Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee (Exodus 20:12).
The fifth commandment brings about a shift in focus. Whereas the first four commandments involved an Israelite’s relationship with his God, the last six involve his relationship with his fellow man. One could say that the first four commandments are the means by which the Israelites would “love the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] soul, and with all [their] mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37), and the last six commandments are the means by which they would “love [their] neighbor[s] as [themselves]” (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39).
Therefore, as we turn from man’s relationship with his God toward his relationship with his fellow man, what would we emphasize? What would be the first command that we would establish for how people ought to work with one another? In the Ten Commandments, the first command dictating the relationship of man with his fellow man is to honor his father and his mother (Exodus 20:12).
This might seem strange to us– we would more likely than not emphasize the later commandments to not murder, to not commit adultery, to not bear false witness, and to not covet your neighbor’s goods over the need to honor father and mother. Why, then, is the command to honor father and mother at the head of the list?
We can discern part of the reason in the “promise” noted by Paul as he provides the same command to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:2-3): “that thy days may be long in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). How is it that one’s days are longer if they honor their parents?
In a few circumstances there is a very good reason for it: the person who curses his parents or strikes his parents is to be put to death (Exodus 21:15, 17). If parents have a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey, they are to bring him before the elders, and if the charge is true, the son is to be stoned with stones (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It is hard to “live long” in a land when you have been executed for rebellion against your parents!
Yet this is not really what God is envisioning when He makes this promise. While it is entirely possible that God provides a supernatural blessing or benefit on children who honor their parents, we can also understand this promise in completely natural ways. A child who listens to his or her parents has some level of respect for them as authorities. When the child becomes an adult, he or she is more likely to respect other authorities, including God and the government, and are more likely to be law-abiding citizens. If, on the other hand, a child does not honor his parents, it most often is due to stubbornness and rebelliousness. As that child grows up and becomes an adult, that stubbornness and rebelliousness continues against authorities. They are more likely to engage in illegal behaviors and have no respect for divine or human authority. Such people are more likely to die on account of their bad habits or at the hand of the law or men. Therefore, those who honor father and mother will have it go better for them and they will have a better opportunity to live long in the land God gave them. There are other factors in play that might hinder that– war, famine, pestilence, accidents, and the like– and there are also times when people live long lives despite being rebellious and stubborn. Nevertheless, the general premise holds weight, even to this day.
Hopefully we can better understand why God places the command to honor father and mother in the forefront of man’s relationship with other people. All of us first learn about life and how we should live from the home. Sadly there are many times when the home is not a good place in which to learn about life– some parents neglect and/or abuse their children, and this is not at all God’s intentions for the conduct of parents (Ephesians 6:4). Thankfully, a good part of the time, parents want the best for their children– to raise them to be good, productive, law-abiding citizens, if nothing else (cf. Hebrews 12:9-11). While some parents may not always have the best understanding of what God expects out of people, and not all parental advice and direction is good, most parents most of the time attempt to direct their children toward what is good and to help them avoid what is evil.
It is in the home where children first learn about authority. They are to understand that their parents have the authority over them to raise them as they see fit, ideally to raise them in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). If a child respects his parents’ authority, he or she will be more likely to respect the authority of God and to be law-abiding citizens. If a man or woman honors father and mother, it will be easier for them to avoid committing murder, committing adultery, bearing false witness, and coveting. If a child does not learn about authority, or disrespects the authority of parents, then the temptation to commit those sins will be greater.
We must note, however, that while this command has applicability to children, God is speaking to the adult Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai and throughout their generations (cf. Exodus 19:1-20:2). Respect toward parents is not to end the minute a child is no longer under their authority. The wise man quickly discerns just how important and valuable his parents’ advice and counsel about life can be. Challenges and issues in the world, in the workforce, in marriage, with children– one’s parents have already endured all of these things and have gained experiential knowledge about them. In many instances children end up respecting and appreciating their parents far more as adults than they ever could have when they were younger!
How, then, do we honor father and mother? Honor certainly involves respecting them, appreciating the sacrifices they made for us, and being a source of strength and encouragement for them. But “honoring” father and mother goes much further than this– children are expected to take care of their parents and provide care for them in their older age, as Jesus makes clear regarding this commandment in Mark 7:10-13.
This value is not well understood in our society. Sure, people still understand that parents and grandparents should be honored; if there are reports of parents abusing children or children abusing parents, we understand that such are terrible things and should not be done. Sadly, however, in our push toward individualism and individual fulfillment, far too many children cannot be bothered with the expectation to provide and care for their parents or grandparents. Therefore, far too many parents and grandparents languish in nursing homes and other assisted care facilities, often all but forgotten, seemingly unloved, without comfort or encouragement.
Yes, there are times when the medical needs of a parent or grandparent are too great for their children to provide, and we must be sensitive toward these situations. Nevertheless, we must remember that God has charged children and even more extended family members with the obligation to care for the elderly and widowed within their family (Ephesians 6:1-3, 1 Timothy 5:16). Even if the parents’ medical needs are great, children can still remain involved in their parents’ lives. There is no excuse or justification for parents and grandparents to be physically and emotionally cast off in old age– such is extremely dishonorable!
There may be times when it seems burdensome to care for parents or grandparents; there were times, no doubt, when it was burdensome for them to care for us. God expects His children to honor their earthly father and mother, not just to show them respect, but to take care of them just as their parents had taken care of them. Let us honor God by honoring our parents!
Ethan R. Longhenry