Honouring Father and Mother

Reading: Deut. 6.4-9; Eph. 6.1-4

Mark Twain once observed, "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

The first four commandments speak of our duty to God, the last six of our duty to other people. The first of these is specifically about that first and basic unit of human life and society, the family – "Respect your father and your mother, so that you may live a long time in the land that I am giving you." (Ex. 20.12).

Father and Mother

"Charity begins at home", so it is said. So do many other things! The placing of this commandment is no accident, for home is meant to be the place in which the relationship with God is established and nurtured. It is also the "mini-society" within which effective and lasting relationships with others are established. Parents are not only to pass on and nurture the physical lives of their children – in a real sense, they are meant to be the representatives of God and of society to their children. So the home is the basic school for life – for all of life, whether designated religious or secular. (Note Deut. 6.6-9).

Respecting Father and Mother

Because our parents are physically responsible for our humanity, as well as the vital psychological, social, economic, spiritual, educational and other roles which they fulfil in our lives, it is basic to our respect for human life that we honour our parents. This is important, not only while we are still children, learning the first basics of life, but when have taken our place in adult life. According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides (12th cent.), "The Bible considers the duty (of honouring parents) just as important as the duty of honouring and revering God." We note in Lev. 19.3 that reverence for one's parents is placed on equality with one's observance of the Sabbath.

In some ancient societies, the helpless aged were thrust out of the dwellings of their children to be eaten by beasts or die of exposure. But respect for parents and for old age seems to have been traditional among the peoples from whom Israel sprang. But this command puts this respect out of the area of changeable and optional social traditions into the area of God's clear requirement for his people, and subsequent legislation applied it in the strictest manner.

One writer comments, "The restoration of parental authority is a much needed corrective for the rampant increase of juvenile delinquency in the twentieth century. The revival of filial respect for aged parents would do much to solve the financial and emotional needs of the ever-increasing older generation."

And a Promise

Paul calls attention to this as the first command with a promise (Eph. 6.2,3). The promise is as important as it is basic – "so that all may go well with you, and you may live a long time in the land". In its context, the primary application of this promise is to the embryonic Israelite nation, though respect for parents and a high view of the home are important individually, nationally and beyond. Another writer notes, "A country where there is a strong family life will endure, whereas the nation that becomes inwardly decadent because of the breakdown of the family will collapse". Really the divine commands are in our best interest, though we are often slow to see it!

A Command to be Kept

Not only does disobedience to parents figure in Paul's description of the sin prevalent in so much of pagan society (Rom. 1.30), it was clearly present among the law-abiding Pharisees also.

In Mt. 15, we read of an occasion when the critics of Jesus complained to him that his disciples did not perform all the ceremonial washings prescribed by tradition. The reply of Jesus is that they themselves use their tradition to get around the true meaning of the commandments. The example he gives is a traditional practice by which a man could designate some of his property a gift to God. He still in fact possessed and used it himself but could now piously refuse to use any of it to support his parents. This command must not be evaded, but kept.

Over-Riding Loyalty

I said earlier that parents should be "the representatives of God" to their children. It must, however, be clear that parents are not God, and that, where there is a conflict of loyalty, unswerving allegiance is due to God alone.

To the man who wanted to bury his father before following Jesus, he said, "Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the Kingdom of God." (Lk. 9.60). He was not discouraging proper filial respect, but insisted that this should not prevent him from heeding the call of God – clearly his father was not dead, and this was an excuse!

Jesus also spelt it out clearly on another occasion, "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…" (Mt. 10.37).

Obeying Parents in the Lord

Yet having acknowledged this over-riding loyalty and being open to its possible implications, the requirement of honouring parents is still clearly before us. Paul wrote, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Eph. 6.1). Some have taken this to mean that if their parents were not Christians they had no obligation to obey them. But this is not so. "In the Lord" places obedience to parents within the area of our response to Christ. The Good News Bible helpfully renders it, "Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents, for this is the right thing to do."

We are to obey parents, in other words, not just because they are our parents, but because we are Christians. Paul makes this clear in another letter, "Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents always, for that is what pleases God" (Col. 3.20).

… And a Word to Parents

While having emphasised that children's responsibility to parents is not conditional on their Christian faith, it is desirable to conclude with a word to parents. Jesus taught us to call God our heavenly Father (Mt. 6.9. The picture of an imperfect human father is used to emphasise the greater goodness of love of God (7.11). A father's love is at the heart of the story of the prodigal son (Lk. 15.11ff). It is perhaps frightening, yet true, that parents should so live that their children will readily grasp the nature and love of their heavenly Father.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 9th November 1997.
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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