In his incredible little book, Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan offers a fascinating re-interpretation of the fifth commandment. It’s one of those re-readings of a Biblical passage that seems so blindingly obvious that you wonder how you never saw it there before…particularly as it helps make sense of what otherwise has always seemed like an oddly arbitrary relationship between the command and the attached promise.
“The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.’ It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.”
If this is accurate, that does not of course mean that the more familiar meaning–the duty of children to obey their parents–is thereby invalid, as the Apostle Paul’s use of the passage in Ephesians 6 demonstrates. However, it may mean that the widespread Reformation tendency to broaden the passage into a directive to obey all authorities, particularly political ones, is quite a stretch. Or rather, that the passage’s relevance to political authority (something O’Donovan is definitely interested in in Common Objects of Love) is somewhat different, meaning something like, “Value the heritage of your society and do your utmost to ensure its stability and continuity, which may well mean loyalty to existing political authorities, but may not.”