The Fourth Commandment: Honor Your Father And Your Mother- Lesson 9
The Fourth Commandment: Honor Your Father And Your Mother- Lesson 9
It is a commandment of God. It is a commandment with promise, with divine blessings attached to it. It is a commandment positioned in a place of special honor and significance. It is a commandment pertaining to the whole life of every human being. It is a commandment with application to the home, to the Church, and workplace, a commandment that provides a stable foundation to all of society. Yet it is a commandment that is sorely neglected today. It is the fourth of God’s ten great commandments to humanity: “Honor your father and mother.”
What does it mean to obey this commandment as adults? We understand that it applies to children and teaches them the importance of honoring and obeying mom and dad. But does the commandment stop applying the day we move out or the day we get married? Does it expire when our parents die or when they prove themselves unworthy of our respect? Does it apply to those who have been abandoned or abused? Does our adherence to this commandment change as we grow older and become independent? Maybe our questions are urgent and practical: What are my obligations toward my parents? Do I need to support them financially? Do I need to obey them even though I’m a full-grown adult? These are some of the questions we need to ask and answer if we wish to honor God by honoring his commandment.
Our key verse will be Deuteronomy 5:16: “Honour thy father and mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, that thou mayst live a long time, and it may be well with thee in the land, which the Lord thy God will give thee.” That verse will springboard us to other locations in the Old Testament: Exodus, where we will discover the terrible consequences of disobeying God’s commandment, and to Proverbs where we will marvel at God’s promises of blessing to those who take his law seriously. And, of course, we will go to the New Testament, to the life of Jesus to see how he both taught and modeled the way to honor parents, and then to Paul’s letters where we will see how ancient commands apply to us as Catholics today.
Three Reasons to Know and Obey This Commandment
We Are All Children. It is the most basic biology:
Every human being is the offspring of two other human beings. Some of us have always known and respected both of our parents. Some of us have only ever known one of our parents or have only ever known adoptive parents. Some even grew up apart from parents in foster care. Some of us have outlived our parents. Regardless, the fourth commandment applies to each of us for the simplest of reasons: We are all children. There is no human being outside of its scope because there is no parent-less person.
Of course, we also know that God’s commandments are to be taken both literally and principally. The commandment’s stipulations go beyond the simple relationship of children to parents and extend to all other positions of authority and submission.
The fourth commandment “refers primarily to our natural fathers, yet the name belongs to others also, and these seem to be indicated in the Commandment, as we can easily gather from numerous passages of Scripture. Besides our natural fathers, then, there are others who in Scripture are called fathers,....and to each of these proper honor is due.”-Catechism of the Council of Trent
“In the first place, the prelates of the Church, her pastors and priests are called fathers” (I Corinthians 4:14-16).....those who govern the State, to whom are entrusted power, magistracy, or command, are also called fathers; (II Kings 13:14; DRBV IV Kings). The name father is also applied to those to whose care, fidelity, probity and wisdom others are committed, such as teachers, instructors, masters and guardians; (II Kings 2:12, 13:14; DRBV IV Kings). Finally, aged men, advanced in years, we also call fathers.”-Catechism of the Council of Trent
The right ordering of family government, church government, and civil government all depend on this commandment. In this way, too, it is universal. We are all children, we are all under authority, so we all need to hear and heed it.
This Commandment Comes With Promise.
Our second reason is that this commandment comes with promise. It is wise and good to obey the commandment so we can enjoy the promised blessings. Conversely, it is daft and dangerous to disobey the commandment and forfeit the promised blessings. When Paul writes to the children in Ephesus he reminds them of God’s promise for their obedience: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is just. Honour thy father and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise: That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long lived upon earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3). God promises a long life and a good life to those who obey this command. It pleases God when we obey, so naturally he dispenses his blessings to us (Colossians 3:20).
The promise, “the reward is great, indeed, for it consists principally in length of days. They who always preserve the grateful remembrance of a benefit deserve to be blessed with its prolonged enjoyment” It includes the “life we live here on earth” as well as “the eternal life of the blessed.”- Catechism of the Council of Trent
There is no obedience or love to God without obedience and love toward parents.
God Gives This Commandment a Place of Special Honor.
Now we add a third reason to understand and obey this commandment: God gives it a place of special honor. The Church has long divided the ten commandments into two groups or two tables.
“The divine precepts of the Decalogue were written on two tables, one of which, on the opinion of the holy fathers, contained the three preceding, while the rest were given on the second table. This order of the Commandments is especially appropriate, since the very collocation points out to us their difference in nature. For whatever is commanded or prohibited in Scripture by the divine law springs from one of two principles, the love of God or of our neighbor...” -Catechism of the Council of Trent
As the Catechism says, the first group explains our duty toward God and the second explains our duty toward our fellow men. This commandment falls squarely between the two and in that way reminds us that our parents have a unique role in our lives. Our parents are God’s divine representatives to us so that when we honor and obey our parents we honor and obey God. There is no obedience or love to God without obedience and love toward parents.
If we remove this commandment, we have undermined all ten.
We have fallen into serious, dangerous disobedience.
We are all children, we ought to pursue God’s blessings, and we need to give prominence to God’s prominent command. For these reasons and many others we can not ignore this commandment.
A Word of Warning
Before we conclude, I would like to offer a word of warning. There is something deep within us that hears a commandment and immediately searches for the exception clause. “But you don’t know my parents.” “But I don’t know my parents.” “But my parents disowned me.” “But my parents were abusive.” We will deal with exceptions, we will see that honor takes different forms and adapts to different situations. But we must deal with the principle before we deal with the exceptions. We will discuss what to do in situations where there has been abuse or where there has been an especially contentious relationship. I don’t mean to excuse or downplay horrific experiences. But before we can do anything else we need to understand and admit this: There is no “if” attached to the fourth commandment. We must honor our parents. There are no exceptions.
In the next lesson we will explore honor and obedience as the basic ways we comply with the fourth commandment. We will consider the role of the parent in being worthy of honor and then turn to hard cases like neglect, abuse, and abandonment—cases where honor is difficult or obedience would be sinful. Finally, we will look at very practical ways we can all honor God by honoring our parents.