Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” News accounts tell the tragic story of how some national youth leaders are calling for a “children’s liberation movement.” They demand the privilege for a child to sue his parents, to leave school when he pleases, and to handle his own finances. One book urges that children should have the right to choose their own guardians if they don’t like their parents. There are revolutionary forces at work launching an attack on family life, the like of which has never been experienced before in the history of the world. But in spite of the fact that the Fifth Commandment (in some places) seems to have fallen by the wayside, God’s Law still stands. The command to honor father and mother has never been repealed.
The first four of the Ten Commandments have to do especially with our relationship to God. The 5th Commandment marks a turning point. It introduces the last six Commandments, which speak primarily of our relationship to others. And the first of the last six, gives instruction about how we should treat parents in the home. Before we can love and respect strangers, we must love and respect our parents. As we study God’s rule about honoring parents, we note three things:
1. Parents Must be Honorable
A study of the 5th Commandment indicates that not only is it the duty of the child to honor the parent, but also it is the duty of the parent to deserve that respect. In the New Testament, whenever the Lord gives advice to the child about obedience to his parents, He also gives instruction to the parents about bringing up children in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord.
The ethics of the New Testament are always well balanced. If God lays a duty on one side (to the children), He always commands an equal duty on the other side (to the parents). For example, in Ephesians 6:1-3, the Bible instructs children to honor parents, but in the same passage, the Lord speaks very frankly to parents about their duties. So, along with the commandment to children (to honor parents), there is also a commandment to parents (to be careful that they might deserve that respect).
(a) Parents should provide nourishment and love. Children enter this world as helpless infants, dependent upon their parents. Every day they need food and clothing and shelter, and sometimes they need medical attention. It is the parents’ responsibility to provide for these needs. If one does not provide, he is worse than an infidel (1 Timothy 5:8).
In New Testament times, child exposure was quite common. During the night, unwanted children were left lying on the street, laid at the Lactarian Pillar in Rome. Many simply died. Baby girls were often nourished up and used to stock the houses of prostitution. Some children were collected by professional beggars and were dashed against a wall, deliberately crippled, and then the beggars used the crippled child to solicit money on the street. That sounds cruel and terrible, but in our generation, unwanted babies are murdered by the thousands every day. And during the years of early childhood, child abuse is quite common. One father beat his five-year-old son to death because he didn’t say his bedtime prayer in the right way. But thank God that there are still many homes where children are wanted, where father is willing to work in order to provide for the family, and where both mother and dad spend a great deal of time with their children because they love them.
(b) Parents should provide training and discipline. Remember that punishment is a part of love. Proverbs 13:24 says, “He that spares the rod hates his son,” but he that loves him chastens him diligently. The mother who says, “I can’t bear to spank Jimmy; I love him too much for that”—is totally ignorant of what true love is. Real love seeks the best good for the other person, and that sometimes includes strict discipline.
Too many boys and girls grow up and never see their dad set a boundary for their actions. They seldom hear their parents say “no.” They never feel the weight of their dad’s arm behind a paddle, because he believes in raising children without the use of a rod. Parents who are permissive, and who fail to use the paddle, are the greatest enemies a child can ever have.
One large City Police Department says there are ten rules for a parent to follow if he wants his child to become delinquent:
- 1) Begin in infancy to give the child about everything he wants.
- 2) When he picks up bad language, laugh at him.
- 3) Never give him any specific spiritual training.
- 4) Avoid using the word “wrong” because he may develop a guilt complex.
- 5) Pick up the books and clothes he lets lying around.
- 6) Let him read any printed matter he can get his hands on.
- 7) Quarrel frequently in the presence of your children.
- 8) Give your child most all the spending money he wants.
- 9) Satisfy his every craving for food, drink, and comfort.
- 10) Take his part against neighbors, teachers, policemen, etc.
And they conclude this bit of advice by saying, “Be sure to prepare for a life of grief, because you will have plenty of it.”
Every parent—by way of contrast—owes his child good teaching and discipline. You are committing a tremendous wrong toward your children if you don’t enforce obedience at an early age. At some points, there will always come a “showdown.” Perhaps at the breakfast table, the child will refuse to eat his cereal. Maybe he will spurn the idea of picking up his toys. There must be immediate punishment when there is a defiant refusal to obey instructions. You are going to be teaching to your children the qualities of respect for authority and honor for parents, and you will very likely get (later on in life) the same kind of honor that you taught your children in the first place!
