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St. Matthew tells us that during one of Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem, one of the Scribes, an expert in the Law of God, tested Jesus with this question, “Teacher which is the great commandment in the Law?” At first that may sound as if the lawyer is asking Jesus to say which of the 10 Commandments is the most important one? Like, if you could concentrate on just one and work on getting just one right, which one would you pick?
Actually, what the Scribe was asking Jesus was this, what is the great commandment that runs through the whole law and that binds it all together into one, consistent, unified expression of God’s will for our life?
Listen to Jesus’ answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat.22:35-39)
The ‘great commandment’ that runs through, not just the 10 Commandments, but through the “Law and the Prophets,” which is just another way of saying, “The Old Testament,” and when Jesus says this, that’s all there is, so He really means to say that the ‘great commandment’ that runs through the whole Bible and holds it all together in one, consistent expression of God’s will for our life is, LOVE. And that LOVE moves in two directions: love God and love one another.
Now, ‘love’ is something that just about everyone is in favor of, but that everyone defines a bit differently. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” or something silly like that. So when Jesus identifies LOVE as the ‘great commandment,’ what we really need is His definition of what LOVE is. What does it look like, how does love act and behave?
And that is what the 10 Commandments are. The 10 Commandments define the abstract word ‘love’ in 10, very concrete words.
Jesus says that ‘love’ has two sides to it. First, there’s ‘love of God.’ And this is what ‘love of God’ looks like, acts like, Commandments 1, 2 and 3. “You shall have no other gods; you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; you shall honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
Then, there’s ‘love of neighbor.’ And this is what that looks like, acts like, Commandments 4-10. “You shall honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet your neighbor or his stuff.”
Since the 10 Commandments come from God, (and God is love), this is the ultimate definition of love. That’s something that we should think about more seriously than we do. It’s not our silly little ideas of what love is that is the standard by which we will be judged by God, but His.
Luther says that the chief use of the Law, the 10 Commandments is as a ‘mirror.’ We all see ourselves as a ‘loving’ person. We could always be more loving, but compared to most, we’re above average. But when we hold ourselves up to the mirror of God’s concrete definition of love, we see ourselves as God sees us, unloving, self-centered, selfish. And then we are struck by the fact that the only chance that we have in the judgment before God is that He might be gracious and merciful and identify us with someone else who does love according to His definition of love.
Maybe this helps us understand why the explanation to each of the Commandments begins with the words, “we should FEAR and LOVE God, so that we…” We should FEAR God because He is the judge and we all fall short and we are totally at His mercy. But we should LOVE God because we know that He has had mercy upon us, and counts the perfect love of His Son, Jesus Christ as ours, and overrules our selfish, self-centeredness with His perfect love.
This morning our focus moves from the 1st Table of the Law, the concrete expression of love of God, to the 2nd Table of the Law, the concrete expression of ‘love our neighbor.’
At the head of the 2nd Table is the 4th Commandment. “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Ex.20:12).
Let’s rehearse our assignment for this week together. What is the 4th Commandment? “I am the Lord your God. Honor your father and mother.’ What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”
Do you find it at all surprising, that in the grand and cosmic scheme of things, that God would direct our love for our neighbor first and foremost, to mother and father? That of all of the stations in life that there are, presidents, kings, governors, generals, scientists, physicians, the station that is singled out for ‘honor’ is mother and father.
We are to love our neighbor no matter what station in life they hold, but when it comes to our mother and father, we are to “honor” them, which doesn’t mean that we don’t need to love them. “Honor” includes not only LOVE, but also ‘RESPECT,’ and ‘OBEDIENCE,’ and ‘REVERENCE.’ We are to ‘REVERE’ our parents.
It’s important that we understand the right reason for why we are to ‘honor our father and mother.’ The right reason that our parents deserve our ‘honor’ is because they are God’s appointed servants to their children. God loves all boys and girls, regardless of their age, AND regardless of whether or not those boys and girls are Christians. God loves everyone. And in His love for all boys and girls, He has established the office of ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to care for them. Fathers and mothers are God’s appointed caretakers of His children.
