What's a Fence Doing Here?
It can be confusing to find a fence you didn't expect. What's a fence doing here? And that's the 4th Commandment on this particularly penitential day. The 4th Commandment on Ash Wednesday? Come on! Maybe the 1st, 3rd, or 6th; it's easy-peasy to expose sin with these, but the 4th? Yes, the 4th, because you really show the kind of person you are when taken off guard before you can cover your true self with a mask. If you've got cockroaches, the best way to find them is to go into a room suddenly. You're suddenness doesn't create them; it only prevents them from hiding (Mere Christianity, 164-5). That's the 4th Commandment. Bam! It hits you as a parent and/or child. And the real depth of the dung you're in is shown by Augustine's dictum that the man who know the right but fails to do it loses the power to know what is right, and the man who has the power but is unwilling loses the power to do what he wills (Christianity & Culture, 449).
But a fence doesn't belong here. Pagans disagree. Stoic philosophy called parents "second gods appeared on earth." Plato called aged parents "living images of god." And Aristotle demanded a godlike honoring of parents (Ten Commandments, Peters, 196, fn. 96). But we think this fence needs adjusting. A confirmand asked, "Does the 4th Commandment apply even when my mom is having a bad day?" If you're a parent, you know what he meant. How many times have you made your bad day, you're kids? How unfair! We shouldn't expect love and honor when we're being unloving and unfair. Our Large Catechism disagrees: Parents "are not to be deprived of their honor because of their ways or their failings" (I, 108). But surely I grow out of the 4th Commandment? That's how it is in the world; you reach 18 and you're free of parental authority. Going by this human understanding of authority the Reformed say at the age of majority this command no longer applies. Do you find an asterisk in your Bible ? Honor your father and mother *until age 18? If you put one there, you'll put one at the other end too. Honor them until they're a certain age. Read Exodus 20. The 4th Commandment isn't directed first to minor children but to adults (Peters, 189). As youth can't tear down this fence when a parent has a bad day, adults can't ignore it because their parent is too old.
It's under the 2nd Table Commandments we squirm the most because they expose our lusting, lying, stealing, and hating. And the 4th we confess to be "Among these the first and greatest" (LC, I, 103). Judaism called the 4th "the heaviest among the heavy commandments'" (Peters, 191). Neither Lutherans nor Jews are exaggerating. The Lord defines what He means by holiness by saying "'You shall be holy. 'Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father'" (Lev. 19:2-3). With the rich young man Jesus uses the 4th commandment as His trump card (Mk. 10:19). And Paul makes the 4th Commandment stand out saying: "'Honor your father and mother'--which is the first commandment with a promise"( Eph. 6:2). Not for us though, right? We don't need and we can ignore this fence. You know the adage: don't tamper with, let alone move or tear down a fence, until you know why someone put it there? God is the Someone who put this fence up.
Like all the commandments, it does what all fences do. A fence warns. The 4th warns parents against failing to fulfill the God-given role of parent not just physically but spiritually. Luther said before God, if you've trained them to be first a success in this world, it's the same as if you sacrificed that child to an idol (LW, 44, 83). Children, regardless of age, if you're unwilling to obey this Commandment, God will make sure you obey the hangman and the grim reaper (LC, I, 135). But we're the disciples in the upper room. Jesus says, "One of you will betray Me," and we're all drop-dead certain His warning is misplaced: Surely you're wrong about me. But He wasn't wrong about them or us.
Commandments like fences also protect. You cross a fence you're sure doesn't belong here, and you might find a bull with an attitude staring you down. Or you leave the protection of a fence and find yourself on the edge of a cliff. The 4th Commandment is about the home. The home is where the protecting authorities of church and state come together for the good of the family. There is something divine in father and mother because there is something fatherly and yes motherly in God. Can't you see both aspects of this in Jesus' handling of Judas in the upper room? A mother might say to her children: one of you did this, and only the child who did it knows yet his mom doesn't choose to expose him publicly. That's grace. A father might say to a rebellious child: if you're going to do that against my will you'd better do it quickly because if you think twice, you won't. So, Jesus says to Judas: "What you are about to do, do quickly."
