In Exodus 20:12, the Fifth of the Ten Commandments is given as “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”
This Commandment is quoted by Jesus in Mark 10:19 and its also affirmed in several other places in both the Old and New Testament. In both Jewish and Christian traditions the commandment to honor one’s parents is linked to the fact that God is the Father of all humanity and the way children relate to their parents is a metaphor for how humanity relates to God. On that note, it is a well-established fact that people get their idea about what God is like from their human father (if you’re a father, go back and read that as many times as you need to for it to sink in.)
This hit home with me in the last few days as my mother and both my wife’s parents suffered serious health problems. As I’m writing this, they’re all slowly recovering, but it’s impossible to ignore what a close call it was, just as it’s impossible to forget how old they are and how fragile their mortal bodies have become. It’s also reminded me quite forcefully of my father, who died 16 years ago after a painful but mercifully brief battle with cancer.
I didn’t always do a very good job of honoring my father. I can say, however, that I never outright dishonored him and I DO pay respect to his memory and the good things that he taught me. I am certainly very aware that although he wasn’t the best father ever, he was far from being the worst. I’m also quite sure that at least most of the time, he was doing his best. I always kind of knew that, but having children of my own helped me understand it even better.
My mother and I also had a difficult relationship for many years due to a variety of issues, most of which my sister would tell you can be traced to the fact that we’re so much alike. However, I can say again that although I had some tense moments with my mom, I never openly disrespected her and never forgot how much I owe her.
However, watching my wife and sister-in-law help care for their ailing parents, despite both of them having husbands, children, jobs, etc. of their own, has been humbling. Whatever mistakes, bad theology etc. can be attributed to the Russian Orthodox Church, the emphasis it puts on the Fifth Commandment has had a positive influence on Russian culture. It’s one of a small handful of things I think Protestants should learn from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Watching all this has also reminded me that if the Lord tarries long enough, it will someday be me lying there in a hospital bed with tubes running into my arms, nose, throat, etc. If I want my own children to treat me with dignity and respect when that time comes, I need to show them how that’s done by treating my own parents with dignity and respect now.
All of that is to say, if you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, prayerfully consider preaching a sermon or even a series of sermons on the Fifth Commandment. Let’s try and bring this most important Commandment back into the place of prominence it once had in our churches. By doing that, we’ll also be having a positive impact on our communities’ far beyond the walls of our church buildings.
If you’re a parent and you’re reading this, remember that teaching about the Fifth Commandment (and all the other commandments) begins at home by setting a good example for your children to follow. In this vein, remember to try and make it as easy as possible for your children to honor and respect you. Don’t do things or act in ways that make it more difficult and/or let it become something they do out of a sense of obligation, but rather make it something they want to do. In this, we follow God’s own example.Finally, if you’re a child, teenager or young person, always remember how important it is to honor your father and mother. Sometimes they might not deserve it, but honor them anyway. Do it because God commands it and by honoring them you’re honoring Him. But beyond that, do it because the good things they do for you and the sacrifices they make for you FAR outweigh all their foibles and failures and human frailties. Remember to be grateful to your parents even when they fail, because they ARE doing their best, and it breaks their heart that they can’t do more. Their failures and shortcomings hurt them far more than they hurt you. You’ll have children of your own someday and you’ll understand. Trust me.