Volume 8, Issue 4: Medicus
Pleading the Fifth
The fifth commandment is pivotal in the decalogue. The first four commandments outline man's relationship to God. The fifth turns to human relations beginning with the family. Honor toward parents anchors society and provides generational continuity of the faith. The promise for long life going well (Deut. 5:16) for adherence, and the attendant "lamp in deep darkness" (Prov. 20:20) for disobeying are unique to the series. I wonder how many patients whom I see in my office would not be there if this commandment were assiduously followed.
The promise for long life going well is one which seems to follow human logic. Promising Abraham a son and descendants outnumbering the stars (Gen. 15:5) defies human logic. Honoring parents makes sense for the highly dependent human offspring which enjoys a much longer period of dependency than animals. Even pagan parents seem to be consistent well-wishers for their children. This raises an important point since the commandment to honor our parents is unqualified. The commandment does not read "Honor your parents as long as they are Christian." As Christians we must honor our parents as long as doing so does not cause us to sin.
An area where honoring has seemed to have fallen the farthest the fastest is in our care for our aging parents. Many circumstances are contributing to the difficulties many adults are having as their parents enter their second childhood. Mobility has added a dimension of complexity with fewer children growing up in geographic proximity to the previous generation. Providing increasing amounts of support is more difficult when done over greater distances.
Added to this is a longer life span. With life expectancies stretching into the eighth and ninth decade on a regular basis, the period of dependency at the end of life may soon be longer than the period of dependency at the beginning of life. This has led to the use of the term "grumpies" to refer to those adults who are caring for children during their most expensive period of dependency, i.e. college, at a time when their parents are also in need of their support.
The movement of women from the home to the work place has dealt a lethal blow to caring for aging parents. The majority of American homes have two wage earners and mortgages to make sure they both report to work. The children are in school or day care which necessitates that Grandma and Grandpa head for the nursing home when they are no longer able to make it on their own.
These circumstantial challenges would probably receive a rebuke from Christ similar to His words in Mark 7:10-13: "For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother, and, `He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, `If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban"(that is a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the words of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.'"
What would a biblical model of family look like and how would it cope with its aging members? The first requirement is for men to embrace their headship of the household. Men are called to glorify God through the work they are called to do in the world (Gen. 2:15). With regard to their families, men are called to protection and provision.
"And I looked, and arose and said to the nobles, to the leaders, and to the rest of the people, `Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses'" (Neh. 4:14). And the Bible also says, "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). Women are called to serve and help a man. "And the Lord God said, `It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him'" (Gen. 2:18). And Paul says, "For man is not from woman, but woman from the man" (1 Cor. 11:8-9). Women must work hard as well (Prov. 31), but it is not the work of responsible provision. Rather it is the work of responsible service and management.
Care for widows is expressly defined. "But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God" (1 Tim. 5:4).
A biblical home should have a man at the head, a woman supporting him, children as blessings from the Lord honoring their parents, and the capacity, should it ever be required, to assume the care of an aging parent.