The Fourth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Mother by Fr. Robert Altier
These letters on the Fourth Commandment were originally published in the bulletin for the Church of St. Raphael.
In our considerations of the Ten Commandments, we have come now to the Fourth Commandment: Honor Your Father and Mother. The way the Commandment is written, it would appear to be directed to children. While it applies to children in their relationship with their parents, the command is actually directed toward adults.
Morality is concerned with relationships. The relationships can be with anyone: husband and wife, parents and children, people at work, total strangers, etc. Of course, the primary relationship we have is with God; everything else flows from this relationship. God is our Father. We first have to consider how we relate to God: am I respectful; do I listen and put into practice what He says; is my disposition proper as one who is not God relating to God Himself.
Because of our baptism, each of us is a child of God, no matter what our age. If we can be humble and truly loving in our relationship with God, that is the disposition that will carry over into our other relationships. If on the other hand we are arrogant, selfish, and disobedient toward the Lord, that is probably the way we will be toward others.
Since the Commandments were written for adults, each adult needs to ask the question about the primary focus of the Fourth Commandment: your parents. Perhaps your parents have already died. What is your interior attitude toward your parents? How do you speak of them when they are brought up in conversation? Is there any anger or unforgiveness to which you are clinging?
Every parent, with the exception of our Lady (whose Son is God), is imperfect. So, there is no doubt that your parents made mistakes in raising you. There is no question about whether or not they had personal issues they had to deal with in their lives and that those issues have affected you and your siblings. These are still the people God chose to bring us into the world and to raise us. Their imperfections become part of the way we will grow in holiness and become Saints.
If your parents are still alive, how do you treat them? The counsel given in the third chapter of the Book of Sirach is a great guide for anyone with aged parents. Each of us can ask if we are respectful in our dealings with our parents? Do we treat them with dignity or do we treat them like they are less than? Do we talk down to them or are we respectful in the way we address them? Do we allow them to do what they are able and humbly, willingly, and charitably help them where help is needed?
Perhaps the point that struck me the most was to realize that the word we translate as “honor” would be better translated as “glorify.” Glorify Your Mother and Father! This is not a suggestion; it is a command. So, we certainly have to be respectful and charitable, but more than that, we have to have a disposition to glorify the people God Himself chose for us.
This may be extremely difficult for some people because they have a very stormy relationship with one or both of their parents. For some people, their parents were or are not good people. Perhaps you grew up with abusive parents. There are many reasons why there may be very strained relations with one’s parents, but even in these very difficult situations, we still have to consider our personal disposition toward our parents. If your parents were abusive or violent people, no one is going to ask you to canonize them and treat them as if they were Saints. At the same time, forgiveness is required, and a disposition of charity is what needs to be fostered. There may be some situations that are so bad that it is not advisable to even have contact with someone, but we still have to work through the hurts and injustices that occurred so we can be healed and move forward with grace.
Regardless of the circumstances, each of us needs to be praying for our parents. This is easy if you have good and loving parents. It is very difficult if your parents are or were abusive. Your prayers can certainly help them to change their hearts, but even if they do not cooperate with the grace your prayers obtain for them, your prayers for them will turn your heart with greater charity. Your prayers will help you, even if your parents do not allow your prayers to help them. If there is anger, hurts, or unforgiveness, praying for your parents (or anyone else with whom there is a problem) is the fastest and most effective way to cut through the wall of resentment and be able to forgive.
We have addressed this issue of forgiveness before, but it bears repeating to say that to forgive is not to say something was okay. If something was wrong, we have to acknowledge the wrong, but we still have to forgive. I often point out to people that God will never say it was okay for us to sin, but He forgives us. To forgive is simply to let go of whatever we are hanging on to so we can be free. Of course, the other person is set free as well, but the primary freedom is to our own self.
Forgiveness becomes even more difficult when the situation is on-going. All we can do is to keep praying for the other person and pray for the grace to forgive. Some people will respond that since the other person has not apologized and asked forgiveness, that forgiveness cannot be granted. Keep this principle in mind: it takes one to forgive; it takes two to reconcile. You can forgive, even if the other is not sorry, but you cannot reconcile with that person until they are sorry. Since we are to glorify our parents, this principle has even greater force in our relationship with our parents.
