You’re probably familiar with “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” But I bet you don’t know the German fairy tale “The Old Grandfather’s Corner,” in which a grandfather was made to sit in a corner when he ate. He was a feeble old man, and his hands shook. He lived with his son and daughter-in-law. At dinnertime, whenever he tried to eat his soup, more of it splashed on the tablecloth and floor than made it to his mouth.
His daughter-in-law grew tired of washing the tablecloth and mopping the floor, so she configned him to a corner, behind a screen, so the family wouldn’t have to watch him. One day, his hands shook so badly that he dropped his bowl of soup, splattering it all over the floor and shattering the bowl. From that point on, his daughter-in-law served his meals in a wooden bowl.
Some days afterward, the father saw his young son fiddling with a couple of pieces of wood. He asked, “What are you making?” The boy said, “I am making a little bowl for you and mama to eat your food in when I grow up.”
One of the things I learned as a father that I’m conscious of as a grandfather is that children imitate their parents and grandparents.
If we want our children to respect us throughout their lives, we must model that respect in the way we treat our parents—even if our parents are dead. In the words of Exodus 20:12, we need to honor our father and our mother—which is known as the fifth commandment.
1. “What’s So Important About Families?”
Obedience to the fifth commandment is particularly needed today since dishonor is so prevalent. Paul warned in 2 Timothy 3:1-2, “In the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy.”
And the list goes on, describing, in J. I. Packer’s words, days of “decadence and apostasy.”
To shield us against this decadence and apostasy creeping into our families, here are five reasons that families are important adapted from the book LAWS THAT LIBERATE.
- The Family Is the Basic Building Block of Society
- The Parent-Child Relationship Is Our Only Lifelong Relationship
- The Parent-Child Relationship Shapes a Child’s Self-Image
- The Family Is the Incubator for Shaping a Child’s Attitude Toward Authority
- The Family Establishes a Child’s Values
2. “What Does It Mean to Honor Our Parents?”
The fifth commandment is the first and only time the word honor appears in the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word translated as “honor” (kabod) has the same root as the word translated as “glory,” which means to “make heavy or weighty.” It’s the idea of giving something substantial to a worthy individual.
Heads of state do this when meeting for the first time, exchanging valuable gifts as a sign of respect. When used of God, we give Him glory and honor when we praise Him and make Him the center of our lives.
In the same way, we honor our parents when we give them our obedience and respect, holding them in high esteem. To carry the title “mother” or “father” is a weighty responsibility. For that reason, as the Lord said in Leviticus 19:3, “Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father.”
3. “Why Should We Honor Our Parents?”
God’s answer to this question could follow along the same lines of how we often we answer our children when they ask why: “Because I said so.” He could leave it at that—“I’m God and you’re not. Do what I say.”
But I suspect the “Because I said so” answer doesn’t sit any more comfortably with you than it does with your children. I’ve discovered three biblical reasons we should honor our parents. One is theological (concerning God), one is sociological (concerning the nation), and one is anthropological (concerning our elders).
- The Theological Answer
Theologically, our attitude toward our parents mirrors our attitude toward God. It’s interesting to think about Jesus’s relationship with His earthly parents, Joseph and Mary. No one had a better attitude toward God than Jesus. After all, He was (and is) God incarnate—God in human flesh. And no one had a better attitude toward His parents and their authority over Him (even though He was and is God).
When Jesus was 12 years old, He and His family traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover. When it was time to go home, young Jesus disappeared. If you’ve ever lost a child in a crowd at the mall, the fair, or a ball game, you understand how frantic Mary and Joseph were when they couldn’t find their boy. They searched throughout the city for three days, finally finding Him in the temple courtyards talking with the elders of Israel.
Mary said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You” (Luke 2:48).
The first part of Jesus’s answer sounds like something any 12 year old might say: “Why is it that you were looking for Me?” A cursory reading makes it sound like Jesus was being disrespectful. He wasn’t. He esteemed His earthly parents, but He reminded them—in the second part of His answer—that He had come on a mission: “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (v. 49).
Granted, Mary and Joseph didn’t fully understand that answer, but they in no way took it as snarky or demeaning. Nevertheless, they insisted Jesus go with them that very minute. And here’s the wonderful part: He did. “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them” (Luke 2:51).
Can you imagine? The perfect Son of God subjected Himself to imperfect parents. It’s mind-blowing! But Jesus did. His obedience—the honor He showed Joseph and Mary—resulted in His mental, physical, spiritual, and social well-being.
- The Sociological Answer
Sociologically, anarchy in the home leads to anarchy in the nation. I hinted at this truth earlier, but let’s look at it a bit more closely. There are two aspects to this: one involving the promise found in Exodus 20:12 and the other involving the principle demonstrated in the nation of Israel.
This isn’t a promise of long life enjoyed in the promised land. Rather, it’s a promise of abundant life enjoyed in the promised land. It’s something akin to Jesus’s statement of purpose in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Though the promise could be seen as a personal blessing to every individual who obeys the command, it clearly had national implications for Israel—namely, that if they were known as a people who honored their elders (parents in particular), then they would permanently possess the land under God’s rule and become a blessing to their neighbors.
The principle of the fifth commandment.
I once heard a pastor who preached on Exodus 20:12 say, “Those who foster a society where old age is honored will reap the benefits of that society as they grow old.” The simple truth is God blesses a society that honors the family.
- The Anthropological Answer
Anthropologically, appreciating elders maintains their dignity in an undignified world. While the fifth commandment specifically concerns the parent-child relationship, it can be extended as a command to treat all elders with deference, just as Paul exhorted in 1 Timothy 5:1–2 and Peter instructed in 1 Peter 5:5. But such respect begins at home since our parents are the first and most important elders in our lives.
- “How Do We Honor Our Parents?”
Sowing a spirit of honor for our parents is a lifelong pursuit. I’ve identified four ways, based on four stages of life, we are to do that in obedience to the fifth commandment.
- Through Our Obedience (Colossians 3:20; Ephesians 6:1)
- Through Our Respect (Proverbs 6:20-23)
- Through Our Support (Mark 7:9-13; 1 Timothy 5:8)
- Through Our Reverence (Philippians 4:8)
Like many of you, I have parents who are already gone, and I miss them. But I’m grateful there was no unfinished business left between us when they passed away. They knew how much I loved and respected them. There was closure to that relationship. And I’ll be eternally grateful for that.
One day, if it hasn’t already happened, you’re going to get a telephone call telling you that your last parent is gone. I pray when that day comes; there’ll be no unfinished business between you and them. How can you make sure that happens—obeying the fifth commandment and honoring your father and mother?
Full Passage: Exodus 20:12