by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
The command to honor your parents was carried over into the law of Christ intact. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother," which is the first commandment with promise: "that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth."" (Ephesians 6:1-3). The word "honor" means to place a value on something, to consider it a prized possession. In the original Hebrew, as found in Exodus 20:12, the word "honor" has very interesting roots. It comes from a Hebrew word which means "to be heavy." The word is used to describe someone who was heavy with wealth; someone who is considered important and impressive. The word is used to describe Samuel in I Samuel 9:6, "And he said to him, "Look now, there is in this city a man of God, and he is an honorable man; all that he says surely comes to pass. So let us go there; perhaps he can show us the way that we should go.""
So what does it mean to honor one's parents? In Ephesians 6:1 Paul tells children to obey their parents and proves his point by quoting the command to honor your parents. Therefore, honoring your parents means obeying them. Such obedience is pleasing to God. "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord" (Colossians 3:20). And by obedience, we are not talking about selective obedience where we chose the things we want to obey. "My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother; for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck" (Proverbs 1:8-9). Children honor their parents by listening to their advice and obeying their instruction. Godly parents are a treasure to a child. They have a wealth of experience which they can pass down to their children. The importance of listening to your parents is so emphasized that even when a child is being disciplined, they are encouraged to pay attention. "A fool despises his father's instruction, but he who receives correction is prudent" (Proverbs 15:5).
But also notice that Paul said, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1). Note carefully the phrase "in the Lord." A child must be obedient to his parents in as much as what his parents ask of him is in accordance with what the Lord asks. God is not asking children to give their parents blind obedience to follow the parent's every whim.
Being grateful is another way that a child can honor his parents. "There is a generation that curses its father, and does not bless its mother" (Proverbs 30:11). Such a generation is not giving honor. Honoring your parents means that you do not mock them or treat them scornfully, even with a mere look. "The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley will pick it out, and the young eagles will eat it" (Proverbs 30:17). Quite a vivid picture, isn't it? Mistreatment of our parents will come back to haunt us in later years.
Honor is even shown in our body language. "You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the LORD" (Leviticus 19:32). Older people, including our parents, deserve respect. Slouching in a chair and saying, "Hi pops!" is not honor, though I know many parents who would accept even that small of an acknowledgment from their children.
The idea of honor or reverence even includes a bit of fear. "Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father" (Leviticus 19:3). "Revere" is the same word used when the Bible warns to fear God. As children, we ought to fear the consequences of not obeying our parents. It is what drives young people to tell their friends, "I know we're not done, but if I don't make it home by ten, I'm going to get it from my dad." There are two halves to honor: a desire to obey and a fear of not obeying.
"Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in deep darkness" (Proverbs 20:20). The word "curses" means more than a child who uses profanity at his parents. Such is wrong because it shows the contempt the child holds for his parents. Yet, "curses" literally means to make light of one's parents or to treat them with contempt. Hence, it includes much more than the use of profane words. Whenever a child treats his parents as if they really don't matter, he is cursing them. When they tell him to be home by midnight and he responds with "whatever," he is treating them with contempt. "And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:17). In our era of lax parenthood, a death penalty for cursing one's parents seems overly harsh. But there is a reason behind this law. A child who holds his parents in contempt will hold other forms of authority in contempt as well. If a child believes he can ignore his parents as he pleases, he will assume that he can ignore the laws of society and the laws of God as well. A child who curses his parents is a disaster in the making.
A direct application of this law against cursing one's parents is that a child must not strike his parents. "He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:15). Parents represent authority to a child. To strike back at authority cannot be tolerated in a peaceful society. Parents need to reserve their most severe punishments for children who are willing to strike back. They have forgotten honor and reverence. It is up to the parents to put some fear back into their relationship. Without that fear, the child's soul will be in jeopardy. A child who thinks he can overrun his parents will destroy himself. "Whoever robs his father or his mother, and says, "It is no transgression," the same is companion to a destroyer" (Proverbs 28:24).
Finally, honoring your parents means seeing to their needs. "Honor widows who are really widows. ... 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. ... If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows" (I Timothy 5:3, 8, 16). Your parents cared for you when you were small and helpless. Even as you grew to be able to provide for yourself, your parents frequently stepped in to ease your burdens. Now, when they have grown old and feeble, it is your turn to return the favor. Honor them by making sure they are comfortable in their declining years.
