Last week, I said that the fourth commandment (keeping the Sabbath Day holy) is the most debated of the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment – “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) – is probably the most quoted of all the Ten Commandments, as I believe every parent has quoted this to their child on at least one occasion! While we are likely familiar with it, we may not always have considered its significance, not just for our homes, but also for our society as a whole and our long-term well-being.
Not Just For Little Kids
There are no time restrictions on this commandment, so it is not just true for young children or teenagers, but for everyone. The parent-child relationship is one that shifts and evolves throughout time, so it will definitely look differently for a young child, a teenager, a young adult, and a more mature adult. For young children, this would involve obedience to various commands and rules without talking back. For teenagers, it would be respecting rules and practices while in the process of cultivating one’s own identity. A young adult no longer living under the roof of his or her parents still should honor them by checking in with them regularly and even seeking advice and counsel as one tries to navigate life. Adults with older parents can honor them by seeking to care for their parents, just as their parents cared for them in their younger years.
In discussing this commandment, the Heidelberg Catechism also notes that we are to “be patient with their failings” (Q & A 104). That reminds us that all parents (and all people) have failings and shortcomings. As weone grow up, there is a tendency to focus on the flaws we see in others and to use those flaws or shortcomings as reasons not to honor someone. Honoring someone does not mean believing that everything they say or do is perfect – that is idolizing someone! Rather, honoring is recognizing imperfections and still loving and believing the best about them, and being patient with them in their shortcomings because of your commitment to them. Obedience is never absolute – if someone tells us to do something that goes against the Word of God we must disobey – but even that kind of “disobedience” can be done respectfully, not out of defiance to the parent or authority, but rather out of commitment and love to the greater authority, God Himself. That reality does not mean that we only honor people when we think they are correct, rather, part of what it means to honor and love someone is to show patience with their flaws.
Not Just About Parents
The commandment primarily concerns the parent-child relationship, but that does not exhaust its meaning. In many ways, this commandment stands as the hinge in the Ten Commandments – the first four commandments deal with how we are to love God, and the next six commandments deal with how we are to love people. The parent-child relationship is the first relationship in our lives, so if we do not know how to navigate this relationship, we may have difficulty handling other relationships. It is a reminder that we do not exist as isolated individuals – we all live under the authority of God our maker, but are also placed within various other units – families, nations, etc. – and need to relate properly to the various people with whom we are in relationship.
Ever since this command was given, God’s people have seen it apply to people in all positions of authority, not just parents (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 104: “That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me”). Thus, just as we are to honor the parents whom God has placed over us, so we also are to honor those who are in positions of authority and influence over us. While Christians often teach their children to honor and obey their parents, I am not sure we do a good job of teaching them to honor others in authority as we often speak derisively of those in government or others in charge (such as referees at sporting events!). Again, this does not mean absolute acceptance of what those in authority call for us to do, but it does involve having patience with the failings and shortcomings of those whom God has placed over us. In America, we live in a democratic-republic where we can vote and debate things, so to advocate for certain candidates or policies is not being inherently disrespectful but actually honoring the system. However, we should also ask if how we are speaking of others shows respect for their being and patience with their flaws or if advocating for what we feel is a better way. Honoring our parents should lead us to honor others who are in positions of authority.
Not Just “Because I Said So”
Something that is interesting about this commandment is that it gives a reason why we are to obey it – that is not common in the Ten Commandments. And the reason is not the same as the one parents often state – “Because I said so.” In Exodus 20:12, we see a promise attached to the command, “that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Deuteronomy 5:16 expands it by saying, “that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Since it refers to the land that God was giving the people of Israel, there is a sense that it has a special connection to the covenant that God makes with Israel by which their obedience will lead to prosperity in the land and their disobedience will lead to exile. However, I think the promise given applies in ways beyond the Mosaic Covenant, especially since Paul discusses this in Ephesians 6:1-3. Life goes better for all when there is honor given in the home and when there is respect for authority in a land. When there is growing rebellion among children, chaos begins to ensue – in part because people have been raised to view themselves as the ultimate authority and thus cannot participate in a society in which there is give and take with each other for the greater good. This is why being disobedient to parents pops up in lists of sins (Romans 1:30) and in descriptions of the chaotic last days (2 Timothy 3:2), and why a rebellious child was so serious in ancient Israel (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). At the same time, when there is renewal in the homes and proper disposition to this first authority of our human life, we see better things happening (Malachi 4:6). When we recognize God’s authority in our lives as well as the structures and systems He has placed in this world to give it order and organization, we are better off. Thus, let’s honor, love and be loyal to those who are in authority over us that we might reap and spread God’s blessings to others.
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