"So That Your Days May Be Long"

October 1, 1995 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Exodus 20:12 and Matthew 15:1-9
(part of a series on the Ten Commandments)

Over the past several years, the relationship between my mother and my next oldest sister has flowered. Where once they were distant combatants, now they are close friends. Recently my sister, who became a registered nurse a year ago, spoke of wanting Mom to move in with her and her husband. That way, as Mom aged she could care for her. To be honest, while I am glad for the newfound warmth of this relationship, I'm not sure how I feel about my mother moving way out to Kansas City.

"Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12)

This fifth word of God is a pivotal one in the list of 10 commandments we have received through Moses. It forms a bridge between the first four, which speak of our relationship with God, and the next five, which address our relationships with one another. Like the fourth commandment, "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy," this fifth word of God is a positive statement, not a negative one. All the others focus on what should not be done. In addition, this is the only commandment which includes a promise: Honor your parents ... "so that your days may be long."

We often place this scripture into the context of Sunday School, and the need for children to respect, if not obey their elders. As a parent, I'm not at all adverse to this. Children need to learn about the value of honoring their fathers and mothers. Having said that, I need to point out that this commandment is not worded with young children in mind. After all, of what concern to a child is this promise of long days? Their lives stretch out in front of them much further than they can imagine. No, this word of God is for those who are able to number their days, and who come to realize that life is all too short. In other words, this commandment is aimed more toward adult children of aging parents.

The inclusion of this commandment in the decalogue may suggest that the treatment of elderly parents left something to be desired. It still does. The Psalmist voices a concern I've heard not a few times in the course of my travels: "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent." (71:9) There are many fears involved in the aging process, not the least being the faithfulness of grown children.

As far as I'm aware, Jesus mentioned this commandment only once. It happened when he was confronted by a delegation of Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem. They blew their whistles and called him on a technicality concerning religious practice. In response, he blew his whistle, and quoted the 5th commandment. Which was a greater sin, he (in effect) asked: skipping some ritual cleansing before a meal, or dropping out of your responsibilities to an aging parent?

After all, honoring a father or mother was one of the 10 words of God, whereas that ceremonial wash was a later idea, not directly from the law.

It must have been a pretty common practice in that day for Jesus to talk about how easily someone could break the fifth commandment. The very tradition those scribes and Pharisees were there to defend made it possible for a son to back out of his obligations.

"I'm sorry, Mom and Dad. I'd really like to help you out, but the money I would have given you, I gave to the Temple. I mean, isn't God more important? I knew you'd agree. After that, I haven't got any to spare, bills and taxes being what they are, y'know. Sorry."

If that scenario sounds far fetched, let me tell you it's more common today than you might think, though it's usually not the church that gets the money. I knew of a wealthy grocer, a "good, Christian" fellow, whose mother was on food stamps. We could probably list a lot more outrageous examples just like that one, Reader's Digest style. Most folks don't fit into that category, however.

The basic point is that adult children have a responsibility for their aging parents. We all know this, don't we? Now, "honoring" involves more than money. But, to honest, the Bible doesn't backpeddle on the financial. In fact, when Jesus mentioned this commandment, it was in the context of dollars and cents. Honoring is not just a matter of words well spoken, he said. It involves action. Ouch! If you don't feel that prick of conscience, you must have some immunity I don't. You see, I'm as guilty as any.

This commandment is a bit broader than we might be tempted to take it. We could insert our own parents and believe that our responsibilities end there. Once Mom and Dad are gone, then we're home free. That's not what the Bible teaches, however. God's people have always shouldered an obligation to care for those who have no one: widows and children especially. Last week we commissioned our deacons for another year of service. An important part of their set-apart task is to remember those who are left out. A person does not need to biologically be a parent to be included in this commandment. God cares for those who have no children. He broadens the family. Jesus once taught: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:35).

In the apostle Paul's letter to the believers in Corinth, he reminded them of their responsibility to include everyone around the table when they broke bread, especially those who were financially on the margins. Many of these persons were in this "aging parents" category, perhaps without children to take care of them. Don't exclude these folks, Paul wrote in a section from which we often read at communion time. Adopt them as your own, he said. Good health in a congregation depends upon it. Your well-being is connected to the welfare of others, especially those of more seasoned years.

"Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12)


"So that your days may be long..." As I said, this is the only one of the 10 commandments which includes a promise. Of course, when Jesus quoted it, he left out the promise. Perhaps everyone who heard him merely inserted the rest from memory. Maybe he was making a point. We don't know. The complete commandment, however, lifts up a benefit for honoring one's parents: a long life in the land. Back in Bible times, this was a catch-phrase for well-being, sort of like the word "wholeness" is to many people today. It refered not so much to the number of days to be lived, but to their quality, a sense of God's blessing upon life and death. To die in one's own bed, with grandchildren nearby - that was a blessing. It still is. Unfortunately, we often try to insulate ourselves from such blessings nowadays. Sometimes, "honoring" a parent means taking away this insulation, and embracing rather than fleeing the aging process.

"Give, and it will be given to you," Jesus said. "A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Luke 6:38) This truth is the promise behind the fifth commandment. Of course, it can sometimes be extremely difficult to honor a parent. Perhaps sins of previous years go unresolved. The encouragement of scripture is to reach out before it is too late. It's interesting that right before Jesus said the above words concerning the measure of giving and receiving, he also said this: "Forgive, and you will be forgiven." Sometimes, "honoring" a parent involves forgiveness: giving it and receiving it.

This last statement brings us to an important point. The fifth commandment is pivotal among the 10 words of God. Tradition holds that there were 2 tablets upon which the words were written. This commandment, like the next 5 words, addresses our relationship with one another. However, according to tradition, this 5th one was listed on the first tablet, along with the commandments concerning our relationship with God, for a reason. In honoring our parents, we discover something about honoring God. If we cannot come to peace with our earthly parents, how can we come to peace with our heavenly parent?

Well, as we will celebrate this evening, along with Christians around the world, God provided a way. In language which may be inadequate, but still touches us on a most basic level, our heavenly Father gave his Son to us. And this Son honored his Father through his words and his deeds. Most importantly, this Son gave up his life to make peace for us with the Father, so that our days might be long. In this relationship between Son and Father, all relationships are blessed. If peace has been made between us and our heavenly parent, then peace is possible with our earthly ones. And the gift goes on and on. Forgive and be forgiven. Give and receive. Parent/child. Husband/wife. Brother/sister. Friend/Friend. Enemy/enemy.

So then, remember to "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long...."

1995Peter L. Haynes

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