The Fifth Commandment: Honor father and mother
Today, we come to the one verse in the Bible that every parent knows by heart – certainly, my parents did: “Honor your father and your mother.” There are many ways to do that, I’m sure. I recall one attempt of mine to honor my parents that took some doing.
In the Fall of 1990, as I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, I kept running afoul of various professors on my doctoral committee who threatened not to sign it and let me graduate until I had acceded to their edits. Some of these were not only fussy, but in flat contradiction of their own required style manual. But it didn’t matter; if you want to graduate, you make the changes they demand, no matter how annoying they are.
Well, after making a number of such changes, I came to one of their last objections, which had to do with the dedication I had put in the front of the study. “Dissertations don’t have dedications,” I was told.
Ah, but they do have ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. And so here, among the front matter of my dissertation, among the acknowledgements, stands this sentence:
Finally, the researcher wishes to present this study in honor of his father, Ward J Collins, Jr., and in memory of his mother, Margaret Shirley Collins, who were infinitely supportive of all his efforts; “. . . look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were digged” (Isaiah 51:1cd).(As we say on the playground, “Neener, neener, neener.”)
Whether they were good parents or bad ones, whether they were wise or foolish, whatever their virtues or their failings, who we are and what we are is in large part due to those who brought us into the world and brought us up in it. And not just our parents, but our grandparents, too, and sometimes others who helped in our formative years. Like Abraham and Sarah, they are the rock from which we were hewn and the quarry from which we were digged – and our relations with them are a matter of some importance.
My father hated being a “Junior,” largely because his own father was such a failure as a father. He and my grandmother divorced and dumped their four children on his parents, who then raised my father and his siblings. My father grew up calling his grandfather “Dad.” He called his grandmother “Grandma” because “Ma” was the nickname of his GREAT-grandmother, who also lived with them. His Uncle Bob was also a great supporter of my father as a boy – though thankfully, not a role model. (They’re probably still telling stories about Bob Collins in Anderson, Indiana, and he’s been dead for over thirty years.)
As a boy growing up, I watched my father faithfully drive up to Anderson about once a month, to see how Grandma Collins and Uncle Bob and others of his family were doing. He was faithful and attentive to them as long as they lived, and faithful to their memories after they’d died. He did not have much to say about his father, though, until toward the very end of his life, when he began to tell me stories of his youth I’d never heard before. I didn’t realize, for instance, that Grandpa Speedy (as he was called) was still around Anderson while my father was growing up. He was, though, and that’s why my father was embarrassed to carry his name; that’s why he didn’t like being a “Junior.”
Ward Sr. prospered while his family was poor, he chased women scandalously, he had a reputation as a hothead and a blowhard. And yet my father refrained from criticizing him to me in any way until the last year or two of Dad’s life -- because you didn’t badmouth your parents, even if they weren’t much to talk about.
He DID tell me, frequently, as I was growing up, that you never wanted to flaunt your education in front of your elders, since they didn’t have the opportunities that you’ve had, and they were wise enough to raise you, and you should respect the wisdom of their experience, even if you have more book-learning. As a boy, it seemed as though he was putting me in my place; it took me years to understand that he was really describing his own situation: as the first of his family to go to college; a man who rose in the world, and became this man that everyone looked up to; but who was careful never to forget where he came from – and WHOM he came from.
So my father’s example of how you honor those who enriched your life and gave even courtesy and respect to those who should have but didn’t has always stood out to me. I always said that my mother formed my mind, but my father formed my character – and that was why I was so stubborn about dedicating my dissertation to them. It was a debt that I had to pay, and I felt sure my father would understand by it that I understood what he’d been saying to me all those years as I was growing up.
Who we are and what we become depend so much on the families we come from. This is why the promise/curse of the Bible rings so true – that the Lord will visit his blessing upon the children and grandchildren of those who serve him, but send his curse upon the children and grandchildren of those who don’t. That sounds unfair, but it’s just reality. Not that God arbitrarily judges in favor of or against these persons on the basis of those persons’ performance. No. But since the grace of God is a redemptive power, that betters and empowers every part of our lives, then those who raise their children in the love and awe of the Lord set their children and their grandchildren up for better things, even if those children and grandchildren are not as faithful as their ancestor. Meanwhile, the revilers and unbelievers, who have only a great emptiness to pass on to their descendants where a lively faith should dwell often see their own miserableness distill itself into more and more misery in how their children and grandchildren grow up. Sometimes, even if those descendants have a religious awakening on their own, they still struggle all their lives to overcome the lack of something they should have had in their upbringing, and wonder how to provide it to their own children.
There is a covenant between the generations, you see, and what goes around comes around. None of us lives a life that affects only ourselves. So it matters – GREATLY – how we live our lives together in our families. You’ll notice that in our second reading today, the passage from Ephesians, Paul homes in on this point.
In reciting the 5th Commandment, he emphasizes not the duty, but the promise – “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth” – which is just what I’ve been saying, that the blessings of faith and obedience carry through to children and children’s children, even if they are not themselves very faithful or obedient. And then he says, “Fathers, do not provoke yr children to anger” – meaning, there’s a reciprocity here. Children have a duty to parents, but parents have a duty to children, too, to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
There is a covenant between the generations. The hopes of each can only be fulfilled in the other. And God recalls us to our duty to both our elders and our juniors when he reminds us of this.
In the end, you can only do what you can do. You cannot make your parents what you think they should have been – nor can you “fix” the family you came from. I don’t know how many times I’ve told people, there comes a time when you have to forgive your parents for their imperfections and move on – you’re responsible for your own life now. Likewise, until you finally forgive the person who let you down all those years ago – whoever it was – you’re still stuck in the prison of your anger. But once you forgive, you’ll find the door unlocked and your way out easy.
And it should also be said that you cannot make your children what you think they should have been – certainly not once they’re past a certain age. There comes a time when you have to let God have them, and pray for what he will make of their lives and that they will be responsive to his will. More than that, you can no longer do.
And in the midst of all this effort and failure, amid all the necessary confessions and pardons that go with this intergenerational dance, there has to be this respect, this honor that God demands. Your parents were not perfect, your children are not perfect, and God knows you aren’t perfect – so how about going easy on each other? Don’t always be bringing up the bad, either in your memory or in your conversation; instead, make a real effort to remember the good and point it out.
And MOST of all, strive to be worthy of the respect of others. You honor your parents best when you grow up to become the best you can be. And that means more than just being what the world calls “successful.” It’s not about how much money you make or what possessions you have - it’s about the greatness of your soul.
It’s about the love you share -- the promises you keep -- the things you say Yes to and the things you say No to -- how you spend your money, not how much you spend; It’s about your patience -- your listening ear -- your being there when it counts -- your joy in others’ achievements; It’s about sacrifice -- and about self-improvement -- it’s about the way you talk about others -- and the way you walk with God; that matters in the end and determines the greatness of your soul. The person who becomes what God expects is an ornament to his family and reflects well on them -- even if they happen not to appreciate it.
And no matter what we have achieved – or God has achieved in us – all of us are indebted – if for nothing else than our life – to those who begat and birthed us and especially to those who raised us the best they could. It costs us little to acknowledge them and gains us much in the eyes of God and man. No doubt most of us are glad to acknowledge them, and we don’t have to search very hard for things to praise or thank them for, for most of us are probably here this morning, and know Jesus Christ as our Savior, because we were brought to church by our parents, who wanted us to learn the way of life: the way of eternal life, the way to heaven; but also the way to live this life, that we might prosper in it and live a long and happy life and by the example of our lives be a living testimony to what God (and our families) have made of us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.