Theology Matters by The Rev. Bill Murray

 The Commandments 4-6

My younger son is a joy and a challenge. From his earliest moments on this earth, he has been a willful child. Said differently, my son loves to break the rules. We discovered very quickly that the best and only way to get him to do something was to enjoy full-press reverse psychology on everything. “Son, you are not allowed to pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper!” With a chuckle and delighted glee, he would gather up each piece and sprint to the laundry room. “You cannot eat your peas.” Like clockwork, the pile of green English peas would be consumed. Even his older brother learned quickly that telling him not to do something was the quickest way to getting what you want. Of course, there were and are rules that we make clear. Certain commands are not negotiable and are to keep him safe. We just have to craft them in such a way that we avoid words like “no”, “not” and “never.”

Imagine my delight when I was assigned the fourth, fifth, and sixth commandments. God handed down ten rules, among many others, to Moses. Of those instructions for better living, eight begin with “no” in Hebrew. Four and five are reminders of how to live a better life through positive requests. In case you do not have them memorized, number four is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) The fifth commandment comes shortly after, “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12) In many ways, they may be the toughest of the ten to follow. We can avoid a host of problems but being asked to dedicate a day to God and love our families is going a whole lot farther towards ordering our lives.

The official reasoning for setting aside a day is that God rested on the seventh day of creation. As a result, many folks will talk about how we must rest from our labors as though that is sole the purpose of the day. Terence Fretheim, a Lutheran professor, notes that true “Sabbath-keeping puts all human striving aside, recognizes the decisive role of God in creation, and provides for a weekly oasis to rest back in the arms of this reality.”[1] In others words, keeping the Sabbath holy is a clear reminder that we are not the center of the universe. God started creation before us and will complete it long after us. Through baptism and a life in Christ, we are beloved sons and daughters of God and participants in God’s kingdom. In the same breath, we rely on God from beginning to end for all of it. Sabbath keeping in this sense is about worshipping God and about reordering our lives weekly to what matters in God’s kingdom, not our personal fiefdoms.

The closest we come to understanding that call to a life prioritizing others is family. So, God continues the request that we order our lives differently by instructing us to honor our mothers and fathers. Regardless of our age, our parents are reminders that we did not get to where we are alone. From the beginning we need someone to feed us, clean us, care for us, instruct us, raise us up, and remind us that it is not all about us. We are pulled into relationship from birth through the desperate and basic needs of human life. Our parents are walking, talking, incarnate reminders that we did not do it all alone. Honoring our fathers and mothers is an invitation by God to remember that there are a million ways to be in relationship, most of them modeled by our parents in the first place. God’s command is a deeper reminder of the one who created us in the first place and upon whom we should depend at every age. Whether we have perfect parents, difficult relationships, never knew them, or lost them years ago, the instruction to honor fathers and mothers encourages us to reflect on all who have shaped, molded, and mentored us - and especially on our God who created us out of nothing to be who we are today.

The movement from keeping the Sabbath to honoring our parents is positive in command and breathtaking in simplicity. Taking time to remember who is in charge makes sense and flows into a gentle reminder that many others brought us to this day. To argue from lesser to greater, the work and ministry of being a parent has made me even more appreciative of all that my mom and dad did to raise me. And yes, I marvel even more at how much God engages us as our divine Father despite the fact that we are all a willful, crazy, sinful, broken humanity. In the end, it makes perfect sense that God starts again with the “do not’s” in commandment six. God may well be reminding himself as a loving parent as much as instructing us when we struggle with relationships large and small, “Do not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) Of course, if we are doing the hard work of keeping the Sabbath and honoring our parents, human and divine, then avoiding that one should be easy.        

[1] Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, Kohn Knox Press: 1991), 230.

The Rev. Bill Murray is Vicar at Saint Michael and All Angels in Dallas

Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.