By J. Barrett Owen
Churches this Sunday will give out a rose and clap for the oldest mother in the sanctuary. They will sing songs about family and pay no attention to the females who haven’t birthed a baby. They will preach children’s sermons that center on obedience and adult sermons that challenge everyone to call home. This Sunday, Christians across America will be challenged to honor their father and mother.
Is it fair, though, to ask those whose parents abandoned or abused them to honor their father and mother? What about females who accept a call from God to go to seminary despite their parents saying they are forbidden? What about the men who discover they are gay and are disbarred from the family tree? What about the young lady who never met her dad? Or the crack baby born into a hostile environment? What about the girl whose parents give too little too late?
Are these people required by God to “honor” their parents? It appears society’s answer is, “No!”
In a recent edition of the Christian Century magazine one of the articles created a new Top Ten Commandments for the 21st Century. You may not be shocked to hear that “Honor your father and mother” — didn’t make the list.
This commandment may seem to be a bit outdated — but it doesn’t have to be.
Take the verb “honor.” In Hebrew it means “to be heavy.” In a sense God is telling Israel to “give weight to parents” or “to think much of them.” This verb doesn’t render a command to be submissive nor does it advocate obedience as much as it suggests appropriating the seriousness of the parental role.
From a contextual standpoint, this verse has more to do with not alienating the elderly than it does about obedience.
For an Israelite community trying to get on its feet, agriculture and labor became necessities. To honor your father and mother just may be saying, “When your parents are too old to work on the farm, don’t abandon them.”
This is important for Israel because her longevity depends on remembering unrepeatable events. This leads to another reason why God gives this command — it keeps the family’s story alive.
To not honor your parents is to break the lineage, to stop the story and to inevitably shut down the passing of history. The weight of Israel’s escape from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the tent bearing God’s presence and all the other shared memories stop when this commandment is broken.
Honoring your father and mother may mean caring for them in old age, but it also means honoring their story.
It’s hard, though, telling the stories of the parents you can’t remember or the parents that hate you. We have moms and dads who emotionally ruin us, reject our love and discard our accomplishments. And these events shadow our entire lives.
But Frederick Buechner reminds us in Wishful Thinking:
“Honor them anyway for the pain that made them what they are and the hurt that kept them from who they wanted to be. Honor them anyway, for even at their worst, they were doing the best they knew at the time. Honor them for the roles they were appointed to play, because even when they played them abominably or didn’t even play them at all, the roles themselves are holy. Honor them because, however unthinkingly or irresponsibly, they gave you your life.“
I’m grateful to have parents that, despite only a handful of memories, deserve to be honored. They are good people. But I lived the majority of my childhood dishonoring them — probably because I’m the younger of two highly successful brothers. I spent the majority of middle school and high school years parading around gymnasiums and ballparks watching my brothers play ball. I tried not to show it but I longed for and was in desperate need of my parents’ blessing.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college, when I was preaching at a summer camp. I remember my parents came to hear me preach. After the worship service mom and dad looked at me and for the first time in my life I heard them say, “We are proud of you!” All the pain, all the resentment, all the emotional energy was finally released. I was finally somebody’s son.
They had told me before that they were proud of me, but this was the first time I believed it. It wasn’t because I achieved something or earned a grade or received an award. I was just finally becoming me. I was at a place where I was comfortable enough to accept their blessing as well as their shortcomings and honor them for it.
Honoring mom and dad may mean caring for them in old age as well as telling their story, but becoming who God made you to be is the best way you can honor your parental figures this Mother’s Day.