Monday, January 2, 2012

What Does it Mean to Honor Our Parents? (Part 1)

Last month I was asked to teach a class on the time of life when we have aging parents. Presumably this should be from a Biblical perspective; so the question became for me: What does the Bible teach concerning our obligations to our parents? Or, what does it mean to honor our parents?

The fifth of the Ten Words given by God to us through Moses is “Honor your father and your mother (Exo. 20:12 [NET]).” That it is included in the most sacred and definitive revelation of God should awaken us to its importance; indeed, in case we miss this point, the Lord later tells us: “Whoever treats his father or his mother disgracefully must surely be put to death (Exo. 21:17 [NET].”

This admonition also serves to instruct us of at least one way it means to honor our parents: to never make light of them, or besmirch their character or reputation, disown them, curse them, defame them, ridicule them, belittle them, disavow them, or hate them. This provides a useful locus of our quest, but to honor our parents encompasses more. But before we can explore the meaning of honoring our parents further, we need to understand more clearly the purpose of the ten words God gave us so we can place the fifth word in the proper context.

If we see the ten words as purely legal concepts, then it is possible to stack them up against other legal constraints and begin trading one off for the other. This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with the legal concept of Qorban.

In Mark 7:1-13 we read:

Now the Pharisees and some of the experts in the law who came from Jerusalem gathered around him. And they saw that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their bread with unclean hands, that is, unwashed.(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing,holding fast to the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. They hold fast to many other traditions: the washing of cups, pots, kettles, and dining couches. The Pharisees and the experts in the law asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with unwashed hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written:‘This people honors me with their lips,but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain,teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition.” He also said to them, “You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to set up your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’and, ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’But you say that if anyone tells his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you would have received from me is c(q)orban’(that is, a gift for God), then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”[NET]

As the Priests became more corrupt in Israel after the return from exile in Babylon, as exemplified by their pandering to Hellenism, a group during the time of the Maccabees (second century BC) called the Hasidim (or Chasidim) arose that held to strict conformity to the Laws and traditions of Israel. The Pharisees and the Essenes descended from the Hasidim. Now, the Priests were supposed to be the interpreters of the Law, but they became increasingly less trustworthy because of their political and social aspirations (a characteristic of them in even Jesus’ day), so the responsibility of interpreting the Law shifted to the Scribes. These Scribes, who were the Elders referred to in the Mark's narrative (above), meticulously dissected the Law at the atomistic level, writing provisions upon provisions to insure that no Law was disobeyed. An example of this was the ritualistic handwashing the prompted Jesus’ response in the above account.

Don't miss what was happening. The Scribe's legalism functioned to protect the national ethnic status of Israel from all (e.g., the Greeks) who might attempt to assimilate it into their own culture. We might think this to be what God wanted. But no; God gave Israel the Law that they would represent Him to the rest of the world, so that the outside cultures would recognize him as the one, true, and only God (e.g., see Is. 42:18-25). The original Law was meant to point everyone to the Kingdom of God that God had created us to dwell with Him. The legalism that arose in the short time before the advent of Christ devolved into an expression of national pride that by its very nature was exclusionary. In the hands of the Scribes the Law lost its purpose of revealing God's holiness in the Kingdom of Heaven and served to isolate Israel from the rest of the world. And in the pride expressed by their legalism, they actually failed to be holy in the way they and all of us must to dwell with God in His kingdom.

In the hands of the Scribes, the Law became a incapacitating legalism. The handwashing ordinances were but one example of this. Vows constituted another example of this extremism in interpreting the Law. A vow once given had the legal clout to prevent a person from touching something that was his own property for his own use, or from another person availing himself of same property. The interesting thing about this is a vow was binding even if the person did not use votive words such as “given to God” (Qorban) or “let it be established”. The reason being that it was understood that the person’s hand was always on the Qorban; the Qorban sanctified the vow—even to the extent of overriding the fifth word.

Jesus teaches us that the Law is not a static outward practice, but must be an inward condition of the heart; He directs us back to the original purpose of the Law as the necessary nature of all who would dwell in His Kingdom. We see this in the follow-up of the above narrative in 15:10-20 of Matthew’s account:

Then he called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What defiles a person is not what goes into the mouth; it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person.” Then the disciples came to him and said, “Do you know that when the Pharisees heard this saying they were offended?” And he replied,“Every plant that my heavenly Father did not plant will be uprooted. Leave them! They are blind guides. If someone who is blind leads another who is blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Jesus said, “Even after all this, are you still so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach and then passes out into the sewer? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person.”[NET]

The ten words God has given us define the necessary heart condition of everyone who truly walks in the Kingdom of God. When we miss this vital connection, we lose our way just as the Pharisees lost their way. If our focus is on the outward practice of the Law, we actually end up breaking it. Case in point: a person dishonoring his parents by failing to care for them financially because he had been prevented through a vow that redirected the funds. If God’s Law were in that person’s heart, he would have never made such a vow, even though he legally could, because to do such a thing would dishonor his parents and ultimately displease God.

The Law is not about distinguishing ourselves from others, as a kind of spiritual hauteur and elitism--whether we be Jewish or Christian--but the condition of the heart of one who seeks to love God and therefore please Him only.

When the person stood on his vow at the expense of honoring his parents, he gave lip service to God, as Jesus said, but his heart was far from Him. When our heart is truly fixed on God, then we want only to please God. Paul asserts this driving prinicple constantly throughout his writings. In I Timothy 5:3-4, Paul couches the fifth word in terms of pleasing God:

Honor widows who are truly in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty toward their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them. For this is what pleases God.[NET]

We must see ourselves first and last as dwellers in God's Kingdom as we grapple with the command to honor our parents. If we understand the fifth word as purely a legal injunction, we will treat it--consciously or not--as a series of static amendments instead of what it really is, which is an expression of love for our neighbor born out of a preeminent love for God.

[More on this next week]