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Honor Your Father and Mother

Old timers talk wistfully of that day when rebuke from a teacher in school was followed by a scolding at home. The fourth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” with Luther’s explanation adding “others in authority” to the list to whom honor was due, governed most homes. Those days are now but a memory.

We can trace honor’s demise to critiques by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and a time when honor was linked to medieval chivalry and inequality, when the rule of law was weak, a time before professional military and law enforcement bodies existed and honor was the moral governing force necessary for family and community survival.

Honor codes endured and were unspoken rules that for decades kept women “in their place,” African-Americans at the back of the bus, and abuse by those in authority under wraps. The social changes in the 1960’s accelerated what Hobbes set in motion, opening the window to much needed fresh air and reform. “Honor,” we discovered, had hid from sight many serious personal and social failings.

Hobbes replaced honor with his “social contract,” promoting the virtues of individual rights and healthy competition, a benefit to all.  At its best, the “social contract” heeded these words of Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

We needn’t abandon the fourth commandment, instead let’s dust off its collected cobwebs and hear its wisdom for today. A quote (erroneously) attributed to Mark Twain helps us understand the 4th commandment: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Our mothers gave us our first experience of God. As infants we were totally dependent upon mother’s love and care. God was tangible and present through mother’s touch, hands and arms.

By age 14 we were testing limits, we’d become headstrong and obstreperous, and resistance became our modus operandi. Mom was no longer a god, she had become our nemesis, our adversary.

Maturity arrives when we recognize our parents, both mom and dad, as humans, as beloved people from whom we’ve received and learned much and from whom much more will come. We then understand the fourth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). We honor our parents by learning from their failings and feasting on their wisdom.