Homer Simpson is the quintessential portrait of the American Dad. He’s fat, bumbling, silly, the butt of every joke. He always loses out in every conversation with his wife or with his kids. He is worthy of derision, never respect. But how does this caricature of fathers and fatherhood measure up against the Word of God? This Sunday’s Old Testament reading reveals a different picture of what fathers are like and how they should be treated by their children.
Readings for December 29, 2013, Feast of the Holy Family. First Reading: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Sirach and the Ten Commandments
This reading from Sirach gets to the heart of a biblical understanding of wisdom—how to live according to the Lord’s plan, how to walk in the way of wisdom and not in the way of the fool. Sirach is a rather late Old Testament wisdom text, which comments on and expands earlier biblical law and wisdom. Here the author is building upon two earlier texts: the Ten Commandments and Proverbs. The Fourth Commandment is, of course, “Honor your father and mother.” Sirach takes this commandment to the next level, explaining how this principle is foundational for a moral life, a wise life, a life lived in praise of God.
The Promise of Obedience
Importantly, the Fourth Commandment is the only one with a promise attached: “…that you may have a long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you” (Exod 20:12). Sirach reminds us of this promise (Sir 3:1, 6) and expands it to include atonement for sin. He teaches us that respect for one’s father “atones for sins” (3:3) and is “firmly planted against the debt of your sin” (3:14). The honor, respect, or reverence, which he commends is the fulfilling of the Fourth Commandment. It is not a blind and slavish compliance, but a due deference and respect, a love that shows itself in obedience. Parents deserve the respect of their children, even their adult children—though depending on circumstances that respect may manifest itself in various ways. “Respecting” an elderly, infirm parent is different than “respecting” a young, healthy parent. A child’s obedience to his father is different than an adult son’s honor for his. Prudence dictates how respect plays out. While disrespect for parents may be the norm in our culture, God “sets a father in honor over his children” (Sir 3:2).
Sirach and Proverbs
Now Sirach was written long after the Book of Proverbs. At first, it feels a lot like Proverbs, but if you read it slowly, you’ll notice that Proverbs skips from topic to topic to topic in a series of one-liners, but Sirach develops a single idea for a series of five or ten verses. This reading is a combination of two excerpts (3:2-6, 12-14) from one passage in Sirach that examines the ins and outs of honoring one’s parents (3:1-16). The lectionary leaves out some of the more “difficult” sections about the curses that befall those who don’t honor their parents (vv. 9, 16) and the sinful shame of disrespecting one’s parents (vv. 10-11). The whole passage builds on the theme of fatherly instruction in Proverbs. Proverbs, as a whole, is couched in terms of fatherly advice—many passages begin “My son…” Here, I think Sirach is drawing on the very first verse of the section in proverbs called the “Proverbs of Solomon.” That verse reads, “A wise son makes his father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother” (Prov 10:1). Wisdom and obedience go hand-in-hand.
Obedience: The Antidote to the Poison of Pride
We can’t get very far along the narrow path of wisdom without giving up our “own way.” Pride, or having our own way, is the toughest of sinful habits to break. That is why one of the three evangelical counsels, the vows that religious brothers and sisters take, is obedience (the other two are poverty and chastity). While poverty is the antidote to greed and chastity is the antidote to lust, a vow of obedience is the perfect antidote to pride. Sirach encourages us to embrace the way of obedience, the way of humility, so that we may obtain wisdom not by seeking our own path of self-realization, but by humbly submitting ourselves to our fathers and mothers.
The Fourth Commandment, the Book of Proverbs, and Sirach all point us to honor and respect our parents—and not just while we are children, but our whole lives long. This attitude of deference, which Scripture seeks to inculcate in us is not an idle notion from ancient patriarchal times, but is really a way to break down the inner workings of pride in our hearts. When we defer to another, let go of our pride and submit, we can be freed from the traps we make for ourselves and empowered to live a life of true righteousness.
The Eternal Trajectory of Honoring Mom and Dad
But what does all of this have to do with Homer Simpson? Well, the respect that is due to Dad is not something that can be discarded without consequence. If we start treating our parents as bumbling fools then we actually start breaking the Fourth Commandment—a serious sin which contributes to the breakdown of the family. We must watch our hearts and remember that the natural respect that sons and daughters should have for their fathers and mothers is something the Lord set up to orient us toward himself. If we honor our parents, our hearts will be in a great place to honor God. If we honor our parents, then we too can obtain by grace the “long life in the land which the Lord our God is giving us.” That land, of course, is heaven.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.