“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12
Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
Point by Point
- This law-word is not directed to children; it is for adults
- Israel was to be the people who honored, who took care of aged parents
- By Jesus’ day, the ‘lawyers’ created a loophole so the rich could skirt this duty
- Jesus condemns this legal lawbreaking (Mark 7:11)
- God wanted Israel to be the wealthy, generous nation which influenced all the rest
- By Jesus’ time, even the Romans despised the Jews’ treatment of their parents
- How do we expand this law? Jesus began with his disciples and a common purse (John 12:6; 13:29)
- The early church expanded to all in their fellowship and beyond (Acts 2; 4)
- Carefree generosity is a sign of the kingdom; it is new creation behavior
- Right now the ministries which we need to reach the world are starving for funds
- How will the Spirit break forth in new-creation generous honor in our time?
While we usually direct this fifth word to children, it was originally meant for and addressed to adults. The core meaning was that adult children needed to care for aged parents when they were no longer able to take care of themselves. This is why the promise attached to the law concerns the length of years which each person will live. The idea was, if your children see you taking care of your parents, they, in turn, will follow your good example and will take care of you, and “your days will be long in the land.” This law flew in the face of the common wisdom that a person who could no longer provide for him or herself should be abandoned, should be “put out on the ice,” should be allowed to starve. In this law God was pushing back hard against the “I’ve got mine: too bad about you!” sort of individualism which was (and is) so antithetical to the kind of commonwealth/civil society which God planned to shape among the Israelites.
As I often teach in my classes, it was Yahweh’s design, apparently, when he rescued Israel from the Egyptian empire to transform frightened, victimized Israel into a model society for emulation by the rest of the nations, to God’s ultimate glory and for Israel’s blessing. God wanted Israel to embody justice, generosity and integrity so that all the nations would stream to the mountain of Yahweh and learn the ways of “shalom,” of peace (see Isaiah 2:2-4 and Micah 4:2-4). In order to teach Israel to be generous to all the nations God had to start somewhere. Although God would eventually extend charity and caring throughout the society, with this law, Yahweh began at home. If the people could learn to take care of the needy and the vulnerable in their immediate families, then they could learn to extend that care outward to the clan, the tribe, to the entire nation and beyond.
How things can change for the worse. Whereas some laws were held firmly and their meanings expanded, this law suffered until by Jesus’ time; its scope had been narrowed and its core intent had been subverted. As Jesus pointed out to the teachers of Israel, they had actually developed a neat trick by which the wealthy could exempt themselves from having to support their own aged parents! Once the temple was rebuilt by the people (516 bc) it became customary for those with wealth to deposit their excess capital in the temple treasury in what amounted to an early form of savings accounts. The big benefit of this arrangement was that it was understood that anyone who gives anything to the temple thereby “dedicates” it to God. And anything which has been dedicated to God cannot be required of the person to pay a debt or for any other purpose. So those who could afford to deposit their money with the temple essentially sheltered all such money from any obligations they might otherwise have. And so if their parents fell on hard times, the rich of Israel could say, “I’m sorry, Dad, Mom. The money I would have had to help you out has been given to God who has priority over all things. I would help you if I could, but the money is ‘corban,’ that is, it is dedicated to God.”
Of course, if the miserable miscreant wanted to withdraw the money from his own account in the temple treasury, it was his right to do so, but since he did not have to, he didn’t. Ironically, because of the rulings of the doctors of the law, to refuse to help one’s own troubled parents in this way was considered an act of piety, an example of putting God first!
Although it was sanctioned by the Bible experts of his day, Jesus saw this practice for what it was, a serious breach of holy Torah-keeping. Declaring all deposits in the temple treasury ‘corban’ demonstrated the very opposite of the generosity which God had always wanted to teach the nations through Israel’s good example
In these posts, I have regularly asked the question, ‘how do we turn such and such law around and see it positive, power-side out, through the laws of love?’ In this case, since the law is not negatively stated, we need not turn it around. What we can do, however, is ask how this law ought be extended as nearly all of Israel’s laws had implications beyond their core meanings. Obviously, those who call themselves by the kingly  title of Jesus, ought to take care of their parents when they get too old to do so themselves.
Is there more? In early Israel the limits of generosity went just to those defined as neighbors, beyond the village, beyond the clan, beyond the tribe. In Jesus’ time, if one was a Jew, another Jew was probably considered one’s neighbor. Beyond that, no one was. Yet from the beginning, the early church was built upon spiritual family ties. Jesus said those who did the works of his father in heaven were his brother, sister and mother (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:21. Jesus and the twelve shared everything. They had a common purse. (John 12:6, 13:29).
