After Michael Jackson was acquitted of child molestation charges, columnist Derrick Z. Jackson quoted the singer’s own words from a 2001 speech at Oxford University.
Said Jackson, “When I was young, I wanted more than anything else to be a typical little boy. I wanted to build tree houses, have water balloon fights, and play hide-and-seek with my friends. But fate had it otherwise.” The writer then reflected on the countless jokes made regarding Michael Jackson: “As bizarre as Jackson is, the jokes may be a cover for the fact that all of us see a tiny piece of us in him. Not the child abuse part, but the hole in the soul. If we look at him in another way, it turns out this 46-year-old prodigy is merely ‘a warning for what can happen if we deprive children of their childhoods.’ In that same speech at Oxford, the performer commented on his father, Joe Jackson’s role in his life. His father, Michael said, “seemed intent, above all else, on making us a commercial success. But what I wanted was a dad. I wanted a father who showed me love. And my father never did that.”[i] He lived under a demanding and perfectionistic father who was more his manager than his dad. And as bizarre as his life got, he always tried to be a loving father to his kids. Always trying to be the father he never had. And always trying to please the father he never could.
The greatest things we’ll ever do are often also the hardest things we’ll ever do. And by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done is serve as daddy to Aubrey, Sterling, Zeke, Eli, and Corin. One of the things Becky and I found that we had in common when we were dating was a desire to have kids. Becky wanted a big family, and I was okay with that. When she was pregnant with Aubrey, I was excited about becoming a father when she was born, but I couldn’t figure out why Becky already saw herself as a mother. I had not clue about the connection she felt to the little life growing within her. To me, Aubrey was already our little girl, but she was also making my wife walk funny and get no sleep and pee all the time. But Becky already had a connection with Aubrey. So when Aubrey was born, I got to meet her for the first time, but Becky already knew her. And she already knew Becky. All of our kids were born by Caesarian section, so I got to hold them first. And when I held Aubrey in my hands for the first time, I remember this incredible sense of awe, coupled with a growing love that I had no idea I was even capable of. But there was also a deep fear. “What if I mess this up?” “What if I do something that permanently damages her, not physically, but emotionally, even spiritually.” And you know what? I have messed up. The fact that Aubrey can even feed herself and go to the bathroom, much less that she’s such a great kid, is testament to the grace of God, because I’ve messed up a lot.
Some of it’s been truly accidental, but some of it was on purpose when I did it. Not that I went into it trying to mess her up, but like, I meant what I said or did, but I was wrong. Like in Eli’s mind I totally turned his name into a curse word. Not the name Eli, but his full name: Elijah Noble Goodwin. He came in the house the other day and I said “Elijah Noble!” for some reason and he was like, “Don’t call me that! I don’t like it.” And I figured out it was because the only time I say it is when he’s either in trouble or about to get in trouble. Talk about messing your kid up. And then when Aubrey clicked “accept” on the email offering her a place in the upcoming freshman class at THE Ohio State University, and Sterling got his level one license Wednesday after school (meaning we have not one but TWO kids driving now) I realized just how quickly the time we have with our kids goes. I mean, I can remember their births like it was yesterday, and that’s saying something because I can’t even remember what I had for dinner last night. I can really relate to the song that says “The days are long, but the years are short.”
And yet, we never stop being someone’s child, do we? No one here sprouted from a cabbage patch. Everyone has parents. Some have parents who are now gone. Some have parents who are aging and need assistance and care. Some have parents who are still working hard. And I’d guess there are some here today who wish they had different parents. There may be some who have parents they are still desperately trying to please, even though they’ve been gone for a very long time. Our relationships with our parents change as we, and they, age, but they don’t go away. And so St. Paul brings his principle for living, a principle that applies to everyone everywhere, that is found in Ephesians 5:21, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and shows us very clearly how it applies not only to the context of marriage, which we talked about last week, but also to our roles as parents and children, even adult children. Turn in your Bibles to Ephesians 6:1-4.
