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by Ted Schroder

"Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12) As St. Paul states it is: "The first commandment with a promise - 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'" (Ephesians 6:2,3) This is the application of the Golden Rule of Jesus: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12) As you treat your parents, so will you be treated in your long life. As we honor the past in our lives, so we will secure our future.

There is a Grimm's fairy tale about a family in which there were three generations living together in the same house. The old grandfather's hand began to shake when he was eating at the table, and food would spill on his shirt and the tablecloth. The daughter-in-law began to be offended by his messiness and prevailed upon her husband to move his father to the kitchen where she would not have to watch him eat. A few weeks later they heard a crash from the kitchen and found that the grandfather had dropped his plate on the floor, and it had broken. The daughter-in-law was indignant at the mess and from then on served her father-in-law his food in a wooden bowl which could not be broken. One suppertime the father noticed his four-year-old son playing with a piece of wood, and asked him what he was doing. "I'm making a wooden bowl," he said, smiling up for approval, "to feed you and Mama out of when I get big." The father and mother looked at each other for a while and didn't say anything. Then they cried a little. Then they went into the kitchen and took the grandfather by the arm and led him back to the dining table. They sat him in a comfortable chair, and gave him his dinner on a china plate, and from then on nobody even scolded when he clattered his silverware, or spilled his food, or broke things.

The crudity of the fairy tale illustrates the point of the Fifth Commandment: honor your parents lest your children dishonor you. Or, a society that destroys the family destroys itself. The Bible assumes the existence of a family, with a father and mother. The Bible knows nothing of a family with same sex parents, or children born from anonymous sperm or egg donors, or surrogate mothers. Does that mean such combinations are incompatible with Christian teaching? Scripture and tradition would say that they are. The Bible assumes that parents will be role models for their children, and that children will mature enough to marry someone of the opposite sex and become parents. Whatever contemporary culture and the law may allow, this is the Biblical understanding of marriage, family and parenting. This is what is to be honored. We honor the past: our own parents who conceived, birthed and nurtured us, in order to secure the future through our own regeneration.

The Bible is not idealistic about families. It portrays parents who were abusive, and children who were rebellious. It tells us to leave our father and our mother in order to cleave to our new spouse, and form a new family (Genesis 2:24). Healthy families allow their children to leave in order to establish the independence that they need to flourish. While Jesus was subject to his parents in Nazareth, there was a time when he had to leave home, and fulfill his vocation, even when his mother and his brothers tried to prevent him. He made it clear that there was a higher loyalty to God, than that of parents. He told his disciples that they had to be prepared to leave their families if they were to follow him: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26) His point was that we cannot use family ties as excuses for not having time for the kingdom of God. Jesus recognized that love for family can be a form of self-love. By using the word "hate" of one's relatives, Jesus was intending to shock people into considering the claims of following him. To love one's own family more than Jesus is to love oneself. This is what he means in Matthew 10:37 - "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." This does not mean that we should neglect our families, but that they should not be worshipped and used as an excuse to avoid following Jesus.

What does it mean to honor our parents as we age? Whatever was the nature of our relationship to our parents, we can find ways to honor them. I once heard a black preacher quote Psalm 27:10, "Though my father and my mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me." He said that the best way he could honor his parents was to be willing to forgive them for their neglect, and abandonment of him.

None of our parents were perfect. Many were deeply flawed. Some were damaged and unable to love or affirm their children. Many of us have had unfinished business with our parents. It is important to find a way to deal with that unfinished business, whatever it is, and place it at the foot of the Cross, where it can be atoned for and washed away. The words of Jesus on the Cross, to those who crucified him, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do," can be words of freedom from resentment and anger, if we can mean them in relation to our parents.

Sometimes it takes having to understand what made our parents who they were in order to honor them. When my own children were going through adolescence I took a course in Family Systems Theory. The instructor assisted us in identifying the nature of our families of origin through a Genogram, a form of a family tree in which we plotted the different generations of our family to see if there were any recurring patterns. It was most illuminating. I discovered some of the influences on my mother and my father that affected who they became. I reached back to my grandparents in order to see what kind of parenting my own parents had received. The information that I unearthed enabled me to sympathize in a new way with my parents. It is only recently that I discovered that my grandfather (who died before I was born), not only survived the Battle of Gallipoli, in which there were over 500,000 Allied and Turkish casualties, but also went on to France to fight in the trenches for the rest of World War I. I honor his fortitude and ability to survive and endure what must have been a shattering experience for a young man in his twenties. He returned home when my mother was five years old, bearing the emotional scars of that terrible conflict. Knowing those facts gave me much insight and compassion for him and my mother.

