Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. Proverbs 23, verse 22.
Let’s break this verse apart and see what we come up with.
“Listen to your father.” As a father, that’s my favorite command. I love it when my kids respect my words, mainly because it’s uncommon to receive public recognition of that. Every father loves this. We really dig it when we say something and then it actually happens. Yes, it’s dangerous to suppose anything about what God wants or feels; if you think about it, it’s pretty close to idolatry. But it isn’t idolatry to say that I imagine our listening to Him pleases God the Father for the same reason it pleases me: we rarely heed His words in the way He intends. I’m betting He likes it when we do.
“Who gave you life.” I have a little trouble with this part, I must admit. I like the Bill Cosby disciplinary threat of “I can take you out and make another one just like you.” We all know that’s not true, but when you have rebellious kids who relish thumbing their noses at you, it’s a false comfort. Sure, I was present when they were conceived but I didn’t really give them life. I was simply one of the two necessary beings God used to impart His unique gift. Biologically, that’s how it works, but it’s a humbling thing to think that God works such a miracle through the ultimate act of physical intimacy.
Add the two clauses back together and I think the verse is talking about more than just your average dad. It clearly alludes to the Father himself, who gave us life.
Not only that, but fathers (like the Father) impart lessons for life, teaching us wise things that we need to know to get by in the world. Things like baiting a hook, how to channel surf, the proper way to stare at someone like they have a third eye, and snoring through movies are valuable talents. But then there is listening, discerning, wisdom, resilience, perseverance, steadfastness and a number of other traits & behaviors that make those pedestrian things look small; memorable, to be sure, but minor.
Finally, there is the last clause: “and do not despise your mother when she is old.” This one I really have a hard time swallowing. To be honest, it’s something I don’t understand. How can someone despise their mother? I don’t despise mine, but I know people who don’t get along well with theirs; is that despising? Are we shallow enough to only appreciate our mothers when they (and we) are young and they offer vigorous support? Are we shallow enough to actually despise the woman who gave birth to us just because she is on in years?
I’m afraid that, to be honest, the answer is yes. Some of us are. I never despised my mom, not even once. When I was a kid, though, I did find myself wishing she were younger and could better relate to my generation. She was born in 1929 and was in her late fifties when I graduated from high school. I sometimes resented the fact that she wasn’t younger, cooler, better able to hang out and relate. Is that despising? I don’t think so, but I do see how in some other relationships, with just the right goading, it could turn despicable. My mom wasn’t a helicopter parent, didn’t obsess over my grades or performance, and while she was (and is) a worrywart, she didn’t instill in me insecurity, insufficiency or congenital ineptitude. It took me awhile to see that she has always done her best to be a parent and friend. All mothers do. What if she hadn’t? What if she had instilled in me all her fears, obsessions and personal shortcomings? In that light, I can see where some people would despise their mothers because I know plenty of mothers who did this.
By breaking down the verse, I think we come up with two things: one, that God’s advice stands on its own whether you parse it or swallow it whole, and two, the advice is better left as is. The proverb works individually but works even better if we remember that He wants us to listen to our father, who gave us life, and do not despise our mother when she is old. It’s an extension of the commandment that implores us to honor our parents that we may enjoy long life because of it. In everything we think, say and do, He wants us to remember the ones who raised us and all the lessons they taught. In doing that, He knows we will be able to draw the parallel between our parental relationships here and the parental relationship He has with each of us as spiritual Father and mother both.