We recently finished a study on the Ten Commandments at Grace, where every week we looked at one commandment closely, clarifying its meaning, exploring the ways other passages expanded on, qualified, or illustrated it, and asking what it means for our lives today. I had a great time researching and preparing all of that material, and I had an equally great and equally illuminating time discussing all of this with the group each week. Since time for blogging has been hard to come by lately, I thought it may be good to share a bit from one of those studies here.
Honoring your father and your mother is the 5th commandment.
A lot of people find it helpful to break the Ten Commandments into two sections: 1-4, which focus on our relationship with and responsibilities towards the Lord, and 5-10, which emphasize our relationship with and responsibilities toward our neighbors. Those aren't hard and fast divisions. After all, all ten of these commandments are a response to God's delivering Israel from Egypt and making covenant with them. And even in the first four commandments you can see a concern for neighbors (for instance, notice the insistence in Ex 20:10 / Deut 5:14 that 'resting on the Sabbath' cannot mean 'resting at someone else's expense': your neighbors - servants, children, livestock, whatever - need rest too). But dividing the commandments between #4 and #5 can still be a helpful move.
And if you do, then the 5th commandment becomes the first commandment focused on our neighbors. Honoring your parents becomes a starting point for directing our lives towards others.
Why would that be? Why start talking about our obligations towards our neighbors with our parents?
This reminds me of a passage from C. S. Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters, a fictional correspondence between two demons, a senior Tempter named Screwtape, and his inexperienced nephew Wormwood, discussing the man Wormwood's trying to tempt. In letter 6, Screwtape advises Wormwood:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity it growing between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.
The people we don't know, out on "the remote circumference," are the 'starving children in Africa'. Real people, with real struggles, but folks we'll probably never know and never have to learn to love as our neighbors. (We don't even know enough to say what country they're from! It's just "Africa.") It's easy to care about them, but often that care is imaginary - it doesn't have the marks or the effects of the hard-earned care you have for a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. It's little more than a warm feeling, hardly the love-in-action that our immediate neighbors demand from us. The tempters, then, want us to spend all of our 'care' on those people out on the remote circumference, rather than on the people we actually live alongside.
Why would the commandments concerning our neighbors start with our families?
Because if we want to learn to love people, we have to start with the folks we live with every day. That's where we'll learn real benevolence: with the people we know the best, warts and all, but whom we still have to love, day in, day out. Before you can get to ‘thou shalt not steal’ or ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor’ or any of the others, you have to learn to love your family. When you learn how to do that (or at least how to try), the Holy Spirit's cultivated some real benevolence in your soul, and you’re ready to move past the 5th commandment and love some other folks.