Sunday, November 16, 2014

Keeping the Fifth Commandment: Honor Your Parents

In continuing this series on the Ten Commandments, since I’ve already done one on the Fourth Commandment, I want to proceed on to the Fifth. This one is the one that children dread and parents love: honor your father and mother. (Disclaimer: This, and Ephesians 6:1, served as my parents’ all-time favorite verses!) Notice something right off the bat: the commandment is not addressed to “children.” Though it obviously goes without saying that anyone who is instructed to honor his parents is the child of his parents, the “children” part would have served to identify the demographic (as it does, for example, in Ephesians 6:1, coming as it does in the immediate sub-context of familial relationships). Thus, we can conclude age is not of primary import.

So what does this mean for us? Some have taken it to mean that one is to obey his parents regardless of his age. Thus, if a son in his early 30s wants to marry, but his parents order him not to, he is under biblical obligation to obey. This sounds nice (actually it doesn’t sound nice at all, but whatever), but the language doesn’t bear this argument out. “Honor” in Hebrew is not the same word as “obey,” nor does it necessarily contain the same idea (although it may). The word for “honor” is kabad, and in the particular stem in which it appears in Exodus 20 it means something like, “to make honorable, honor, glorify.”[1]

The principle of bringing honor may indicate obedience, as it does for children who are under the care or supervision of their parents. Think about it: is it really honorable for a child to disobey the instruction of his parents? Absolutely not! But it would (and should) go further than this. For, as Proverbs tells us, the wise one should heed his parents’ instruction (or wise instruction at all, for that matter). Thus, merely following the letter of our parents’ instruction is not always sufficient. So, for a child under his parents’ care, taking to heart their wisdom is honoring to them as well (and it would be dishonoring one’s parents to ignore or otherwise not profit from their wisdom).

So what about those of us who are no longer under our parents’ care or supervision? What about adults? Do we need to obey them? Not necessarily; we are no longer under their care, and are expected to be responsible for ourselves. However, we can still profit from their wisdom. Thus, if they give us wise instruction, it is honoring to them to live that out (even if we end up living it out better or worse than they did—it is an honor to try to live out their wisdom).

What if we have parents who are not wise, or even not “worthy” of honor? How can we honor them? First, we can treat them well. Second, we can choose to take care of them. I always joke with my mom that she can’t come live with me when she is old (that’s why I have brothers—live with them!), but the honest truth is that if putting your parents in a home is your primary objective when they become dependent, that’s not honoring them. And no, I’m not talking about people whose parents have severe or extenuating issues. I’m speaking to those who could take care of their parents (it’s not too serious or severe as to require a higher or professional level of care) but they don’t want to.

Before anyone gets upset, let me give the non-legalistic illustration/interpretation of this commandment. Jesus is answering the Pharisees legalistic interpretation of the Law in Matthew 15:4-6 when he says, “For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor thy father and mother,’ and ‘He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.’ But ye say, ‘Whosoever shall say to his father or mother, ‘It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me,’ And honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free.’ Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.”

What was the point? Jesus references the Fifth Commandment, but the Pharisees found a “loophole.” Israelites well knew that the honoring of parents in the fifth commandment included taking care of them financially and providentially in their old age. However, the Pharisees came up with an ingenious idea: we just tell our parents that what we would have given to them to take care of them we gave to the Temple instead, and that relieves the obligation (since giving to the Temple is good, and we cannot be expected to give what we do not have!). To make it explicit, this did not even entail actually giving one’s goods to the Temple: it was the idea of dedicating one’s whole self and possessions to the Temple in an idealistic sense, and thus they are “unavailable” to be used by one’s parents. What kind of a son or daughter would do that? One who does not honor their parents, that’s what kind!

We can see that God gave us parents to take care of us, so that when they are old and need care, we would care for them (in any way we can, financial, health, etc.). And hopefully, if we become parents, when we are old, our children will take care of us. Mom, you still need to live with Tim. ;)

[1] Thanks,

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