“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”

~ Exodus 20:12

The 5th commandment here is a transitional command. The first four commands have to do with our relationship with the Lord – they are vertical in nature. This is the first one that becomes horizonal and deals with our relationships with each other. And it starts with the family.

It is easy to read this command and think it is for children. Kids: honour your mom and dad! But if you really think about it, this command has a much broader stroke to it. In the time of Israel, households included more than just one or two generations. Entire families lived together. This command was certainly for the 6-year-old, but also the 60-year-old!

As the apostle Paul points out in Ephesians 6:2-3, this is also the first command with a promise. Much like the command itself, this promise is not simply for children, but for all who obey.

The Brothers Grimm, believe it or not, highlight this truth in one of their fairy tales. I shall retell it now:

The Old Man and his Grandson

There once was a little old man whose hands had become frail, eyes had become dim, and ears had become dull. When he sat at the table, he could barely hold a spoon, and the broth which he ate would spill on the tablecloth. His son and his wife eventually got so disgusted by this, that they moved him away from the table, into the corner where he ate from behind the stove. They gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and often not enough to sustain him.

The old man, removed from his place, would look at the table with tears in his eyes each night, until one day his trembling hands could not hold onto the bowl he was given. It fell to the ground and broke. The young wife scolded him, and his son went to the stable and brought back a trough for the old man to eat out of.

Later, the son and the wife were sitting, watching their own boy, just 4 years old, play on the ground, a concentrated look on his face. The young boy was busy gathering bits of wood on the ground. ‘What are you doing there?’ asked the father. ‘I am making a trough,’ answered the child, ‘for you and mother to eat from when I am older.’

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and then began to weep. They took the old grandfather, brought him back to the table, and got him a comfortable chair to sit in. From that day on, he was always allowed at the table with them, and they never said a word if he spilled a little of anything.

As the Brothers Grimm point out, and indeed the promise that goes with this command shows us, by honouring our parents, we possess our future. The way we treat our parents will influence how we will be treated.

As mentioned, this command is for more than just young children. The reality is small children are wired to honour their parents already. Researchers, time and time again, have looked at the primary influence in children’s lives, and the top of that list of influencers is mom and dad. As J.E. Kalas points out, “We shake our heads in despair at the shortage of worthy role models in a society which seems to make so much of entertainers and professional athletes, but when the ballots are finally counted, it appears that young people are still rather old-fashioned: They think well of their mother and dad.”

Now, it is true that in Abraham’s time, if he gave his son Isaac instruction, the only contrary counsel Isaac could have possibly heard would have been from an irresponsible servant, or maybe a passing trader. Abraham did not have to worry about influence from Instagram, internet cookies, tweets from POTUS, or Spotify commercials. Sure, in comparison, it can be difficult for today’s parents to be heard over the noise. Yet, the next generation is still listening. And the next generation, much like every generation before them, still places more weight on a parental statement than to any other kind.

So, to all of us, maybe this command is less about making sure you are being honoured and is more about making sure that we are honouring those whom we are called to honour.

All people are called to honour their parents – no matter how old they are. There are no age restrictions in this command. Also, notice this command does not say honour your parents to the degree with which they deserve. There are no conditional restrictions either. That is because this command is speaking to the welfare of the child, or honour ‘giver,’ not to the parent or honour ‘receiver.’

How the child honours his parents – no matter how old this child is – is how they will honour others as well. Our whole societal structure is built on this premise. If we do not honour our parents, how then will we honour anyone? If we do not honour our parents, how will we honour teachers, police officers, church leaders, employers? … and the list goes on.

In this pandemic season, it is interesting that we are called to isolate from our elders in order to protect them from this virus. Honouring our parents may take that approach. But let us not also forget that while we may have to isolate from them during this season, we should never ignore them. So, how can we honour them while remaining isolated from them?

Remember, this command transitions us from our relationship with God to our relationships with each other. It starts with the family, but its purpose is for everyone. We are to honour our parents, so that we may learn to honour our neighbours, and in turn live long in the land God has given us. This goes beyond the nuclear family and becomes a foundational piece of our society at large.

The best part? The church can be the place where this may be seen most clearly. How beautiful would it be if the church body honoured one another as a community of believers – especially to those living in the individualistic culture we find ourselves planted in today?

A 13th century rabbi, Moses de Leon, once said that to honour your parents is to honour God, because all three have been partners in thy creation. As always, this commandment points us not simply to ourselves, our parents, or even society at large, but to our Creator God who placed us in this world. He is our perfect Father and is worthy of all the honour and glory and praise.

Our earthly parents, like us, are sinful. By all worldly accounts, sometimes they are not worthy of much honour at all. Yet, God calls us to honour them – not for their sake, but for ours. When we take that seriously, we will show honour, not just to them, but to God our heavenly Father, who authored our existence, and has just as much to do with us being here as our parents do.

Questions to Ponder:

1) Why is family life important, both now and in the times of Moses?

2) How does this command transcend the family?

3) What are ways you can honour your parents, especially in this pandemic season?