When God commands something, it’s usually because we need to be reminded that the thing commanded is a good thing, despite the momentary testimony of our circumstances. Hence, he commands us to worship him and have no gods before him, precisely because life is constantly presenting us with alternative objects of worship that are much more fun and interesting to our senses and our limited perspective. Likewise, he has to tell us to not commit adultery, not kill, not steal, not covet, not lie, and not be seven-day-a-week workaholics precisely because, in certain circumstances, all these courses of action look preferable, inevitable, and inexorable. The commandments remind us that there is another way and that it is truly the way we should and must go, and that we are free despite our screaming feelings in a moment of passion.
This is true also of the commandment to honor our fathers and mothers. As it is not news to hear, we live in a fallen world. But what was the fall?
Adam’s fall came because he tried to be a god. “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” were the exact words that both Eve and Adam tried to drag from fantasy land into reality. And we know how well it worked. But what we often don’t think of is the consequences this mindset has for the project of child-rearing. When you decide that you, rather than God, should be the center of worship, you don’t just keep that between you and God: you demand that those around you worship you too. Hence, the first effect of the fall, socially speaking, is friction between a selfish husband and a selfish wife. But the second effect will be the demand that your children worship you too. This eventually creates an explosion when the rising generation, after years of living under selfish, fallen parents, is old enough to imitate Mom and Dad and do a little of their own selfish rebelling. And so, human history can, from a certain perspective, be described as a series of rebellions against the previous generation. Most recently, the 60s and 70s Boomers rebelled against the Middle Class 50s. In turn, Gen X is, in many ways, a rebellion against the Boomers (who are more openly demanding of worship and more nakedly self-worshiping than most generations in human history).
Of course, in our therapy-driven culture, it is now common for younger people to catalog the failings of their fallen parents. And doubtless, those failings are often real since parents are indeed fallen. But the commandment to honor parents speaks right here, at the point of maximum Wounded Inner Child Victimhood and Manipulative Power. It interposes, just when the Adult Child of Fallen Parents is about to say spit out something like, “I used to worship you, but now I see what you really are…” and launch into the revolutionary speech about the failings of father and mother, his Frustrated Inner Child and the Dysfunctional Family he hates and rejects. Right at this moment, the commandment reminds us that the call was never to worship our father and mother, only to honor them.
For parents, though not gods, are sacraments. They stand in the place of God the Father, bearing a trust of which no man or woman is worthy. For all their little faults, our parents gave us gifts we can never repay. And the tragedy of most angry young hotheads in blowing up at Mom and Dad is that they often don’t have a chance to choke out their gratitude till they are saying it at a death bed or a graveside. The commandment “Honor your father and mother” aims to make that reconciliation happen when there is still a grey head to kiss, still an old hand to hold, still an eye to look into and say, “I love you.”