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Honor Your Father and Your Mother

by Brant Pitre January 15, 2021 0 Comments

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But this isn’t the only rich passage, if you go back to the Old Testament, we have some other extremely rich reflections on family life.  This is one of my favorite passages, it is from the book of Sirach.  If you go back to the book of Sirach 3, the readings for today are from verses 2-6 and 12-14.  I am just going to read them and then I will say a few words about them.  They’re all about the fourth commandment in essence, honoring your father and your mother.  This is what it says in Sirach 3:2:

For the Lord honored the father above the children,

and he confirmed the right of the mother over her sons.

Whoever honors his father atones for sins,

and whoever glorifies his mother is like one

who lays up treasure.

Whoever honors his father will be gladdened

by his own children,

and when he prays he will be heard.

Whoever glorifies his father will have long life,

and whoever obeys the Lord will refresh his mother;


O son, help your father in his old age,

and do not grieve him as long as he lives;

even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance;

in all your strength do not despise him.

For kindness to a father will not be forgotten,

and against your sins it will be credited to you.

Okay, so what's going on here in the book of Sirach?  Well, basically this is a kind of expansion or explanation of the implications of the fourth commandment.  So if you go back to the book of Exodus 20, what was the fourth commandment?  Honor your father and your mother.  Okay, what does that mean?  How do I honor my father and my mother?  And what Sirach here is doing is giving us practical, detailed explanations of how to carry this out.  So the first thing it says is about honoring our father, let’s focus on that.  Notice here that it says that a person who honors their father atones for sin.  This is really important.  There were some righteous deeds in ancient Judaism that were not just seen as good, but as having the power to repair the damage done by sin, as atoning for sin.  In contemporary Catholicism we would call these penitential acts.  In other words, they are special acts of devotion or piety, that are not just good in themselves, but actually have the power to repair the damage done by sin, to atone for sin.  That's how powerful honoring one's father is.  So if have a lot of sins to atone for, basically Sirach is saying, “do yourself a favor, honor your father, keep the commandment.”  It also talks about the fact that whoever does this commandment, whoever honors his father, is going to experience joy.  In particular, he will be joyful because he is going to be gladdened by children, by his own children.  So why would that be the case?  Well there is a kind of natural reciprocity here that if I curse my father who is the source of my own life - that I am his child — that would be at odds with me being blessed with my own children, receiving joy from my children.  I think you can actually see this just on a practical level.  If you see someone who has a healthy relationship with their own father or their own parents, the likelihood that they'll have a healthy relationship with their children is increased just because of that natural habit of learning to honor the father.  That is then going to bear itself out in the habit of having a peaceful and loving family life.

It also says something interesting…that if we want our prayers to be heard by God, then we need to honor our parents, we need to honor our fathers.  So when we pray to God the Father, he will hear us if we honor our earthly fathers.  And then finally, it also promises longevity — that is kind of interesting — if we honor our parents we will have long life.  Why would that be the case?  Well think about it.  Our parents are the source of our natural life, so if we dishonor our parents or we curse the source of our own life, you can see how one of the effects of that on a spiritual level would be a kind of decrease in our natural powers.  If we will bad things for the ones who gave us life, then it would be fitting that our own life would be shortened or taken away.  So God is trying to say, positively speaking, if we honor the ones who gave us life, we can also be blessed with long life.  And remember, this is the Old Testament, where the promises of God are going to be fulfilled in material, earthly ways as a preparation for the fulfillment of God's promises through invisible, spiritual ways in the New Covenant.  So that's honoring the father.

What about our relation with our mother?  This gets even more interesting because it says you honor your father, but you glorify your mother.  The Greek word here is literally glorify, which is interesting because it's an actual translation, a literal translation, of the word in Exodus.  So although most of us learned in catechism that the commandment is honor your father, the Hebrew is actually stronger than that.  In Hebrew the word for honor comes from the Hebrew word kabodah, which is the word for glory, kabod is the glory of God.  So we are not just supposed to honor our father and mother in the sense of begrudgingly show deference to them, we are supposed to glorify them.  We are supposed to lavish praise upon them, to honor them in an extraordinary way, not just an ordinary way.  And so here Sirach takes up that language and says glorify your mother, and when you do this you are going to lay up treasure.  Now what does that mean?  Well it's laying up treasure against the debt of our sin.  A very common metaphor in the book of Sirach is that our sins are like debts that we have to pay off, and our righteous deeds are like credits that can undo the effects of that debt.  Jesus actually uses this language in the Sermon on the Mount when he says “lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.”  Right.  Not on earth but in heaven.  What kind of treasure is he talking about?  He is talking about spiritual wealth.  He is taking about the spiritual treasure that we amass from every good deed that we do that is done out of charity and obedience to God.  So when we glorify our mothers, we lay up treasure, heavenly treasure so to speak, and we also give joy to our mothers.  We just refresh her as the book of Sirach says. 

And then finally, the last directives here are very powerful and I think they are a real challenge to us today in a culture that does not see the elderly as valuable.  We are to help our parents in their old age.  Sirach just focuses on the father figure here, but it can be applied to either father or mother.  So Sirach tells us that we have to help our fathers in their old age, and in particular we need to avoid the temptation of despising elderly parents as they start to lose their strength or as they start to lose their mental faculties or their mental capabilities.  You can think about memory loss or dementia or Alzheimer’s, those are exaggerated examples of what happens to everyone as they age.  Our mental faculties grow weak and it is easy for the young to despise the weakness of the elderly, but Sirach is warning us here, do not do that.  Help your parents in their old age.  Help your father in his old age.  Don't despise them and that if you do this, if you show kindness to a parent in their old age, it will be credited to you against the debt of your sins.  So this is very serious business and again, if you have many sins, and you would like to try to repair some of the damage done by that, there are lots of things you can do.  You can give to the poor, you can worship God, but you can also perform the fourth commandment faithfully and joyfully, which is honoring your parents, especially when they enter into their twilight years and they get older and they begin to develop some of the weaknesses that we see spoken of here in Sirach.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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