I preached this sermon on May 8, 2011, at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.
HONOURING FATHER AND MOTHER
“Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged upon the land which Jehovah your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)
The Writings for the New Church tell us that there are deeper senses within the literal sense of the Word, although this does not do away with the importance of the literal sense. Within the literal sense there is a spiritual sense, which is primarily about love toward the neighbour; and even deeper than this is a celestial sense, primarily about love to the Lord. All of the Ten Commandments contain both of these deeper senses. But the first three commandments in particular focus on love to the Lord, and the final six – the list of thou-shalt-not’s – particularly focus on love toward the neighbour. Today, though, we’re focusing on the bridge commandment, the one that most clearly conjoins the two tables of love to the Lord and love to the neighbour.
In the literal sense, this precept commands us to honour our parents. In this sense, the commandment is especially important for children, since in childhood parents stand in for the Lord, and much of a person’s relationship with God as an adult will be coloured by his childhood relationship with his parents. Even as adults, though, we ought to follow this commandment in the literal sense. Although we no longer owe them obedience, we still owe our parents gratitude and love.
It is impossible to list all the things parents do for their children – giving birth, feeding and clothing them, giving them protection and love. They also introduce them into religion, into following the Lord. The Writings describe that in the Most Ancient Church, or the golden age represented in the Word by Adam and Eve, people did not live in cities of countries, but in clans and families. They did not have rulers as we do now, but they honoured the head of their family and showed gratitude to them because of the spiritual gifts their parents gave them, for their love and their wisdom, and especially for introducing them into the worship of the Lord.
Of course, not all parents do introduce their children into the worship of the Lord. Parents make mistakes, and there are parents who do harm to their children. Sometimes as we grow older we move away from parents who continue to hurt us, and sometimes this is a healthy thing, just as sometimes the healthiest thing for a marriage is for a couple to separate. But even in these extreme cases, we have this commandment to honour our parents. We are not to honour the evil in them – but as with anyone else, there is good in them, and we are commanded to honour whatever good there is, and to focus on that more than on the evil. All of us – no matter what our relationship with our parents – are asked to find forgiveness for whatever harm they’ve done, and show gratitude for the goodness in them.
In the strictest literal sense, this commandment refers to honouring one’s actual parents, or legal guardians who stand in their place. But the book True Christian Religion says that in a wider sense – although still on a natural level – this commandment refers to honouring our country and her leaders (TCR 305).
Just as our parents provide us with necessities of life and protection from harm when we are children, our nation provides us with necessities of life and protects us from invasion. We call our homeland out “motherland” or “fatherland.” The word “patriotism” comes from the Greek word “pater,” meaning father.
Our country does not just mean our government – it means all the people who make up our nation, and honouring our nation as parent extends beyond honouring our government. But True Christian Religion says it also does mean showing honour to our leaders almost as parents, and teaching children to do the same. The idea of honouring our leaders, or even expressing patriotism for our country, can make many of us today feel uneasy. The twentieth century saw terrible abuses of nationalistic fervour, and the thought of honouring leaders and nations as parents for many people calls to mind frightening images of blind obedience to corrupt causes.
But honouring our country does not mean blind allegiance – it means supporting what is truly good in it, showing gratitude for this, and honouring our leaders’ efforts to promote the country’s welfare. The book Charity, written as a manuscript by Swedenborg and published after his death, gives the example of the way that a Protestant born in Venice or Rome could love his homeland, even though those were Catholic cities at the time. We read as follows:
For example: if I had been born in Venice or in Rome, and were a Reformed Christian, am I to love my country, or the country where I was born, because of its spiritual good? I cannot. Nor with respect to its moral and civil good, so far as this depends for existence upon its spiritual good. But so far as it does not depend upon this I can, even if that country hates me. Thus, I must not in hatred regard it as an enemy, nor as an adversary, but must still love it; doing it no injury, but consulting its good, so far as it is good for it, not consulting it in such a way that I confirm it in its falsity and evil. (Charity 86)
The way we honour a country as our father and mother is not by ignoring its evil, but by supporting whatever is good in it while as much as possible discouraging its evil.
