Friday, February 09, 2007

Who Is "Honor Your Father and Mother" Directed To?

Rick recently posted his relief that Jesus didn't handle "Honor Your Father and Mother" in His Sermon on the Mount. He writes:

If Jesus had closed every last loophole on that commandment, can you imagine your own childhood? Who would not at one time or another have run into an unscrupulous adult using the commandment to buttress their own authority? Even if your own childhood was free of such adults, many more adults in your life would have been under the reign of abusive authority. And the effects show for life.

Now Rick and I look at this whole set of issues somewhat differently, but what I'd like to do here is to put a different slant on it, one that might enlarge the area of consensus.

When I was taking "Rice Paddies" as an undergraduate, I remember the professor Benjamin Schwartz saying something very wise. He was remarking on the Confucian emphasis on filiality and he observed (in rough paraphrase) that we mistake the emphasis if we think this is all about little children being brow-beaten into obeying parents who are already have total power over them. No, the audience for these exhortations to obey your father and mother is middle aged men. It is men at the apex of their power and influence, prosperous farmers, CEOs, heads of law firms, senior pastors of large churches, full professors, brigadier generals, and senior civil servants, healthy and wealthy, enjoying the prestige that comes when the labors of their youth pay off. It is them to whom this commandment is directed, and they are being asked to honor their frail, retired, no longer very sharp, no longer very healthy, no longer very handsome or beautiful, easily tired, somewhat absent-minded fathers and mothers.

Later on in reading this highly recommended book, I came across (implicitly) the same point. Li Zhi (Li Chih) was offering advice to officials judging cases. Now, in most cases, the Chinese legal system was somewhat like that of the Ministry of Magic's -- long on drama, short on either evidence or procedural guarantees. Li Zhi assumes that in half the cases or more, you're never going to be able to figure out who did what to whom. But you have to render a decision somehow. So he offers this rule of thumb: when in doubt, decide for the poor man over the rich man and the old man over the young man. Of course this is hardly great procedure, but notice: poor and old, rich and young go together.

So who is "Honor Your Father and Mother" actually directed to? Is it to ten year old children? Rebellious teens? Yes it has something to say to them too, but not in the first instance. Rather it is to the same one the coveting commandments are directed to: the man with a house, a wife, children, servants, and an ox and an ass -- in short, the independent head of household who is the "you" to whom God is speaking throughout His laws of Moses. He's the one who has to be reminded to honor his old and frail mother and father. And when Jesus does cite the Fourth (Fifth for the Reformed) Commandment (and He does) it is this scenario He has in mind:

For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.

Notice who's holding the purse-strings here: the son. This is not a long-haired teen being asked to put up with it when his dad belts him one for giving him lip, this is an independent man of affairs setting up a supposedly blind trust (for that's what these sorts of gifts amounted to) to prevent his business earnings being siphoned off to pay the medical bills of his aged parents. And Jesus says no, you came first to them when you were young and weak, they come first to you when they are old and weak.

This won't resolve all of our differences on the fourth commandment, but it should give it a more accurate emotional context.

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