The 5th in a series on the Ten Commandments: "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you." (Exodus 20:12)
So, how long do you have to look out for your parents when they become old? When does your obligation end? What does it mean to "honor" a parent? It is just thinking fondly of them or does it require some action on your part?
I actually took a class in seminary one semester on the book of Exodus and when we got to this commandment, we discussed it at length. The professor told us that to honor a parent was to care for them when they were old and could not care for themselves any longer. He also said that this commandment not only applied to parents, but to all elderly persons. The reasoning for this is that there was no social security system in their day. There were no nursing homes. There were no home health care organizations. Caring for elderly persons became the responsibility of families. Extended families were the rule, not the exception.
This is illustrated in the book of Ruth when Ruth cares for Naomi and treats her as her own mother, even though she was her mother-in-law. When they returned to the land of Israel from the land of Moab, Ruth was a stranger there and Naomi actually belonged because of her ancestry, but the roles were reversed because of Naomi's age and Ruth became her caretaker. When the happy ending of the story arrives and Ruth and Boaz marry, Naomi lives with them and becomes the caretaker for their children. That story illustrates what the people of Israel considered the norm for caring for the elderly. They were part of the extended family and were cared for by a family member or by the entire family unit who teamed together to provide what was needed.
Today it is rare to find an older person living with a family. The situation is much more common that an older person wants to be independent as long as they can and live in his or her own home until they finally must have another arrangement and care facilities have sprung up to meet those needs. So, does one's obligation to a parent end when the parent is institutionalized and lives with other elderly persons? The commandment to honor a parent has no end to it. It exists as long as the parent is living.
I am aware of situations in which children abandon their parents. Some do it while they still are living by themselves and others do it when the elderly parent enters nursing care. Some grown children forget about their parents and neglect them in many ways. Some go so far as to stop communication with them, not even sending a card or Christmas gift, as it true in one case I know. Others reject the pleas of their parent to provide transportation for health care, making them rely upon community members even though they are capable of providing such a basic need to their parent. People who abandon their parents forget all the times in life when the parent provided the care they needed, in times of sickness and health, and become self-absorbed. They forget that their own needs were met by the very one whom they now neglect and turn away from.
Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 that applies to all persons in need when he commanded his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the ill and those who are in prison. Jesus said those who fulfilled that commandment to do this to "the least of these" would be welcomed into the kingdom that God had prepared for them. The term "least of these" means even those in society that one would consider to be beneath them in some way. Surely if one must do these things for the least in society, shouldn't one do that and more for one's own parents who now must rely upon them for health care and meeting their basic needs?
Caring for the elderly in a society marks it as a civilized society. Perhaps persons who care for the elderly, their own parents, are civilized persons and those who abandon their parents in their hour of need are uncivilized. Fulfilling this commandment seems to be a matter of decency and respect, something that we should offer to strangers and persons in prison, and even more so to our aged relatives.