Bible reference – Exodus 20:12
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.KJV
What I thought this meant: Listen to your mom and dad. Be obedient.
What I think this really means: Pay attention to those whom came before. Learn from history.
The skeptic in me often pushed against this Commandment when I was younger. Obey your mom and dad. It seems simple enough. However, what if your mom or dad are dumb? What if your mom and dad want conflicting things? What if your mom and dad are evil? For most of my childhood I felt I was smarter than my parents, and for part of that time it was objectively true. I explicitly went against my mother’s wishes on more than one occasion – am I going to hell for that? If that is a sin, what’s the difference between that level of blind obedience and worshiping an idol a la Commandment 2? I may not have made my parents, but I can manufacture that idol role in my heart and mind.
The spirit of this Commandment makes sense, but in practice… it is problematic. It’s particularly problematic because I believe most moms and dads are not good at being parents. It’s one of 3 key jobs that everyone assumes everyone can do, but are actually really, really, hard:
- Parenting – just because you can make a baby doesn’t mean you should.
- Teaching – just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you can help others do it.
- Managing – if you are the best at doing a thing… a lot of times your reward is to STOP doing it, and start a whole new job where you write reports, plan projects, organize meetings, and almost everything else aside from doing that thing you are so good at.
As a result, there are scores of mediocre parents, teachers, and managers in the world. And if you believe God is clever, which I do, there must be a more universal message to this Commandment than to succumb to the likely ineptitude of ill-fitted parents.
If Commandment 4 tells us that words matter, then we should look at this entire Commandment:
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
If the message were as simple as “listen to your mom and dad”, then the first part suffices, albeit a bit vaguely as to the meaning of “honour”. So let’s clarify: What does it mean to honor? It doesn’t strictly mean to listen to, much less obey. When I think honor, I think respect. And if we are talking respect, then that means I can respectfully disagree, which runs counter to the notion of total obedience.
Let’s move on to the second part: how does honoring parents lead directly to longer days upon the land? Listening to my mom at times felt like time dragged on and on to eternity… but I suspect that is not the intent. So why mention the potential of extending life? Is it because your parents can protect you, and thereby extend your life? Then I would expect other Commandments to have the same caveat, like “Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife lest thou get a fist in thy face”. Or have entirely new additional Commandments like, “Thou shalt eat thy vegetables” or “Thou shalt get 30 minutes of cardio each day.”
So let’s look a little deeper. What if the value of mom and dad is that they have some measure of wisdom to share? They have the advantage of having lived before you. Sharing that wisdom can happen directly or indirectly. Even a physically and verbally abusive parent can teach you how it feels to deal with abuse, how to empathize with those who have been abused, and illustrate the natural conclusion of letting emotions or ignorance get the better of you. That is a way to honor even the most despicable behavior – allow it to become knowledge, and convert it into wisdom.
My mom frequently told me that my artistic ability was worthless, scuttling my hopes to be an architect, graphic designer or computer animator. My mom was also racist, and pressured me to break up with a young woman I loved because of her skin color. She also was abandoned in America with 2 kids, no job, and no ability to speak English. She managed to allow me to not feel as poor as we were. She made feel so safe to the point I was actually spoiled, and treated her horribly. She sacrificed so much to let me be a turd.
In his short documentary, My Dad’s Porno Tapes, Charlie Tyrell describes his father’s aloofness and failings, then looks back at a pattern of horrible abuse that passed through generations, and how his father and mother committed not to let it pass any further.
“It ends here.”Jennifer Tyrell, Charlie’s mother
Understanding history requires empathy. Knowing who came before you, and what they had to go through provides a perspective on
Does this pass the Ricky Gervais Test? For sure. At one level, there is the chestnut I often used to hear:
Respect your eldersElders (probably)
This goes beyond a simple notion of “old people know more”. I don’t subscribe to the idea that being old as an accomplishment, nor does it ensure maturity or wisdom. However, they have the benefit of having lived longer than you. Life is like a test where every decision you make (or not make) is subject to judgment. If you had to take a test, it would be foolish not to tap into people that had already taken the same test. There is always something to learn.
Consider this cliché:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.George Santayana
Accessing history, through our parents, allows us to make better decisions. It also allows us to avoid catastrophic mistakes that others have made without having to experience them ourselves. There’s no doubt a civilized society would come to the same conclusion.
Does it make sense at #5? Up to now, the Commandments seem to touch on fundamental guidance. If interpreted in the context of “learn from your parents/history”, this serves as insurance to reinforce the other key lessons. If your parents are humble, then you honor them by being humble yourself. If they are not humble, you can honor them by being humble. In that regard, it makes sense to come after the other key guiding Commandments.
As a child, your parents are the template for adulthood. However, we are not under obligation to obey. We scrutinize them. We can adopt traits that resonate with our own frequencies, and challenge the ones that don’t. It allows us as a collective to get closer to God. Then, why not extrapolate that to all prior generations? This could work systemically, as your parents should honor their parents, and so on. Therefore, theoretically by connecting with your parents, you are connecting with your whole lineage, giving access to an endless history.
This brings up another side benefit. It suggests maintaining the concept of family and staying connected. Honoring your parents suggests not throwing them in the streets (or moving away). In cases of conflict, it favors reconciling, compromising, coping, rather than running away. Family is a bond. I don’t really know why, but I like that my son knows his great-grandmother. I like that my grandmother is getting to see me raise him.
From a historical perspective, there is an even deeper importance. We need to value depth. We need to value roots. Wisdom by nature often takes much time to appreciate, fittingly with the weathering of years – where examples of loss and/or isolation ingrain those lessons. It allows us to benefit from tragedies without having to live through them ourselves. Not all people are the same, maybe a mistake for a parent is not a mistake for their child. Maybe times change. Regardless, wisdom favors more data, not less. Over the scope of generations, we ought to keep getting better, but cutting ourselves off, by not honoring those that came before, we threaten to sever not only ourselves, but our futures from the continual growth that wisdom provides.
That’s what makes this a worthy button to the broader Commandments.