The Fourth Commandment reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in this land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12). This commandment appropriately begins the second tablet of the Ten Commandments which deals with how we are to act and to live our lives with others. It shows us that in honoring one another with our respect for their human dignity, a dignity given to them by God. If obeying this commandment, and all the others, God promises to provide us with not only the spiritual fruits and benefits, but also with the temporal fruits of peace and prosperity. Of course, if we fail to obey this, and the other commandments, as we know only too well, is the cause of much harm and suffering to both individuals and to communities.
In the Decalogue the commandments are expressed in the negative formulation: “Thou shalt not”. We are told what we are not to do. This, of course, is quite appropriate, for in our willful sinfulness we are truly children needing guidance. It is not until Jesus comes to us that we are challenged with the positive formulation of the Commandments in his words concerning the Two Great Commandments: the first being that we are to love God with our whole being, and the second, that we are to love others as we love ourselves. These two great commandments are, indeed, the fullest summation of the Ten Commandments.
This Fourth Commandment specifically deals with how we are to understand and participate in the our family lives. We are to honor our parents. It is to be understood here, too, that the parents have duties too. They are to love for one another, and through that love to bring children into the world. They have their duties to love their children as well. Their first duty is to love each other. It is through the mutual love, honor, and respect that parents have for one another that the children learn how to love and honor others. It is this love that the parents have for one another that enables them to love and care for their children most powerfully. It is also the parent’s duty to hand on the knowledge of God, and of our Christian faith, to their children. These are the positive duties that they are to perform for their children.
The Commandment tells us that we owe honor and respect to our parents. Indeed, this honor and respect is to be extended to all our elders, and to all those who have legitimate authority over us in the many areas of our lives. The commandment really extends this kind and level of positive relationship to all our brothers and sisters, both in the family, and in the faith, and even to the stranger. God is the First Parent. In honoring our fathers and mothers, we are honoring Him. It is in the family that we learn how to honor and respect all others, and the why behind it. It is there that we learn how to love, from experiences of love and of forgiveness, and how to live in the world with others. Some of us may not have had such a positive experience within our family homes. Sin enters even in that sacred and holy place and its damage and suffering can be great indeed. This commandment, though, is our true guide to the happiness we seek. If we have suffered in our family lives, we still possess a God-given intellect to understand, and even to come to forgive the pain we have experienced, with the grace of God. And God has given each of us a conscience as well as free will with which we can choose in our own parenting decisions to guide our own children in ways that are both true to God and to the happiness that can only come from him. In practicing obedience to this commandment of God, we are honoring God, for obedience and genuine love are inseparable.
Lord give us the graces we need to practice this obedient love toward our parents, our siblings, and all those who are owed our honor and respect. Forgive us our trespasses against them and guide us by your love and your grace in all that we do. We pray this is Jesus’ name. Amen!
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