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Picture of a church board with the creed, the commandments and the Lord's prayer.

It’s for your own good

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 12 Mar 2018

The fifth commandment is to honour your parents. Ros Clarke looks at what that will mean in different situations, as we continue our series of Lent blogposts on the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. The whole series of posts is here.

The fifth commandment
“Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12

Parents, huh? What do they know about anything?

What do they know about living in the wilderness when they’ve spent their whole lives as slaves in Egypt? What do they know about the land God is giving the Israelites? They’ve never been there. Why should we listen to them?

Yours is not the first generation to question the wisdom of its parents. It’s always been a temptation for children, and so God gave the children of the wilderness generation this command to honour their parents. It’s a command which is explicitly repeated in the New Testament: ‘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.” Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’ Ephesians 6:1-4.

Paul applies the commandment to children, in the context of his longer discourse on the need for Christians to ‘submit to each other’. Wives to husbands, slaves to masters, and here, children to their parents. Obey your parents, he says, for this is right. Honouring involves obedience, and certainly this is true for children who are still members of their parents’ household.

Honouring is not limited to obedience, though. Honouring an older parent means ensuring they are cared for and provided for (1 Timothy 4:3-8), for example. Honouring our parents means taking their wisdom to heart and applying it throughout our lives (Proverbs 1:8-9).

We live in a culture that places a high value on youth, and the appearance of youth. We’re constantly being told how we can hide our grey hairs and smooth out our wrinkles. But the Bible has a different view: “Grey hair is a crown of splendour; it is attained in the way of righteousness.” (Proverbs 16:31). We should respect age because with age comes experience and with experience comes wisdom.

And so, God tells the wilderness children to honour their parents so that they may have long lives in the promised land. They need their parents to make this journey, to share their wisdom, to lead each household. The promise is that the children will be blessed if they honour their parents. It’s for their own good.

How is the fifth commandment a mirror?
It’s striking that the first commandment which is not directly about our relationship with God is about family. God made us to be in family units, to reflect something of his own nature as Father, Son and Spirit. God cares about the relationship between parents and children because he is both Father and Son. The Son honours the Father. The Son obeys the Father. The Son is blessed because he glorifies his Father.

Our family relationships are supposed to reflect God’s family relationship.

But we don’t have to look very far to see families that are broken. It’s not just marriages that are broken, though that is sadly true. Whole family units are scattered, separated and estranged, hating and hurting. Siblings are rivals. Children wilfully disobey their parents, disrespect them, and abandon them to be cared for by strangers. Sin screws up families in every way imaginable. Yours and mine included.

How is the fifth commandment a deterrent?

Again we have a commandment with a promise, rather than a warning. The promise is for long life in the land God is giving them. That was everything they were hoping for: a new place, a new life, long and prosperous. God says it will be theirs, if only they will honour their parents.

Obey your parents because it is the right thing to do, says Paul. The promise is a good, if perhaps somewhat selfish, motivation. But we ought to do it just because it is right, just because God tells us. If we want to obey our heavenly Father, we will honour our earthly parents.

How does the fifth commandment set a standard for our behaviour?
This is where the rubber hits the road: how should we honour our parents?

It’s going to look different at different times in our lives: for young children, for teenagers, for adult children who are now living in their own households, for those caring for elderly parents, and so on. At times it will mean obedience, even if we disagree, whereas at other times it may mean listening and respecting before making our own choices. It will always mean being careful not to demean, belittle or disrespect our parents.

Honouring parents who are not Christians is likely to involve more disagreement, but should not mean less respect. We’ll want to share the gospel with them, but we’ll need to be careful not to dishonour their role in our lives as we do so.

Honouring parents who have mistreated or abused their children may involve difficult decisions about limiting contact and telling hard truths. We do not have a license to exaggerate or to exact revenge, even when our parents have not treated us as they should. 

Honouring elderly parents may mean arranging the professional care that they need, but it won’t mean abandoning them to the professionals. It may mean continuing to love them even when they no longer know us, just as they loved us when we were tiny babies who did not know them.

Honour your heavenly Father, by honouring your earthly parents, so that it may go well with you in the land God is giving you.

Questions for reflection:

1. What do you find hardest about your relationship with your parents?
2. Why should Christians seek to honour their parents?
3. Can you think of practical ways you could honour your parents more?

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, thank you for calling us into your eternal family and placing us in our families here on earth. Teach us how to honour our parents, to love them and listen to their wisdom, to care for them and provide for them, as they need. Help us to forgive past wrongs and seek peace within our families, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society

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