Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.”
There a couple unique things about this commandment.
It’s first of all the only one of the ten commandments that deals with our treatment of a particular person or two in our lives as opposed to our treatment of everyone. The other commandments that deal with our treatment of other people refer to our treatment of just other people in general. But this one deals with our treatment of some particular people. Apparently, our treatment of these people in particular is of utmost importance to God.
Another unique thing about it the apostle Paul helps us see in Ephesians 6:2-3 where he quotes this commandments and says it is “the first commandment with a promise“. It’s not only the first commandment with a promise, but the only of the ten that has a promise. Now, there is a sense in which some of the others come with promises. A couple of them come with threats (Ex 20:5,7), which are promises of consequence for disobedience. And attached to the second there is a general promise of God’s lovingkindness on those who love God and keep His commandments (Ex 20:6). But this is the only of the ten with a promise of blessing for obedience to it specifically.
Let’s talk a little about…
“that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.” I used to take that to mean that if you do this you’ll live longer, which is generally a true principle. If you honor your parents and listen to their advice it will keep you from a lot of self-destructive behaviors, so you’ll probably live longer. But I don’t think that’s the promise here. It was a promise God made to the nation of Israel to whom He was speaking at the time. And the land which the LORD their God was giving them was the land of Canaan. I think it’s a promise saying that the nation’s security and longevity in the land of Canaan hinges on their obedience to this commandment. If they become a nation that dishonors their parents God will soon drive them out of the land He’s given them. But as long as they are a nation that honors their parents God will allow them to remain in the promised land.
The promise was to impress upon them and should impress upon us how much God pays attention to and how seriously He takes our treatment of our parents.
What does it mean to honor our parents?
The word for honor in the Hebrew text literally means to attach weight to or to make heavy. But it doesn’t mean we should tie dumbbells to our parents or feed them lots of high calorie food. It refers to attaching a heavy importance to someone, treating them as having a great weight of value and significance, as opposed to treating them lightly, like they’re unimportant, like they don’t matter. It is to treat your parents as VIPs, as very important people.
How do you do that? Let’s let the Scriptures answer that for us. We’ll start with what probably first comes to our minds when we hear this commandment…
How we honor our parents in that stage of life where we are dependent on them
Paul says the main thing in Ephesians 6:1. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Then he quotes the 5th commandment as it’s written in Deuteronomy. The expression “in the Lord” there I really don’t think refers to the parents. He is not saying obey your parents if they’re in the Lord, if they’re Christians. Rather the expression “in the Lord” modifies the command “obey”. The sense of it is, “Children, this is what you do in a relationship with the Lord, you obey your parents.” If you’re a Christian young person trying following the Lord, you obey your parents. Disobedience to parents is rejecting the Lord’s rule in your life.
Luke 2:51-52 provide us with about all the insight that we have into the adolescent years of Jesus’ life. Those verses pick up after the story of when Jesus was twelve years old and His family accidentally left him behind in the big city, Jerusalem. They found Him finally three days later in the temple, sitting among the rabbis, listening to their teaching and discussing the Scriptures with them, and amazing everybody at His understanding of God and His word at such a young age. Right after that story at Luke 2:51 it says, “And He [Jesus] went down with them [His parents] and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them…” Don’t you think if there was ever a kid who did not need the guidance and rules of a parent it was Jesus? At twelves years old He amazed people with His understanding of God and right and wrong. He was an unusually wise kid. Yet He subjected Himself to His parents, meaning He put their will over His own. Whenever there was a conflict of wills He conducted Himself according to theirs. Not because they knew better, but because He knew that’s what’s right for kids to do in the sight of God. So when Mary hollered from down the street “Jesus, come in. It’s time for supper.” He wasn’t like the kid whose friend says, “You better go now. Your mom is calling you.” And he says, “Oh, I don’t have to go in just yet. She’s only called me twice so far.” I suspect Mary and Joseph only had to tell Jesus one time to do things. “Clean your room.” “Yes ma’am.” “Do the dishes.” “Yes sir.” “Be home by eight.” “You got it.” Whatever it was, as long as it wasn’t a violation of God’s commands, He would do it. And when He said, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to John’s house,” John’s house was not just the stopping off place to going to some other place His parents wouldn’t want Him to go. He subjected Himself to them.
To honor also involves showing respect. Let’s notice a couple verses in Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19:3, “Everyone of you shall reverence [or show respect to] his mother and his father…” Leviticus 19:32, “You shall rise up before the grayheaded and honor the aged…” Like in the courtroom when the judge walks in and all rise. Or in the Whitehouse when the president walks in a room and all rise. It’s an expression of respect. And that’s honoring the person. Not that we must always rise when our parents walk in the room, but it’s just to show that expressions of respect are how we honor someone. So in our culture honoring your parents means you look them in the eyes when they talk to you, because this isn’t China, in our culture that’s respectful. It means you don’t tell them what to do. When you’re on phone with them, asking for a ride home from some place, you don’t treat them as though they are some cab driver who should be glad for your business. You ask them. And you say “Thank you,” expressing that you don’t see them as owing it to you. I really don’t think God is in favor of the trendy thing now among kids of calling their parents by their first names. So you call their house and they answer and you ask to speak to a parent, instead of hearing them on the other end of the phone shouting “mom” or “dad,” they shout “Bob” or “Sharon” or whatever it is. Seems to me it’s treating them like they’re just your friends or classmates. It’s not honoring them.
