the commandment not to be harsh is relevant even now. I was reading an article on the effects of narcissistic parents on adult children and it is a continuing curse on the children. Even when they are grown and moved away the parent keeps tight reins to make sure that everything is done for their happiness. They continue to invade and break down the boundaries. Even as adults the children suffer from a parent whose standard is, as one writer puts it, “You’re only as good as I say you are, and you’ll be loved only if you’re fully compliant with my wishes. Simply put, it’s truly heartbreaking for the child – though the narcissistic parent is sinfully oblivious.” The harsh parent is often far more interested in their own happiness and satisfaction than the life of the adult child – and it continues to create anger far beyond childhood.
Parents who want to be honored by their children keep growing toward maturity themselves. They keep adding weight to their lives. The empty nest does not mean a life devoid of growth or just waiting for the kids to come home.
They continue to be examples not just for the early years but for the balance of their children’s lives. My father and I were asked to speak together and the topic was, of course, fathers and sons. For my part, I talked about the difference between growing up in the shadow or growing up in the shade of a strong personality. There is a distinction – in the one your growth is stunted and in the other you are protected.
The second thing I talked about was my continuing expectations for my father as he became old. My expectation of him was that he would finish well and not fail his family and friends. My first expectation was he would stay married to my mother. It’s easy to begin to excuse the behavior of your parents and to feel badly about having high expectations for them but I think having expectations for parents is part of our deal with them.
Our children don’t stop watching us when they turn twenty-one. We don’t stop being examples when they leave home. In fact, I probably learned more from my parents after I turned thirty than I did growing up. It’s like reading Shakespeare. Even though we are made to read it when we are young there is no way we can understand it. Unfortunately, we never read it when we have enough life experience to really get it. For example, which of us had enough life experience to understand “King Lear” and his relationship with his daughters and the desperate attempt to pass off responsibility without giving up privilege? Which of us understood his sonnets? Think about these words. How could we have understood them when we were reading them for the first time?
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
It would have been easier to just say I am dissatisfied with my life compared to others.
It is the same with our kids. They should always be “re-reading” us because our lives and the things that shaped us cannot be understood or valued when they are young. Just as coming back to a work of art or literature later in life reveals worlds of new meaning, so discovering the lives of your parents does the same – especially if they continue to grow.
Don’t give up being a parent to become exclusively a grandparent. It’s easy to overlook our children and their lives – to look right through them to our grandchildren. They are continuing to grow and we want to be a part of that.
Think about your eulogy and not your resume. I take this phrase from David Brooks who spoke at The Gathering this year. You can listen to and read the whole talk on the website (www.thegathering.com) but the difference between what he calls the eulogy virtues and the resume virtues are these. They are what he describes as the Adam One and Adam Two virtues.
Adam One is the external résumé. Career-oriented. Ambitious. External.
Adam Two is the internal Adam. Adam Two wants to embody certain moral qualities to have a serene, inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong, not only to do good but to be good, to sacrifice to others, to be obedient to a transcendent truth, to have an inner soul that honors God, creation and our possibilities.
Adam One wants to conquer the world. Adam Two wants to obey a calling and serve the world. Adam One asks. “How things work?” Adam Two asks, “Why things exist and what we’re her for?”
Adam One wants to venture forth. Adam Two wants to return to roots.
Adam One’s motto is “Success.”
Adam Two’s motto is “Charity. Love. Redemption.”
So the secular world is a world that nurtures Adam One, and leaves Adam Two inarticulate.
And the problem is that I have learned over the course of my life that if you’re only Adam One, you turn into a shrewd animal whose adept at playing games and begins to treat life as a game.
You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to a moral purpose that gives life worth. You settle into a sort-of self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you. You approve of yourself as long as people seem to like you. And you end up slowly turning the core piece of yourself into something less desirable than what you wanted. And you notice this humiliating gap between your actual self and your desired self.”
Finally, accept the responsibility and obligation of wisdom. That is your role. Remember I said that wisdom is passed on. It is not revealed. It comes from parent to child and our role now is to be a source of wisdom and to understand aging is a gift and not a curse.
As you know, I love Wendell Berry’s writing. Here is what he says in his poem “No Going Back”.
No Going Back
No, no, there is no going back.
Less and less you are
that possibility you were.
More and more you have become
those lives and deaths
that have belonged to you.
You have become a sort of grave
containing much that was
and is no more in time, beloved
then, now, and always.
And so you have become a sort of tree
standing over a grave.
Now more than ever you can be
generous toward each day
that comes, young, to disappear
forever, and yet remain
unaging in the mind.
Every day you have less reason
not to give yourself away.
When my father died in 2007 we were asked to say a few words at the service. As I’ve told you before he had reserved the bulk of the time for his own remarks he had recorded on a video. However, I had a few minutes and this is what I read. I hope it is what my children can say when the time comes.
“Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who finds great delight in his commands.
His children will be honored everywhere;
for good men’s children have a special heritage.
Wealth and riches are in his house,
and his good deeds will never be forgotten.
When darkness overtakes him, light will come bursting in.
He is kind and merciful – and all goes well for
the generous man who conducts his business fairly.
Such a man will not be overthrown by evil circumstances;
He will have no fear of bad news nor live in the dread of what may happen;
God’s constant care of him will make a deep impression
on all who see it.
That is why he is not afraid,
but can calmly face his foes.
He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor,
his righteousness endures forever;
he shall have influence and honor.”
Honor given and honor received. That is the promise.