“Honor your father and your mother.”
The fourth commandment moves us from our relationship with God, as introduced to us in the first, second, and third commandments, into our relationships with others. This commandment deals with those to whom we are meant to be the closest: our parents.
“The fourth commandment refers in the first place to one’s physical parents, but also to the people to whom we owe our life, our well-being, our security, and our faith.” –YouCat 367
For Christians, the family is not merely a social convention, but a mirror image of the loving and life-giving Trinity. We understand that in the Trinity, the love of God the Father and Jesus the Son is incarnate as the Holy Spirit – and from this loves springs forth all of creation. When we speak of humanity as having been created in the image and likeness of God, we see the love from which a family is meant to grow:
“God Himself, in the depths of the Trinity, is communion. In the human sphere, the family is the primordial image of communion. The family is the unique school of living in relationships. Nowhere do children grow up as well as in an intact family, in which they experience heartfelt affection, mutual respect, and responsibility for one another. Finally, faith grows in the family, too; the family is, the Church tells us, a miniature church, a ‘domestic church,’ the radiance of which should invite others into this fellowship of faith, charity, and hope.” –YouCat 368
“It is only the rock of total, irrevocable love between a man and a woman that can serve as the foundation on which to build a society that will become a home for all mankind.” –Pope Benedict XVI
It is this irrevocable love of a man and a woman which brings life into the world, which moves the couple from living beyond themselves into a family. And what an experience this is! As I prepared to get married, a good friend explained to me that there would be two moments where I would most clearly discover the places in which I am the most selfish: after getting married, and after having children. To enter into a lifelong, sacramental relationship with my wife, I have accepted the challenge to love her (after God) above all other human beings, and when our love turned into the three beautiful little people we have (so far), we have both been asked by God to live our lives caring for, protecting, and teaching them as they grow. And while it has certainly not been an easy journey, it is one that is worth it, as my wife and children are not merely the tools of my ongoing sanctification, helping me rid myself of selfishness, but are also daily the source of my greatest joy.
This commandment, while seemingly directed only to children, has implications for all members of a family. To the children, it is an invitation to recognize what their parents have given and have given up on their behalf:
“A child respects and honors his parents by showing them love and gratitude.” –YouCat 371
Since each child is born out of love – created by the love of God and in the expression of love between a man and his wife – a child responds to this commandment by returning that love. Small children recognize this immediately, responding gratefully and affectionately to the gifts and care their parents offer them, and in their old age children can help to care for their parents at a time the parents may be unable to care for themselves. There is a period of transition, when children become adults, that this relationship has a certain tension… where the parent likely feels that the child is not ready for a certain responsibility or experience, and the child likely feels the parent doesn’t trust them. What is key – and I pray that we are able to do this as our children come of age – is that both the parents and the child choose not to abandon the relationship over these disagreements. In a sense, it is particularly for these moments that this commandment is particularly necessary: as a reminder when everything in us might tempt us to give up relating to parents who don’t seem to trust us, that we are obligated to honor them anyway.
But the responsibility for following through on this commandment does not fall simply on the child, it is expected that the parents do their part as well:
“God entrusted children to parents so that they might be steady, righteous examples for those children, that they might love and respect them and do everything possible so that their children can develop physically and spiritually.” –YouCat 372
Parents are due the respect and gratefulness of their children, assuming that they have done everything possible to show love and care for them. As described above, this is a tremendously difficult task, but one that is also incredibly rewarding. A good reminder here is that no parents raise their children on their own:
“Children do not belong to the parents, nor do parents belong to their children. Every person belongs directly to god. Only to God is man bound absolutely and always. This is how we understand what Jesus said to those who are called: ‘He who loves father or mother is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’ (Matthew 10:37).” –YouCat 374
Knowing that our children belong also to God is a warning and a comfort. It is a warning because someday each parent will have to give an account for the way in which they have loved and cared for their children, and if the children have been led to sin by the fault of their parents, Jesus takes this very seriously (see Luke 17:2). It is also a comfort, knowing that each child is also a beloved son or daughter of God, and that He cares for them even more than any parent does. And so for each child who grows up without the love and care God intended them to have from both parents, God cares for them with an affection and love which exceeds that of any human parent. It is God Himself who is then able to make up for whatever shortcomings every human parent has in loving their children – which is how many kids who grow up in difficult circumstances are still able to offer something to the society around them.
“…what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” –Matthew 7:9-11