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Reflections on Ethics 71
The Fifth Commandment
Faithfulness and Failure

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: Continuing Joseph Lewis's analysis of the 10 Commandments, this is the concluding section of the chapter on the fifth commandment.

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"Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."

Faithfulness and Failure

The tenderest relationship in life is that between parent and child. To remember the tenderness, care and watchfulness of parents and to repay them in some measure for their unselfish devotion is not only one of the great pleasures of life, but also one of the greatest privileges. The man who recalls the loving kiss of a mother or the affectionate embrace of a father can never be completely without some consolation. The child who mistreats his parents, who is ungrateful for their efforts in his behalf, who is indifferent to their welfare, will probably, when he or she becomes a parent, feel a pang for his callous indifference, for which there is no comfort.

What does this Commandment teach us concerning this relationship? What is meant by the words, "Honor thy father and thy mother"? In what did honor consist? Why was it necessary to honor parents in order "that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee"? Must affection for parents, must consideration for their welfare, must respect and duty toward them be determined by the consideration of a reward? Are these attachments of the heart for sale at a price? Must we be bribed to perform a duty that should be our first and greatest privilege? Must we give honor to our parents only upon the expressed condition that our "days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee"?

What baser bargain could there be? Cannot affection, consideration and filial duty be put upon a higher plane than that of a commercial product? What do you think of a son or a daughter who looks for value received in performing a duty toward parents? To permit the promise of long life to influence respect and devotion to parents commercializes the tenderest of relationships. It reduces our deepest emotions to the level of barter.

The man or woman who shows devotion and affection to his or her parents merely for the love of them is certainly manifesting a greater and more commendable degree of virtue than one who exhibits these attachments for the reward that is promised.

A high standard of morality is not built on rewards and punishments. Virtue, we are told, is its own reward. A good deed is performed because it is better to do good without reward than to withhold services for lack of compensation. We do good because it is good to do good.

The Greek and Roman philosophers could have taught us more in this respect than this Commandment. The Stoics said: "No deeds are more laudable than those which are done without ostentation." And Seneca said: "He who wishes his virtue to be blazed abroad is not laboring for virtue, but for fame." And Persius said: "I do not shrink from praise, but I refuse to make it the end and term of right." And Pliny said: "That which is beautiful is beautiful in itself; the praise of man adds nothing to its quality." And the younger Pliny said of one of his friends that "he sought the reward of virtue in itself, and not in the praise of men." Peregrinus, the Cynic, said: "The wise man will not sin, though both gods and men should overlook the deed, for it is not through fear of punishment or of shame that he abstains from sin. It is from the desire and obligation of what is just and good." Marcus Aurelius said: "To be paid for virtue is as if the eye demanded a recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking."[18]

Can anyone say that this Commandment is a precept that could only emanate from a divine source -- that it required a special revelation to man? Do the words of this Commandment actually inculcate into the minds of our children that unselfish attitude toward parents which we so highly commend? Does it teach unselfishness? In this world of insatiable greed, some contend that unselfishness alone is all that is needed to solve many of the problems and help to bring peace and understanding to the human race. But does this Commandment contribute one iota to that much-desired end? Or has it only intensified those selfish traits which are the basis of so many of our baser acts?

What was the moral standard that the Bible God used in the formulation of this Commandment? Surely the words "Love thy father and thy mother" would have been sufficient to stress those affectionate attachments which are universally practiced, and it did not require the thunder and lightning of Sinai to remind us of them.

Since the word "love" is used in the Bible in the phrase "Love thy neighbor,"[19] surely it is equally desirable to love one's parents as to "honor" them.

Honor is not a term of endearment; it is a form of tribute. Love and affection are the binding attachments of family life; honor is an attribute exhibited as a public recognition for deeds and accomplishments and high positions of authority; it does not necessarily include affection and devotion.

More filial devotion and respect for parents, more consideration for their wants, more regard for their welfare, can be learned from King Lear than from these "inspired" words of this Commandment.

Bought love is false love. Love that depends upon a price, that looks for a reward, that is put on a commercial basis, is love that should be spurned and condemned.

The love and affection in family life is just as strong and just as fervent among human beings who never heard of this Commandment as it is among those who, parrot-like, call it a "divine revelation." The love attachment exhibited in the animal and bird kingdoms is in many respects equal, and often superior, to that manifested by members of the human family.

Why was the word "honor" used in this Commandment instead of the word "love"? There was a valid reason for this. "Honor" is the word intended. This Commandment was not formulated to inculcate love and affection between parents and children. Its distinct purpose was to impress upon the child the importance of exhibiting to parents the honor accorded to God and his representatives, and to make sure that the children of the Children of Israel would keep their God's "statutes and his commandments unto the thousandths of generations." The solidarity of the Children of Israel "upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee" was the reason for its inclusion in the Decalogue. The dutiful attachment of child to parent was never even remotely associated with it.

If this Commandment has any significance whatever, it should demonstrate its power at the appropriate time. There have been countless children who have "honored" their parents, who have sacrificed themselves for their welfare, and who nevertheless suffered hardship and did not live long. There have been hundreds of thousands of children who have behaved wretchedly to their parents and yet have enjoyed the best of the world's goods. There are children who waste and squander enough in one year to give their parents all the comfort and protection they need for the rest of their lives, and yet these children live long and seem to enjoy life. A false edict is not only valueless, but in addition creates a negative influence.

Even as a Commandment intended solely and exclusively for the Hebrews, subsequent events have definitely and irrevocably proved it to be false. On the whole, Jewish children have always been faithful and dutiful to their parents. They have the reputation of performing their filial duty with scrupulous fidelity. Yet the most orthodox and most fervent religious believer must admit that the Jews did not live long in the land that they thought their God had given them as an inheritance for keeping his statutes and his Commandments. In fact judging from authentic historical records, the Jews lived but a short time in their native land. They were not dispersed from that land because they were disobedient or failed to observe the Commandments or other edicts of their God. On the contrary, it was because the Children of Israel were too scrupulous in their observance of the Decalogue that they no longer possess the land of their forefathers. The loss of their land was due not to the breach but to the observance of the Commandments.

The sons and daughters of Israel have "honored" their parents as provided by this Commandment, but the Hebrew Deity has not kept faith with them. Their days have not been prolonged "upon the land" of their fathers; they are scattered over the face of the earth! The promise of their God was not fulfilled. The Hebrew people themselves are the best example of the falsity of this Commandment and the failure of their God.


18. Lecky, Morals, Vol. 1, p. 79.
19. This phrase is generally attributed to Jesus, as an original thought and a new dispensation, as expressed in Matthew, Chapter 19, verse 19, and Chapter 22, verse 39, when as a matter of fact it is a purely tribal concept found in the Old Testament, Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 18.