Honor Father and Mother (Exodus 20:12)
This summer we’re working our way through the Ten Commandments, asking what they mean and how they apply to our lives today. We’re looking at them because of their uniqueness – because they are the only time in redemptive history that God himself spoke to all of his people assembled in one place. We’re also looking at them because Jesus reaffirmed many of these commands, therefore showing that they’re still relevant to us today thousands of years after they were given.
Today we’re looking at one that you may think doesn’t apply to you. You may think that nine apply, but this one is for others, specifically kids. The fifth commandment says:
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
So today I want to ask four simple questions:
- What does this command teach?
- What did Jesus say about this command?
- What are some of the wider implications of this command?
- How do we keep it?
First, what does this command teach?
I have some bad news for you if you think that this command doesn’t apply to you, because contrary to what some have thought, this is not a command that is only for children. This command was given to the entire national of Israel gathered at Sinai, most of whom were adults. In other words, this is a command given not just to kids but to adults as well. The command, regardless of your age, is this: honor your father and mother.
The word honor has the idea of weight. It carries the idea of not taking your parents lightly, of regarding them as something significant and heavy in your life. It means giving them the highest esteem, of elevating them to a place of importance in your life, and showing gratitude to them. God commands us: Treat your parents weightily; regard them as people of great worth. Treat them with deference. Take them very seriously in your life.
In the very early years, this happens naturally. If you see a very young child, you know that at a certain stage, mother and father are everything. Young children only want their parents. What their parents think of them is the only thing that matters. At a certain stage, children see parents as absolutely perfect.
But as children grow, this changes, and it should. We’ve all become more independent of our parents. Our lives give other people and other influences greater weight. We’re very aware of the faults of our parents. It’s at this point that God stops us and says: don’t you dare grow so removed from your parents, or so disillusioned with them, that you stop giving them a place of weighty importance in your lives. Don’t you dare stop caring for them, showing deference to them, speaking highly of them. Next to God, your parents are to receive the greatest respect and value in your life. Disrespecting them is a serious matter. Refusing to honor them is not just an offense to them; it’s also an offense to God, and a very serious matter.
Do you see how relevant and how challenging this command is? It’s especially challenging because there’s no exception clause for those of us who had less-than-perfect parents – and some of us did. As Martin Luther said, this command applies no matter how “lowly, poor, frail, and queer they may be.” The Heidelberg Catechism says it involves patiently bearing “with their weaknesses and infirmities.” This is not for perfect families with perfect parents and perfect kids; this is for all of us. This is for those of us who have parents who sometimes drive us crazy, or whose faults are very plain to us. God says that we are to honor that imperfect father who may have hurt us, and to honor our imperfect father. Not easy, but it’s what this command is about.
We’re going to look at what this means in practical terms in a minute, but before we move on we have to notice that this is the first commandment, as the apostle Paul writes later, with a promise. God says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” This, of course, was given to the people of Israel who were promised a land. The apostle Paul translates this promise to those of us who know Christ: “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:3). What does this promise mean? It’s not an individual promise as much as it is a corporate one. Obeying all of God’s laws is the way to life. It’s the best possible way to live well. And honoring parents is crucial to the basic functioning of society in every way – socially, economically, and spiritually. Whenever the basic structure of the family breaks down, it threatens the well-being of the entire society. Life becomes diminished for everyone. But when we honor and care for our parents, we create a social climate that enhances the possibility of a good and long life, not only for each person but for society as a whole.
That’s what this command means. Now we have to ask:
What did Jesus say about this command?
It’s always interesting to see what Jesus said about these commandments. He taught on many of them in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus didn’t talk about the fifth commandment in that sermon, however. Instead, he referred to it when he confronted some of the most religious people who lived at the time, who thought they had found a way around this commandment.
In Matthew 15:4-6, Jesus said:
And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
So let’s notice what Jesus says here. First, he affirms that this is a command of God. The command to honor our parents, according to Jesus, is of divine origin. Second, he quotes Exodus 21:17, which says, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” Notice how serious this command is: in Israel, God’s covenant community, disrespecting parents is placed amongst commands dealing with death and physical injury, and failing to honor them is a capital crime. We don’t live in a theocracy – under the direct rule of God – so the punishment no longer applies, but Jesus affirms that this is not only a command from God, but that breaking this command is an incredibly serious matter.
But then Jesus confronts a group of adults who outwardly agreed with this command, but thought they had found a loophole around it. Jewish tradition allowed that funds originally dedicated to the care of parents could be declared Corban – legally dedicated to God – meaning that you would no longer be required to do anything to financially support your aging parents. Instead of giving money to your parents, you would instead give the money to the temple. Some scholars think that you were actually able to keep the money yourself and benefit from it, as long as it was dedicated to God.
In essence, they thought they had found a way out of financially supporting parents by playing the spiritual trump card. Jesus had no time for this. He said that this is actually a way of nullifying the word of God. They not only violated one a commandment and disrespected their parents; they also showed complete disregard for the word of God.
Do you see what Jesus has done here? He has not only reaffirmed the commandment to honor our parents, but he has emphasized its importance in the strongest of terms. He’s reaffirmed that this commandment applies to adult children, and he’s fleshed out what honor means. Honor means financially supporting our aging parents. The apostle Paul reenforces this too when he says, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Providing financially for our family is a spiritual issue. If we do not do this, it shows that we have not grasped the gospel. It is tantamount to denying the faith that we profess to believe.
