“Honor your father and your mother,
so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” — Exodus 20:12
o, how is the preacher going to scare up a 15-minute sermon on something so patently obvious, right? Well, you would be surprised. Or maybe you wouldn’t.
Honor your parents: it’s not exactly a provocative or controversial piece of advice, is it? Who’s going to argue with that? Especially here. There are many exceptions, of course, but by and large our kids have this one down, don’t they?
One evening when my son was a junior at Greenwich High School, he and his friend Bobby came over to my house to do some huge project for AP Psych class. It was in April during the dog days of the second semester; the semester had started back in January when it was four degrees and wouldn’t be finished till June when it would be 90. They’d been working in Michael’s room for a couple of hours when I looked in on them, and they were both fast asleep on the floor.
Bobby was taking about five AP classes; how many can you take at once? He was taking that many. He played third singles on the high school tennis team, and was also competing on some USTA travel team. He had a small part in the spring musical. He was a madrigal. He had a serious girlfriend who wanted to see him in person once in a while. His grandfather, his mother, two uncles and an older sister had graduated from University of Pennsylvania; getting into an average college like Middlebury was not what Bobby’s family expected of him.
Bobby was exhausted. He looked as if he was a Navy Seal who’d just survived Hell Week. Except it was Hell Semester. Honoring his parents was almost killing him. I’m sure some of his drive came from self-motivation, but a lot of it came from honoring the long family tradition. For the most part, The Fifth Commandment is not our particular issue, is it?
Still, there are a couple of things to notice about The Fifth Commandment. First of all, notice that here, we have moved from the God Section of the Law to the Neighbor Section, from the divine tablet to the human tablet, from the Law’s vertical dimension to its horizontal; how to treat each other.
And notice further that “Honor Your Parents” is the first of that Neighbor Section. That’s no accident. “Honor God above all,” was the first of the God Section; that’s no accident either; keep God first and all the rest fall into place by themselves. Love God and do as you please, said Augustine. Everything works out from there.
Likewise, with the Neighbor Section. Honor parents first, and then the rest will follow. What I mean to say is that we learn to flourish and we learn to be good neighbors from the moment we start stumbling on untried feet away from mom and dad toward the lit burner on the stove or the electrical socket on the wall or the cute skunk in the backyard.
We learn to be good neighbors and citizens at our momma’s knee when she teaches us that we did not make ourselves and others know more about the world than we. Every subsequent authority figure will be Daddy Redux to us in later life. Every teacher, every crossing guard, every coach, every police officer, every boss, every mayor, governor, and president will be in loco parentis—a parent in place of the parent. We all learn first how to be good citizens at our Momma’s knee. Or not.
The second thing I hope you’ll notice about the Fifth Commandment is what happens to it in the New Testament, after a thousand years of thinking about it. In the New Testament, the Fifth Commandment gets both an extension and a limit.
I will explain. In the New Testament, the Fifth Commandment gets an extension. It gets a coda, a completion, a twin commandment. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord,” writes St. Paul to the Church at Ephesus, “Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right…And parents, do not provoke your children to wrath.” Paul reminds his Ephesian families that this coin has two sides. Parents deserve respect, because God has given them a divine vocation, and children deserve respect, because everyone, no matter how difficult or ornery, is God’s gift to the earth.
The Ten Commandments are so elegant and shapely in their leanness, right? God’s Law is the Usain Bolt of religious advice—0% body fat. Every word packs a punch. This is an ancient, enduring, comprehensive ethical code for flourishing human life in exactly 179 words. It is a masterpiece of concision, but in its striving for efficiency, what did it omit? Here’s a fun exercise. What did The Ten Commandments leave out? If God were to consult us, in our own day and age, and ask us what we would add to God’s spare original word, what we would etch in granite alongside?
Surely, love your children would be one, right? Don’t hit your kids. Don’t demean them. Never attack with words. In the New Testament, the Fifth Commandment gets an extension.
But in the New Testament, the Fifth Commandment also gets a limit, right? You can see what I mean. For the most part, the Gospels are not interested in Jesus’ coming of age. They tell us exactly one story of his youth between his birth and his adulthood, and what’s interesting about it is that in this single story Jesus does not come off as an exemplar of first-century Jewish adolescence.
When Jesus is 12 years old—an age fraught with significance, by the way, in every culture of every land in any era; his age is not a coincidence—when Jesus is 12 years old, the Holy Family travels the 90 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover holiday. The population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was ordinarily about 50,000 people, but with Passover Pilgrims from all over the world crowding into town for the holiday, the count has swelled about three times to 150,000, so Jerusalem feels a little bit like Wrigleyville last night, with vendors and hawkers and scalpers and parkers and bleacher bums and everybody’s wearing blue because it’s the Dodgers in town and you can’t tell a friend from an enemy—Jerusalem is just like that at Passover—and when the holiday has been properly celebrated Mary and Joseph load the donkey and head back home to Nazareth, and—lo and behold!—Mom and Dad can’t find their almost teenager, and this is not Wrigley Field and this is not the twenty-first century so there are no cellphones and no Purple Line to get you safely back to Wilmette, so Mary and Joseph are frantic and head back to Jerusalem where they find Jesus electrifying all the tenured professors and rainmaker lawyers of Jerusalem with his spooky, precocious intelligence. And when Mom and Dad scold him for a premature, age-inappropriate independence from the parental units, Jesus calmly answers, “Mom, Dad, love ya, but I have a higher calling.”
