Honor Thy Father and Mother: Issues with the Fifth Commandment

The ten commandments are often presented as the ideal list of rules to live by, the basis of our legal system (though this is not apparently, true) and proof of God’s infinite wisdom.  I tend to be of the view that the prohibitions on killing, dishonesty and adultery are the only ones of worthy of any real praise, and these are not original nor unique to the bible or Judaism.  The first four commandments largely can be easily thrown out the window, since they focus entirely of appeasing the vanity and jealousy of a God, who has never been shown to exist.  This leaves us with the fifth commandment “Honor thy father and mother,” which we shall explore today.  (Note: I am using the list of commandments in Exodus 20: 1-17, rather than the very different list and possibly earlier list in Exodus 34:12-26).

This commandment has always struck me as problematic.  For one it is completely ill defined; I have no way of knowing if honoring my parents consist of showing them a basic level  of respect, or obeying their every whim or simply refraining from cursing them.  Perhaps the means of honoring them change over one’s lifetime.  It would make little sense to expect a grown adult to show the same level of obedience to her parents as a small child is expected to.  Is it a dishonor if I don’t attend the college my parents want me to, pursue the wrong career path or if I reject their preferred political party, car maker or professional basketball team?  Furthermore, what if my parents are explicitly anti-religious, is it a violation of this commandment if I adopt Christianity against their wishes?

The bible does little to spell out what honoring one’s parent’s does or does not consist, but it makes it quite clear that the act of cursing one’s parents is death by stoning, in Exodus 21:17.  Jesus personally endorses this punishment in Matthew 15:4 “For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.”  Veres like this one and Matthew 5:17 ( “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil”) give credence to the idea that the gospel of attributed to Matthew was produced a community of Christians who still practiced Jewish law, and felt the need to have Jesus endorse it.

Aside from it’s vague nature, and the excessive cruel punishment associated with it, this commandment bothers me because of it’s authoritarian one-size-fits-all application.  For example what if one’s parents are neo-nazis, or members of some sort of dangerous cult?  We know for a fact that some parents are abusive to their kids and that others are severe mental issues.  I’d hate to think what honoring parents who are incestuous would entail.  What if one’s parents are chronic alcoholics or drug addicts, or bank-robbers or con artists?  How much honor are they due?  It is clear that honor is something that should be earned, even from our parents, rather than something we should be force to give upon the threat of death.

What bothers me most about this that it fit in too much with the bible’s generally, message of “give respect to authority”.  I find that questioning authority whenever and wherever possible is a largely positive thing, that should be encourage, especially among younger people.  This sort of obligatory elder worship, is all too compatible with the general distrust of youth and anything different, that defines reactionism.   It gives of the unfortunate impression that we should prefer obedient children to ones who can think for themselves.  Also note, It is unfortunate that the rationale for this command given in Exodus 20:12, is highly self-serving:  “that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.”  Of course, in context, it may not be bad advice, given that this book gives parents free reign to kill children they deem disobedient.

Anyway, I love my parents and I show them the level of respect they show me. I honor their wishes most of the time, but not always and they respect my need to be my own person, which is a far more healthy and realistic arrangement than anything the bible recommends.The ten commandments are often presented as the ideal list of rules to live by, the basis of our legal system (I have refuted this one elsewhere) and proof of God’s infinite wisdom. I tend to be of the view that the prohibitions on killing, dishonesty and adultery are the only ones of worthy of any real praise, and these are not original nor unique to the bible or Judaism. The first four commandments largely can be easily thrown out the window, since they focus entirely of appeasing the vanity and jealousy of a God, who has never been shown to exist. This leaves us with the fifth commandment “Honor thy father and mother,” which we shall explore today. (Note: I am using the list of commandments in Exodus 20: 1-17, rather than the very different list and possibly earlier list in Exodus 34:12-26).

This commandment has always struck me as problematic. For one it is completely ill defined; I have no way of knowing if honoring my parents consist of showing them a basic level  of respect, or obeying their every whim or simply refraining from cursing them.  Perhaps the means of honoring them change over one’s lifetime. It would make little sense to expect a grown adult to show the same level of obedience to her parents as a small child is expected to.  Is it a dishonor if I don’t attend the college my parents want me to, pursue the wrong career path or if I reject their preferred political party, car maker or professional basketball team? Furthermore, what if my parents are explicitly anti-religious, is it a violation of this commandment if I adopt Christianity against their wishes?

The bible does little to spell out what honoring one’s parent’s does or does not consist, but it makes it quite clear that the act of cursing one’s parents is death by stoning, in Exodus 21:17. Jesus personally endorses this punishment in Matthew 15:4 “For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” Verses like this one and Matthew 5:17 (“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil”) give credence to the idea that the gospel of attributed to Matthew was produced a community of Christians who still practiced Jewish law, and felt the need to have Jesus endorse it.

Aside from it’s vague nature, and the excessive cruel punishment associated with it, this commandment bothers me because of it’s authoritarian one-size-fits-all application. For example what if one’s parents are neo-nazis, or members of some sort of dangerous cult? We know for a fact that some parents are abusive to their kids and that others are severe mental issues.  I’d hate to think what honoring parents who are incestuous would entail.  What if one’s parents are chronic alcoholics or drug addicts, or bank-robbers or con artists? How much honor are they due?  It is clear that honor is something that should be earned, even from our parents, rather than something we should be force to give upon the threat of death.

What bothers me most about this that it fit in too much with the bible’s generally, message of “give respect to authority”. I find that questioning authority whenever and wherever possible is a largely positive thing, that should be encourage, especially among younger people. This sort of obligatory elder worship, is all too compatible with the general distrust of youth and anything different, that defines reactionism. It gives of the unfortunate impression that we should prefer obedient children to ones who can think for themselves. Also note, It is unfortunate that the rationale for this command given in Exodus 20:12, is highly self-serving: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.” Of course, in context, it may not be bad advice, given that this book gives parents free reign to kill children they deem disobedient.

Anyway, I love my parents, and I show them the level of respect they show me. I honor their wishes most of the time, but not always and they respect my need to be my own person, which is a far more healthy and realistic arrangement than anything the bible recommends.

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