Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 27-30; Psalm 84: Mark 7:1-13
Ephesians 6:2 says that the commandment about honouring our parents is the first commandment to have a promise attached: ‘honour your father and your mother that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land which the Lord your God gives you’ (Deuteronomy 5:16; Exodus 20:12). The matter is taken very seriously in the Old Testament: ‘every one of you shall revere his mother and his father’ (Leviticus 19:3); to strike or even curse one’s parents is an offence punishable by death (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 27:16).
Jesus refers to this commandment in controversy with the Pharisees and scribes who, he says, have effectively rejected the commandment of God by introducing a ‘get out clause’ into their own laws: if somebody dedicated property for religious purposes then this freed him from his obligations to his parents. But this is corruption, says Jesus, all the worse for posing as piety: ‘you reject the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition’ (Matthew 7:10; Mark 15:1-9). We need to be careful that we do not end up doing something similar, giving more importance to human traditions than to God’s commandments.
At the same time Jesus makes it clear that faith in him is more fundamental even than our relationship with our parents. We are not to ‘prefer’ them to him if we are to be worthy of him (Matthew 10:32-40; Mark 10:28-31; Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-35). Blood is thicker than water, we say. The Book of Leviticus identifies this as the reason why cursing one’s parents is a capital offence: if you curse your parents ‘your own blood is upon you’ (Leviticus 20:9). But Jesus teaches that there is something thicker than blood. ‘Who are my mother and my brothers’, he asks when told that they are at the edge of the crowd seeking him (Matthew 12:46-50). Those who hear the word of God and do it, he replies. The woman who praises Mary – ‘blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked’ (Luke 11:27-28) – gets the same reply: ‘blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’. This is the strongest bond of all, our becoming brothers and sisters of Christ, our adoption as children of the Father, our shared life in the Spirit.
It is sometimes assumed that this commandment is for children. Ephesians 6:2 even adds the word ‘children’ at the beginning. But the original commandment does not contain the word ‘children’ and experience shows that people have more difficulty with it as they grow up. Children tend to observe it naturally (while testing the boundaries), since mother and father are the source of so many good things for them. For most children their parents fill the horizon and are as reliable as the sunrise. Adult children find it more difficult to respect their parents as they come to realise how limited and flawed they are. Just as children can be a disappointment to their parents, it seems that the opposite is also often the case, at least for a time. This is when we need to remember this commandment.
Under this commandment belong other requirements of the virtue of ‘piety’. This was the pagan world’s version of the commandment, a part of justice whereby we show honour and gratitude to those who have done for us things we can never do for them: our parents, our teachers, the communities which helped bring us to maturity (the patria, or fatherland). The pagan virtue of religion itself is the natural debt of honour and gratitude we owe to God. Of course as Christians we believe that Jesus has brought us into a radically new level of intimacy with God through the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
The exchange between the adolescent Jesus and his human parents in the Temple at Jerusalem may seem shocking: ‘how is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49). But it serves to introduce the meaning of his mission, in which the old commandment remains in force while being taken up into the new commandment, to be given new power there. In Christ we are asked not only to honour our father and our mother, we are to love them.
This reflection was first published in Saint Martin Magazine