11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon August 16, 2015
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
“WHAT ABOUT HONORING PARENTS?”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
It was just over 20 years ago. I was helping hear the first confessions of a bunch of second graders at a Catholic school. Now let me assure you that hearing the first confessions of second graders is not terribly exciting ministry. One hears a lot about fighting among siblings and getting mad at parents. But one of the confessions that day stayed with me.
A young boy came into the room where I was hearing the confessions. He said it was his first confession. I tried to help him feel at ease by welcoming him. Then he began: “I confess I ducked when my mother swung at me!” I told him in no-uncertain terms: “Son, you keep ducking!”
Now, sisters and brothers, this may appear a humorous start to our exploration of the fifth commandment but it is also an unnerving beginning. I wanted to tell that young boy his mother had no right to take a swing at him regardless of his behavior. I wanted to tell him he had every right to duck. I wanted to tell him that the commandment about honoring parents did not mean he had to take whatever physical punishment might come his way.
Let’s take a closer, deeper look at this commandment. The Hebrew word for “honor” is kabed.This word means “be heavy” or “give weight to.” A correct translation of the fifth commandment would be: “Take seriously your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
In the context of the Fifth Commandment, it might help us to be aware of further Mosaic teaching on the subject of parents in the next chapter of Exodus, chapter 21, verses 15 and 17: “Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death … Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.” Serious stuff! I wonder how we might understand the Fifth Commandment in light of such Biblical mandates. Something else for us to consider!
Let me bring to us some thoughts from Rabbi Shai Held: “Some teachers of the Law argue that the mandate to honor parents is, at bottom, a command which protected parents from being driven out of the house … after they could no longer work. (The Fifth Commandment) is not primarily directly to children … but has in mind how mature adults are to treat their older and elderly parents.”
So the fifth commandment directs adults to take one’s parents seriously. It surely does not state: “obey your parents.” Yet how many of us were raised with such a mistranslation? I can still hear my mother telling me I had to obey her because that’s what God commanded.
And so – when I went to confession as a child which was fairly often – disobeying my mother and/or my father was always on my list of sins – as well as fighting with my twin brother. I’m not sure what sins I would have otherwise committed. I was a pretty good kid – even if I do say so!
But the misguided idea that God commanded me to obey my parents was seriously troubling to me. I’ve mentioned this before … many times when someone would call our home – my mother would tell me: “Say I’m not here!” Even as a child I knew this was wrong.
But I was caught on the horns of an ethical dilemma. I knew it was wrong to lie. Yet I was also told over and over that God commanded me to “obey” my mother and father. So what to do? On a number of occasions I responded: “My mother said to tell you she’s not here!” I’d say this sotta voce – in a soft voice. I knew if my mother heard me – I’d have a serious price to pay!
You see, brothers and sisters, my mother as well as my father unfortunately believed in beating their children. I suspect they may have been corrupted – as so many are – by that damnable quotation: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” This quotation has some links to Proverbs 13:24: “Those who spare the rod hate their children.”
But here’s the problem with this notion: the rod is not an instrument for beating children. The rod is more specifically the shepherd’s staff – meant for guiding sheep – not for beating them. No shepherd worthy of the job would beat sheep. But guide them? Yes, of course, shepherds must guide sheep. The staff is used to point the sheep in the direction they are to go.
Sisters and brothers, the quotation, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is not found in the Bible. It comes from a 17th Century poem by Samuel Butler. But regardless of its origins – this sentiment has caused terrible damage within many families. Of course, many parents parent in the same way they were parented. If they were beat as children, they often beat their own children. It is a vicious cycle of abuse and violence.
Sisters and brothers, let me say something sweeping – something which may sound overstated – but I don’t believe it is. I believe much, if not most, of the violence plaguing our world arises from people who were abused – beaten - as children. One need only read the writings of the Swiss psychotherapist Alice Miller to come to appreciate the suffering and terrible damage born into our world by parents beating their children.