Paul wants to make something crystal clear – our faith in Christ impacts every part of our lives, not just an hour on Sunday mornings. It impacts our most significant roles and relationships. It changes the way I relate to my spouse, the way I relate to my kids, the way I relate to my parents. And so often, those relationships are sources not of great joy but of great pain. Spouses who cannot or will not get along. Parents estranged from their children. Children estranged from their parents. And it is our family, not just during our childhood but throughout our lives, that the Holy Spirit uses, more than anything else, as the crucible in which he shapes us into the image of Christ. It is in our family that the fruit of the Spirit is most able to come out in our lives, if we’ll allow the Holy Spirit to transform the way we relate to one another, The Christ-centered family. That’s what Paul is describing here. And he describes it as a caring community.
He begins by quoting from both Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16. These are the two places in the Bible where the Ten Commandments appear – one when Moses first received them and the other when Moses reminded the people of the commandments near the end of his life. Paul takes these two passages and kind of mashes them together. So he drew his instructions for husbands and wives on how to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ from the creation narrative in Genesis 2, and he draws his instructions for parents and children on how to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ from the Ten Commandments. In neither case is he giving culturally-based instructions that don’t apply in the modern world. He’s grounded his New Testament instruction solidly in the foundation of the Old Testament.
Now, pretty much every culture everywhere, regardless of whether they’ve been influenced by Christianity or not, agrees that children should, as a general rule of thumb, obey their parents. Neither the Ten Commandments nor Paul are breaking new ground here. The Bible does add the promise, “That it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Now, this isn’t a be-all-end-all guarantee that if you always obey your parents, you’ll have a long, good life. That isn’t what Paul is saying here. In adding the promise, it takes on the form of Jewish wisdom literature, which we encounter most clearly in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, also in Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, and a few in brief passages in other books too, like here. And what wisdom literature did was lay out before people typically wise ways of living life with the benefits most often associated with wise living. And in the New Testament, Christ is seen as the personification of what in the Old Testament was called wisdom. The point of wisdom passages is to say that if you live according to God’s wisdom, as a general rule of thumb, life will go for the most part pretty well for you. It was never intended to be a guarantee of good things always coming from right living. The Psalms, the book immediately preceding Proverbs, are proof of that. Fully 1/3 of them are Psalms of Lament. What are Psalms of Lament? Complaint, crying out to God when we suffer and experience hardship, even if we’re innocent of any wrong doing in this instance. But, as a general rule of thumb, can children, teens, young adults, avoid some heartache, destructive hardships, even deadly consequences, if they heed the instruction and warning of their parents? Yes. And that’s the point of wisdom literature. Living by God’s wisdom will have benefits in this life, although we’ll experience pain and trial too, and will certainly be rewarded in the life to come.
The problem is that we usually read this passage and assume that it applies only to children who are under the authority of parents or guardians. And it doesn’t. Must adult children always obey their parents? No, that isn’t what Paul is saying. If my mom came up for a visit and got frustrated with me and tried to send me to my room, I’d laugh at her. Or thank her for watching the kids and go take a nap. But Paul doesn’t just say “obey your parents.” He also says “honor your parents,” still quoting from the Ten Commandments, and that is something all of us can do, regardless of our age or the age of our parents. And that is where we as adults struggle, especially if our parents made some pretty big mistakes.
That’s exactly the attitude Jesus called out in the religious leaders in Mark 7:9-13. They were telling the people that they could tell their parents that what assistance they should have gotten from them as their children was actually being given to God, and thus they didn’t have to do anything for their aging parents. He was challenging them, saying “You are teaching this and people are doing it and are actually avoiding obeying God’s law, which is to obey AND HONOR, by taking care of, their parents, by giving the resources to the church instead of to them. He isn’t saying they shouldn’t bring their tithes and offerings to the Lord. He’s simply saying when you plan, make sure there’s room to take care of your parents as well as do your part help fund the ministry of the church.
