Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.

By Jean McCurdy Meade

Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. — Deuteronomy 5:16.

After the first four commandments, which teach us how to worship the one God, the Lord who brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt and is leading them to the Promised Land, this is the first of the six commandments addressing how we human beings are supposed to treat one another. It is significant that this first duty is to our parents; each of us must honor them both. The directions in all the commandments are given in the second person singular — the thou, thy, and thee pronouns that we rarely use in modern English but which are the standard informal and singular usages in many modern languages such as Spanish, French, and German. Our duty to God and to our neighbor is first of all personal, not corporate. There are three major points emphasized in this commandment, and a conclusion for Christians regarding its implications.

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This commandment establishes a centrality to the family, within which honor is to be given to one’s father and mother equally. Whatever patriarchy can be seen in the Old Testament stories and laws, God considers the mother of equal standing with the father in the family. Far from the Roman idea of the pater familias who had complete authority over his wife and children, the Hebrew teaching is that male and female are equally created in the image of God, and thus equally reflect that image in creation. Together they are to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, which is the very first commandment in all Holy Scripture. The children born of their fruitfulness have this commandment to honor them both equally.

Furthermore, it is significant that there are two commandments out of ten that have to do with family life. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” commands us to take the honor we owe our parents and give it to our spouse when we leave our father and mother and cleave to our husband or wife to establish a new family.

“Honor” translates the Hebrew word kabod which is the same root as the word for “heavy.” Interestingly, the word is not “love.” Why not, we might ask, since most children do love their parents and most parents love their children? Perhaps because “love” as commonly understood is an emotion and an attitude, and thus not enough for a stable home — parents must demand honor and respect and children must give it to them or the home will be in chaos much of the time. Parents who are determined to be primarily their children’s friends and refuse to discipline and teach them are neglecting their duty out of sentimentality.

And although a son or daughter perhaps cannot “love” abusive or neglectful parents, they can still honor them for bringing them into the world.  The philosopher Hobbes wrote that children love their parents primarily because they did not kill them when they were weak and helpless! That is what we might expect of one who wrote that life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short.” But having these commandments from God reforms the state of nature; under the commandments our life in nature is directed by God for good. Whether or not a given person can love her parents, she or he can still honor them for cooperating with God in bringing her or him into this world.

This is the first commandment with a promise, as St Paul reminds the Christians at Ephesus. The promise is long life in the land — life and land are both gifts from God to his people.  We all want to grow up, and so listening to our mother or father say “don’t eat that poisonous thing,” “get away from that cliff,” “don’t hit your sister, “watch out for snakes,” and so on, is the first and best way to literally survive childhood. But of central importance as a child grows to adulthood is learning to honor God as our parents teach us by precept and example. The first church, or temple, is indeed the home.

And what of the land? The commandments were first given so the Israelites could know how to live in the new land they were about to enter. No longer slaves or nomads on the road in tents, they were going to a place to call home where they were going to build houses and plant trees. That is a natural human longing, and God knows we all need a family to live with in that home. A family is not a group of like-minded friends but a hierarchy, with parents, like the abbot or abbess in a monastery among vowed celibates.  The church was conceived as a new family by Jesus himself: “who are my mothers and brothers and sisters but those who do the will of my Father in heaven?” (Matthew 12:50).  “There is no one who has given up family for the sake of the Kingdom who will not be given fathers and mothers and sister and brothers” (Luke 18:29).

Finally, Christians extend this commandment to honor God as our Father because Jesus did that and taught us to do the same. By doing so he honored Joseph and all fathers who care for their children. Thus our understanding of the “God of our Fathers,” one of the names in the Torah for the Lord that Jesus came to reveal in his life, death, and resurrection, is enlarged to call God “Our Father” and even the familiar “Abba.” And we also honor Mary of Nazareth as the “Mother of the Church,” the spiritual mother of us all, for her willingness to undertake the mission to which she was called, to bring Jesus to human life by conceiving and carrying him in her womb, nurturing him when he was little, weak and helpless, and then raising him in in a human home with Joseph as his human father.

Jesus honored his father and mother, being obedient to them after his stunt staying behind with the elders in Jerusalem when he was twelve. When he began his ministry he performed his first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee at his mother’s behest, and with his dying breath commended her to the care of his beloved disciple: “Woman, behold your son… Behold, your mother,” forming the new family of the church.

So at the hour of his death Jesus formed the new family of believers of which he had preached: “who are my mothers and brothers and sisters but those who do the will of my Father in heaven?” “There is no one who has given up family for the sake of the Kingdom who will not be given fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers in the Kingdom.” Those who follow Jesus, no matter what our human parents are like, can forever honor God the Father of Jesus as Our Father and Mary his mother as our spiritual mother, the Church.

The Rev. Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest of the Diocese of Louisiana.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jean McCurdy Meade is a retired priest of the Diocese of Louisiana, formerly the Rector of Mount Olivet Church, New Orleans. She resides now in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, as well as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and New Orleans.

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