I also recognized that there was much of my parents in my own identity. In learning to honor them, by taking the time to understand what made them tick, I could learn to acknowledge certain things about myself. Such self-understanding enables us to secure our own future in the land of the living.

Peter Conrad, in his memoir, "Behind the Mountain", wrote, "Losing faith in your own singularity is the start of wisdom... I had to admit that I was no self-created foundling, but a haphazard amalgam of other flesh... When you leave home, it travels with you; the parents you think you can reject dictate from within your every action. You serve your sentence for the term of your natural life." (p.218)

By understanding our own parents we can honor what we have learned from them, what their tradition, their legacy and their inheritance has meant to us. We honor them by carrying their lives into the future. For good or ill we bear their identity, as our children bear ours. Family history is part of the warp and woof of the history of our time and civilization. When we celebrate our history in our forebears we honor their contribution to the world.

My great-grandparents were pioneer settlers in my home town in New Zealand. They emigrated from England and Prussia in the nineteenth century, traveling many thousands of miles across the seas in steam and sailing ships. Their intrepid spirit and courage to emigrate from settled societies to the unknown and inhospitable colonies continues to inspire me. My travels across the world have been a cakewalk compared to theirs. I honor their ability to settle down in foreign places, to marry and raise children, by exercising similar skills. I honor their risk-taking by pushing the envelope and thinking outside the box in my own thinking and decision-making.

My parents believed in and practiced the Protestant work ethic. They had no time for malingerers or shirkers, for people who did not pull their weight, or did not provide for their families. Although we lived in a welfare state (New Zealand was the first country in the world to have social security, a national health system and the nationalization of transportation), my parents belonged to the entrepreneurial political party that represented the business and farming interests. Their belief in self-employment and business enterprise without state subsidy formed my attitude as I developed. I honor their industry and their desire to be independent.

New Zealand was also the first country in the world where women had the vote. My mother was no wallflower. She ran the business, managed the finances, and was treated with deference by all men in the community. I honor her for her assertiveness, for never seeing herself as a victim in a man's world. I honor her by treating all women as the equals you are in God's sight. As a result I honor my wife as "heirs together of the grace of life." (1 Peter 3:7)

Neither of my parents suffered fools gladly or treated anyone better than another. They equally honored the poor and disadvantaged, and the rich and privileged. I honor them by affirming the dignity of every person regardless of position, and by puncturing the balloons of those with pretensions.

We belonged, as a family, to All Saints Church, the English church, which was across the street from us. Previous generations had contributed to its original building in 1866, and its rebuilding after a fire in 1936. The chancel rails were given in memory of my great-grandmother Amelia Dowell, whose name is elaborately carved in the wood. When bishops and other church leaders would come into town my parents would house and feed them in one of our guest rooms. I honor their hospitality, their respect for the church, and their financial support of the ministry. Little did they know that they would be contributing their own flesh and blood. It was a shock to them when I announced that I was going into the ordained ministry. But they honored me with their presence at St. Paul's Cathedral in London when I was ordained.

It is significant that, despite his problems with his family, Jesus, on the cross, asked St. John to take care of his mother (John 19:27,27). Perhaps it takes to the end of our lives for us to work out who we are in relation to our parents and the rest of our family. We don't become like Jesus as isolated individuals. We come from parents and are raised in families. James and Jude, brothers of Jesus who opposed his ministry, ended up as apostles. We are called to persevere in loving one another, as Jesus has loved us. For this we need the indwelling power of the Spirit.

A prayer: "Father, we give thanks for the memory of our parents. We thank you for their steadfast love for us, for their generosity and self-sacrifice. Many showed us how to trust and obey you too. Forgive us if we failed, while they were still with us, to show them the love that we felt or if we neglected or made little of them. May they know now of our appreciation and love as we build our own lives on the foundation of the example they left to us. For Jesus' sake."

An audio version of this presentation may be found on

Amelia Plantation Chapel,
Amelia Island, Florida.

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