Honour thy father and thy mother

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It’s interesting to read modern alternatives to the Ten Commandments.  Their silence on the subject of God is deafening.  Few people today see God as having anything to do with the “Good Life.”   Maybe that’s not surprising.  But what’s also consistently absent are expectations about family commitments.  In fact committed relationships of any kind are forgotten.  Respect and honesty and tolerance in general are trumpeted loudly, but not actual obligations towards particular human beings.

But the trouble is, as Linus says, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”  We can easily nurse a sentiment of goodwill towards humanity.  But loving our neighbour – the person who actually crosses our path – that’s where we constantly fail.  And that’s what we actually need if all our talk about loving the world is to take flesh.  We don’t need more love for the world.  We need to love the actual people in our lives.

And so the actual ten commandments will strike us as very different to how we usually think.  And different even to how Christians generally think.

Sometimes Christians want to cite the ten commandments as a common sense morality that could be detached from the God who gave them.  They’d like to argue that the whole world not only can agree on them but that it pretty much has.  They claim that the law written on these tablets of stone is some “natural law”, known by all (deep down at least).

Yet in reality these are particular commands from a particular God to a particular people.   And the prohibitions on killing, stealing, lying, etc, flow out of the particular Lord He happens to be.

On Mount Sinai the unseen LORD begins by stating how particular He is – “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”  (Exodus 20:2)  And His first three words to His people are strictly theological:

1. Have no other gods before my Presence (i.e. my Son)

2. Do not bow down to or serve any other gods.

3.  Do not carry my name vainly.

Then straight away we reach the fourth command: Sabbath – a Jewish observance if ever there was one.  And together these first four commands (often known as “the first table”) are the foundation for the last six.  Particular love for this particular covenant God comes first.  And then we come to the “second table” – love for others.

After securing our faithful devotion He tells us exactly how our religious devotion should work out in everyday life.  We will honour our parents.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)

The very first command regarding love of people makes it unavoidably concrete.  Not everyone has a spouse or siblings or even a neighbour.  Everyone has a mother and father.  And so our Heavenly Father says “Start there.”  Not with an abstract love for humanity but with those relations closest to you.  No-one can claim some kind of religious dualism – loving God but not loving people.  The two are absolutely entwined.

As the Apostle Paul will say, God the Father is He “of whom the whole family [on] … earth is named.”  (Ephesians 3:15)  Therefore to honour our heavenly Parent we must honour our earthly parents.

Conversely, if we fail to honour our earthly parents it’s a sign we are out of sorts with God.

In Romans 1, Paul reveals a litany of sins.  He says of the human race estranged from God:

Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents.  (Romans 1:30)

We probably don’t think “disobedient to parents” belongs on that list along with all the other crimes.  But for Paul it summarizes what’s wrong with the human heart.  Our natural inclination towards childish rebellion is chilling when you think about it.  Before we’ve even learnt language we rebel in all sorts of ways against those who have begotten us.  They are the reason we live and yet innately we display a mad mistrust of those to whom we owe our existence. Dishonour of parents is a symptom of our dishonouring of God.

But the Good Life is different.  The Good Life – as lived by Jesus – loves our heavenly Parent and honours our earthly ones.  At the beginning and end of His life Jesus showed what this will look like (Luke 2:49-52; John 19:26-27).

The saying is almost true:  Charity doesn’t quite start in the home.  It starts in heaven.  But when the life and love of Jesus gets into us, the first place on earth it will manifest is in practical service of our nearest and dearest.

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