The Fourth Commandment, as we saw last month, requires, on the surface, that we glorify our parents. Under this Commandment there are a number of areas that are addressed. Regarding our relationship to and with our parents, these would include respect, obedience, and charity.
For young people, it is frequently a problem to think negatively about one’s parents. When I talk with high school and junior high students about this, I point out how we often think our parents are stupid, weird, or just “not with it.” In other words: “My parents are not cool.” (I know that is not the word young people today use, but I am not up on modern terminology). In an amazing phenomenon: it seems that nearly everyone else’s parents are cool. Of course, their child is embarrassed of his or her parents while thinking the parents of his or her friends are great.
I always like to tell them that if all your friends seem to think your parents are alright, maybe they are not as bad as you think. My parents used to say that when a kid grows into their late teenage years, their parents become the two most stupid people in the world. However, when the kid reaches their mid-twenties, they are amazed one day when they wake up to find that somehow their parents became really smart really quickly. It is a mystery.
Anyway, young people need to consider the respect they give their parents. It is not unusual for kids to tell their parents how much they hate them or that they are the worst parents ever. When things calm down and the kids see that their parents still love them after such a tirade, it helps them to know not only that they are loved for who they are, but they are safe even on the bad days. If someone said to a friend what is said to a parent, the friendship would be over. Thankfully, God has put an immense amount of love into the hearts of parents. They prove that love is not an emotion, but a virtue. If it was an emotion, most of us would never have lived to see twenty.
It is also necessary that adults look at the respect they give to their parents. We addressed this at some length in the previous article, but one area to consider is the possibility of serious neglect of aged parents. It is common in senior living facilities that volunteers visit certain residents or patients because the person has no visitors otherwise. I recall speaking with a woman in a nursing home whom the staff informed me had no visitors. I went into the woman’s room and there was a picture hanging on the wall that was about two feet long and nine inches high; it was a picture taken at a family gathering. There were more than fifty people in the picture because it included the woman’s sixteen children, their spouses, and their children. Not one of them ever came to visit.
In our busy lives, we have lost respect for the dignity of the elderly. It may be that someone requires a skilled nursing facility because of their medical condition; however, to drop them off and never (or rarely) visit is a sin. These are not just human persons with basic human needs for interaction, they are our parents or grandparents who love their children and grandchildren and would be so grateful to have family spend some time with them.
Regarding obedience, there is a principle that must be employed: obedience in all things but sin. Young people, if you are living at home, it is necessary to follow the rules of the house. For anyone in the workplace, it is necessary to follow the directives of the company or of those who are the superiors or authorities. Even for those who are married, it is necessary to strive to serve one another, each seeking to do what will be best for the other.
Some people view obedience as a violation of their free will; others consider it to be beneath their dignity. Actually, obedience is freedom and it conforms perfectly with our dignity. Think about the chaos that would ensue if we lived in a world where there was no order and everyone did whatever they wanted to do. Homes, businesses, and society in general would quickly disintegrate into anarchy.
When Saints Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin and were commanded to stop speaking about Jesus, they replied that it was necessary for them to obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19-20). If our immediate superior orders us to do something contrary to what someone at a higher level has ordered, we need to follow the directive of our immediate supervisor. That person will have to answer to the higher authority. However, if our immediate supervisor orders us to do something that violates the written policy of the company or the Commandments of God, we must refuse. Peter and John were being required by legitimate authority to do something contrary to what God Himself had commanded, so it was necessary that they disobey the commands of Sanhedrin. If they had been required to do something that did not violate their conscience, they would have been obedient to the dictates of the Council. Obedience makes many people bristle because they want to do what they want to do and in the way they want to do it. Of course, some of those same people get quite upset when someone disobeys their commands. If we are obedient to proper authority, we can be assured we are doing God’s will. This is where the greatest freedom is found. Obedience is part of charity, so if we do not have a good disposition toward obedience, we really need to pray for charity and humility. The purpose of our lives is to become more and more conformed to the will of God so we can be united with Him for eternity. Our obedience to the will of God is the fruit of the obedience we have for our parents and our superiors.
