Word Magazine June 1989 Page 8-9
HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER
by Father Paul Tarazi
“Honor your father and your mother that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you,” (Exodus 20:12; cf Deut. 5:16).
It seems to me imperative in this instance to start my article with some exegetical notes. First of all, the commandment to honor our parents stands unique in the Decalogue in that it is positive in both form and content*; the others begin usually with: “You shall not . . .“. Secondly, it is the only case where the goal of the command is mentioned: “that — so that, in order that — you may have a long life. Thirdly, please note that the text does not read: “that you may have long life on earth”, but “that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you.”
In the Old Testament the land of Palestine is not a property by right, but a gift of God; it is promised as gift and it is offered as gift. The land is not a possession where we settle, but an inheritance where we sojourn as pilgrims. It is the place where we are always reminded that it is God and only He who, in an act of pure love and mere grace, brought us out of slavery and bondage into freedom and creativity, out of nothingness into being. The land is His and not ours, and in this sense it is a reflection of His realm and kingdom. To have then a long life in the land means to receive the gift of living extensively with God, in His presence, in freedom and not in slavery, in heaven and not in hell. The issue here is not length of life as such — Jesus died in His early thirties! — but life as gift of God. . .And is not the kingdom of God the realm where the sick experiences wholesomeness as God’s present, the sinner righteousness as God’s gift, the dead resurrection as God’s grace? Is not the kingdom of God the realm where sickness, sin and death are consumed in His love?
On the other hand, however, the land is not as such a reflection of God’s kingdom, but is so inasmuch as He factually rules therein. That is why the land can be considered a lesser gift compared to a greater one: the Law, which is the expression of the will of God as sole ruler in His land. Wherever God’s will is broken, there He does not rule, and wherever His ruling fails, His kingdom is absent. Conversely, whenever we consider the land ours and not God’s gift, there we rule and not God and thus He is no more King, Lord, Saviour and Creator.
All this explains why, in his last instructions on the Decalogue, Moses insists: “Be careful, therefore, to do as the Lord, your God, has commanded you, not turning aside to the right or to the left, but following exactly the way prescribed for you by the Lord, your God, that you may live and prosper, and may have long life in the land which you are to occupy,” (Deut. 5:32-33). “Hear, 0 Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates,” (Deut. 6:4-9). Later, in his final appeal, Moses sums up saying: “Take to heart all the warning which I have now given you and which you must impress on your children, that you may carry out carefully every word of this law. For this is no trivial matter for you; rather it means your very life; since it is by this means that you are to enjoy a long life on the land which you will cross the Jordan to occupy,” (Deut. 32:46-47).
Remains, however, the puzzling question: If it is by observing all the commandments that our life will be long and prosperous, why is it that this point is specifically related only to the fourth item in the Decalogue? Why does not this injunction simply read: Honor your father and your mother?
The key to answering this question lies actually in the fact that the Decalogue the whole of the Law both stems from and points toward the opening statement: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery,” (Exodus 20:2; cf Deut. 5:6). This is confirmed by Moses’ comment in the book of Deuteronomy: “Later on, when your son asks you what these ordinances, statutes and decrees mean which the Lord, our God, has enjoined on you, you shall say to your son, ‘We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and wrought before our eyes signs and wonders, great and dire, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and his whole house. He brought us from there to lead us into the land he promised on oath to our fathers, and to give it to us. Therefore, the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes in fear of the Lord, our God, that we may always have as prosperous and happy a life as we have today’ “, (6:20-24).
Unless there is a forefather or a foremother to tell us of God’s mighty deed by which He carved out for Himself a realm where every child coming into this sinful world could sense, if not hear “the sound of the Lord God moving about in the breeze of the day”, (Gen. 3:8), . . . unless there is such a foreparent, the Church is a valley of death!
Without a living tradition of parents who understand that Christ will not blossom in their children’s hearts until He has become the daily delight of theirs without a living tradition of parents who are truly willing to realize that in the baptismal waters their children have put on Christ, that is, have become anointed like Him for the Cross of Resurrection without a living tradition of parents who are humble enough to allow their children to be “begotten not by blood, nor by flesh, nor by the will of man, but by God” (John 1:13). . . without a living tradition of parents who cherish having their children’s names inscribed in the Book of Life beyond having them glorified in perishable annals . . . without a living tradition of such parents, God is a myth and His kingdom a fiction!
So, before brandishing the motto “Honor your father and your mother” over our children’s heads as if honoring one’s parents per se is the key to ultimate success, as if biological procreation is identical with true rearing, as if grey hair is a wisdom dispenser . . . before doing that, it is only meet and right that we, priests, advisers, parents and godparents ask ourselves some such questions:
How many of us read the Holy Scriptures daily saying with the Psalmist: How sweet to my palate are your words, sweeter than honey to my mouth? (118:103). How many of us do spend money and time on theological and spiritual books? How many of us have at least once a week a communal prayer in the family? How many times do we include the name of Jesus Christ in our conversations? How many of us consider a spiritual retreat an annual bare minimum for a Christian? How many of us fast as an expression of faith that Jesus is the Lord of our body also? How many of us, while standing before the Lord’s icon at Confession, do really dig deep in the remote corners of their beings to unveil every little form of infidelity in their commitment to Jesus Christ? How many of us express real pride and joy, and have a sense of fulfillment when our son decides to become a priest? How many of us do not have insomnia at the news of our daughter planning to share her life with a future servant of the Altar? How many of us consider a session at an Orthodox educational summer camp indeed more befitting our children than mere vacationing at a resort center? How many of us do treat their children as indeed “a heritage of the Lord?”
As for you, younger generation, children of today, parents of tomorrow, do honor us, your parents and advisers. For — imperfect though we are — through baptism, chrismation and the eucharist we do reflect, at least in part, the living tradition of faith. Do not despise us because of our unworthiness. The issue at stake between you and us is not whether we shall succeed to enslave you or whether you will be able to free yourselves from under our authority. It is rather to make you realize that if you are not ours, you are not your own either, because both you and we “have been purchased, and at a price” (I Cor. 6:20) through Christ’s sacrifice and thus have become His inheritance. Please do not fall in the trap of dismissing us, your parents and advisers, for T.V., magazines, modern theories, sociological views, youth counselors, professors of psychology, reference persons in psychiatry because, in spite of our inaptitude, we alone are able to make resound in your ears and hearts the salvific words: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.” And believe me, children, wherever these words are absent, you are, in spite of the apparent light, already on the path of slavery, bondage and death. And wherever these words are echoed, there is, in spite of the apparent darkness, a potentiality for real freedom and fulfilled life.
You have heard how much it costs us to make you have a long life in the land of life. Do not despise our cross: it is the token of your resurrection!
*The commandment to keep the Sabbath seems to be positive at least in form. However its content is obviously negative in that it requires that no work be done on that day.
Father Paul is pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Uniondale, NY, and teaches Old Testament at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.