So Jesus does not qualify this command or weaken it for us. Instead, Jesus reenforces it in the strongest possible terms, and helps us see that honoring means practically caring for the needs of our parents, including looking after their financial needs. To fail to do this is not only disrespectful to our parents; it also nullifies God’s word and implicitly a denial of the gospel. This is heavy stuff.
I want to stop here to ask about some of the wider implications of this command.
I want to be brief here and point out that, throughout the church’s history, Christians have seen this as a command that applies not only to our relationship to our parents, but to all authority. At first you may roll your eyes and think that they’re taking things a bit too far, but think about it for a minute. Martin Luther said, “Out of the authority of parents, all other authority is derived and developed.” Think about this. God has placed us in families, and the Bible teaches us that the family is the basic unit of society. In essence, the other structures developed when families got larger, so that the state or government is really, in essence, a very complicated extension of the family. This is a very different way of thinking. John Frame writes, “What we call ‘states,” then, are the governmental structures of the family of Adam.”
This is why the catechisms emphasize that this command applies not only to our relationship with parents, but it applies in a much wider way as well. That’s why, for instance, the Baptist catechism says, “The fifth commandment requires that we preserve the honor and perform the duties which belong to every one in their various roles as authorities, subordinates or equals.”
There’s one other wider implication. One day when Jesus’ family came to visit him, Jesus said:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35)
If we are thinking of ways to honor our families, we also have to think not only in terms of parents and authorities. We also need to think of our fellow believers. The gospel turns us into a family. We are far more than just an audience. Blood is thicker than water; the blood that unites us as family is the blood not of physical descent, but of Jesus’ own blood, shed on the cross.
When we really understand this command, it transforms not only the way we honor our parents; it will transform the way we relate to all authority. It will help us even see our relationship with each other within the church in new ways. It’s what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). This command is about honoring parents, authorities, and our spiritual family, for the good of all.
Well, let’s finish by asking what may be the most important question this morning: how do we keep this command?
There are probably few times in history in which the fifth commandment could be more countercultural, more timely, more necessary. We need this commandment. Most of us have been taught to question authority. Our children are taught to be autonomous at a very early age. The fifth commandment reminds us of the importance of submitting and honoring those who are in rightful authority over us, especially our parents. We tend to be very individualistic. So this commandment challenges us in some very practical ways.
Let me speak to parents. You’ve probably heard of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. One of the lesser known stories is of a very old man, “whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the table-cloth or let it run out of his mouth.” His son and the son’s wife became so disgusted by him that they banished him from the table, and when he broke his bowl they made him eat of a trough. They treated him horribly.
One day the couple’s son, who was four years old, began to make something out of wood. The parents were touched and said, “What are you making?” “I am making a little trough,” answered the child, “for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.” The couple looked at each other and wept, realizing that they were teaching their son how to treat them when they got older. And they brought the grandfather back to the table, and from that point on they always let him eat with them, and they never complained even if he did spill a little of anything.
You get the idea. The way that you are treating your parents as adults is teaching your children how to one day treat you. How this applies will look different in every circumstance, but the principle is clear: honor your father and mother. How are you doing in keeping this command? We need to ask how we are caring for our parents financially, socially, emotionally. To the degree that we are indifferent to their needs, to that degree are we diminishing the possibilities of a well-functioning society for all.
You need to teach your children how to respect authority, and the best way to do this is to teach them not only with your words but with your example. Your children need discipline, but they also need your example. Teach them to honor parents and authorities by the way that you honor parents and authorities.
Our society talks a lot about deadbeat parents who fail to take care of their underage children. But there’s such a thing as deadbeat sons and daughters, who fail to care for their feeble parents. We need to teach our children not to be deadbeat kids, both by teaching them God’s Word and demonstrating what it means to honor parents by our behavior.
Now let me speak about how this applies to church. This commandment transforms our family relationships and it transforms our view of authority, but it also translates our view of church. The church is not something that I attend or that I’m part of when it suits me. It is Jesus’ own family, united by his blood. This means that we are called, as Peter says, to love one another. We’re called not only to honor parents and authorities, but to love those in our spiritual family for the good of all.
This is why church is so countercultural. People will get if you go to a church that’s hip and that you enjoy. They won’t understand you committing to people who cost you something, who are sometimes annoying and inconvenient. They won’t understand you loving others and sacrificing for their good when it costs you. But that’s what it means to be part of Christ’s family. It means committing to a particular group of people and loving them sacrificially.
The fifth commandment pulls us out of our selfishness and lets us live for others, not only our parents but for all that God has placed in authority, not to mention all others who have been saved by Jesus blood. What could possibly pull us out of our selfishness so we can live for others? Because we serve a Savior who perfectly honored his own Father and gave his life so that we could be changed.
Father, we thank you for this commandment. We see today that it applies to us, and that it’s crucial that we follow it. I pray that you would help us see its importance, not only for us, but for our children and our church as well.
We pray for those today who have not been honoring their parents as they should. Give them the grace that they need so that they will care for their parents by speaking well of them, forgiving them, and supporting them in practical and financial ways.
We pray for parents. Please allow us as parents to teach our children the importance of honoring those in authority.
We pray for our church. Teach us that we are family, and allow us to be free to love and serve our fellow believers.
All of this is possible because we have a Savior who not only honored his Father perfectly, but who died so that we could be forgiven and changed. May every person here be transformed by trusting in Christ. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.