And that’s the reason that children are to honor their parents. In honoring their parents, they are really honoring God. In dishonoring their parents, they are really dishonoring God. This is why the explanation reads the way that it does. “We are to fear and love GOD, so that we…” honor our father and mother.
This means at least two things for children.
First, this means that children do not honor their parents based on how good a parent they are or were, or how cool they are. Parents may actually do a very poor job of parenting at times. And yet they are still God’s servants and hold the highest calling there is on earth.
There seems to be a good deal of confusion about this. So let’s try to clarify this like this. It’s important for us to understand that the 10 Commandments are not all equal to each other, and that the order is important. The 4th Commandment does not come before the 1st Commandment. Honoring parents cannot be elevated above honoring God. Children are to honor father and mother but not at the price of dishonoring God. Children are naturally confused about God and His love when ‘honoring parents’ requires them to have other gods or ignore the Sabbath day. Sadly, sometimes even children must learn that they must obey God rather than men.
I’ve heard some children say that they cannot love God the Father because their earthly father did not love them. That’s putting the 4th Commandment before the 1st Commandment. Faulty parents do not imply a faulty God.
We do not honor father and mother because they were good parents just as God does not honor us because we are ‘good’ children. We honor our parents because God gave us our very life through them. We honor our parents because God has appointed them to take care of us when we could not take care of ourselves. We honor our parents because God appointed them to provide our daily bread before we could provide for ourselves, even feed us before we could feed ourselves, to clothe us, shelter us, teach us, etc., etc.
The way that we demonstrate this ‘honor’ for our parents changes over time. Our relationship to our parents when we are little children is different than when we are teenagers than when we are adults and parents ourselves. As time passes, our parents also change. And so the second thing that this commandment means for children is that we are to honor our parents even when they are no longer honorable; when they can no take care of their children, even when they can no take care of themselves. There comes a time when the children may need to feed and clothe and care for their parents like their parents did for them. Yet still, we must honor our mother and father and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve as God’s servants.
I think that it is right here where we have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to bear witness to the world about the love of God. There is a growing trend in our society for children to treat their elderly parents without much honor or respect once they become feeble and forgetful. When we fear and love God so that we do not despise our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them” even when they are not very honorable, we show the world what real love looks and acts like.
There is still something more in this 4th Commandment that makes it even bigger than the rule for our individual family. St. Paul brings this out in his letter to the Ephesians where he writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise) that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” (Eph.6:1-2).
Sometimes, the English language is not as precise as other languages are. In English there is no difference between the 2nd person singular and plural pronoun. In English, we can’t tell whether “you” is singular or plural. We can’t really tell whether the promise “that it may go well with YOU,” refers to ‘you,’ individually or if ‘you’ refers to many, as in ‘society.’
The Hebrew and Greek are much more accurate here. Both ‘you’s’ are plural. The promise applies to communities and how things go for societies and nations when parents are held in high esteem and honored by their children and where parents raise their children to fear and love God. The family unit is the foundation for society and societies either prosper or crumble based on how the institution of parenthood is honored and respected.
And the 4th Commandment spills over into the greater society when we understand that all of the other offices and positions are extensions of parental authority. Parents delegate their authority to teachers and policemen and scoutmasters and governors and presidents to take care of their children in ways that they are simply not capable of. And so children are to honor ‘other authorities’ with the same honor as they are commanded to show their parents. And when this happens, “it goes well with YOU that you may live long in the land.”
If you’re getting the idea that the 4th Commandment is really a whole lot more than you might have thought, you’re getting the right idea. If you’re beginning to realize that we have all failed to honor, serve, obey, love and cherish our parents as we should, you’re getting the right idea.
Yet, there is One child who has honored His earthly parents and His heavenly Father according to the 4th Commandment. And because of that One child, there is hope for all of us. Even as we confess our failure to love according to the 4th Commandment, we may turn to this Child who has kept it perfectly and trust that for His sake, the Father has had mercy on all His children and forgives us all of our sins. And then, refreshed with His mercy and forgiveness, we strive to honor our father and mother, that it may go will with us and that we may live ling in the land.