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Part Three:  The Will of God

Fourth Commandment

Table of Contents    

The Ark of the Covenant The first three commandments pertain to our relationship with God. They oblige us to recognize God as our Lord and Master, to honor His Name in language and song, and to pay Him public homage as a people whom He has called to be His own.

With the Fourth Commandment, we enter on a new relationship with God. If the first three commandments summarize what may be called “religion,” the last seven synthesize “morality.” From the fourth through the tenth precepts, our duties toward others are identified as the practical living out of our duties toward God.

The text of the fourth Commandment is almost the same in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But the latter contains the former and is more specific.

Honor your father and your mother, as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you, so that you may have long life and may prosper in the land that Yahweh, your God, gives to you (Deuteronomy 5:16).

As given to Moses, the Fourth Commandment only directly obliges children to honor their parents. But already in the Old Testament and on through the New, it was understood to include respect and obedience to all legitimate authority.

There is a unique fitness, however, in stressing the honor that children owe their parents. If they are faithful as children in their respectful obedience to father and mother, they will have laid the foundation for a lifetime honor of all rightful authority.

Old Testament Teaching

The biblical precept tells children they must honor their father and mother. The basis for this duty is the commandment of God. And the twofold reward is a long life, blessed by God in the land promised the Chosen People by the Lord.

To honor one’s parents means to respect them, no matter what their age or physical condition; to obey them in whatever they command in accordance with the will of God; and to assist them, especially in sickness, poverty, or their declining years.

Underlying this obligation is the virtue of piety, or devotion to the authors of one’s being. Thus filial piety is an earthly expression of the heavenly duty to honor God, who is the primary Author of all created beings.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the corresponding duty of parents to their children is also revealed. If children are to honor their parents, parents are to nourish and provide for their children, teach them, and train them in the law of the Lord.

Only in this way can family life be developed. In the Old Testament, the family is seen as a religious unit. The Passover was celebrated each year within the family. Family solidarity was the bedrock of Israel as God’s chosen ones. The individual depended on the family for protection and support. The family shared in the rewards and even the guilt of each of its members.

New Testament Revelation

The Fourth Commandment was immensely developed by the coming of Christ. He was conceived and born in a family, and he established the Church as the supernatural family of the New Covenant. And He clearly separated the Church from the State, while recognizing the rights of civil authority in temporal matters for the members of His kingdom on earth.

The Christian Family.  When the Son of God became man, He came as a little child. After the finding in the temple, the evangelist simply says that Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph and “came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:51).

In this, Christ became the model for the honor and obedience that children owe their parents. He had a human will which He freely subjected to the directions of His mother and foster father. Masters of the spiritual life have written extensively on the lesson that Christ teaches all of us – not only children – by His humble obedience at Nazareth. “Who is it that obeys,” asks St. Bernard, “and to whom is he obedient? It is God that obeys man; God, I say, to whom the angels are subject, to whom the Principalities and Powers are obedient. God obeyed Mary, and not only Mary, but also Joseph because of her” (Sermon on “He was sent,” 1).

In the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph became the pattern for parents to follow in the exercise of authority. Pope John Paul II makes a great deal of this:

In the family, which is a community of persons, special attention must be devoted to the children by developing a profound respect for their personal dignity, and a great respect and generous concern for their rights. This is true for every child, but it becomes all the more urgent the smaller the child is and the more it is in need of everything, when it is sick, suffering, or handicapped (Familiaris Consortio, 26).

There is a closer relationship than is commonly thought between respect for the child by the parents and the child’s respect for its parents. Obedience is owed to the parents, but there is such a thing as earning the respect of their children. The parents’ esteem for their children’s personal dignity is necessary if the children are to have a corresponding esteem for their parents.

Implied in respect and esteem is the underlying love that children should have for their parents. Here, too, Christ is the model for children to imitate, seen in the deep love He had for Mary and Joseph.

Spiritual Childhood.  Totally surpassing anything in the Old Testament is Christ’s profound teaching on children. Children are to be loved. Taking a child, on one occasion, Jesus placed it in the midst of His disciples. After He embraced the child, He said to them: “Whosoever shall receive one such child as this in my name, receives me, And whoever receives me, receives not me but Him who sent me” (Mark 9:35-36).