To be fair, there often comes a time when our parents need a level of professional assistance that we can no longer provide. But we have a tendency to make that decision way earlier than we should. We have wonderful facilities that help people age with dignity. But even if our parents choose that route, we can’t drop them off and leave them there, visiting only when it’s convenient for us. And if we must make that decision for them at some point, we must make absolutely sure that we are still a part of their lives, even if they no longer know who we4 are. I think of Ruth Law, who drove downstate every third week or so to take care of her aging and then dying mom for a week at a time to give the caregiver a break. Or John and Cheryl Sowash, who took care of John’s mom even as her dementia got worse and worse, continuing to care for her themselves in their own home long after most of us would have given up. We live in a culture that worships youth and views our elders as a nuisance, as a burden, rather than as deserving of our honor and respect. Even when we must no longer OBEY our parents, we must still honor them. And we honor them by seeking out and listening to their advice, even as we must make our own adult decisions, and by caring for them as they age. So Marilyn, Dave, Sonia, Gary, our house isn’t really a great one for aging in. It has a stairwell I fall down every other week as a 44 year old, but we’ll figure it out. You will be cared for. But if you hang one Michigan poster up in my house … we’ll give Angela and Ernie the honor of honoring you. Probably in their basement.
Children, obey your parents. Adult children, honor your parents – IN THE LORD. Should kids do everything their parents tell them to do? Well, mostly. Paul says “in the Lord.” This means two things. First, it means that we are to obey our parents, or if we are adults, take their thoughts into advisement as we make our own decisions, so long as they do not call for us to do something contrary to the revealed will of God as much as we as followers of Jesus understand it. So if your parents ask you to steal, or lie, should you? No. In the Lord also means that one of the ways we follow Jesus is by obeying when we can, or at least listening, and always honoring our parents.
But St. Paul doesn’t talk just to children does he? He also instructs parents. Remember, he is bringing his meant-for-all instruction to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” into the home. But he isn’t telling parents to submit to every whim and whimsy of their children. And yet, parents in Paul’s day needed instruction, and so do we today. The world of the New Testament was influenced by three cultures – the Jews in the Holy Land had their culture, Greek culture heavily influenced the entire empire in many ways, and certainly the region around Ephesus, which was a Greek city, and there was also the culture of Rome itself. And Rome had the concept of patria potestas – the father’s power. A Roman father had absolute power over his family. Get this: he could sell them as slaves. He could make them work in his fields, even in chains. He could punish as he liked, up to and including inflicting the death penalty. And this power of a Roman father over his children extended over a child’s whole life. A Roman son never really came of age – until his father died. The Romans also practiced the custom of child exposure. When a child was born, it was placed at its father’s feet. If the father stooped down and picked up the child, it meant that he acknowledged and accepted the child as his own. If he turned and walked away, the child could be literally thrown out. There is a letter from 1 BC from a man named Hilarion to his wife Alis. He had gone to Alexandria, Egypt on business and wrote home. This is what he wrote: “Hilarion to Alis his wife. Hartiest greetings, and to my dear Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry if when all others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and, as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. If – good luck to you! – you have a child, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, throw it out. You told Aphrodisias to tell me: “Do not forget me.” How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.” Pretty good husband. Great father to the sons he wants. But if he has a daughter … not so much. Now, real family love was still common and popular opinion wouldn’t always allow fathers to kill their children or leave them on the side of the street, but it happened. That’s how girls ended up as slaves and prostitutes. A Roman baby always ran the risk of being abandoned and exposed.
In Jewish religious culture, women and children were kept far from the Court of Men and the altar upon which sacrifices were offered. A half-wall divided them from the men. But when Paul writes his letters, which were intended to be read IN WORSHIP in the Christian community, he writes to husbands AND WIVES, parents (not just fathers) AND CHILDREN. He assumes they’re all gathered together in worship. In the same place. But pastor, my Bible says “Fathers, do not provoke your children …” Yes, it does. The word Pateres, which we translate as “fathers,” actually meant “parents,” just as the word “adelphoi,” which we translate as brothers, actually means brothers and sisters.
