It happened, again, today while I was visiting my dad. For a few years now I’ve been noticing how many people around my age are with their parents at the doctor’s office or out shopping at the grocery store. Perhaps that is because I have been one of those adult children bringing his own father and mother who no longer drive to the doctor or grocery store or other errands. In my 40’s, before my parents began to be less independent, I don’t recall noticing middle-aged adults out in public with their parents. Now, having out of necessity been chauffer, health care advocate and overseer of the parent’s financial affairs (along with my sister) for 7 or 8 years, I have become sensitized, I guess, to notice how many others are in the same situation. Mom passed away about 2 and a half years ago at age 88. Dad moved into assisted living a few weeks after her death and continues to have reasonably decent health considering how many things are wearing out in his body. He’s 90 years old.
Often, when I see an adult child helping their parent in public or helping their homebound parent when I visit to bring communion to the house or when I’m in the midst of a trip to take dad to one of his many doctor appointments I am reminded of something a friend of mine said. This friend is a former priest and now is pastor of a protestant church. “Joe, this is why the fourth commandment was given us by God.” In so many words he helped me understand that “You shall honor your father and mother” was not given us as law to get little children to obey their parents. As important as that is and as often as I have heard the sin of disobedience confessed by children, that understanding doesn’t get at the depth of the meaning of the command. It only scratches the surface.
Think about it. The Law was given the Israelites on Sinai so that they might live, and live better lives. The Law made them different from other societies they found themselves among. The commandments helped them get their lives in right order so that they could exist in a hostile world and have reason to remember who made their standard of living possible, the God who called himself I AM (that is, “Life” with the capital L). Then remember there was no such thing as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Pensions, IRAs to provide a source of income for elderly who could no longer work to feed themselves. There were no nursing homes, assisted living communities and hospice providers to attend to the physical needs of an old person. The only people who were available to take care of the elderly were the children! As I once told my mom who fretted about how much of my personal time she thought she was impinging on “the reason you have children, mom, is so they take care of you when you can no longer do that yourself. It’s payback willing given for moms taking care of helpless children in their first years of life.” That comment didn’t exactly put her mind at ease, I realized, because I knew she was trying to imagine who would be taking care of me using that line of logic, since I don’t have children! And moms, no matter how old the parent, moms will always worry about the son or daughter.
The point is, the Israelites were given the Law of the 4th commandment to ensure the elders of the tribe could live and have a life of dignity to the end of their days!
Jesus, the new Moses and law giver, put it another way, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Caring for elderly parents is our way of sacrificing ourselves for the sake of the life of others. Parent care is our privilege and entrée into the Paschal Mystery. I recall preaching one year on Holy Thursday that I realized I was obeying the Lord’s command to wash feet by being there for my mom and dad. Or as our retired bishop in residence in the diocese, Bishop Stan Schlarman, has told me, “Taking care of Mom and Dad is priestly ministry, too.” (He also told me that therefore I should take another day off instead of using my day off to attend to their needs, but I haven’t figured out how to time budget the extra day, yet. And an occasional parishioner will make a statement like “What do you need another day off for, I don’t get one. That’s another whole blog entry!)
So when I get a little resentful that most of my day off is spent “ministering” to dad, I remind myself I have an opportunity that will eventually cease to exist in my life to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. This is a time of grace and a gift from God that makes life fuller. Like the Israelites of old I need to be saying, “What god is there like our God that gives us this wonderful gift of Law that we might live? Thanks be to God!” May God forgive me my selfishness and failure to keep the fourth commandment. May the Father make this “father” a better son so the Son will say “Well done good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Master. Be reunited with your Mom and Dad forever in the fullness of life I, New Law, made possible.”