So far all the aspects of the commandment we’ve looked at are part of the literal sense. But it is easy to see how this commandment as an internal sense as well. Throughout the Word, God is called our Father. The Lord even said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). This does not literally mean that we cannot call our fathers “father,” but that we should acknowledge that in a truer, deeper sense, God is our Father. Honouring our father means loving and revering Him.
It may not seem as obvious at first, though, what it means to honour our motherin the spiritual sense. But upon a close reading of the Word, a clear picture begins to emerge. Throughout the prophets, the nation and people of Israel are referred to as “the mother” of the individual Israelites living there at the time. In Ezekiel, the children of Israel are told, “Your mother was like a vine in your bloodline, planted by the waters, fruitful and full of branches because of many waters” (Ezekiel 19:10), talking about the way that the Lord established them as His people. In the New Testament, John saw the Holy City New Jerusalem “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Through this imagery, it becomes clear that the “bride” of the Lord, and the mother of each person, is the Lord’s people, or His church. And so honouring our mother in the spiritual sense means revering and loving the church.
But what is this church that we are supposed to love and revere? In the simplest sense, the church is a group of people who subscribe to the same doctrine. In the strictest sense, it’s a local congregation. Before we look deeper and beyond this, it’s important to recognize this simple view of the church. It’s easy to feel general goodwill toward all the people who follow the Lord, which is the church in a broader sense; but it is sometimes harder to revere and love the actual people in a church congregation, the real people sitting in the pew next to us. We may have disagreements or conflicts, or a clash of personalities. But still we are to honour our church community for the good and truth that it contains and teaches.
What makes the church like a mother, according to True Christian Religion, is that just as a mother provides natural food, the church provides spiritual food. From the church ministers we learn truths from the Word; from church members, we have encouragement and support in living by the Word.
The spiritual sense of this commandment is to love and revere God and the church. Deeper than this, there is a celestial sense. In the celestial sense of “honour your father and your mother,” “father” refers specifically to the Lord Jesus Christ, and “mother” refers to what is called the communion of saints, the church scattered throughout the world.
The Lord Jesus Christ is our heavenly Father. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” – and one of the names of the Son who would be born is “everlasting Father” (Isaiah 9:6). The Lord Himself said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
The Lord is our Father – and He describes the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, as His bride, adorned for her husband. In this sense, our mother is not only our local church, or even the church throughout the world, but the Lord’s kingdom, which exists within people in this world and throughout heaven, in whoever acknowledges the Lord and has faith in Him and charity toward the neighbour (see True Christian Religion 416). Although we cannot always feel their influence, the angels and good spirits act as our spiritual mothers. The Lord flows into the heavens, and through the heavens into our minds. This marriage of the Lord’s life with the responses of the angels gives birth to all the infinite truth and goods in our minds and hearts.
We can also think of the kingdom of God, though, apart from thinking of individual angels or other people. The Lord said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” And even this sense, the kingdom of God, or the church within us, is our mother. What is the church within an individual? The Writings tell us that in particular, the church within us that acts as a mother is the truth of the church. We learn truth, and it becomes as if it were our own. When we act according to the truth we know, the Lord joins His good to it – that is, the Lord adds love to it. For example, we know in our ourselves that it is wrong to lie; as if of ourselves we resist the tendency to lie; and we gradually find over time that wedislike lying, that we would rather tell the truth. The Lord has added His goodness to our truth. This results in a new birth in us – a new perception of what it mean to follow the Lord, a new love for acting by that truth.
In this sense, our truth is the church, and it’s married to the Lord’s goodness and love. But in actuality, we know, even that truth that seems to be ours is really the Lord’s. Even the effort to live by that truth is the Lord’s, even though it feels to all appearances as if it is from ourselves. The Lord’s kingdom is our mother, but in the truest sense, the Lord’s kingdom is the Lord himself with us. The angels acknowledge that heaven is heaven from the Lord in it, not from anything that belongs to themselves. It is the same with the Lord’s kingdom on earth, which we call the church: anything good in it, anything that makes it the church, in reality is the Lord’s, although He allows us to experience it as if it belonged to us.
