The options for today’s feast day are very rich and varied with many themes. I’ve selected them so as to focus on the Fourth Commandment. Here is the link to the readings on the USCCB website.
Central Idea: The fourth commandment serves and protects the family.
Sir 3:2-6, 12-14:
- God has designed the human family so that parents have a natural authority over their children; that children should respond to their parents’ goodness to them by honoring and obeying them; and that children who do so are rewarded.
- The obligation to honor one’s parents remains even when children are grown and no longer have an obligation to obey.
- Psychologists tell us that the Old Testament observation that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children is true in that all the good and evil parents do affects their progeny for generations (Ex 20:5-6).
Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5:
- The proper piety of a good child to his or her good father includes a fear—not so much of punishment than of disappointing and dishonoring that parent. In our relationship with God, that is what Fear of the Lord means.
- Psalm 128 focuses on the blessings a good father will see in his own family. His work will be fruitful: the family will have the material blessings it needs; his wife will be fruitful; his children will be strong and healthy; society, too, will benefit.
- A wife or a child could meditate on this psalm from his or her point of view.
2 Col 3:12-21:
- St. Paul speaks of the virtues which ought to exist in a Christian family. These virtues are the real basis of the happiness any family on earth can experience, despite any tragedies, accidents, illnesses, and difficulties.
- These are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, peace, gratitude, wisdom, and above all, love.
- Then Paul adds some other stipulations which we may find harder to accept.
- In the family, by God’s design, the husband should hold the final authority which he should exercise without any tyranny.
- Husbands are to love their wives, not have any bitterness toward them, and not provoke their children to discouragement or rebellion.
- If the father exercises his authority in this way, then it will be easier for the children to give proper obedience and honor to their parents and for wives to defer to their husbands when a decision must be made.
- Jesus Christ is a human son and a divine son. In this episode of Jesus’ finding in the Temple, we see revealed Christ’s primary obedience to his Father, God the Father, because he is God the Son. Christ redeemed us by his life-long and total obedience to the will of his Father, which climaxed on the Cross. Nevertheless, this Son subordinated himself to his human parents—his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary and his foster-father St. Joseph—and “was obedient to them.”
- Again, Mary “kept these things in her heart,” that is she meditated on them or thought about them.
Doctrine: The Fourth Commandment
- The subject of the fourth commandment—“Honor your father and your mother”—is the love that ought to exist between parents and children. By extension, it also pertains to the relations between any authority and those under that authority.
- Children to parents: Children owe honor, obedience, respect, and love to their parents both for giving them life and as representatives of God’s authority over them. Little children naturally pour out love and affection on their parents. They are also usually naturally obedient. As they grow, obedience and honor may become more difficult. Children never have to obey an order if it is morally wrong. An adult child’s obligation to obey parents ceases but the obligation to keep loving, honoring, and helping them does not. According to the book of Sirach, children should help parents when they get old, and show kindness even if they become senile. God will richly bless whoever does this.
- Parents to children: Parents also owe love to their children. Parental love has tremendous importance for the emotional, psychological, and spiritual health of children. Parents also owe love to each other for the sake of their children. Having parents who don’t love each other and them causes deep and life-long wounds in the children. Three major duties parents have toward their children are to be fair and understanding, impart appropriate discipline, and instruct them in the faith.
- Parents should show respect for children as children of God. Our children don’t “belong” to us. They are God’s and have a dignity equal to adults.
- Discipline means training in good habits like the proper use of freedom, self-control, and responsibility—in fact, every virtue. Children typically view discipline as painful at first but it makes one “righteous” or holy later on.
- Catholic parents have a serious obligation to form and educate their sons and daughters in the Catholic religion. Children need to know the faith, learn to pray, become friends with Jesus Christ, and live without excessive attachment to material goods. However, the choice of a child’s vocation is up to the child and God, not the parents.
- Authority in society: The fourth commandment extends outward. God is the ultimate authority over us because he is our author. Some humans are granted authority over others to serve them by promoting the common good. Laws are just which respect the fundamental rights of the human person and which promote the conditions that make the exercise of these rights possible.
- Human “rulers” do not “grant” rights; they recognize them. Rights belong to individual persons and rulers must respect them, otherwise their rule is unjust. When we obey just civil authority, we are really doing the will of God. When a child or any one of us obeys a just order of any person with legitimate authority, he or she is really obeying God. However, the laws must be just and the person giving the order must have the rightful authority.
- Legitimate authority and natural obligations are not found only in parents and in the government but throughout society.
- A first obligation is to members of our extended family. One way we can do this is by taking care of them, especially those who are elderly or disabled.
- Subsidiarity: A final point in regard to the exercise of authority is the principle of subsidiarity. It is the basic principle which should guide the hierarchical relations in a civic society: lower levels of society have the right to carry out their own business and higher authority only interferes if necessary.
Practical Application: Obeying the fourth commandment better
- Our Lord told the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). “Honor your father and mother” (Mt 19:18) is one of them.
- To properly honor and obey those in authority over us and to respect and care for those under our authority, we need self-knowledge. Like Mary, who “kept these things in her heart,” we need to consider the obligations of this command. Do any of these questions cause you a pang of conscience?
- If you are a parent, are you failing in some way to love, discipline, train, or educate your children? This includes how they see you treat your spouse.
- If you are a child, are you failing in any way to obey, honor, and even care for your parents or close family? This varies depending on how old you are and your parents’ circumstances.
- If you are in authority, are you exercising it in a just way? This includes being tough in certain circumstances.
- If you are under legitimate authority, are you properly obeying it? This can include disobedience if that authority is trying to force you to do something wrong.
- St. Paul’s list of family virtues point out positive habits which will make our families happier: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiving one another, peace, gratitude, wisdom, and above all, love. Which will you choose to cultivate?