First Mennonite Church
September 29, 2019
Honoring Our Parents
Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Today, we will consider the fifth commandment according to the Jewish list of commandments or the sixth according to the Protestant/evangelical list of the Ten Commandments. It is, supposedly, the first commandment of tablet number two.
Exodus 20, verse 12, says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
Although it is true that this is the first commandment with a promise, as Paul also affirms, yet we might be surprised to know the severity of the punishment prescribed for those who break it.
Let me read to you some other texts that speak to that:
Exodus 21, verses 15 and 17 read:
15 “Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death.
17 “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.
Deuteronomy 21: 18-21
18 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
To our modern sensitivities, it is pretty shocking to know that this instruction comes from the Bible. We should know, however, that this instruction is among others regarding issues about life and death that begin in chapter 19. Rabbis affirm in the Gemara—the interpretation of the Torah, that this commandment has never been and can’t ever be applied.
As we know very well, it is very rare for both parents to agree on what to do when there is a rebellious child at home. This instruction requires the consent and participation of both parents to bring the case before the elders of the community for them to begin investigating the case. I do not recall any incident reported in the Old Testament in compliance with this instruction.
The commandment for children to honor their parents was given to ensure continuity of God’s relationship with his newly liberated people. If parents were to stop relaying the unrepeatable acts of God to their children and if the memories of God’s salvific acts were to fail from reaching the new generation, children would not only fail to fear the God of their parents but would also drift away from the covenant with God. That was why God also instructed parents to tell and retell the stories of God’s wondrous act to their children, while at home, on the road, when they go to bed and when they rise up.
The commandment to honor parents was also given in light of the natural inclination of the newer generation to challenge the views, practices, and values of the older generation. Our children will naturally have difficulty understanding why we do things the way we do them. For us, the way we do things is the only way we know how to do them. We like face to face conversations; our children prefer texting. We are mostly concerned with the things and people closest to us: family, next-door neighbors, church, the circle of friends and our town. Our children are concerned about their friends and the world at large. We like to do things and tinker with things when they stop working; our children prefer technology and when something stops working, get a newer version of it. We have learned to be patient and to wait for things; our children, we believe are spoiled (which is our fault) want everything instantly.
We are all shaped by our parents, but also to a large extent, by the world of our upbringing: the culture, politics, religion, and significant events that took place during our growing years. Therefore, when we become adults, our points of reference, our guiding principles, and our values reflect the influences of our upbringing. Obviously, the world in which our children are growing up is completely different from the one in which we grew up. Therefore, the commandment directed to children to honor their parents is God’s way of addressing the human tension of intergenerational relations. As Christian parents, we must also remember the commandment Paul gives in Romans: Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10b). That means, we have an obligation to honor our children and their individuality, as they evolve and mature in life. Therefore, we should remember that in part the tension there is between parents and children is natural. As our children grow and mature, their defiance to our boundaries and rules is not necessarily and always out of rebelliousness, but is an essential process of their own development and establishment of their individuality. Children are not extensions of their parents, in some sense. They are individuals with a voice of their own and who are fully responsible for their actions, as well.
Children with aging parents
Often times, we forget that the commandment to honor parents applies not only to young children. We all are children, the only difference is that for some us, we might still have living parents while others might not. But for those of us who have aging parents, there is something this commandment should remind us. The Hebrew word translated “honor” in the commandment is the word Kabed (kay-bid). It also means “be heavy” in the sense of “give weight” to something. The opposite of this word is also the word used in the warning against “cursing” father or mother, in Exodus 21 that I read at the beginning. The Hebrew word for curse is “qall,” which means “to take lightly.” Therefore, if honoring our parents means taking them seriously, then that means we should esteem them highly. We are to honor them, even more, when they are elderly, or maybe because of their age. When our parents’ health, vitality, and even mental faculty begin to decline, honoring our parents translates to taking care of them. They might require a little more patience, understanding, and love. But, however challenging it might be to honor/care for our aging parents, we should remember that the life-giving breath of God given to them is also a gift to us. Elderly people are those who have a larger perspective of history. They are the ones who can bless us with their wisdom, expertise, and witness. We can learn of God’s faithfulness from their personal stories and experiences. In this youth-oriented culture we live, appreciating the elderly should be a deliberate effort, not only within the family setting but also in the church. In 1Timothy five, Paul commands to treat the elderly with respect and appreciation, as a father or mother. We are called by God to honor our elders who are our spiritual parent-figures, as a means of assuring our own longevity as a church family.
Children, honor your father and your mother. For those of us who have elderly parents, honoring our parents translates to taking care of them. Honoring parents in the church family means acknowledging God’s resources, wisdom, and witness of faithfulness in our elderly members. Each of us adults is a spiritual parent-figure to our children and the young. To the young, honoring your parents means obeying them. Amen!