“From the Pupit” 5/2006
“Honor thy father and mother”
Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” In a real sense we never completely leave. Regardless of whether we are proud of our beginnings or spend years trying to escape their limitations, where we began our life’s story stays with us.
It may be a sad thing for some that they cannot recapture the best moments of the past when our parents were thirty and we were three, but a sadder thing would be if we could never grow beyond those years. Honoring our mother and father certainly includes taking care of those who cared for us, a responsibility for the elders in society.
The story is told of a man who was so put out with his father that he started building a pen to keep him in. Looking around he saw his toddler with a small hammer. “I’m going to build a pen for you too, Dad,” he said proudly. The man put up his tools and abandoned the project.
Honoring the previous generation means openness to what the generation that came ahead of us can teach those of us coming behind. Honor their experience and wisdom. It has been suggested that since moderns have scientific methods we are past dependence on any authority as a source of knowledge. But the “scientific method” itself we receive on authority! All knowledge is by way of apprenticeship to someone who we credit with knowing something we do not. We may discover that the knowledge was partial, their truth incomplete, the method had limits, but it is impossible to begin except with a trust in someone else who was here before us, whose experience exceeds our own. If we do not honor that, we will be forever wasting precious year reinventing wheels, and creating alphabets and grammars, bumbling our way by trial and error to discover what ways of life are self-destructive. Whether in morality, or the arts, or scientific discovery, life is too short for any one of us to ignore the help of the generations that preceded us.
Certainly one of the things which sets humans apart from other creatures is a capacity for story. We can know our lives as a part of a longer narrative, a historical consciousness. In some old Peanuts cartoon Lucy wrestles with an assignment on church history. After mulling it over she begins, “our pastor was born in 1942.” All history begins for us with the what is closest to our own arrival on the scene. Our access to all the wisdom of all the ages come first through the people who bent over our crib or greeted us the first day of school.
“History is bunk” Henry Ford said. America has a tradition of being so focused on making new starts with brand new possibilities, that we often have made the mistake of thinking we don’t need the past.
As we grow older we may come to realize even the best parents and teachers fall short of the idealized image we had in our heads, just as we know any public praise we enjoy is a partial account, passing over our limits, insecurities, and regrets. Honoring our parents does not require that we falsify history. It does mean that we do not let the flaws in others blind us to their nobleness. You don’t have to be perfect to be good. We honor our parents both by naming their virtuous impact and by deciding to give them what we all need, forgiveness for failures. We share a common humanity and as such we honor each other most when we confront what is hurtful with a willingness to enter the process of forgiveness and can celebrate what is good without idolatry.
Honor thy father and mother is a command with promise: that you might dwell long in the land. A culture which cannot admit its past is unable to salvage its resources as it constructs a future. A family that refuses what is good in those who went before will be saddled with bitterness. Lot’s wife made the mistake of looking back to the fires and destruction the family was leaving and it turned her into a pillar of salt. Focusing on the destructive fires of the past will freeze us into lifelessness.
Honor thy father and mother is, in the final analysis, a challenge to take up the story we were handed and determine some of its future meanings. By our lives we turn the story toward tragedy or farce or a tale of happy outcomes. We honor the past by adding the next chapter, becoming history-bearers, people of character who reflect positively on those who invested their lives in us.
The Fiddler on the Roof explores how to honor parents and the traditions our family is part of. What are the limits? Teyve the father says if you bend tradition too far you will break it. On the other hand, tradition is never static. Honoring the father and mother means that we try to understand what was most important to them, deciding whether and how to carried it on in our generation.
There is a deep yearning in all our human hearts for home. Are we orphans in this universe? Spawned by chance, abandoned to chance, with no eye on us while we live, and finally dying to be forgotten. The commandment is placed in the ten to suggest that not only will our treatment of parents prepare us to treat our contemporaries with honor and respect, but that through this primal relation we may be equipped to apprehend that ultimate relationship.
Jesus used the family to teach us our relation to God. “I will arise and go to my Father,” the prodigal says. “I will not live as an estranged orphan.” And so the son who decides to acknowledge the father discovered the love at the heart of things.
“Honor thy father and mother,” and perhaps in the process you will learn a proper relation to your heavenly father