On the surface, the demands of this commandment are clear. It asks, first, that we give honour, obedience, gratitude and affection to our parents and elders since it is to them that we owe our lives. Part of that duty too means that we are committed to caring for them when they become dependent in sickness and old age. Secondarily, the commandment extends to cover all legitimate authority and law within one’s society. Hence it asks children to honour their teachers, citizens their country and its leaders, and all persons to obey the laws of their society.
Why? Why does scripture (God) ask this obedience of us?
The precept to honour our elders underscores our dependence and interdependence. For me to honour and obey my parents is to admit that I, myself, am not self-sufficient, that I am not a law unto myself, and that I am not (as the scholastic philosophers used to say of God) a self-subsistent being. I need to honour my elders and be obedient to laws that are moral and legitimate because I am not God, pure and simple. The fourth commandment, when properly observed, puts me in touch with my deepest reality and my truest dignity: I am a child of God and interdependent with others. Deep down we all know this.
Simone Weil once suggested that we spend most of our lives searching for something to be obedient to because, without this obedience, we know that we will inflate and fall apart. She is right. To acknowledge that I am not God is to immediately bend the knee in genuflection to something beyond myself, upon which I depend. Parental authority and legitimate civil authority represents that something. I need to honour it.
Unfortunately, this becomes less clear and more problematic when, as is too often the case, one’s parents and civil authorities do not sufficiently merit that honour and obedience, when they abuse or abdicate their authority. Hence, what can it mean to honour your father and mother in a culture which, for the most part, sees obedience as infantile? How can this commandment be accepted as life-giving by persons who regard hierarchical authority as wrong? How do you honour a father or a mother who is too absent, too abusive, too selfish, or too immature to merit that honour? And how can you respect authority when there are, in fact, many bad laws and more than enough corrupt authorities?
One might try to answer those questions, as they have often been answered in the past, by drawing a distinction between the chair of authority and the abusive or immature person who happens to be sitting in that chair. Likewise one can draw a distinction between the ideal of law and individual laws which are unjust. Such distinctions carry a valuable pedagogy: Honour the seat of authority without necessarily honouring the person in that chair; honour parental authority without honouring bad fathers and bad mothers; and honour the law without honouring bad laws. Those aphorisms contain a wisdom, but more needs to be said.
In the face of the tension – God gave us a commandment to honour our fathers and mothers but we often have bad fathers and bad mothers – we must avoid two extremes:
On the one hand, we must not obey a bad father or a bad mother, just as we must never obey a bad law or a bad government. The honouring of authority that is asked for by the fourth commandment does not ask us to put up with abuse, injustice, or evil in the name of holy obedience. Neither does it ask us to put infantile, rote, and blind trust in those who have authority over us. To honour our fathers and mothers does not mean to abandon our critical, adult, and moral faculties. Bad authority must be resisted, challenged, and, when completely recalcitrant, disobeyed. The fourth commandment does not ask us to genuflect to idols.
On the other hand, however, we may never become gods unto ourselves, unable to genuflect, blind to, and unacknowledging of, our dependence and interdependence. It is not for nothing that Lucifer’s sin is summed up in the phrase: “I will not serve!” It is not by accident that the prototype of all sin, Adam and Eve’s sin, the original sin, is metaphorically expressed as a sin of disobedience. All sin, in the end, is the refusal to honour Father and Mother.
When Jesus sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and said to God: “Not my will but yours be done!” he understood what was at stake with the fourth commandment. When I stand in pride and strength and say: “I did it my way!” there is a very real danger that I am not honouring my father and mother