When I learned the Ten Commandments back in grade school, I was taught the 4th Commandment as simply: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” But on Mt. Sinai when God gave Moses the Commandments, He said: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you.” (Ex. 20:12)
Now the Commandments are usually considered as broken up into two groups: the first three deal with our relationship with God, and the next seven deal with our relationship with our neighbor. But I would like to propose that the 4th Commandment be considered on its own—separate from the other two groups. Loving our mother and father is like a bridge that connects our love of God and our love of our neighbor.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 5:21-33), we are reminded that in marriage a man and woman become one, and the love between them is meant to represent the love between Christ and the Church. The couple is meant to be a witness to the world of Christ’s love. In a similar way, the love of parents for their children can be a wonderful witness of the love of God the Father for each and every one of us, His children. The Church refers to the family as the “domestic church”. It is the place where we are taught, through our parents’ words and witness, both how to love God and how to love our neighbor.
As St. Paul points out (Eph. 6:2), the 4th Commandment “is the first commandment with a promise.” That promise is a long life in the land. And promise of an earthly reward for obeying our parents gives me pause because I know many people who have honored their parents by being obedient, and yet have been snatched away from us at an early age, suffering untimely deaths.
And so we must consider that the reward of a long life in the land that God promised the Israelites, their Promised Land, is representative of our reward of eternal life in Heaven, our Promised Land. We live our lives here on earth, with hope we anticipate our life in heaven, but we should strive to attain a bit heaven while still on earth. We pray in the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
We should strive to make our homes, our domestic churches, places of peace and prayer where we can experience a slice of heaven on earth. We need to encourage quiet time to grow in intimacy with Christ following the example of our great saints, so that family members can know God’s will for their lives and have the strength to embrace and be obedient to that will—to pick up their crosses and follow Him. We need to remind our children that we are in this world, but that we are not of this world—that our true home, our promised reward of a long life, is in heaven.
It is the children’s responsibility to honor their mother and father, but it falls to the parents to teach their children to obey the other nine Commandments, to honor God and their neighbor.