Honor Thy Father
What does it mean to honor your parents? Are Christians called to obey their parents at all times – no matter how old they are? The fifth commandment seems quite clear: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12 NKJV). This is the only commandment that comes with a promise: honor your parents and you will have a long and prosperous life.
So depending on who you are, you might think that the fifth commandment is a great idea if you’re a concerned parent or something like that. Or you might be absolutely sick of hearing about this commandment - say, if you’re the child of a concerned parent. Inevitably, church people know this commandment because of how it’s used, above all else, to keep kids in line. Honor your father & mother; mom and dad know what’s best for you.
But here’s the problem with using this commandment this way: the fifth commandment is located within a set of instructions about adultery, murder, theft, and false testimony in court. We know from the 10th commandment about not coveting your neighbor's wife that the 10 Commandments would have been understood as applying first to the dominant demographic of Ancient Israelite society - adult males - and then the rest of society by extension. So why, then, do we act as if the fifth commandment is the one instruction slipped into the list that applies specifically to young children?
But if it’s not just about young children, then who does this apply to?
The answer, in short, is that the fifth commandment is an instruction to responsible adults about how to treat their elderly parents. Notice that the commandment does not say “obey” as we often interpret it as, but rather says “honor”. Adult children don’t need to necessarily obey their elderly parents anymore - they’ve established their own path in life and can take care of themselves. They do, however, need to honor what their parents gave them as these parents transition from a position of giving care to needing care. This is why the commandment contains an often overlooked statement about long life: if you honor your parents by taking care of them when they get old, God will honor you with a long life, the opportunity for you to also grow old and live in the land that God has given.
Conversely, if you dishonor your parents and neglect them in their old age, why should God bless you with a long life?
That's quite different from saying, “toddlers, obey your inexperienced, sometimes self-contradicting 30-something parents,” isn’t it? This commandment is actually a safeguard for a vulnerable sector of society: God demands that children who grow up under the watch and care of their parents return the favor - honor - by taking care of those same parents when they become too old to take care of themselves.
That’s obviously quite a different take than what we usually hear. How do we know if it’s true?
Jesus does not teach very often about the fifth commandment, but we do find him talking about it in Mark 7:9-13. In it, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for allowing people to take the finances that ought to support their aging parents and instead donate that money to the temple. The only time Jesus really teaches on this commandment is with regards to adults supporting the elderly; he doesn’t touch this commandment when he interacts with children.
Now, this interpretation does not negate the need for children to listen to the instructions of their parents. Again and again, the Bible emphasizes the importance of respect, love, and sometimes even obedience for your parents. “Listen to your father, who gave you life,” the author of Proverbs commands, “and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22 NIV). Paul writes “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this right.” He goes on, however, to command parents to treat their children with respect: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1, 4 NIV).
But understanding the fifth commandment as being about “honor” rather than “obedience” is extremely important. In a perfect world, with parents who followed God’s law of love in everything they did, honoring your parents would be easy. But what do you do when you don’t have good parents?
“All parents damage their children,” writes Mitch Albom. “It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”
A command to obey your parents is all well and good if you have God-loving parents who are earnestly looking out for your health and happiness. But what if you’re an adult and your parents have different cultural standards? How can you honor your mother and father if you are a child of divorce and they disagree?
Or what if you want to become a Christian and your parents forbid it? People who desire to convert to Christianity against the wishes of their non-Christian family may, in some cultures, experience an extreme level of moral confusion. They believe in the God who gave the commandments, and want to follow him, but one of his commandments “forbids” them (or so they think) from disobeying their parents, and by extension - as far as they can tell - forbids them from converting to Christianity because their parents would not approve.
What a relief to find out that the commandment actually requires that they take care of their parents in the later stages in life when they will become more dependant! The fifth commandment should not be a barrier to the mission of the church.
What a fascinating journey to take with one commandment. One single sentence in Exodus 20 about parents has provoked us to look into Jesus’ opposition to the religious establishment of his day, into questions of intercultural missionary work, and into the ills and abuses of contemporary society.
With any luck, this kind of discussion can help to spur better inter-generational dialogue and relationships within the church, and allow us to reflect more fully the ethic of Jesus: love God, and love others as you love yourself.
• In Old Testament society, families were multi-generational and lived under the same roof. Authority worked differently, and was necessary for maintaining civility. Today in western culture, individual families live differently. How should we relate to our extended families? How about their wishes?
• How does your culture structure family? Do people move out when they turn 18, or do multiple generations all live together under the same roof? Some combination or something in between? How does the fifth commandment make sense in your culture?
• Can you honor your parents without obeying them? Can you obey them without honoring them? Think of some examples.
• How do we reconcile the Bible’s commands to love and honor and obey your parents with abusive parents or children whose mothers or fathers are victims of domestic abuse?
• Make a Google search for the phrase “Elder Abuse” and prepare to be horrified by the statistics about the manipulation, violence, and neglect experienced by many elderly people even today. What facts can you discover about elder abuse? What can the command to honor father and mother teach our world in this context?
• Jesus says some interesting and potentially bothersome things about family in his teachings. He seems to command his followers to prioritize their obedience to him over their own families: “Truly I tell you…no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternally” (Luke 18:29-30 NIV). What do you think this means?
• In Luke 14:25-27 it says: "Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Do you think Jesus means for his followers to literally hate people? What do you think this means?