I am amongst those who can clearly identify a point where they made a decisive commitment to God through Jesus Christ. It was in the evening of 5th December, 1985.
I had been brought up in association with the church, a weekly attendee of the Sunday School of St Mark’s, Avalon Beach, in the Diocese of Sydney. We attended services at Christmas and Easter. Later I became a member of the Church of England Boys Society (aka CEBS) of St Mark’s and, as it was an expectation of membership to CEBS, attended the monthly Parade and Family Service.
Despite all this involvement with church and youth groups, it was not until I was 22 years of age that I realised what it meant to be a Christian. I was deeply suspicious of those who had an overt expression of their faith, but I was also receptive to participating in different activities that were undertaken by friends who were a part of other churches and other faith expressions.
It wasn’t until I heard, at an evangelism rally, that God wanted to be my friend, the penny dropped. Being a Christian was about having a relationship with God. Some of you may be surprised that this has become a major theme of my theology. I have not become a believer through the experience of some amazing miracle, I have not become a believer through a conversion from some terrible sin, I have not come to believe through some profound scholastic debate and argument, I have simply come to believe through an invitation to have a relationship with God.
It is with this in mind that I restate the assumption that I bring to this exploration of the 10 commandments. The commandments are not meant to be laws for us to be right with God. Rather, because we will never be able to fulfil them, they reveal our sinfulness, and are commandments to protect us from ourselves.
Today we come to the fifth commandment, which our prayer book inadequately summarises:
Honour your father and your mother.
I say inadequate because it leaves out the promise that gives it meaning.
Honour 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; NRSV)
This commandment has a transitional nature about it. It marks a shift in the focus of the commandments about God to commandments about other people. From, loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength, to, a second is like it, love your neighbour.
This commandment emphasises the relationship between loving God and loving neighbour. As John the Evangelist puts it,
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:20-21; NRSV)
John paraphrases the second part of Jesus’ summary of the commandments, an understanding that the second commandment is, in fact, like the first, because our relationship with others reflects our relationship with God and our relationship with God is expressed toward others.
That we leave the promise off our recitation, ‘so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you’ limits the point of the commandment specifically to the relationship we have with our parents. The abbreviation causes us to lose an important idea in the commandment, that is, our relationship with our earthly parents reflects, reveals, our relationship with our heavenly Parent, God the Father.
Be warned, though, parents, this commandment is not meant to be an unconditional expectation upon your children, no matter how old they are. As Paul puts it,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4; NRSV)
I am sure there was a particular context to which Paul was addressing when he said, ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,’ but I don’t know what it is. We could quite happily include mothers in there without destroying the integrity of the text.
Thank God that God is perfect love and does not provoke us to anger, even though we might get angry with him from time to time, but that is probably because of our self centeredness. This commandment does not, therefore, give freedom for parents to demand that their children do what ever they want them to do without question or reason. It is right that children should tell their parents that their behaviour is shameful when it is. It is right that children should say ‘No!’ to the demands that parents make on their children out of the parents’ sinfulness.
To ‘honour’ here, literally means ‘to be heavy’, perhaps ‘to give weight to’. In the negative sense, it can mean a burden, but in the positive sense, it is adding to, building up. One of the complaints that I think I hear from parents about their children is that they are not listening to them. Someone said, in the midst of a multi-cultural debate, something like, ‘Tradition is when children listen to their parents.’ They said something helpful and defining about parents listening to their children, but I cannot remember what it was.
It is, perhaps, on this point that Paul in is reflections upon this commandment gives light,
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4; NRSV)
When children listen to their parents, and parents listen to their children, there is a balance of tradition and development. Tradition is added to for the benefit of the future generations. Tradition is important in this commandment, because it is implicit in the promise, which we leave out in our recitation, more elaborately expressed in the Deuteronomical version of the commandments,
16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 5:16; NRSV)
The promise of God to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) was of a land that would become his inheritance for a nation born of him. (Acts 7:5) He did not receive this promise, or dwell in the land, by being obedient to any law of God. In fact, as we have already considered, there was no law established. It was implied by his faith (Heb 11:8) that Abraham received the invitation and the promise. Faith is simply trusting in the relationship that exists between two people, in this case, God and Abraham.
But it was in this established nation of Abraham, after the king David, that they were overthrown by the Babylonians and the Assyrians, and carted off into exile. Only a small few remained. Those in exile found themselves asking why they had lost the promised land. The response of the prophets was that the loss of the promised land was the direct result of their failure to maintain their relationship with God. (Jer 2:5-7)
So this commandment is not just about honouring parents. It is concerned with living in a relationship with God, ‘The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.’ (Psalm 37:29; NRSV)
The invitation of this commandment is to remind us that our being and purpose, all that God promises us, and all that we hope to achieve and be fulfilled, is concerned with our relationship with God. It also invites us to be conscious of choosing a relationship with God. So if you have not done that, then I invite you to do so.
 bold print is mine to highlight the additions to the Exodus commandment