This is why the book Arcana Coelestia says that in the supreme sense, honouring our father means honouring the Lord as to good, and honouring our mother means honouring the Lord as to truth, which is loving the Lord’s kingdom. We read, “’mother’ signifies truth, and in the supreme sense the Lord as to Divine truth, thus His kingdom, because the Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord makes heaven” (AC 8896). Honouring the Lord as to truth is honouring His kingdom. The Lord’s truth within angels is married to the Lord’s love. This marriage – the marriage of the Lord’s good with the Lord’s truth, taking place within us and with our participation – is what makes heaven with a person. That is why this commandment contains a promise: that if you follow it, “your days shall be prolonged upon the land which Jehovah your God is giving you.” In the internal sense, these words mean that goodness will increase in a person in heaven to eternity because the Lord flows in wherever goodness and truth are joined together.
In the supreme sense, “mother” signifies the Lord as to Divine truth. This does not mean that we are to picture the Lord as a woman, or as our mother, or as some kind of androgynous being. The Lord came into the world as Jesus Christ, and we worship Him under this form. It is vital that we worship Him as a human, and this includes even worshipping Him with the form He had in this world, although now glorified.
Still, though, in Himself, the Lord is the source of all good feminine qualities as well as masculine. All the positive traits that we associate with motherhood come from the Lord. When He was in the world, the Lord wept over Jerusalem, and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). This image of a hen protecting her chicks describes a universal sphere that flows out from the Lord, a sphere of protecting what has been created. In people, this sphere manifests itself as a love for little children. This sphere directly affects women in a special way that it does not affect men, although it flows through women and from them does affect men. The nurturing role of a mother stems from this nurturing sphere in the Lord, and when a good mother looks after her children, she is acting from the Lord’s love.
When we respond in gratitude to a mother’s love, then, we are in fact responding in gratitude to the Lord. And so when we follow this commandment – to honour our father and our mother – on any level, we may in fact be following it on the deeper levels without being aware of it. When we honour the good things in our parents, and in our country and leaders, we are really honouring the Lord and His church, since these qualities all come from the marriage of the Lord with his church. And the more we learn about the internal senses within this commandment – that it means loving and revering God and the church, or specifically the Lord Jesus Christ and His kingdom – the more we learn about these things, the more consciously and fully we can follow the commandment on every level, and the more we can become aware of the blessings it gives. We come into the fulfillment of that promise – “that your days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.” Amen.
Lessons: Exodus 20:1-17; Mark 3:31-35; True Christian Religion 305-307
True Christian Religion 305. Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may be well with thee upon the earth.
So reads this commandment in Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16. In the natural sense, which is that of the letter, “to honour thy father and thy mother” means to honour parents, to be obedient to them, to be devoted to them, and to return thanks to them for the benefits they confer, which are that they provide food and clothing for their children, and so introduce them into the world that they may act in it as civil and moral persons; and introduce them also into heaven by means of the precepts of religion, thus providing both for their temporal prosperity and their eternal happiness. All this parents do from a love which they have from the Lord, in whose stead they act. In a relative sense it means that if parents are dead, guardians should be honoured by their wards. In a broader sense, to honour the king and magistrates, is meant by this commandment, since these provide for all in general the necessities which parents provide in particular. In the broadest sense this commandment means that men should love their country, since it supports and protects them, therefore it is called fatherland from father. But to country, king, and magistrates honour must be rendered by parents and by them be implanted in their children.
306. In the spiritual sense, “to honor father and mother” means to reverence and love God and the church….
307. In the celestial sense, “father” means our Lord Jesus Christ, and “mother” the communion of saints, which means the Lord’s church spread throughout the whole world….
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