Let me read to you the interpretation of honoring and respecting your parents from the ancient Jewish Rabbis. This is found in the Jewish Talmud. “In what does reverence for a father consist and in what does honor for him consist? Reverence means that the son must neither stand nor sit in his father’s place, not contradict his words, nor judge him harshly. Honor consists of providing parents with food and drink and clothing and covering them, and in aiding them to enter and to leave the house.” Rabbi Eliezer said, “Even if his father orders him to throw a purse of gold into the sea, he should obey him.” Obedience, showing respect…
And also you can see in the Rabbis’ interpretation where they spoke of providing for parents and aiding them as they walk, that they didn’t see this command as just a command for kids. They understood that we never grow out of this responsibility. We just honor them in different ways in different stages of life.
So let’s turn to…
How we honor our parents as adults
Let’s turn over to Mark 7 and look at something Jesus said to the Scribes and Pharisees. Mark 7:9-13, “He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” We see there that when we’re adults honoring our parents means taking care of them if they happen to be in any need that we can provide. But the Scribes and Pharisees had found a way around it they thought. They said you could declare your extra resources as Corban, which was a Hebrew word that meant offering or gift. If they said something is Corban that meant it was given to God, it was divine property. But apparently that didn’t mean that they went down to the temple and gave it to the priests right away. They still held on to their possessions for awhile and used them for themselves. Maybe the deal was that eventually their stuff would go to God. Perhaps the deal was when they died it would be transferred over to the priests. But until then they used it for themselves. They thought they found a way to get out of having to give to anyone, even to their own parents if they became in need. But it was disregarding the fifth commandment.
I Timothy 5:4, “If any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” So when the tables are turned from what they were in our childhood, when our parents are the ones in need of support and care like we used to be, we have to return the favor. They took care of us, in their declining years it’s our turn to take care of them.
And I know there are difficulties here. There are deep questions to work out. I know that some of you have wrestled with the question, “Should mom or dad go to a nursing home?” It’s not for me to tell you what you should have done in that circumstance. I’m not saying that you can’t use professional help. But I think I can say with a word from God that we need to treat our declining parents like we’re going to want to be treated when we’re at that last stage of life. We must not neglect what’s best for them because it might interrupt our life or interfere with the way we like things at our house or interfere with our career or our hobbies. When you were about to come into this world, probably your mother did not look down at her big tummy and think, “I sure hope this won’t change anything in my life. I sure hope this won’t interrupt my schedule or take much of my time or money.” How long did you interrupt your parent’s life? How much time and energy and money and how much of their lives have they given for you? It comes out to an enormous debt for me that I owe my parents.
I came across a little story that I thought illustrates a good principle to think about. It was a story about a married couple with a six year old boy and the husband’s old father who was declining in his old age. When the old man could no longer live on his own, he came to live with them. His daughter-in-law told the old man, “We eat at such-and-such a time. If you want to eat, you need to be at the table when the meal is served.” At first the old man came right on time. But eventually he came late, and to teach him a lesson, the daughter-in-law had the old man eat in a corner by himself. More time passed and the old man began having trouble with his food since his hands had begun to shake more. He couldn’t seem to properly handle a knife and fork. He’d spill food on himself and on the floor. After enduring the situation as long as she could in exasperation the wife went out to the barn and bought back a feeding trough and set it down in front of the old man and plopped his food in it and said, “If you are going to eat like a pig, you’re going to have a trough like a pig.” A couple days later they couldn’t find their six year old. Then they heard this banging sound coming from the shed behind the house. The wife walked out there and opened the shed door, and there was the boy busy nailing boards together. She asked, “Son, what are you doing?” He said, “Oh, I’m making you a trough for when you and Daddy grow old.” … Our kids likely will learn how to treat us when we old by watching how we treat grandma and grandpa.
I Timothy 5:8, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” He’s saying it is inconsistent to say that I’m devoted to Christ if you could take care of members of your family but don’t.
Jesus not only honored His parents in boyhood, but you remember John 19? Nailed to a cross, naked, mutilated beyond recognition, bleeding, struggling to breathe, suffering, He looked down and saw His widowed mother and His beloved disciple John. And in a moment of awareness with almost His dying breaths He made provision for the care of His mother. In that awful agony He pushed Himself up on the nails to get a breath to say to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son,” referring her to John. And then He pushed Himself up again to get another breath to say to John, “Behold, your mother.” And it says from that time on John took her into his own household.
Now, maybe there’s somebody here who’s thinking, “This is all fine and good if you have honorable parents. But I didn’t grow up in a ‘Leave it Beaver’ sort of family.” Maybe you were abused or neglected as a child. Maybe you had alcoholic parent. Maybe you have stories of horrible parenting by your mom or dad. I can’t speak to you as one who has had to deal with that. So I can only imagine how difficult it must be. But I do believe that even if your parents are not honorable, God’s command to you is still the same. He still wants you to honor them despite how they may have treated you. There’s no fine print, not footnotes, no exception clauses attached to the fifth commandment. It’s not honor your father and mother if they deserve honor. Jesus taught us even, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Paul said at the end of Romans 12, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” You might feel that by honoring your parent you are excusing their behavior. But you’re not. You’re leaving it to God to take care of all the judgment and justice that needs to be done. You’re keeping the commands of God. And you may heap those burning coals of shame on their heads over how they’ve treated you. You may change their hearts by loving and honoring them. That’s how God has changed our hearts. Despite how we’ve treated Him, He’s loved us, sent His Son for us. And He’s called us to try to change people’s hearts in the same way, to overcome evil with good.
– James Williams