As we continue our considerations of the Fourth Commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother,” it may come as a surprise to some that sins against one’s children fall under this commandment. Some, such as serious neglect or abuse of children is pretty obvious to everyone. Children are made to be loved; to love someone is to do what is the best for that person.
It is easily recognizable from the what was said two sentences ago, that either extreme in dealing with children is harmful to them. In other words, it is necessary to discipline one’s children, but it is never acceptable to abuse them. Today we have a situation where many parents want to be their children’s friends rather than being their parents. Certainly, parents are the best friends their children will ever have because they truly want the best for their kids. However, to fail to set boundaries, to neglect discipline, to allow children to do whatever they want to do, is not only a failure in parenthood, it is horribly destructive for the children.
With the breakdown of the family as we have been experiencing for the past number of decades, children are left in a very vulnerable state. The stability and security of children is based largely on the stability of the marriage of their parents. Today many children are being born to parents who are not married or are in situations where the parents have divorced. Often in either of these situations the parents are dating others, are living with someone, or have married someone who is not the other parent to the children. This not only causes a lot of insecurity for the children, but it frequently leads to neglect and abuse.
I am shocked by the number of mothers who put their boyfriend ahead of their child(ren). Sometimes the boyfriend does not like the child(ren) because they are not his kids. When this happens the mother often tries to appease the boyfriend and ends up being distant from the child(ren). Tragically, many girls have been sexually abused by the boyfriend (who sometimes becomes the stepfather) and sometimes there is physical abuse of the children, whether male or female. Similar things can happen when the child(ren) are with their father. It is less frequent that the girlfriend or stepmother will abuse the child(ren) sexually, but more frequent that she will treat her own children far better than those of her boyfriend or husband.
Of course, there is another aspect to this problem and that is what lies within the child(ren). They naturally want love and security; while they will try to smooth over the new situations in their lives, there is no one who can replace their own mother or father. Most frequently, they will not accept the new person as a parent and will often let the person know: “You are not my mother/father” if the person tries to impose rules or boundaries. This sets up a very tense situation with the new “parent” that often goes south in short order.
An ancillary issue that is becoming more common today is the desire to have a baby because “I want someone to love me.” Children are to be desired for their own sake; they are to be the fruit of real love between two persons united in the bonds of marriage. The selfishness that has become the hallmark of our society is causing people focus only on themselves and their own wants, rather than seeking the good of the other person. Since we are made for love, and selfishness is the opposite of love, we are seeing a vicious cycle of behaviors that are destructive to people rather that being good for people. If a couple uses one another for selfish reasons, the baby conceived in the selfishness if often not wanted. If the couple does not stay together, the child(ren) remind the parents of the other parent whom they have rejected, and they sometimes treat the child(ren) accordingly. Even worse, moving on from the parent of one’s child seems to be understood in the minds of some as moving on from the child as well.
As any parent knows, children require a lot of time and effort (and a lot of virtue). It is possible to do some things for children just because they have to be done, but children know whether they are being loved or not. When a parent is truly selfless, in both the marriage and toward the children, the foundation for the child’s life is going to be very strong. Children are very smart. If they perceive division or selfishness in the parents, they will often pit the parents against one another, manipulate the parents, and imitate the selfishness they are seeing. We all know that as a parent you can tell children what is right, but they will not necessarily do what their parents tell them, instead, they will model themselves after their parents’ actions. In other words, they will do what their parents do, not what their parents say.
The best situation for children, as study after study has demonstrated, is to be in a home with both parents who are married and are stable. There are certainly situations where this is not possible, but what is necessary is to make sure we are trying to live according to the moral laws of the Church, which can be broken down to simply love God and love your neighbor, so that we have good and healthy marriage. These, in turn will result in good parents who love each other and truly love the children they have together. In such a family, children will learn to be selfless because they are being treated in a selfless manner. They will learn good behaviors because there are boundaries and proper discipline. This will set them up for success in the future in school, employment, and in their own marriages. So, in the Fourth Commandment, the love of father and mother includes truly loving the father or mother of one’s children so that children can be stable, secure, and balanced by being loved for who they are as persons.