The fifth commandment begins the section of God’s law that tells us how to live with one another. ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (Exodus 20:12).
We remember that these commandments are not written for just anybody. They are given to the people the Lord has freed from slavery. God has every reason to expect that Israel will want to go on being free—and he is showing them the way.
It’s no surprise that this section begins with honouring parents. He is the Father of all the families of the earth (Ephesians 3:14). Israel knows this because he calls them his children (Exodus 4:23; also Deuteronomy 14:1-2). And Christians have lots more reason to know this.
Jesus is God’s Son and he fully reveals the Father (John 1:18). He brings forgiveness through his death, and then leads us to share with him in being sons and daughters of God—his family (Ephesians 2:17-18). Our earthly families are the way we get used to the idea that this world is created as a family affair.
What happens in families affects us deeply. This is where we get our idea of ‘normal’—what we can expect life to be and how to cope with that. It’s here we find out who we are, what we can do, who other people are and how we relate to them. It’s here we learn what to believe in, and why.
So, what parents do matters. But then, it also matters a lot how we respond to what our parents do.
Sometimes, parenting is done badly. And there is something wrong about every family! But bad parenting can’t be replaced with something that isn’t parenting. God, the Father, has made humanity to work this way. The need to honour parents is not because they deserve it but because we need to do it.
So, what does it looks like to honour our mother and father? The word means to ‘give weight to’ who they are. Clearly, this will vary as we grow.
The command is addressed to everyone, and perhaps primarily to adults. There is never a time when parents can be treated as ‘light-weight’. How we regard them and treat them is always shaping what we are. They are a constant witness to the fact that we are not self-made but dependent.
Being a child begins with having no choice—we lie where parents put us and eat what they put in our mouths!
But then, we have a will of our own and need to learn what to do with that! Do our parents need to know what we think, how we feel? Of course. We are finding out how life works and this is part of it. But then, they have a bigger frame of reference than us. It’s important to defer to that.
Then our frame of reference grows. This is as it should be. No-one is meant to follow parents all their life. Rather, they have been bearing witness to an authority greater than their own—the Lord’s. That’s who they represent, whether they know it or not.
The time comes when we have to take responsibility for responding to that authority ourselves. Being an adult is not doing whatever we like. Rather, it’s understanding God’s word, and doing that. It’s good if parents understand this and help it happen gradually.
Some children have had to honour their parents by not doing what they have been taught. This is why Paul tells children to obey their parents ‘in the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:1). There is a higher authority.
Then, parents get old. Perhaps they need to be wheeled around! How we treat them now tells us a lot about how we regard the Lord. Paul tells us that if children don’t care for their parents they have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:4-8). So, honour for parents is life-long.
This is the only command to which the Lord attaches a promise; ‘…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ He adds an incentive to encourage us. This gives hope to all that happens in our families. It happens in two ways.
First, parents know their instruction doesn’t start with their own competence and goodness. When their children ask why they have to keep these rules, they must answer, ‘We were slaves…but the Lord brought us out…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).
We all need saving from slavery to this world. If parents know this, and share this with their children, it prevents instruction being dreary and legalistic.
Second, children know they have an inheritance, but staying in it is going to depend on honouring their parents and what they teach. They won’t just grow up. They will grow deeper and richer. It gives ‘weight’ not just to their parents but to them. They are significant.
On a very practical level, our parents may give us a good start to life by providing property, education and opportunity. But this ‘inheritance’ is not our security. We need personal qualities—self-knowledge, humility, determination, tolerance, kindness. We especially need a sense that life is not about ourselves. This is what we can learn by honouring parents.
Jesus makes an important statement about children. Parents are bringing their children to him for a blessing. When disciples think this is an intrusion, Jesus protests and welcomes them. His explanation is, ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ And, ‘…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15).
One way or another, we need to learn to be childlike. We come from parents. A lot of what we are is because of them. Similarly, there’s no self-made people in God’s kingdom! No proud people! No-one who says they don’t need to be taught!
The Lord showed me something new about being a son to my father when I was in my fifties. I was still learning to be vulnerable. I was able to tell him about things that were troubling me. And it was the best thing— liberating! It didn’t just change things between my father and me. It changed me.
God designed us to learn many things about being his sons and daughters through honouring our parents—as children, and as adults. If we don’t learn it here, we may learn it somewhere else, but then the consequences may be more severe and painful.
But then, honouring parents is being truly human. It’s letting God being our Father get worked out in ordinary life. No matter what our past has been, it will always be a liberating experience to look at them, to appreciate them, to find out what they have to give, and to serve them if that is what they need.