10th March 2013


The Ten Commandments (5): “Happy families”

(Exodus 20:12)

Many of you will know that I often find signs either funny or annoying. For instance, when I see a notice saying, “This door must be kept closed at all times” I wonder how anyone can ever use it. When a temporary road sign warns, “Beware, deep excavation”, I ask why they can’t just say “big hole”. When a restaurant promises “complimentary” chocolates, I expect them to say, “Good morning, you’re looking particularly handsome today” as I open the box. When a traffic sign tells “drivers to use both lanes”, then that is clearly an instruction to straddle the white line in the middle – not that the drivers behind me necessarily appreciate that! And I have never taken up the generous offer to have my “cats’ eyes removed” at the roadside.

Another sign that makes me smile is one you see at supermarkets: “Parent and child parking” – you will notice that they are now carefully gender-neutral. For it seems to me that these signs are very ambiguous. First, I expect them to be filled, not with cars, but by dads looking after a couple of very bored children, waiting for mum to finish her shopping inside the store; I mean, if they intend parents and children to be parked there, then they should really provide some entertainment for them (you have to go to IKEA for that!) And, second, the signs rarely give any indication of the age of the children except in the so-called “small print”; so if I go to Sainsbury’s with my son Alastair (who will be 29 next month), then the implication must be that we can legitimately park in one of these spaces – can’t we?

Joking apart, we all know that today is Mothering Sunday and so I thought that it would be worth juggling around the order of the Ten Commandments we are currently studying to take the opportunity of looking at No.5: “Respect your father and mother”. This is an interesting commandment because it is the last injunction to “do” such-and-such a thing – the ones that follow it are all prohibitions, the ones which begin “do not”. It is also interesting because, as St. Paul rightly comments, this is a commandment which comes linked to an outcome: the Hebrews were told to keep it “so that their days might be long in the land that the Lord their God was giving them”. It appears that parental respect leads to longevity – we’ll come back to that somewhat amazing promise later on.

But before we go any further, I think we have to look carefully at precisely what this Commandment both does and does not say. Now, I am no Hebrew scholar; but every Bible version I’ve looked at translates this command as one which tells children to “honour” their parents rather than to “obey” them. I think you will agree that there is a vast difference between a command which tells children to “honour” their parents and one which simply says that they are to do as they are told! Now someone is going to chip in here and say, “But when Paul quotes this commandment in the New Testament, he does use the word “obey” – and they’d be right. That is a significant change; but whether it represents an interpretation of the commandment which developed over something like 15 centuries, or whether it is simply the result of translation from Hebrew to Greek, I do not know.

For “obedience” is surely the language of master and servant or tyrant and slave; it makes us think of status and authority and rules and the military parade ground. When someone gives an order, they are simply concerned with how well their command will be carried out. They will only take an interest in the person whom they are bossing around in order to check that they actually have the abilities to do the task concerned. There is no sense of relationship, of discussion, of mutual respect or concern or education. The only issue in focus is to see just how quickly and how high the individual being commanded will jump; nothing more. The person under orders is little more than a means to an end; their humanity is not fully acknowledged.

It seems to me that this reading of the Commandment puts an onus, not on the children to obey their parents “at all costs”, but for those parents to act in ways which earn their children’s respect. To put to another way, parents not only have no right to order their children around, expecting total compliance; they also need to gain the credibility which will make their children want to do what they are asked. That means that parents cannot behave like petty tyrants, expecting their children to kowtow to their every whim; rather, they have to be people who demonstrate integrity and love in every aspect of their lives. Children are very quick at sniffing out hypocrisy; which means that honour for their parents cannot be assumed but must be earned. As Paul enjoins parents: “Do not exasperate your children!”

This, I think, raises two questions. The first is to ask if children must obey their parents in absolutely every situation. Sometimes that may not be too difficult to answer, at least in theory: a minor should have the right to refuse to do something which is clearly illegal or dangerous. At other times the situation may be less clear-cut: for instance, should the Christian son of a Muslim father obey an edict forbidding him to go to church? Well, those issues do arise, but they are not the main one I was thinking of. For what I was really thinking about was what should happen if a parent behaves so badly that they lose their children’s respect. Does this Commandment still apply in such extreme circumstances?

Let me explain. Should a child (and by using this term I am not necessarily thinking of someone who is very young) still honour a father who has abused them sexually or been cruel and violent? Should esteem be given to a mother who has become the victim of alcohol and drugs and plays no part in raising her children? Should young people respect a parent who, they know, has made their money through criminality? These are not easy questions to answer, and must probably be thought through on a “case-by-case” basis. But we do have to remember that younger children, in particular, may have neither the maturity nor any practical possibility of making a “clean break” with their mother or father. In any case, breaking family ties must only an act of last resort, after every way of showing respect, honour and love has been tried and proved unworkable.

