There are few certainties in life. One certain fact is that we all have a mother and a father. After that, it gets messy. Sometimes the biological parents aren’t involved in raising a child for various reasons. And in this day and age, there are many variations of family structure and parenting in the world around us. There are also those we may count as parents because of their emotional and spiritual support. The Bible cuts through all that clutter and says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
This fifth commandment is different than all the others. There isn’t a “shall” or a “shall not” in its expression. It is also the only one of the ten with a promise or a blessing directly attached. There is also a richness in its simplicity.
We often only honor those things we deem to be honorable and respect those who have earned it. There is perhaps some wisdom in doing that. But the command doesn’t grant that kind of wiggle room when it comes to our parents. But neither is honoring our parents a strict call to obedience no matter what. Parents are humans; they make mistakes. Some are foul, living a life that does not honor God. They may even be absent or neglectful. And yet the commandment says to honor them as our parents.
What this honor looks like changes as we mature from childhood to adulthood, to perhaps having to care for our parents. As a child, there is a larger portion of obedience in our honor. As an adult, our honor takes on more respect for their wisdom and experience. And if we arrive at the point of needing to care for our parents, honor may require the sacrifice of time and resources. If we are in a messy situation with our parents, honor may require forgiveness.
When we look at this command through the lens of love, it just seems natural to honor our parents. In the best of situations, it is easy. But in the worst of situations such as with a parent that is absent, neglectful, sinful, or abusive, the only way we can honor is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Even if that means getting them the needed help through whatever means possible. Love means being honest with someone and doing what is best for them. In some cases, the loving thing is to turn someone over to the civil law. We honor our parents when we want the best for them.
There is a unique promise in this command, something none of the others have. The promise is, “that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” The promise is that once the Israelites get to the promised land they’ll be able to keep it if they honor their parents. Seems like a simple thing, yet we are seeing in many places the upheaval of stability when a younger generation ceases or diminishes their honor of their parent’s generation. But when there is honor a transfer of wisdom and experience happens which smooths necessary transitions.
Above all, by learning to honor our parents we learn to honor God. And that is perhaps the greatest benefit in all of this.