Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
As a result of reflecting on this passage, John gives us worthwhile advice about family life and about being a Christian parent. He gives it in a context in which not enough attention is given to the art of Christian parenting; a context much like our own where the link between our Christian principles and our practice is not always manifested. In our modern world, we get so much advice about child-rearing, especially written in a psychological vein, that it is easy to just to follow that well-meant secular advice and not ask ourselves what God calls us to do as parents. Yet what does God call us to do as fathers?
According to John, there are three strands we need to look at:
First, we have to remember that our authority as fathers is not based in any kind of authoritarian power (in John's day, enforced by Roman law about the pater familias), but rather must be based on our (hopefully) common faith. That is, we are not commanded to do something contrary to God's will because our parents have told us to, but we obey our parents because we are told to do so because of the Lord's commands. In that sense, our faith should shine out in our treatment of our children and that faith and our love which comes from it will make it so that children will ultimately learn how to be obedient. Of course, the actual working out of this is hardly easy or clean, but family life is one of those areas where one learns the Christian virtues through trial and error on the part of both parents and children.
Second, John emphasizes the importance of bringing spirituality into the very life of the family. He particular emphasizes the reading of Scripture to children, confronting as he does a prejudice in his own society that it isn't necessary because 'we aren't raising monks', but people who have to get by in the world. This sense that knowing Scripture or focusing on spiritual things will make one no good for a worldly life was a common one at the time of John (judging by how often he criticizes it) and it is equally common now. Yet John argues that early Bible reading will serve to build the Christian character and virtues of a child so that, whatever he should decide to do, he has a solid foundation of faith to build upon and can avoid the obvious temptations and vices which he WILL find in the world.
I think this last point is an important one. One of the most important of our functions as parents is to teach our children about right and wrong. If we fail in that task, we are giving our children endless opportunities to go very wrong and have to work out for themselves, without the tools to do so, how to fix their lives. No parent is pefect, of course, and clearly, we need God to help us and to watch over our children. Still, we can prepare the ground by encouraging faith in our chidlren, by reading them the stories which we Christians value and trying to understand what they mean for us now. Christianity as a lived reality is, in many ways, recognizing ourselves as part of the story of Israel and the Gentile graft onto Israel in the name of Jesus Christ. If our children feel a part of that story, they will, hopefully, live their lives accordingly.
Third, John defines the ultimate goal of the Christian parent:
When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving (all of thse are attributes of God), to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtues in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them. This, then, is our task: to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness
The list of virtues, I admit, is hardly new or original. They don't have to be. What is striking with this passage is that our role as Christian parent is not focused solely on our children. We have to foster virtue in our children, don't get me wrong, but also have to learn virtues and godliness. This is not a one-way street in which we feed our children information about how to be good people, but rather that we are learning how to be Christians and to be virtuous and godly as we live together as a family. This only confirms a realization I made early in my marriage that living in a Christian familiy is an askesis (a spiritual discipline) in the sense that we confront our weaknesses and faults in rubbing up against our spouses and children. By trying to overcome them, we set ourselves (and, hopefully, the rest of our family by our example) on the road to godliness and virtue; a road which we will not complete in this life, but which gives us hope for life to come.
I think this is ultimately what John is trying to say to us. We cannot act as fathers as some kind of authoritarian, you'll-do-it-because-I-tell-you-to kind of father, but rather that we set the example of living our familial askesis in a faithful way by following and imitating Christ's own example. As an aside, this is the biggest reason why I think that the current men's movement, which insists on reviving the the hidden image of the man as warrior, has the wrong end of the stick. Our example and our standard is Jesus Christ, not some distantly remembered and romanticized concept of the warrior. Frankly, learning to live faithfully and virtuously as a Christian is challenge enough.
So, I'm going to give St. John the last word on the subject by quoting the last words of this homily:
Therefore, let us be greatly concerned for our wives and children, and for ourselves as well, and as we educate both ourselves and them let us beg God to help us in our taslk. If He sees we care about this, He will help us; but if we are unconcerned, He will not give us his hand. God helps those who work, not those who are idle. No one helps an inactive person, but one who joins in the labour. The good God Himself will bring this work to perfection, so that all of us may be counted worthy of the blessing He has promised, through the grace and love for mankind of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, honour and power to the Father, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen