What does “honor” mean? (Mother’s Day)

Good morning, Friends! Happy Mother’s Day!

Mother’s Day is always a very special day for people. No matter what age or race we are, no matter what our background is, we all had a mother.

Many of us are deeply grateful for our mothers. A lot of us have happy, loving memories of the ones who nursed us, raised us and cared for us. Whether that was our biological mother, or an adoptive mother, or someone else, we wouldn’t be here without their care when we were young. We wouldn’t have survived.

It may surprise you that Mother’s Day isn’t mentioned in the Bible. The Bible does talk about the love and care, the wisdom and guidance that mothers give. But it’s not a holiday in the Bible, the way Christmas and Easter are.

However, here we are, and there are some important words from the Bible, and some important questions that the holiday raises.

For our Scripture today, I’m going to turn to one of the oldest teachings in the Jewish Scriptures. It’s one of the 10 commandments.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12

The commandment to honor our parents is one of the oldest commandments in the Bible. It goes all the way back to the time of Moses.

God gave this commandment to honor our parents along with the rest of the 10 Commandments, in a vision of fire and thunder and lightning on the top of Mount Sinai. The earth shook, and people fell on their faces in awe and fear.

God said, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children, and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, and write them on your forehead. Inscribe them on every door of your house. . .” (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

Pretty impressive, huh? I guess God really wants us to remember this stuff!

Honoring our parents – not just today, but every day – is at the center of what God tells us to do.

It’s significant that this commandment comes right after the “big 5” commandments which deal directly with our relationship to God – “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make idols, you shall not take God’s name in vain, remember the sabbath.”

Honoring parents comes ahead of all the rest of the “social sins”. It’s more important than not murdering, not committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and not hankering after anything which doesn’t belong to us. In the Bible, honoring parents is really important!

But what does “honor” really mean?

The word for “honor” in Hebrew is related to the Hebrew word for weight. It literally means to feel the weight of the relationship we have with our parents, and it’s the same word which is used to describe our relationship with God.

If you think about it, our parents are our creators, just as God is. They made us. We depend on them, just as we depend on God. They teach us everything when we’re young, just as God teaches us. Our parents feed us. They clothe us. They nurse us. They protect us. They keep us safe. Those are all things which God does for us, too. Even if our parents aren’t the greatest in the world, even if our parents have serious flaws, the Bible tells us to honor them.

The rabbis spent hundreds of years working out in detail just what it means to honor our parents.

They said, among many other things, that we should not curse our parents. Actually, that doesn’t mean to use cuss words at our parents. It means that we should not take them lightly. That’s the opposite of honor – to take the relationship lightly, to disregard the relationship, to wish that the relationship didn’t exist.

The rabbis said we shouldn’t contradict or interrupt our parents, which I could see causing problems for some teenagers I know.

The rabbis said not to disturb our parents’ sleep – I wonder how many times I’ve done that over the years? They said not to speak arrogantly to our parents – oops! – and not to shame them in public.

The rabbis said that “honoring” means we have to provide food for our parents, and take them home, and care for them. And the rabbis said that we have to do all these things whether we feel like it, or not.

The rabbis forgot to say that we shouldn’t hang up on our parents sometimes, or that we have to listen when they give us the same advice they’ve given us a hundred times already. There’s nothing in the Bible about fixing your parents’ computer when they’ve messed it up for the third time this week, but somehow I think that’s covered.

It’s a pretty tall order. And it brings up a lot of issues which many of us feel today. The relationship which we have with our parents is a weighty one, and many of us have struggled with what to do with our parents.

At the time the book of Exodus was written, most people didn’t live to be very old.

You remember how the people of Israel wandered around in the desert for 40 years? One of the reasons was that none of the dads would ask for directions. But one of the other reasons was that God said that none of the people who actually left Israel and escaped Pharaoh would still be around by the time they got to the Promised Land.

So, the length of time for the obligation to honor your parents would have been much shorter back then than it is now. Thank God – and I mean it! – most of our parents are living much longer these days.

