The Good Word  


July 1993

The full text of the fifth command is: "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long on the land your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12) This is the first of a series of commands governing our relations to others; in this case to our parents. Since the first four commands adequately deal with our relation to God, it is proper to turn our attention to others.

Dealing with filial piety first is no accidental ordering, since the stability of society itself depends on the integrity of the family unit. Great civilizations and societies that have endured the test of centuries have had respect for parents as a keystone. Two inspiring examples are the Chinese and the Jews.

There are two difficulties with this command that may provide doorways to broader understanding:

The first difficulty is the expression "upon the land your God is giving you." For billions of earth's inhabitants, no land has been given. At least not in the sense of the command. This is no minor quibble but focuses attention on the fact that all of these ten commands were spoken to a specific society and culture. It is unsafe to categorically attempt to apply every jot and tittle to every local situation. In their principles, the commands are universally applicable. But in their specifics they are not. (Few moderns have menservants, maid-servants, oxen or donkeys. See commands four and ten.) Therefore it must be our goal to learn the gospel principles of each command.

The second difficulty relates to the obvious requirement that you honor your parents. One can honor one's parents by specific actions or attitudes toward them. But you may also honor your parents by your own excellence. For example, a son who enters and succeeds in a respected profession, fathers a model family himself, is active in civic, social and church affairs, is considered to be an honor to his parents. The parents are considered to be in some way at least partially responsible for these favorable developments.

Both of these approaches to honoring parents presuppose that the parents are "worthy". However, the second command contains a disturbing reference: "punishing the children for the sins of the fathers." (Exodus 20:5) This is an obvious reference to an unworthy parent. Although we readily acknowledge parental influence for good or bad, something morally grates at the concept of "punishment for sins of the fathers." How can we expect the child suffering such punishment to "honor" the parent?

The ancient Israelites also had problems with the concept of the fate of the children being tied to that of the parents. By the time of Jeremiah they had a proverb,

        "The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
                and the children's teeth are set on edge."

(Jeremiah 31:29)

Jeremiah cries out against this thought by saying, "Instead, everyone will die for his own sin." (v. 30) In this way Jeremiah argues against us blaming our fate solely on our parents. This, however, does not resolve the parent-child issue.

The issue is much broader than simply this or that act by ourselves or our ancestors. It is more deeply personal and goes to the very heart of our being.

We are all individuals. We are unique and special creations of God. Under his approving smile we are seeking our personal, happy destiny. And yet, we are a part of all that has gone before - beginning with our parents. These, our parents, are the gateway to our history. They are also our connection to the universe of creation: material, social and spiritual.

Our history (from now back - including our parents) is not our future. But both history and future are pieces of ourselves. We cannot have peace until we reconcile the two. We must connect our history with our future.

What to do if our "parents" have eaten sour grapes but we do not want our teeth set on edge? How to honor dishonorable "parents"? "Parents" here is not taken to mean simply the mother and father we love, warts and all, but our entire history. Our entire history is a part of us. How can we honor our history, including the corruption that began with the faithless transgression of father Adam and mother Eve?

We must begin by embracing it! That is, do not deny your sordid past. Neither let it be your future. Since you were in the loins of Adam, you sinned with him. (1 Corinthians 15:22) Acknowledge it freely. Closer to home, do not deny or avoid your own recent dishonorable behavior. It is your "parent". Embrace it. Not as something pleasurable but as a fact of history. It is about and a part of you. But it is your past, not your future. Accept it.

The alcoholic who denies who he is, is doomed to live a life of alcoholism rather than sobriety. If you continue to deny the weakness and evil within you, you too are doomed to live an evil, weak life.

We have sought the principle of the fifth command, the first relating to our fellow men. The principle is one of honoring, first our immediate parents, and through them, all of our history.

The gospel sounds the same note. The beginning of the Christian life is a coming to grips with the past. Looming large over that history is our experience on a hilltop outside an ancient city. For as much as it is needful to learn the truth about father Adam (and our own moral failings), it is more necessary to know the truth about father Jesus. Jesus is more surely a part of your history than is Adam.

No disrespect is intended or felt towards our natural parents when we look to Jesus for our permanent history. But he is our permanent future, too. Jesus is the "everlasting father" who is everlastingly worthy of honor. (Isaiah 9:6; Revelation 5:9) 

This issue of The Good Word deals with a foundational problem for individuals and the Christian church as a whole. By stepping back and looking at the fifth commandment we get a broad perspective that takes in not only our parents but all of our history. In this way, we get at the root problem of what has been classically called original sin. Some may feel that this is an unwarranted expansion. But then, the doctrine of the corruption of man is not generally well received today.

The consequences of denying our corruption (and that of our parents) is that the very corruption we seek to deny can grow and develop unchecked. Given our proclivity to sin and self justification, no one should be surprised if this or that church leader adamantly resists correction. This is normal. What is not normal is for other members or leaders to be horrified at even the possibility of genuine evil in their midst. This reticence comes from practical ignorance of the doctrine of original sin; and a desire to maintain a "good image" for the church. It also precludes the possibility of prompt and necessary accountability and correction.

This denial of our history is not just a doctrinally erroneous approach. It makes a laughingstock of the church to those round about who are, in some cases, painfully aware of the shortcomings of the church and its leaders. The proper attitude for all (including the church) is one of humility and continuing repentance for our actual history. All the while we look to Jesus for our new, imputed history.

Your friend, Herb Sorensen