When, on another occasion, the disciples rebuked the mothers who brought their children to Jesus so He might touch them, He, in turn, rebuked the disciples. “When Jesus saw this,” we are told, “He was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ ” Then he set down the condition for salvation. “I tell you solemnly,” Christ declared, “anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:13-15).

Only those will be saved who, during their lives on earth, have practiced the humility and obedience, the docility and simplicity that human history associates with children.

Thus, the same St. Paul who told children “be obedient to your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1), also told Christian believers to become “perfect children of God” (Philippians 2:15). If children have their duty toward parents, all followers of Christ have their duty toward God. They are to be like children in their complete reliance on the One without whose love and omnipotence they would not even exist.

Obedience to Church Authority.  Christ repeatedly stressed the duty of obedience to the authority of the Church He was establishing. In His closing discourse to the disciples, He told them to teach all nations to observe all that He had commanded. This commission summarized the whole of the Savior’s public ministry. He determined as certain that, when He left the earth in visible form, He would leave the apostles and their successors with the right to command others in His name.

Everything that we associate with the Fourth Commandment about children honoring and obeying their parents, can be applied, in principle, to the honor and obedience that the faithful owe to those who hold legitimate authority in the Catholic Church. Yet, as in the case of parents and children, this is a mutual responsibility of the faithful toward those in ecclesiastical authority and of those in authority toward the faithful.

The Church’s law is unqualified about the duty of the faithful.

Christ’s faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the sacred pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church (Canon 212).

At the same time, those holding authority to teach and govern the faithful also have their duties. There are at least a dozen provisions in Canon Law for bishops alone, legislating how they are to provide for the doctrinal, moral, and liturgical needs of the people under their care. This means that, “Christ’s faithful have the right to be assisted by their pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments” (Canon 213).

Obedience to Civil Authority.  From birth to His death, Christ practiced obedience to those in civil authority. His birth at Bethlehem was occasioned by a decree of the emperor, ordering a census of all the people in the Roman Empire. Christ’s death in Jerusalem was ordered by the Roman procurator, who unjustly condemned Jesus to be crucified.

On one historic occasion, He carefully distinguished between the rights of the State and the rights of God. The chief priests and scribes sent agents to Jesus to find some grounds “to hand Him over to the jurisdiction of the governor.” They hoped to trap Him into denying the authority of the State.

They put to Him this question, “Master, we know that you say and teach what is right; you favor no one, but teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissible for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” but He was aware of their cunning and said, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and name are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they said. “Well then,” He said to them, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:21-25).

Christ’s reply has become the foundation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on State authority. The State has authority from God to govern its citizens in what concerns the temporal affairs of this life. Citizens, therefore, have the duty to obey civil authority. But their obedience is conditional. The rights of God are not only primary: They are normative. Laws of the State and decrees of civil authority are binding in conscience only where and in so far as they conform to the laws of God.

“God wants you to be good citizens,” St. Peter told the early Christians (I Peter 2:15). And St. Paul declared, “You must all obey the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Yet Peter and Paul finally laid down their lives for Christ because their teaching was in conflict with the paganism of the State.

Civil authority is to be obeyed. But one of the gravest trials of Christ’s followers in the modern world is the widespread denial of their religious rights by the secular State. “There are forms of government,” the Second Vatican Council declared, “under which the public authorities strive to deter the citizens from professing their religion and make life particularly difficult and dangerous for religious bodies” (Declaration on Religious Liberty, 15).

The norm to be followed has not changed over the centuries. What Peter and the apostles told the Sanhedrin is just as true today: “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men” (Acts 5:29). The price for this statement has been martyrdom.

The Tablets of the Law

Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism

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The picture of “The Ark of the Covenant” was obtained from The Learning Company's ClickArt Christian Graphics Deluxe product, © 1999 The Learning Company, Inc. and its subsidiaries, 88 Rowland Way, Novato, CA  94945 USA. All Rights Reserved. The image may not be saved or downloaded and is to be used for viewing purposes only.

The picture “The Tablets of the Law” at the bottom of the page is from the book Christian Symbols, drawn by Rudolf Koch (1876 – 1934) with the collaboration of Fritz Kredel (1900 – 1973) (trans. Kevin Ahern; San Francisco: Arion Press, 1996) courtesy of Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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