But it also means that many families today are called the “sandwich generation” — they’re caught in the middle, between caring for their children, and also caring for their parents.

It’s a blessing that people today often live into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. But it forces us into a new understanding of what it means to honor our parents.

As a pastor, I spend many, many hours, listening to older people who say they don’t want to be a burden to their children.

I also spend many hours, listening to grown-up children, who are overwhelmed by the unbearable burden of giving up their own lives for years, to care for the parents they love. I sit with families who have to make impossibly hard decisions about medical care and the end of life. What does “honor” mean then?

And even when we’re not in those really hard moments, I find myself thinking, “I’d better not do that. Mom wouldn’t like it!” Or I step back from pouring gasoline on a family fight, because Mom always wanted peace in the family.

Mother’s Day is a good time for us to reflect on all this. If your mother’s alive, I hope all of you sent her a card this weekend. Or a telephone call. Or some flowers. Or chocolate. (I always found that chocolate is a very powerful sin offering if I hadn’t called my mom lately.)

I still catch myself, wishing that I could just call my mom now and then. I’ll see something, or think of something, or remember something, and wish that I could talk to her about it.

If you have children, this is a good weekend to get in touch with them, and tell them that you love them, and maybe tell them some other things they need to hear.

I always feel that Mother’s Day also needs to be a day when we care for people who have lost their mothers, and when we care for mothers who have lost children. And care for women who, for whatever reason, have never had children of their own. In all the celebration, this needs to be a day for special sensitivity and caring.

I’d also like us to remember that here in our meeting, women are the heart of the meeting. And I’m not just talking about all the practical and nurturing things which women do. So often, women represent the faith, hope and love of the meeting. They’re the ones who speak up, and remind us of who we are, and what we need to do. They’re the ones, so often, who share their love with all the children of the meeting as Sunday School teachers.

A few times in the Bible, someone is described as a “mother of Israel” or as a “mother of the church”. We remember people like that here at Springfield, people who care about more than just their own family, but who reach out to children of all ages and care for them as if they were their own. There can be no greater honor, than to be one of those.

Another way to look at what honor means, is for us to remember that both women and men are in God’s image. Let’s remember that! Women and men are both gifted beyond measure.

What kind of blindness is it which puts down half the human race? What kind of stupidity is it, which denies the gifts of people who bear us, nurse us, raise us, teach us, heal us and lead us? We are all poorer, if women are ignored or taken for granted. We are all losers if women are victimized, denied their rights, or paid less than they earn.

The commandment to honor our parents is a commandment to recognize their worth and importance in our lives. In most cases, our mothers teach us how to talk, how to walk, how to listen, how to be responsible, and how to believe. Our mothers get up in the middle of the night when we’re crying, and take care of us when we’re sick.

They teach us to be thankful – how many times did your mother say, “Remember to say ‘Thank you!’?” They remind us of important events. They listen while we learn to read, and they tell us stories which not only entertain us, but which shape our whole lives.

Our mothers aren’t perfect – but we learn important things from their failings and imperfections.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard that women were the first disciples who were on the scene at the empty tomb on Easter morning. Women can be, should be, and are ministers, preachers and prophets.

Over 170 years ago, the Quaker reformer Lucretia Mott said, “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.”

I’m proud that my grandmother was a pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights, and that she taught the children of former slaves to read. Her sister was one of the first social workers, and her sister-in-law who lived with them owned and ran her own independent business for 40 years.

I’m proud that my mom earned a master’s degree from Yale University – she was the first person in her entire family to do so. I’m proud that my mother-in-law was not only an outstanding Christian, who lived her faith, but she was also an amazing artist, whose vision and love for beauty helped to shape my whole adult life.

There are many, many other women, in my family, and in all our families, whose lives and deeds we don’t remember or don’t know about.

The women of our families, the women of our meeting, and the women of the world, all deserve the honor of all of us.

On Mother’s Day, we need to remember that they deserve not only our love and thanks and care and tenderness. They deserve our honor, for who they are and all that they do. They deserve our honor.

And chocolate. Don’t forget the chocolate!

Happy Mother’s Day.

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