It is widely recognized that the Ten Commandments are organized into two groups: The First through the Third Commandments can be broadly categorized as “You shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart” and the Fourth through Tenth Commandments can be categorized as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
While it would be somewhat unfair to think of the commandments as ranked by importance, it is certainly noteworthy that the first of those that deal with love of neighbor is “Honor your father and your mother.”
First, love God, then, honor your father and your mother. The first three deal with our relationship with God, and the first of the rest is this.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes this in its section on the Fourth Commandment and the fact that it applies not only to parents. In No. 2199, it points out that the commandment concerns kinship between not just children and parents, but also members of the extended family. “It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors.”
We can take a cue from the Book of Sirach: “Do not dismiss what the old people have to say; … from them you will learn how to think, and the art of the timely answer” (Sir 8:9). Another translation renders this as, “Do not reject the tradition of the elders which they have heard from their ancestors; for from it you will learn how to answer when the need arises.”
As we age and mature, a funny thing happens: Not only do we grow in wisdom, but we suddenly realize that our elders may have been wiser than us all along.
Mark Twain is credited (perhaps apocryphally) with the following sardonic insight: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
While this is certainly rife with sarcasm, the point is well made. The wisdom of our elders is something we too often disregard or deny in our younger days, but as we age, we come to recognize that wisdom, and realize the honor that is their due.
In Scripture, we encounter many examples of the elderly being lifted up, venerated and respected. Just think of Noah, patriarch of his family, spawning the rejuvenation of human civilization following the deluge.
We are reminded of Abraham, father to God’s people; Jacob; Methuselah; Simeon; Naomi, mother-in-law to Ruth; and countless other examples come to mind.
Each of these examples brings us back to the Fourth Commandment. The honor due to our elders is of such importance that God included it among “You shall not kill” and “You shall not have other gods beside me.” As Scripture shows us, we would do well to acknowledge and fully live up to this ideal.
— By Paul Senz