In this Commandment we see that there are rewards for those who obey it.
The Fourth Commandment opens the second tablet of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. It reveals the duties we have to those whom God, for our good, has given authority. Whereas the first three Commandments deal with our duties to love God with our whole hearts, minds, bodies, and souls, the Fourth Commandment begins to reveal our duties to love our neighbors as ourselves.
This Commandment is addressed to children in relationship to their fathers and mothers. This is the most basic and universal relationship of our human experience. But it also applies to our relationships beyond the family. It requires us to honor, to have affection for, and express gratitude toward our elders and those who have gone before us with our words and our actions. The fundamental wisdom of this Commandment extends to our relationships with all who, for our good, have authority over us. But it also presupposes that they have duties toward those they have been given authority over.
In this Commandment we see that there are rewards for those who obey it. “Honor your mother and father that your days may be long and things will go well for you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” As in all things done well, in right order, for righteousness sake, there are consequent fruits; happiness, peacefulness, even prosperity. Of course, the reverse is true as well. If we fail in our duties toward those who have given us birth, or those who have proper authority over us, the fruits we will bear will be hurt, harm, and brokenness, both to ourselves and beyond.
“With all your heart honor your father, and do not forget the birth pangs of your mother. Remember that through your parents you were born; what can you give back to them that equals their gift to you.” (Sirach 7:27-28) What can we give back that is equal? Nothing. But simple obedience and respect can, and ought to be, our gift to our parents. Obedience arises out of our respect for our parents. If parents not only give us birth, but also love us and guide us with reason; if they treat us in accord with our human dignity as children of God; if they educate and nurture us in the faith, then our honor and respect is our natural due to them as a matter of love and thanksgiving.
Our duty of obedience to our parents ends with our emancipation as adults. As adults, though, our duties to care for them in old age, in times of illness, loneliness, or distress remain. Several years ago now I was privileged, along with my wife and young daughters at the time, to be called on to move in with my parents, to help my father take care of my mother who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Among other things, I was required to do for her what she had done for me as an infant and a small child, because she had lost all of her muscle skills. My children, then 11 and 8, would come home from school and spend time talking with her, hugging her, helping her with little things like the shifting a pillow now and then. They would make her smile with love and laugh with delight. They had become so close that, toward the end, they would often “interpret” what she was trying to say for the rest of us. My wife became her nurse and confidant. My father could no longer lift her from bed to chair and back again, or from chair to privy and back, so I became his helper in those things. She was surrounded by love, and she radiated so much love back to us that we felt we were in the presence of a saint. My children, now both mothers and wives, joke familiarly about how they are going to be taking care of their mother and me when our time comes. Is this not the good fruits that come with honoring our mothers and fathers?
Lord, give us the faith and the courage to honor our mothers and fathers with respect, affection. Help us to honor you through our obedience to this Commandment. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!
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