(c) Parents should show understanding and encouragement. Parents should discipline firmly, but our discipline must always be tempered with understanding and encouragement—otherwise the home becomes a miniature police state where the parents rule with an iron hand, and the children cringe with fear.
We must not expect too much of our children. We must remember that they don’t think and act like mature adults. Even the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child and understood as a child” (1 Corinthians 13:11). There are childish ways of thinking, speaking, and understanding. And parents must be careful not to fuss and tease and criticize and reprimand over and over again. An atmosphere of constant nagging and criticism can break the spirit of a child and drive him to despondency. (A child should never have to say, like one girl said: “It seems I can never do anything to please my mother”). Human character blossoms and grows in the warmth of encouragement. Martin Luther’s advice is always in order: He said to parents, “Spare the rod and spoil the child—true.” He said, “Use the rod; don’t spare it; but alongside the rod, keep an apple to give him when he does well.”
One father tells how he scolded his child when he was getting ready for school. Then later, he took him to task for not cleaning his shoes. At breakfast, he found fault with him because he gulped down his food, put his elbows on the table, and spread too much butter on his bread. In the evening, he fussed because there were holes in his stockings, and the father rebuked him harshly because the boy had interrupted his reading the newspaper. The father later went to the boy’s bedroom (while the little fellow was asleep), confessed his sin, and asked God to help him conquer the evil habit of constantly nagging.
All of us sense failure in our attempts to train our children, but we must never give up good efforts. A poem by an unknown writer says:
Last night, my little boy confessed to me
Some childish wrong;
And kneeling at my knee
He prayed with tears:
“Dear God, make me a man
Like daddy—wise and strong;
I know you can.”
Then (the father says) while he slept—
I knelt beside his bed,
Confessed my sins,
And prayed with low-bowed head;
“Oh God, make me a child
Like my child here—pure and guileless
Trusting Thee with faith sincere.
I have gone to the bedsides of our children more than once after they were asleep and breathed the words of that prayer.
During a survey, the question was asked of a number of teenagers: “What is home to you?” One said, “The place where I blow off steam.” Another said, “It’s the place where I hang my hat; no one is ever there.” A third said, “It’s just a battlefield.” But one young person said, “It is where I love to be, a place where we live and learn, and try and understand each other.” And that is the way it should be in every Christian home.
Parents should be noted most of all for their genuine Christian conduct. When my work is done here in this life, and God calls me away in death, I hope my children will be able to come by the casket, and look down into my cold face, and say: “Daddy didn’t leave us each a large amount of money, but he did leave us the memory of a good life, spent in the service of Christ and His church.” I hope my children will honestly be able to say that.
2. Children Should Respect Their Parents
There are several specific ways by which children should honor and respect their parents:
(a) Show gratitude. Our parents cared for us and provided for us in the days and years when we couldn’t provide for ourselves. If we had been left to ourselves, we would surely have perished. We must never forget the sacrifices our parents made for us. If it is only out of gratitude for their helping us survive the years when we were quite unable to help ourselves—we should honor our parents.
The word “honor” means “to have respect for another with due love.” When we hear a young person speaking contemptuously of his dad or mother, we must recognize that here is a person who has fallen very low indeed.
Many of us can be grateful that we were raised in a Christian home; in fellowship among God’s people; and in an atmosphere of soberness and of respect for life. In my own family, there was poverty. We had our struggles during the depression years. Mother washed on a wash-board; the roof leaked; there was no refrigerator. But the whole experience was a heritage for which I want to be eternally grateful. I want to say, “Thank you mother; thank you daddy”—over and over again.
(b) Practice obedience. Another way by which children can honor their parents is simply to obey them. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
Honoring parents includes the concept of obedience. God commands obedience because obedience is the path of safety, and parents expect obedience because obedience is for the child’s good.
Danny was a seven-year-old boy, and had a big yard in which to play. But in winter, he always wanted to do his sledding on the snow out on the road. One time when his mother saw him out on the road, she called him in, and made him stay in the house—reminding him how she had told him never to sled on the road. But throughout the evening, Danny kept on begging to go out. He had heard the laughter of others on the outside; they were having a good time, and finally his mother left him go out. As he dashed toward the door, his mother reminded him once again: “Remember what I told you, Danny, about going on the street; stay in the yard.” But those were the last words Danny ever heard his mother speak. Five minutes later, he was killed by an automobile out on the road.
Boys and girls—listen to your mother and dad—because the orders which they give, are given for your welfare and protection.
