Q: What is the reason for the fifth commandment?
A: The reason for the fifth commandment is the promise of long life and prosperity, if these glorify God and are for the good of those who obey this commandment.
I tried to tread carefully in explaining this week’s catechism question during the Children’s Service.
I started with what seemed empirically true and contradictory to the promise of the fifth commandment: that plenty of good, nice people– probably people who were lovely to their parents–have their lives cut short or live in suffering or deprivation.
We then went back to a familiar motif: that it is impossible to obey these commandments. Even the nicest, most accommodating person has, in their heart of hearts, shortchanged the value and honor due to the people around him. None of us deserve the promise of this commandment because none of us are commensurate to its demands.
I then tried to explain that this commandment is a contract — but not a transactional one. Taken in isolation, the wording might be mistaken for a kind of quid pro quo, the kind of misreading that would fuel a health-and-wealth theology. In the context of even just the four commandments that precede it, however, we know that this is not the kind of God we are dealing with. A God that claims absolute devotion cannot be bargained with and cannot be gamed; we doom ourselves to try.
Instead, this commandment lets us glimpse God’s design; it draws back the curtain a little on the structure of His kingdom before the corruption of the Fall. It lets us know how we were intended to relate to one another and then what were to be the natural results of such a dynamic.
To honor one another, then, is to recover this kingdom and its blessed reality — a promise, a hope that our truest home will be found and we will have a permanent place in it. When we align ourselves with the way things are supposed to be, we make it possible for things to be that way.
To trust in that design, however, means to trust that its architect may have further grand designs beyond our understanding. Indeed, to honor those above us in faith should train us to have faith in the most Honored. Even when things “gang aft agley.”
I think we should be prepared to tell our children that there are no guarantees in life. Being good, being nice, being prepared will not spare you from suffering and terror and injustice and loss. In fact, being human will ensure them.
Why then should our children heed us? Because we represent a Power who cares, nevertheless… One who can, because of His own personal sacrifice, assure that all will be made right and set a place at the end of days where we will truly live long and prosper.