The other question really concerns the scope of this commandment: is there an age at which it ceases to be valid (which takes me back to those parking signs at the supermarket)? For instance, we probably expect a five-year old to obey their 25-year old parent more or less all the time (yes, I know that isn’t how things work in real life!) for the adult has experience of life and will use commands to keep the child from harm. But ten years later, when the child is a stroppy and hormonal teenager, things may be much more complicated and a degree of negotiation will be required; sometimes the parent will insist on obedience and sometimes they will back down. Ten years after that and the former child may be a parent herself – but she is still her own mother’s daughter. To what extent should the mother expect this adult child to do what she is told? Or has that time passed for ever?

Well, the relationship between an adult parent and their grown-up child (even if it is between “Old John” who is 90 and “Young John” who is 75) is obviously going to be different to the relationship that existed when they were younger. Yet I do there are parents and grandparents who find this hard to handle. I can understand why they may make the mistake of treating a teenager like the primary school child they once were: after all, they do grow up so quickly! But there can be no excuse for a parent infantilising or domineering their adult child nor for a parent seeking to fulfil their own frustrated ambitions through their children. Yes, an adult child should still honour and respect their parent; that requirement does not cease. But the entire relationship needs to have become more mature.

You will remember that I said that this commandment was unusual as it is linked with a promise, a promise that those who honoured their parents “would live long in the land”. One could interpret this in a rather superstitious way: that God would somehow cause obedient or respectful children to be healthier and safer than disobedient ones, that he would preserve them from the vagaries and perils of life. Well, I’m sure that some folk have understood the command like that; but I am not convinced by this interpretation as it seems to make far too crude a link between spiritual “cause and effect”. I just don’t think that it the way in which God acts.

Of course there is a rather more pragmatic reading of this promise, which says that, if you obey your parents, you are less likely to fall into the fire or drown in the well or stick your fingers into the electrical socket or dash across the road in front of a bus (not that those were issues for the ancient Hebrews!) And this idea can be developed into the more general principle that it is good for young people to learn from the wisdom and experience of their parents, to recognise that those parents will sometimes shout out “No!” for their own good. That is clearly a practical understanding of this promise: but does it honestly need saying at all? It seems pretty obvious to me!

So we need to go a little bit deeper. And, if we do, we begin to see that this command is actually saying something rather important about the well-being of society. For I believe that this command is not just concerned with honour and respect in small, so-called “nuclear” family units, but the position of “elders” and “seniors” in general. This is something which today’s Western culture would do well to note, as it is so often ignores the wisdom and experience of its elders who have learned in the “school of life”. Indeed, we could learn something from the supposedly primitive societies who value and cherish older people, rather than shutting them up in homes because they are a burden and have nothing left to contribute. (I know that is a cruel caricature, and that the caring children of ageing parents agonise over these decisions; nevertheless, none of us would deny that our society is too often obsessed with “youth” and pushes its older members aside).

Of course it is right to place great deal of emphasis on younger people, especially if we see them as the folk who will one day take up the responsibility of building upon the foundation which has been laid for them by their forebears. But we must never forget those earlier generations, our parents and grandparents, especially those who are still living amongst us. For a society that respects its elders and listens to their cumulative wisdom is a healthy society which, hopefully, will learn from the mistakes made by previous generations. And that leads me to conclude that this promise of long life for honouring one’s father and mother was not personal, but national.

I could say much more; in particular, how this attitude of respecting elders also applies to the Church – although each generation of the Church has to decide for itself what being a Christian means, a process will sometimes mean rejecting cherished traditions and even deciding to ignore the advice of those we love. But I would like to leave you with this thought that a nation (and, indeed, virtually any community from a single family upwards) demonstrates not only its well-being bur its faith in God by the way it treats its older members. God may not actively intervene to protect such a society; but it is one which will be sowing the seeds of its own long life and blessing.

That thought in fact brings me back to the very basics of these Ten Commandments. For they are all about our Creator’s guidelines to the way that human beings should live together: guidelines which may have been given to one particular race but which, I believe, can be applied to all people in every age – although the details of how that will be done have to be worked out afresh in every in every place and generation. And, more than that, these Commandments are about our relationship we can have to that same Creator. On this Mothering Sunday, will we honour, respect and – yes! – even obey God, our eternal and all-embracing Heavenly Parent? I sincerely hope we will.