Words of Love: Honor the Life-Givers (Horizons 4)

Love Carved in Stone: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments
Lesson 4: Exodus 20:13 and Matthew 5:21-26

The training for the board of the nonprofit took an unexpected but meaningful turn. The trainer asked us why we serve on the board. Our answers to the trainer’s question were generally about helping those who are homeless and preventing cycles of abuse. Then a big, burly man – let’s call him Tom – answered. He said that his parents told him that he would never amount to anything and, of course, he believed his parents.

As a boy, Tom had been a scout. His scoutmaster – let’s call him Miquel – was kind and praised each boy for small and large accomplishments. The boys were quick to follow Miquel’s instructions. The scoutmaster offered to pick up boys for church and Tom often went with them. From the messages at church and the encouragements from Miquel, Tom began to believe in a different future. A future that included college and a responsible job. Today, Tom is the chief financial officer for a company. Tom said that he wanted to give back what he had received from his scoutmaster.

Tom’s story illustrates the power of a person who is life-giving both spiritually and emotionally. Tom’s own parents were not life-givers. They failed to do important things as parents. They did not encourage, act toward his well-being, bring joy nor train him to do well in life. They were abysmally unable to love Tom. Tom’s parents did not deserve respect and obedience in Tom’s life. However, the scoutmaster did deserve to be honored because Miquel was the life-giver for Tom.

Eugenia Gamble reframes the Fifth Word as “honor the life-givers,” rather than “honor father and mother.” Gamble writes, “The Fifth Word is about how we honor life and all the people who nurture life in us” (“Love Carved in Stone,” page 50). For those of us brought up by critical, shaming or cruel parents, honoring life-givers frees us to celebrate those who nurtured and cared for us outside of our homes.

“To honor” has a wealth of meaning. It is to give a place of priority, to take specific steps to preserve the dignity of another person, to take positive steps to bring joy or improve the lives of others.

The commandment to honor our fathers and mothers focuses not on children obeying their parents, but on adult children caring for their elderly parents. When parents are no longer able to be productive because of illness or age, their adult children are to care for them. The commandment is to safeguard the elderly from abuse and neglect. Also, in honoring fathers and mothers, God provided a “breathtaking break-through” by extending honor to one’s mother in a society where men had control over women, children, servants and slaves.

In the New Testament, attention is given to the flip side of the commandment to honor those who have control over others. Fathers are enjoined to not provoke their children to anger and slave owners are instructed to treat their slaves with kindness since both master and slave have the same Lord who shows no partiality (see Ephesians 6:1-7).

Over time, the meaning of this Word of God has been broadened to include all those in authority, whether at home, church or government. Using biblical passages like Romans 13:1-7, Christians were taught to obey government leaders. However, the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, did not believe in blind obedience. He qualified the circumstances under which respect was due. Calvin believed that obedience is given to persons in authority when the authority figure does what is in accord with the will of God in building a just and compassionate society. If a person in authority makes love of God, neighbor and self impossible, then we are released from the commandment to respect and obey them.

Does this mean that if someone is abusive to us, we owe them nothing? No, for Jesus teaches that we are to act for the well-being of ourselves, neighbors and enemies alike because God showers goodness upon the good and the evil. But acting for others’ well-being does not mean that we like or trust those who suck the life out of us. Sometimes we must limit our exposure to toxic people and, unlike Snow White, we must not accept the poisoned apple from those who mean us harm. When we have been wounded by people, we can seek healing in prayer, spiritual direction or therapy. We can also invest in forgiveness, so our past does not determine our future. (For more on this topic, Marjorie Thompson’s excellent book, “Forgiveness: A Lenten Study,” is a good guide.)

rosalind-banburyRosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.

You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.