Some think that children are obligated to obey only Christian parents, and that if the parents are not Christian, the child is not duty-bound to obey. But when the Bible says (in Ephesians 6:1), “Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right”—the phrase “in the Lord” has no reference to the spiritual condition of the parents. The reference instead is to the fact that the Lord places parents into a position of authority over children. A good paraphrase of the original Greek wording simply says, “Obey your parents whom God has set over you.” The parents “in the Lord” are those whom God (in His providence) has set over you.
Of course, our duty to God comes before our duty to father and mother. Jesus himself said that one who “loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). If parents tell a child to go out and steal, or to commit murder—the child must not obey his parents (in those points which are clearly forbidden in the Scriptures)—still the child must show a Christlike spirit toward them (even if the parent becomes bitter). In other words, a child is to respect his parents and do what they say, except in those areas where obedience to parents would involve clear wrongdoing according to the Scriptures.
(c) Giving support. In 1 Timothy 5:4, the Bible says that parents should be “requited” by their children. The word “requite” means “to repay” or “to support” needy parents. This admonition is for those of us who are older and whose parents are still living. Our responsibility in honoring parents includes providing for their needs and caring for them in their old age (or in times of illness and weakness).
The “Old Folks Home” is not always the ideal solution to the problem of support for parents in their old age. Sometimes it is the only solution because the aged parent is so helpless that the family at home cannot physically handle the situation. But usually, older people prefer to be integrated with the family, and not isolated away from home in some sterilized little cell in an institution for the aged, and each of us has the responsibility of doing all that he can to make the declining years of his parents’ lives satisfactory and happy. If we must feed them with a spoon, remember that they once fed us with a spoon. If we must help clothe them, remember that they helped to clothe us. If they drop food on the tablecloth, remember that we smeared the tablecloth sometimes too.
God speaks to us about widows (and about parents) in 1 Timothy 5:4, and a paraphrase of the words gives this admonition: “If they have children or grandchildren, these are the ones who should take the responsibility for supporting needy parents because kindness begins at home.”
Jesus plainly condemned the Pharisees because they used a device known as “Corban” to evade responsibility toward their parents. The word “Corban” is the Aramaic word for “gift.” If a Pharisee had an aged parent, and he did not want to help support that parent, he pledged his money to the Temple, and said “It is Corban” (it is a gift to the Temple”). He said to his parents, “This money is a gift dedicated to the Lord, and so I cannot use it to help you.” Read Mark 7:6-11. It sounded pious to speak of a gift to the church, but real piety will never allow aged, helpless parents to suffer from lack of care.
Honoring parents includes gratitude toward them, obedience in childhood, and giving support in their old age.
3. Rewards for Honoring Parents
The Fifth Commandment is a Commandment “with a promise.” There is a reward for honoring parents. “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” The primary teaching here is that if Israel would keep the Fifth Commandment, the nation would dwell in Canaan without interruption—but if Israel’s homes were ruined by disobedient children—then, neither strong armies nor walled cities could stop the enemy. One of the reasons why China is one of the oldest continuously existing civilizations in history, is because the Chinese have been noted for advocating honor to parents—even to the point that if a child struck his parent with his hand—that hand was cut off. The Bible says, “Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
A secondary application of the promise which mentions “long days upon the land” is that there is a very real sense in which obedient sons and daughters live a full and a rewarding life. The child who disrespects his parents often eats with irregularity, refuses to take his medicine, stays up late at night, and practices other habits that lead to poor health. Undisciplined, disobedient children tend to live in an atmosphere of recklessness, and this leads to a shortening of life. I am not saying that every obedient child will live to be ninety (we know that is not true), but generally speaking, in the long run, those who respect and obey their parents will experience prolonged life.
To those readers who are younger in years: Remember that your mother and dad have been sailing on life’s sea for a long time. They know where the pitfalls and dangers lie; they have seen many battered ships; their advice is worthy of your respect. You might envy the boy or girl whose parents give them all the “rope” they ask for, but keep in mind that such young people are poor and unfortunate human beings.
If (right now) you have strayed away from the Lord, and you know that your parents are grieved by your conduct:
You had better go home
And plant a kiss on your mother’s cheek
And ask her forgiveness
And start life over again.
Your mother likely prayed for you many times; her heart has ached for you; she wept over and over again because of you. In the days of your childhood, you repeated the Scriptures and sang the hymns of the church; you had convictions about sin; you took pleasure in going to God’s house; you professed to love Jesus. But somehow, over the years, those things have vanished. Won’t you turn your back on worldliness, carelessness, coldness, and spiritual neglect—and renew your covenant with God today?