Commandments are fences. They warn; they protect; and they guide. An intact fence will always lead you out. It's like a promise, you follow me and I will get you back to civilization. You know the obvious adage: we don't choose our parents? Luther too saw this, and therefore, sees parents as God's gifts to us. They are God's workshop in which He prepares us for our service to Him (Peters, 195). Blessing come from being guided by God's 4th Commandment. Even though in the upper room the disciples didn't believe His warnings and their the post-communion talk degenerated into an argument about who was considered greatest by Papa Jesus, Jesus goes way beyond their childish expectations and says: "I give you all a kingdom." There's a kingdom that every single commandment runs to and from. Within these fences, you're in a kingdom of grace, mercy, and peace, of feasting, and forgiving.
This is the truth, but listen to how our Large Catechism brings us back to the reality of this fallen world and parenting and "childing" in it. "But the devil rules in the world: children forget their parents, as we all forget God, and no one takes thought how God feeds, guards, and protects us and how many blessings of body and soul He bestows on us" (I, 128). That's why you can't leave out of here besmeared by ashes with the determination: this time it will be different. It's only in Christ that the 4th commandment is a fence of warning, protecting and guiding. You touch this fence outside of Christ and its warning will be a zap; it's protecting will be a barb that cuts you; and its guiding will be to hell.
You want to feel good about being a child? Stop looking in the mirror; look to Jesus. He was the perfect child. In Christmas and Epiphany how many times did we see this? Just as we can't imagine how perfect Adam and Eve had their sexuality totally under their control and at their service, so we can't imagine how Jesus didn't sin as child in thought, word, or deed. Since He was perfect and His parents were not, He was punished wrongly. You can bet their bad day was taken out on Him, and they were unfair, unreasonable, and really didn't understand Him. But never once did Jesus backtalk, roll His eyes, or think, "I'll show them." Yet what does Hebrews 5 say? It says enough to break your sinful, childish heart. It says, " In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered prayers and pleas with loud cries and tears to His Father who was able to save Him from death Although He was the Son, He learned obedience from the things He suffered" becoming the source of eternal salvation (7-9)? If you go through life with the 4th commandment on your back as if God the Son didn't fulfill it, you will live either resentfully or despairingly. The fence will be nothing but an agitation, irritation, and eventually a condemnation.
But the whole answer isn't just that Jesus was the perfect child who always honored, served, obeyed, loved and cherished parents and other authorities. No, the other half of the answer is that the Perfect Father betrayed' His Son. I'm attributing no blame, let alone sin to the Father, but when Romans 4 says, Jesus was betrayed because of our sins, just whom do you think decided that? And on that soul crushing night in Gethsemane when Jesus wailed to be spared the cup of suffering due me for my sins against my father and mother and other authorities, whom do you think Jesus is referring to when He says, "See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners" (Mt. 26:45)? You know why the very same word is used as for what Judas did? Because Jesus didn't deserve betrayal from either. The Father Himself had openly declared He was well pleased with Jesus and that He was His beloved Son. Tell me you who've had to put down a beloved pet: didn't you think in someway you were betraying him and didn't you see that "Why?" look in his eyes? Well that's what went on between the Father and the Son and why the Son cries, "My God why have you forsaken Me?"
And there is no answer to that but "for us men and our salvation." For the sake of the salvation of all us imperfect, fallen parents and kids, the perfect Father betrayed the Perfect Son into the hands of Devil, Damnation, and Death. Under the Law, this is exactly where the 4th Commandment is to take every one of us. But it is not God's intention to leave us there. Neither it is His will that we climb out of the pit by promising to do better nor to avoid the pit by telling ourselves "I did the best I could." "I did better than so and so." "At least 1 or most of my kids turned out all right." You speak, think, or act that way and you remain under the Law and it never, ever lets you go. I take that back; you make enough excuses and try hard enough, long enough, the Devil gives you the illusion that the Law has let you go. But hopefully in dire sickness and if not then, at death, the 4th Commandment will charge you like an armed man with murder and judgment in his eyes and you will flee it and you're keeping of it.
That's where the 4th Commandment in Jesus would leave us: I'm not going to heaven based on my parenting and no kid goes to heaven based on his or her honoring, serving, obeying, loving or cherishing. We don't get to heaven by how well we keep within the 4th commandment fence line. We go based on the fact that Jesus did, and the unexpected 4th Commandment drives us back to this saving truth. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20200226); Passion Reading 1; 4th Commandment