I find this is exactly the kind of post where you have to state your own context up front, so: I love my parents, they have always loved and supported me, they always believed I could do anything I put my mind to, and they took the trouble to get to know me and tailor their parenting styles to me, which helped a lot, being an only child and all. Parts of my childhood were less than ideal, but not the parts that involved them, and they got divorced in the middle of all that, so that's saying something.
That said, I know perfectly well how lucky and blessed I've been. I have friends, and I know other people, who were not so blessed. Whose parents didn't see them as potentially independent adults, but rather extensions of themselves and their desires. Or tools to their own ends. Or decorations for their lives. Who did not recognize their humanity, and their rights, and their status as a fully formed child of God who deserved their love and the very best of care. And, yes, I know a few whose parents saw them as punching bags.
Which is why I hope to never be one of those pastors who falls back on the easy sermon on Mother's Day weekend, or Father's Day. Which is why I do not talk about the universal characteristics of a mother's love, or the protectiveness of being in a father's arms. Because we live in a broken world, and there is nothing universal about parenthood except that the parents (or guardians) are, for a few years at least, in absolute power over the child's life. And you know what they say about absolute power.
And to those who would say that speaking of such things speaks against family values and traditional Christian understandings of the world, I would say that Jesus spoke very strongly for the powerless, not the powerful. And if they wanted an example of "traditional" understandings of family, I have a number of Bible passages to point them to.
So, what do we owe our parents? What does "Honor thy father and mother" truly mean? Well, being Lutheran, one place I might start is Luther's Small Catechism, which discusses each of the Commandments, among other things. However, both there and in his Large Catechism (written for pastors, whereas the Small is written for everyone) he starts from the assumption that all parents wish their children well, are loving and nurturing toward their children, and never ask their children to do wrong. These days, we're more willing than Luther was to acknowledge that that isn't always true. But life has changed a lot since Germany in the early 1500s, and many of his views on authority also require us to remember that there was no such thing as democracy at the time, and Divine Right of Rule was still an accepted concept.
In the end, Luther's explanation of the Commandment boils down to a few main points: don't abandon your parents when they're elderly, even if they have dementia; don't beat them up; treat them with basic respect; and when you're a child, obey them. The first three points I have no problems with: Christianity instructs us to care for the helpless and treat all people with basic respect, which certainly includes not beating people up. The last point, however, has some potential problems. So, to examine that more closely, let's have some case studies, and talk about what "honor" means in each case. All of these are based on real life situations I've run across (none of them happened to me).
Case Study A: Alicia, an adult who has moved out of her parents' home but still lives in the same town as them, has recently noticed that her father's driving is getting steadily worse, but her mother isn't willing to confront him about it. His driving is beginning to get dangerous, and she's worried not only for her parents' safety but the other people on the road. Should she:
- Respect her father's wishes by not doing anything about it.
- Go down to the local precinct and start the process of having his license taken away without consulting her parents.
- Sit down and have the difficult discussion with both her parents, after having done some research, and talk about alternate transportation ideas that won't put anyone at risk.
- Steal the candy like his mother told him to.
- Ask "Mom, why did you just put that gum in your purse?" really loudly so the cashier will hear and his mom will have to put it back.
- Refuse to take the candy and try to return the gum to the display rack, and then talk about the incident later.
- Put the idea of being a pastor out of her mind forever.
- Yell at him a lot and cut him out of her life as fast as she can.
- Try to maintain a healthy relationship with her dad while growing up, and then, if she is so called, becoming a pastor once she's an adult.
- Have the wedding her parents want: they're paying.
- Have the wedding she wants: it's her wedding.
- Sit down and talk all this out with them, perhaps making some small, reasonable concessions but also explaining that it is her wedding, and perhaps offering to return the money.
See, as far as I can tell, not being a parent myself, the baseline goal for parenting is getting the kid to a point where they can function on their own as an independent adult. Now, sometimes those goalposts move- in cases of severe mental of physical disability, for example, or deeply communal cultures where independence is not as prized as in American culture. But most parents I know personally try to get their kids to a basic level of resourcefulness, "common sense" and knowledge of the world where they can live on their own if they have to. Or at the very least expect their kids to get there without the parents having to put in a lot of effort at it.
That requires a certain amount of critical thinking, and the ability to make judgment calls, and to have an opinion. None of those are well fostered by either blind obedience or blind rebellion in the childhood and teenage years. The ability to hold a reasonably polite, rational conversation about a difficult topic with people you care for deeply requires all of those in large amounts.
So, let's turn this around: when a parent honors their child? It's most often by treating that child as an adult. As a person who is capable, mature, and trustworthy. Why shouldn't that be turned around? Certainly, with younger children who don't yet understand all the forces at work around them, the scales tip more towards obedience- especially in emergencies. With adults the scales tip more towards independence, and the sometimes-difficult teen years are often centered around this very balance. But if the child treats their parents (within reasonable bounds of safety according to the situation) as a capable, mature, and trustworthy adult? That sounds like honor to me.
And sometimes, when we're interacting with capable, mature, reasonably trustworthy adults? The best way we can honor them is to share our opinions, our concerns, and to follow our own conscience, even when it does lead to disagreement, or worse. But I have to believe that sometimes, honoring one's parents means confronting them about their lies, their bigotry, or their criminal activity- because all of those things are done by parents, somewhere, and if the alternative is ignoring or enabling it, well, those don't sound very honorable to me.
So: following this commandment may, for many people, be more complicated and difficult than we'd think at first. But ultimately, are the ways in which we honor our parents going to be all that different than the ways we honor our friends, our mentors, our coworkers? Perhaps not.