And when the church was born on Pentecost, carefree generosity flowed from the powerful grace of God. From the beginning, the disciples simply added new members of the community and new income and outgo to that common purse. It must have been an administrative miracle for a few dozen men and women to suddenly integrate 3000 new members into their community in one day. Not that all of the first fruits of the first day of the church lived in Jerusalem. Some returned to their far-flung communities and established Christian fellowship, some including the common purse, in Parthia, Elam, Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia, Egypt and even Rome. We know the common purse spread among the churches which Paul later established because in three letters he discusses the circumstances and conditions under which certain people should either be supported from the purse or excluded from its support (Galatians 6:6; II Thessalonians 3:6-15 and I Timothy 5:9-16). The I Timothy passage especially speaks to how Christian communities sought to honor the widows in their midst, those who could not rely on families and who were not prepared to remarry.
So how then should we “reletter” this ancient law to speak to our new community and society? How about “Honor – take care of – each other and all those around you in need so that the fruits of the kingdom may begin to show up all over and you and many others may live long on the earth.”
Ours is a society where the forces of empire are gathering up all wealth and all power. In such a world if we are to stand as a healing, reconciling force, Christians are going to need to stand together and see to each other’s needs. Otherwise, we will be picked off and ground down, one at a time. We must contribute to the needs of the saints and then to the larger society, otherwise there will be no one to minister to the society at all.
So how shall we pray and what shall we do? I am praying for mercy, for the opposite of what I deserve. I have not been very generous but I need the generosity of God in my life. So do you. So do we all. We need to pray that God will show us how Holy Spirit-driven generosity is going to break out among the people God again in our time, not just in one or two people who have wealth, but among all the saints, rich and poor. How will God cause us to honor not only our biological parents but all the good and nurturing works which must grow all over earth if the new creation is to break forth in our midst again? I am perplexed about this but I am not hopeless. I expect the Spirit to break forth in new works of carefree new community any day, any hour!
Holy God, it is sung in our time, ‘Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die!’ Forgive your people, Lord. We talk good talk but we do not walk the risky lives to which you call us. We pray, Lord, for a new work of your Spirit, one that opens the doors of our souls and might to the freely giving Spirit which we confess. Pour out into your people, Lord, the fire hose of grace that opens our hearts to imagine and see ourselves as your body, giving honor, one to another. Build in your people, Lord, the gritty fortitude that does on Monday morning and Thursday afternoon and Saturday night what we confess on Sunday. Bless the ties which bind us to each other as freely giving saints, for the sake of your glory and our eventual blessing. We ask these things in the name of him who spent everything for the sake of his family, our bother and very rich uncle, Jesus, the King! Amen.
1 Back to Post When Mark wrote his gospel, apparently for a Gentile and perhaps even a Roman, Latin-speaking audience, he does not dwell much on Jesus’ treatment of the ordinances of Moses since most Gentiles knew from nothing about Israel’s law. Yet the one criticism of Jewish law-keeping and breaking which Mark does include is this detail is the way the wealthy in Israel justified not honoring their parents. Romans, by contrast, had an exalted view of their aged parents and considered any breach of care for their elderly relatives among the very worst possible “sins” a person could commit, behavior which would ruin the reputation of anyone who behaved in such a miserable fashion. So although Mark said almost nothing about Jewish law in his gospel, he does mention what Jesus says about corban: Romans would understand this and they would have been scandalized.)
2 Back to Post It is worth noting that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name. It is the Greek word which translates the Hebrew,‘meshiah’ or messiah, which meant, literally, ‘those set apart by oil poured over the head for special responsibility,’ usually, priests and the king. By Jesus’ time, when the word messiah was used to designate a specific special person, it referred to the kingly office which had not been filled – and so the oil which had not been poured – for hundreds of years. Israel waited for its messiah, its anointed one, its king. So, later, after the church had been born and had begun to spread out into gentile territory, it was first at the Syrian city of Antioch that others began to refer to the followers of Jesus as “little kings,” diminutive anointed ones, or as, ‘Christians.’)
3 Back to Post I used to wonder why the flight attendant’s instructions, in case of an emergency, were to put on your own mask before you help another. Then it dawned on slow me: if I am not coherent, having put on my own mask first, I will fail to help my child and then we will both die. What better way to destroy Christian works of mercy than to cripple the ability of the mercy workers to provide for their own needs. All over the U.S. right now in this “great recession”/”jobless recovery”, churches and Christian ministries are starving for funds and they are laying off their workers. There is no more bread for the poor if the baker dies for lack of bread.)