And Who Is My Parent?
While the teaching is clear as to what needs to be done for our parents, we still find those who hope to find a way out of their obligations. Some may argue that they were orphaned as a small child or that their parents gave them up for adoption or that their parents divorced leaving them with only one "real" parent. The simple explanation is that the people who raised you are your parents. It doesn't matter who donated the sperm and the egg that led to your birth. What matters is who took the time to feed you, clothe you, and teach you. Genetics determine your hair, eye, and skin color; but it was the people who raised you who shaped your character.
Perhaps you think that is fine for those who have had loving adults in their lives, but what if I had a parent who is despicable? Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in her book The Ten Commandments, rightly notes that:
"This commandment is not qualified. It does not mean:
- Honor only if the person is personally perceived as deserving
- Honor only if the person always reciprocates
- Honor only if it is pleasing to you to do so
- Honor only if you get compliments for doing so
- Honor only if it "feels right"
- Honor only if other people also do so."
Consider David's words to Saul as Saul was pursuing David in order to kill him, "Look, this day your eyes have seen that the LORD delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you, and I said, 'I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD'S anointed.' Moreover, my father, see! Yes, see the corner of your robe in my hand! For in that I cut off the corner of your robe, and did not kill you, know and see that there is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand, and I have not sinned against you. Yet you hunt my life to take it" (I Samuel 24:10-11). Saul is David's father-in-law, but that didn't stop Saul from wanting David dead. But did you catch how David addressed Saul? He called him "father." Even when the man is trying to kill him, David treats him with respect.
Honoring your parent does not mean you blindly follow them into sin. A parent's authority is granted to them by God. If a parent violates the laws of God, then a child must follow the higher authority. In other words, a child's respect for his parent must not exceed his respect for God. Jesus told his followers, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'; and 'a man's enemies will be those of his own household.' He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:34-37). You can be respectful to your parent without participating in his sins.
Interestingly, while there are several passages which command parents to love their children, such as Titus 2:4, there is no equivalent command requiring a child to love his parents. The child is told to honor and obey his parents, but there is no command saying he must love his parents. Perhaps such a command is not needed because children naturally express their love for their parents. Or, perhaps God understands that there are parents who are deserving of their children's love. A citizen in a country run by a cruel dictator might not love his country, but he is still required to show his government respect (Romans 13:1-2; I Timothy 2:1-3). In the same way, every parent may not be lovable, but they can be shown respect.
A Parent's Responsibility
While honoring your parents is not dependent on your parent's behavior, there are implied obligations placed upon each parent by the command to honor your father and mother. To ask something of the child implies the parent gives something worth having.
If a child honors his parents by listening to their instruction, then a parent ought to give instruction. "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). You cannot expect a child to learn solely by osmosis. Teaching needs to be done and that teaching needs to be in accordance with God's will. "You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth" (Deuteronomy 11:19-21). Children need constant reminders as to what is right and wrong. It takes time for lessons to sink in and become a part of their natural thinking.
It also follows that if a child is to respect his parents, then that respect must be expected of him. There are far too many indulgent parents who never teach their child how to be respectful. "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him" (Proverbs 22:15). I'm surprised how often I hear a child speak disrespectfully to his parent and that parent never scolds him or corrects his misbehavior in any way. Is it a wonder that we have a generation of children who are disobedient to parents, teachers, and all others in authority (Romans 1:30)? "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly" (Proverbs 13:24). Children are not necessarily born respectful. They are taught it. "Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect" (Hebrews 12:9).
When a child is taught to respect his parents, it is the beginning of a greater perspective on the world. Young children are notorious for their self-centered view of the world. Everything revolves around their needs and demands. But such a view cannot be carried over into adulthood. By giving respect to his parents, a child begins to see that there are others worthy of consideration. Such thinking about others eventually leads a person to love his neighbors as himself.
As with each of the Ten Commandments, there is more to God's law than what may appear on the surface. The command to honor your father and mother is not just a command to children, it is also a command to their parents. And, as with all of God's commands, there is a benefit to obeying this law. It comes with a promise of a longer life. But don't think of it as just life in this world. Obeying God leads you to the living waters of eternal life. Ultimately we are called upon to honor our Heavenly Father.