As Miller writes in one of her final books, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting: “I have come to the conclusion that individuals abused in childhood can attempt to obey the Fifth Commandment only by recourse to a massive repression and detachment of their true emotions. They cannot (possibly) love and honor their parents because unconsciously they still fear them.”
I recall a few years ago when I was being interviewed at WVON radio station, 1690 AM, on the Mark Wallace show. We were discussing violence. I brought up the problem of physical abuse of children. I don’t recall any longer the context of my comments.
Mr. Wallace, however, made it clear he believed it was alright to discipline children by beating them. Basically he said that he was beat as a child and he turned out all right. He said the “whuppings” were for his own good. What terrible thinking!
Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous deception. I can stand here before you this morning and say: “Well, I was beaten as child. I lived in fear of my parent’s anger – but I turned out all right.” But the reality is I didn’t turn out all right.
Something essential to my life is missing. There is a hole deep within me caused by my abusive upbringing. This hole can never be filled – this hole can never be healed – this side of the eternal touch of the Almighty.
Something very crucial to a well-lived and well-loved life escaped me because of my constant childhood fear of my parents’ anger. And so – I stand before you today – and beseech – beg - every parent here and every parent everywhere: In God’s name, do not hit your children – do not beat them!
The damage you do by hitting your sons and your daughters is very serious and very long-lasting. Such misguided parenting generates adults who too often become frightfully lost in life. Such adults often harbor deep disrespect for their own bodies and the bodies of others.
Brothers and sisters, in all my years of ministry and in all my years of counseling, I’ve never come across a person who was undamaged as a result of parents’ hitting. And, of course, hitting is physical abuse. It is an assault. Today a parent can be arrested for hitting a child. And, I believe, any parent who hits a child should be arrested. Any adult who hits a child should be arrested. Any adult who hits a child is, frankly, a poor follower of Jesus Christ.
Yes, children are unruly. Yes, children are, not surprisingly, childish. Yes, they need discipline. Yes, children need the firm guidance offered by loving parents and family. And I have a handout on the proven best way to discipline children. No good – no good whatsoever – comes from hitting and beating children. The Fifth Commandment in no way sanctions such bullying or cruelty!
So – what exactly – does the Fifth Commandment call us to do? It calls us to treat our parents with seriousness, to “give weight” to our parents. Recall at the time of Moses – there was no social security. There was no Medicare. Who would take care of people as they grew old and feeble?
And as I’ve already mentioned, the Fifth Commandment has almost nothing to do with children at all! It’s about us taking their elderly parents seriously. It’s about us doing our best to care for our elderly parents. It’s about us treating those who no longer can because of age or infirmity with respect and dignity. However, the Fifth Commandment is not about pandering for an inheritance; it is about having compassion for the elderly.
I took this Fifth Commandment seriously as my own mother became old and frail. I would visit her a few times every week. I would do most of her laundry. I would do most of her shopping. I grew in my compassion toward her because of all the time I spent with her. But, sad to say, the barriers erected during childhood were never completely broken down.
Brothers and sisters, what might Jesus have to say about the Fifth Commandment? Listen to Matthew 10, verses 35-37: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me …”
And again from Jesus in Matthew 12: verses 47-50: “Some told Jesus, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you. But to the one who said this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said: ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”’
In other words, according to Jesus, according to the Gospels, those to whom we are related by DNA bloodlines have no over-riding privilege to our souls than those to whom we are related by faith. What Jesus is saying is that – as his disciples – we are to honor God and honor those who serve God. This is where our primary relational responsibility lies.
Look around you this morning, brothers and sisters, we are also your family! This is what Jesus teaches us. We can, of course, disregard his teachings. We can erroneously say that the Ten Commandments are more important than the Gospels. But we would be wrong!
Yes, by all means, give weight to your parents, honor your parents when they are worthy of honor! Care for them if you can! Be gentle and compassionate with them as they advance in age and become frail! But do not forget the mandates of the Gospel! Our faith family is bound together with something more important than DNA bloodlines! Let us always live in the power of this Gospel truth! Amen!
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister