John Stott* states that the Fifth Commandment is categorized as one of the commandments that concerns our duty to God [the first five]. Some people may wonder about that since “Honor Your Father and Mother” seems to be about our parents and not really about God. However he writes that “while we are children [our parents] stand toward us in loco Dei,” meaning in the place of God. In essence, they represent God’s authority; therefore honoring parents is akin to honoring God.
He further comments that young people may find it “easy to be ungrateful and neglectful, and fail to show their parents due respect and affection. In their own homes, people (young people especially) are at their most selfish and inconsiderate” [Stott, 67].
My teenage years were stormy, for my parents and I clashed over my efforts to have a serious relationship with my girlfriend, my clothing and very long hair and my attitude toward the Vietnam War. My son’s teenage years were also stormy as we clashed over his need to have freedom to party, his inability to keep his room fit for human habitation and his obsession with his cool car and his fashionable clothes. Despite all the battles we had, my wife and I tried to remain firm in asking him to respect us as parents. We realized that his behavior was partly due to changes in his physical makeup [i.e. hormones] and also to his desire for independence before he really had any idea about what “independent” truly meant.
Strain in the home between parents and children is a common story, yet we have that Fifth Commandment requiring children to “honor” their parents. This idea occurs many other places in the Bible: in Ephesians it says “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” [6: 1]. Proverbs 1:8, 13:1 and 30:17 are all verses which urge children to respect their parents. Colossians 3: 20 says “Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
So what does it mean to “honor” your parents? How do we “honor” them? What if our parents are “ungodly;” do we still honor them? Is there ever a time when we outgrow honoring our parents?
First of all what does honor mean? To honor means to be respectful in word and action to the position of parenthood. The “position” deserves honor even though children may disagree with their parents. The Greek word for honor means “to revere, prize and value.” Honor has more to do woth attitude than anything else. A child may not like a parent’s decision but they still should obey out of respect for the parental role. Jesus submitted Himself to His earthly parents: “Then He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But His mother treasured all these things in her heart” [Luke 2: 51]. He also submitted Himself to His heavenly Father in the Garden at Gethsemane: “Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will’” [Matthew 26: 39].
How are we supposed to honor our parents? We do this with our actions and our attitudes. Lip service is not enough. Grudging obedience is not enough. If a parent expresses their wishes and those wishes are within the bounds of reasonable parental requests, children should obey. For the young child, obeying parents goes along with honoring them since young children are hardly ready to make life decisions on their own. Honoring in this context means listening to parents, heeding their advice and submitting to their authority. In Matthew 15: 3-9 Jesus reminded the Pharisees that God says to obey fathers and mothers. The Fifth Commandment is part of “the Law” but the Pharisees were adding in their own traditions which essentially overruled the Fifth Commandment. “He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’ For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, He need not honor his Father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Certainly Jesus knew that honoring meant honor with word and attitude. The child who does not honor their parents with his or her heart does not honor them in a sincere manner.
Are there any circumstances when a child should not obey their parents? The answer is yes. Ezekiel 20: 18-19 states “I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not follow the statutes of your parents or keep their laws or defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Parents are human and they may make bad decisions and children can be led astray. Parents have a responsibility to instruct their children in the ways of God. Ephesians 6: 4 states “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Even poor decisions can be forgiven as every parent in every situation cannot be right one hundred percent of the time. Younger children should obey their parents even if the request is faulty. But if a parental request goes against God’s law and a child [or especially a young person] knows that, following God law overrides following parents [see Acts 5: 29].
When does honoring parents change? Do we ever outgrow honoring our parents? As children grow up and move out of the house, they can show honor and respect by keeping in touch with their parents when at all possible. As parents age, their needs may increase. Adult children should stay aware of those needs and try to help meet those needs as a way of showing honor. Parents who may not be the best deserve respect because they brought the child into the world and Christians feel that God can use anyone to accomplish His good plan [that includes parents of course]. Godly people are also supposed to show respect for all people and that includes parents. As adults we are not bound to obey our parents every request but we can still respect them.
Truly honoring our parents is not an “easy” commandment. I know it is not always fun and at times, it requires God’s strength to submit to parents [especially if a child is strong-willed]. However, the commandment is practical in that people who obey it can be more prepared to be good citizens. As they mature, they have less trouble obeying governmental authorities, law enforcement authorities and employers. Not only are they pleasing God, but they may have an easier time functioning in the world.
I end with the idea that the Fifth Commandment is the only commandment that has promises associated with it. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother—which is the first commandment with a promise— so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’” [Ephesians 6: 1-3].
Certainly at times home life can be stormy but there is benefit to honoring one’s father and mother: we can gain wisdom, we can learn to respect authority, we can live a life much more at ease which can lead to longevity but most of all, as we can obey our parents we please our Lord.**
*From his book Basic Christianity
**Supplemental material for this post came from research from Gotquestions.org material related to the Fifth Commandment.