Now, Jesus is Jesus and he really did have another father and he really did have a higher calling. Jesus is Jesus and we’re not, but it’s clear in the New Testament that the Fifth Commandment is not unconditional. There comes a time for some of us when, in order for us to be faithful to who we essentially are, it will become impossible to honor our parents in just the way they want to be honored. Sometimes parents do not understand who the universe is calling us to be. The gay son of a hyper-masculine father. The surgeon’s child who wants to be the next Lady Gaga. The devout Muslim who falls in love with a Jew. How will they honor their parents?
Before I perform a wedding for a young couple, I sit down with them four or five times to talk about the joys and challenges of marriage, and one of the things I want to know is how the homes we have come from will subconsciously, almost invisibly, shape the home we are going to with our beloved. And so one question I often ask is, “So what, if anything, did you learn about love and marriage and parenting from your own parents? What do you hope to bring over from your old home into your new home?”
And I still remember the one young man who said to me, without thinking about it, “The only thing I ever learned from my father is that I don’t want to be like him.” I was little surprised by both his honesty and his certainty, but I kind of knew his father and I really couldn’t disagree with him. For this young person, respecting his father was honored more in the breach than in the observance.
So that’s the way it goes sometime. In the New Testament, the Fifth Commandment is not unconditional. It gets both an extension, and a limit.
Still, it is the lifelong task of every child to honor those who brought us into this world and raised us from mewling infancy to independent maturity. The Fifth Commandment is for those of us who are 40 and 50 as much as for those of us who are 12 or 18. Maybe more so. Because at some point in life, those we were so dependent upon in childhood become in turn dependent upon us in great age. They took us by the hands and raised us up on untried, uncertain legs when we learned first to stand, and then to walk away; then, in great age, the roles are reversed; it’s our turn to help them to their feet. All my life’s a circle, Harry Chapin used to sing. All my life’s a circle.
Have you read this beautiful novel called Still Alice, by Lisa Genova? There’s also a lovely film in which Julianne Moore plays the titular protagonist.
Alice is an accomplished neurologist at Harvard who becomes ill with Alzheimer’s disease. One of the crueler things about Alice’s plight is that she understands exactly what is happening to her mind and memory. She has a front row seat to her own mental demise.
She is way too young for this; this is early onset; she is about 60 years old, and not yet a grandmother.
The memory lapses come in fits and starts. There are days when Alice recognizes her daughter Lydia, and other days when Lydia looks vaguely familiar, but Alice can’t place her.
One day in a moment of painful recognition, Alice says to her daughter Lydia, “You’re so beautiful. I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
And Lydia says, “I think that even if you don’t know who I am, you’ll still know that I love you.”
And Alice says, “What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
And Lydia says, “Then I’ll tell you that I do love you, and you’ll believe me.” How many of us have been exactly there?
One last thing, and then I’ll quit. My friend Max recently retired after a 40-year career as a lawyer in New York City, and now that he has a little free time, he’s decided to concentrate on two things in his retirement, maybe more things, but at least these two things: religion and golf—not necessarily in that order.
He’s Jewish, but he married a Catholic girl, and I guess it would be fair to say that his Jewish faith was not all that central to him most of his life; for example, he’s an accomplished chef who puts bacon into most of his dishes.
So now it’s finally time to concentrate on two things he had to set aside while he was working 80 hours a week—golf and religion. Sometimes he gets his golf and religion in the same place. He lives in White Plains and summer before last someone gave him tickets to a pro golf tournament in Westchester County, and while he was there watching the pro’s, he got intrigued by this one golfer and got interested in her story and started following her around the course from fairway to fairway.
Her name is Brook Henderson, and she’s from Canada, and she was only 17 years old at the time and hadn’t even turned pro yet. Still, she ended up placing fifth in this LPGA tournament.
This probably isn’t true any longer, but summer before last at this particular tournament her father served as her caddy. And when she lined up her putts, her father would take the pin out of the hole, and hold it by the flag, and stand behind the hole, and use it as an arrow to tell her where to hit the ball.
He didn’t say a word; he just used the flag to point the way: this green is going to break toward the right, so hit it here, 18 inches above the hole.
Max says that every time she followed her father’s direction, she accomplished what she needed to do; when she failed to heed that arrow, not so much.
My Jewish friend Max knows The Ten Commandments. He thought this father-daughter team was kind of a parable, a living vignette, about honoring your parents: Follow the way your father shows you, and your days will be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
Ever since Max told me that story, and I think back on the life that I have lived, I see my father behind the hole, pointing the way. He never played a round of golf in his life, but there he is with his flagged, seven-foot arrow. When I followed his direction, things worked out. When I didn’t, not so much. I hope the same is true in your life too.
Lisa Genova, Still Alice: A Novel. Large Print Edition (Waterville, ME: Wheeler, 2007), pp. 314-315.