Wags have suggested that friends are God’s way of apologizing for one’s family. We receive our family, somewhat ready-made, but for better or worse have the chance to choose friends.
The Fourth Commandment explicitly demands that we give our parents honor and respect. Curiously, in the understanding of early Israel, that obligation was primarily for adults since children prior to the rite of bar Mitzvah for boys age 13 and bat Mitzvah for girls age 12 were not understood as subject to the commandments!
If this is the duty of adults, therefore, more is included than blind obedience without mutual conversation.
Moreover, the ancient notion of family was far more expansive than the narrower nuclear focus on parents and children which is so often contemporary experience, at least in Europe and the United States today. Their extended families, including “in-laws,” often lived together under one roof and shared all the tasks of communal life.
Even in our culture, however, one does marry the whole family, not merely the personal object of one’s individual affection. Inevitably, while dancing at one’s wedding, the conversation between newlyweds includes curiosity about an odd person or other on the edge of the festivities … an Uncle Louie, perhaps, or the inevitable Aunt Mary … eliciting the smiling response, “It’s a long story; I’ll tell you about it someday!”
Families are the focal point of our lives as we mature. The earliest understanding of the covenant on Sinai, at least as I understand the text (Ex 24:6-8), was Israel’s belief that God had adopted them as members of his own family with all the blessings and obligations entailed in that gift. Even our relationship to God has a family character.
Husband and wife, mother and father, parents and children, all within the extended gaggle of relatives are where we ideally begin our lives, where we learn the basic lessons of human existence and where we mature.
In the family, values are passed from one generation to another; service to the needs of others is learned and perfected; expressions of faith and piety are absorbed. Parents are our first and most important teachers. Only as we age do we begin to understand how much like our parents we have become!
In a healthy family, infants learn to move from an initially petulant “mine!” to recognizing “yours” before finally sharing “ours.”
In the family, profitable lessons of shared responsibility for household tasks gradually take root as well (hopefully) as daily examples of how to disagree respectfully, cooperate helpfully and deal with inevitable mistakes. The differences between masculine and feminine approaches to life can be seen and appreciated.
No one should be forced to live in a dangerous environment, but the negative consequences of facile divorce in our contemporary society abound. They are serious.
Parenting is an awesome responsibility in any society. It is also a skill often learned and perfected over the years. I used to tease my own parents that they practiced on me as the eldest in the brood … something they laughingly admitted very readily.
Christian obedience is never a simple, one directional affair. It presumes an effort to make expectations reasonable and, if at all possible, discussed and shared. The dynamic is inevitably different, of course, if the younger partner is 6 years old or 16.
Pushing the boundaries is part of the maturing process, but so often also is unstated gratitude on the part of the same adolescents for the limits enforced! Moreover, with great wisdom Paul’s letter to the Ephesians warns parents, particularly fathers, “not to nag their children” (6:4)!
No one can ever begin to estimate the blessings of a healthy family environment while growing up. Good parents, even with whatever quirks and baggage they may bring to the task of parenting as a result of their own experiences, are God’s way of showing care.
With good reason the family is called “the domestic church” because everything which church implies is already present in some way in the daily give and take, as well as the growth and life of a normal family: growth, service, trust, responsibility and love.
The Fourth Commandment recognizes that reality by asking honor, not merely obedience, for parents and those who stand in their place. It also promises long life and prosperity in the land (Ex 20:12; Dt 5:16).
The longer one lives, the smarter one’s parents seem to become. The Fourth Commandment is gift, grace and treasure.