This Mother’s Day, I recall that, in my elementary years, both my mother and my Sunday school teacher taught me the Fifth Commandment from God to Moses: “Honor your father and mother ...” (Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16).
They basically taught me that “honor” meant the same as “respect,” and that “respect” included obedience, as in, “Obey your father and mother ...”
I suspected even then what became my self-interest as a parent of two sons 20-plus years later: Parents always have a vested interest in children obeying them.
A few years before my two sons were born, though, I additionally learned that “respect” in The Fifth Commandment, in the original Hebrew language of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is a word associated with “weight in heaviness and value,” as in gold or silver. The Greek translation — prior to any English translation — is more what we understand as “honoring because — or from — the value.”
Either way, the emphasis is less on obedience as such. The emphasis, more precisely, is honoring because there is value in the person. Some describe this honoring with the “three-dollar” adjective, “intrinsic,” which means “from the start” or “given the nature of.” God’s word expects an honoring that is exemplified in sacred respect of every person, which does not imply that parents are always flawless — any more than are daughters and sons.
When in my late 20s, I was learning how honoring parents was more than obedience to maintain orderly behavior on the part of children, I was taught by five or six mentors that God’s people should never pretend or think that healthy relationships or smooth situations between mothers and fathers and their sons and daughters are the stereotypical norm.
Leading up to this Mother’s Day, I have been reading Mary Gordon’s memoir from 2007, Circling My Mother. Mary Gordon, born in 1949, writes of her perceptions of her mother across 50 years, at the end of which time her mother was almost 90. Mary uses the term “circling” in the book’s title as an image of seeing her mother from diverse angles and viewpoints across the years.
Theirs was a complicated relationship. Mary’s father died when she was 8. From that point, her mother was a working single parent. Mary Gordon notes how, as a young child, she was in awe of the passion her parents shared, but that, even as their child, she realized she was not the center of their best attention. She writes, “My mother must have been constantly exhausted as a working single parent” (p.180).
Then she tells her perception of aging mother in the years nearing her death: “My mother was an alcoholic. This was dangerous to her because of the danger of falling, since she already was balance-compromised” (pp.248-49).
As an adult daughter, Mary’s conclusion is: “I will try to keep my mother from vanishing. ... I find the world to be full of undulations, everything moving, nothing forever still. My idea of my mother, also, cannot be still. My love” (p.254).
My mother and my Sunday school teacher were “on target” to teach me the essence of the Fifth Commandment, as my mentors were when counsel me how wished-for stereotypes of “sweet,” “nice” and “uncomplicated” are, in fact, not helpful or accurate. Our better goals for honoring each one as intrinsically valuable are grace, reconciliation, and perseverance for moving forward. It’s taken the undulations of Mary Gordon’s memoir, of being a parent, and of being an adult son to help this picture come into focus, still with love that perseveres.
Ted V. Foote Jr. has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bryan since 2007.