The Virtue of Obedience

There’s no expiration date to 'Honor thy father and thy mother'

The readings for the Feast of the Holy Family seem, by some contemporary standards, to be a bit quaint and dated. That’s because they put a lot of emphasis on obedience. Obedience correlates with other concepts, including authority and even hierarchy. Those are words at which our “democratic” world (and “democratic families”) twitch. They are words that perhaps elicit a visceral association with our childhood. The First Reading (Sir 3:2-6, 12-14) speaks of the “honor” due a father and a mother’s “authority.” Such terms probably recall the Fourth Commandment — “Honor thy father and thy mother” — which, for most Catholic children, gets translated into “I obeyed (or disobeyed) my parents.”

That translation, I would suggest, may also be responsible for an unjustified correlation between “obedience” and “childishness,” suggesting that obedience is something puerile, one of those childish things that, when one becomes a man, one puts away (I Cor 13:11).

Well, for those twitching as they hear Sirach 3, let me point out: There’s no expiration date. Nor does the Fourth Commandment say, “Honor your father and your mother until your eighteenth birthday.” (OK, maybe twenty-one, when you can legally have a beer with your old man.)

“Honoring” one’s parents and recognizing their authority, as treated in last Sunday’s First Reading, is and is not a “child” thing. It is not a child thing in the sense that its applicability is waived on attaining the age of majority. It is a child thing in the sense that one will always be one’s parents’ child, even if parent and child are both wearing dentures.

Indeed, the Reading seems to speak to adult children. “Honor” to a father is rewarded by being “gladdened with children,” something one thinks about more practically when one is of the age capable of having them. Revering a father is repaid with “long life,” something not quite as concrete when you’re “turning ten in six months” but more so after you’ve passed your 29th birthday for the second time. Caring for a parent when he is old clearly points to an adult-adult relationship. The wisdom writer counsels “kindness” towards one past his prime when one is in his own.

Two observations: First, our tendency to reduce the Fourth Commandment to something disobedient children cite in Confession obscures a relevant issue for today: the responsibilities of a child toward his parents. No doubt some will insist on changed modern social circumstances; in some sense, they have changed. Smaller families and work for employers affects familial relationships. But, in another sense, have they changed that much? Sirach writes about a father in decline. Dad might just be a grumpy old man or he might suffer from dementia. Sirach may not have had the term “Alzheimer’s disease” at his fingertips. But calling for “consideration” even when a father’s “mind fails” him hardly seems time-bound advice.

About a year ago, I wrote an essay [here] responding to a New York Times piece entitled “The Agony of Putting Your Life on Hold to Care for Your Parents.” The piece spoke of a daughter’s lost economic opportunities caring for a father who broke his leg (and marriage) along with facing the chronic diseases of old age (in his case, cardiovascular issues) when one is slipshod about one’s meds. As I summed it up: “The tone of the story oscillates between how well the woman had planned her career transition — spreadsheets and all! — only to be upended by dad’s illness and how poorly the government is addressing the eldercare tsunami likely soon to envelope millennials from parents suffering from, among other things, longevity.”

I criticized the article’s neglect of the concept of “honoring” one’s parent in his declining years by invoking the more secular term, “reciprocity.” As my Polish American mother would have put it, “How come one mother can take care of eight kids but eight kids can’t care for one mother?”

What was clearly missing in the piece is the idea that familial bonds generate obligations in love toward each other, who are not just isolated individuals thrown together by the caprice of conception following a hook-up but persons bound together precisely because they are a family. Yes, parents must prepare a child for independence, but ours is a freakish notion of “independence” that equates it with untethered individuals whose only bonds are those consciously wanted.

That is not what Sirach meant by “honor.”

Second, while some might think of “obedience” as a “childish” thing, I prefer to call it a “child-like” thing, remembering that access to the Kingdom of Heaven is conditioned on becoming the latter (Mt 18:3). In that sense, obedience as a virtue is not just confined to childish relationships.

God Himself expects our obedience precisely because of Sunday’s Responsorial Psalm: “Blessed are those who fear the Lord.” Piety or filial obedience are not craven fear; they are the deference of respect towards one who loves me and whom I love that recognizes we are not peers. It’s expressed in the saying, “I’m your father, not your friend” and “God is God, I am me, and I’m not Him.” Your arms are too short to box with God. (Nor does He want to, although, as Jacob found out, He’s a good wrestler. Cf. Gen 32:22-32). Indeed, all of man’s problems and agonies are traceable precisely to a lack of obedience that was not just “breaking God’s rule” as much as a self-destructive plunge into sinful slavery.

No “spirituality” worth a bucket of warm spit (to adapt John Nance Garner’s description of the Vice Presidency) lacks obedience. True spirituality involves discipleship, submission in obedience to a Master and His rule, not because we are craven or fearful but because we see in it a path to genuine freedom. Only faux “spiritualities” are content with making oneself the guru of one’s own “values.”

So, in a sense, obedience is the issue of our (and of all) times. But it is misleading just to muse about “obedience” in the abstract; it is embodied in the very concrete, in the body of a declining father (or mother), towards whom the question of our claimed love and charity faces its practical, acid test.

These are today’s problems — from the “eight kids who can’t take care of one mother” to the one state-authorized Chinese son with two parents and four grandparents on his head to the challenges of aging societies attempting the impossible feat of standing top heavy population pyramids on their peaks — faced as Boomer societies go demographic bust. We need a discussion of what adult “honoring” of parents in our times entails.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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