So what Paul says is “Parents, do not provoke your children to anger…” This passage has a parallel passage in Colossians 3:20-21. There, Paul says “Parents, do not discourage your children.” He isn’t saying that you’ll never make your children angry. That happens. The point is to not be so overbearing and controlling, or passive and ignoring, that your children wind up discouraged and resenting you. Choose your battles with your children wisely. Doesn’t mean you’ll never need to confront them. In fact, Paul goes on to say “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Wise parents raise treat their children gently, but also instruct and discipline them, and they instruct them in the Lord. They teach them, not in an overbearing way, but gently and by example, how to follow Jesus. We are to gently nourish our children, not treat them harshly, choosing our battles wisely, and also train them through discipline and instruction.
I’ve worked in the church for more than two decades now. Long enough to have baptized the children of kids I had in youth group. I’ve walked with many, many children from birth, through their teen years, and now into young adulthood. Some of the babies I’ve baptized have babies of their own now. And I can tell you that the difference between those who are still following Christ as adults and those who aren’t, who have turned their backs on Christ, is almost without exception having parents who also followed Christ. There are a few, very few, who came from homes that didn’t follow Jesus and are still following Jesus themselves. But those who came from homes where Christ was honored, raised by parents also followed Jesus, are almost all following Jesus today. Parents, you are the primary disciplers of your children, the primary instructors in faith in Christ. But you aren’t doing it alone. In the ancient world, parents and their children were surrounded by a supportive community of, followers of Jesus who came alongside parents and helped and supported them as they raised their children. And we are no different. In the church, no person is an island … no family either. We are connected in and by our faith in Christ, and we encourage and support one another. So those who say, “I don’t have any children. I’m not even married.” You may not be married, but every person in this room has children. They’re downstairs right now. The parents are the primary spiritual influence on children, but they aren’t the only ones. But we are to gently nourish our children. Even our instruction and discipline is intended to be done in an atmosphere of gentleness. And remember, gentleness isn’t weakness. It’s great strength under great control.
When I work with kids, or with frustrated parents who are worried about their kids, I always ask, “Is this a can’t do problem or a won’t do problem.” If it’s a can’t do problem, our job is to teach. If it’s a won’t do problem, meaning the kid can do but refuses to, our job is to motivate. Either can involve discipline, but discipline should never be done in an out of control way. And always we are, imperfect parents that we are, are to model the love of our perfect heavenly father as we ourselves grow in our knowledge and experience of that love.
One parent wrote these wise words: Out of parental concern and a desire to teach our young son responsibility, we require him to phone home when he arrives at his friend’s house a few blocks away. He began to forget, however as he grew more confident in his ability to get there without disaster befalling him. The first time he forgot, I called to be sure he had arrived. We told him the next time it happened, he would have to come home. A few days later, however, the telephone again lay silent, and I knew if he was going to learn he would have to be punished. But I did not want to punish him! I went to the telephone, regretting that his great time would have to be spoiled by his lack of contact with his father. As I dialed, I prayed for wisdom. “Treat him like I treat you,” the Lord seemed to say. With that, as the telephone rang one time, I hung up. A few seconds later the phone rang, and it was my son. “I’m here, Dad!” “What took you so long to call?” I asked. “We started playing and I forgot. But Dad, I heard the phone ring once and I remembered.” “I’m glad you remembered,” I said. “Have fun.” How often do we think of God as One who waits to punish us when we step out of line? I wonder how often he rings just once, hoping we will phone home.[ii]
[i] Derrick Z. Jackson, “Not Guilty, but Hardly Free,” Boston Globe (6-15-005); “Jackson Acquitted of Molestation Charges,” The Week (6-24-05), p. 2
[ii] Dennis Miller, Antioch, Illinois. Leadership, Vol. 6, no. 2.