This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Good Life". See series.
We've been working through the Ten Commandments and today we come to the fifth one: "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you on the land which the Lord your God gives you."
How does this commandment speak to us today? We have broken homes. We have abusive homes. Unlike in the days that Moses first spoke these words, we have extended families that live in entirely different parts of the country. We have an entire culture that caters to youthism and marginalizes those who are older. It's easy to think of this command as coming from a bygone era that's totally out of touch with the reality if our lives.
One man complained, "Youth today have luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, no respect for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much in company … and tyrannize their elders." This may surprise you, but do you know who wrote that? Socrates, who lived 400 years before Christ! It reminds us that every generation of young people have had issues with their parents.
Maybe that's why the first of the Ten Commandments that deals with family life addresses how we relate to our parents. Why not start with how parents relate to their kids? Why not start by telling parents they should love and care for their children? I wonder if it's because that half of the equation seems to come more naturally to us. A young mom fairly naturally cares for her newborn, but honoring our parents is not so easy. We're not the only generation who has felt that.
The fifth commandment is of critical importance.
This command is given a prominent place in the list of ten. The placement of this command shows the special importance of how we relate to our parents. When God gave his law, he wrote it down on two tablets, so the law was divided into two parts. Traditionally, the first four commandments are distinguished from the last six. The first table of the law deals with our relationship with God. The second table has six commands that deal with our relationship with people. The first four teach us how to love God; the last six teach us how to love our neighbor. Love for God has to come first. We can't truly love one another unless we love God. But isn't it significant that in telling us how to treat our neighbor, God starts with our own family?
Loving our neighbor starts at home, and home life starts with how we relate to our parents. This relationship is foundational to every other relationship. Augustine recognized this. He said, "If anyone fails to honor his parents, is there anyone he will spare?" Probably not, because the relationship between parent and child is the first and primary relationship. It's not only the foundation for all our other relationships; it's the foundation for human society. Our family is our first hospital, first school, first government, and first church. If we don't honor authority at home, we'll have a hard time respecting it anywhere, and society will crumble.
Perhaps that's why some of the most frightening curses in the Old Testament are reserved for children who rebel against their parents. Let me give you just one example from right here in Deuteronomy:
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town …. Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear" (Deuteronomy 21:18,19, 21).
That's pretty sobering. We just assume breaking the fifth commandment is an ordinary part of growing up. We don't blink at the cover of the magazine for teenage girls that asks, "Do you really hate your parents? Like, who doesn't?" I'm not saying we should put into effect the death penalty for those who have that attitude, but it's clear that God sees dishonoring our parents as a grave sin. In the New Testament it's even seen as one of the signs that we're living in the last days. Paul writes, "But realize this, that 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 …" (2 Timothy 3:1-2). The list goes on, but what a fitting description of American culture.
What does the fifth commandment mean?
Because of its importance, we need to study this commandment carefully. The first and most important word is "honor." What does that mean? The Hebrew word literally means "heavy" or "weighty." It's the word the Old Testament uses to describe the glory of God, the weightiness of his person. You and I grudgingly step onto a scale and hope we weigh less, not more. But this is a different kind of weight. In this case, like a nugget of gold, the heavier someone is, the more valuable they are. When someone is weighty, we take them seriously. To honor our parents is to give due weight to their position; to hold them in high esteem; to value them. When we give weight to something, we give it our time, energy, and attention. How much weight do you give to your work? How much weight do you give to your finances? How much weight do you give to your favorite sports team? How much weight do you give to your health or your friends? These are things to which we typically give time, energy, and attention and on which we place the most value.
Notice this commandment includes both fathers and mothers. In other places in the Bible there is an emphasis on the father as the leader of a household. But this never means that mothers deserve less honor than fathers. Proverbs 6:20 says, "My son, observe the commandment of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother." To include both mothers and fathers in this proverb is very unusual for an ancient culture, especially a patriarchal one. In Leviticus 19:3, mothers are even mentioned first: "Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father." In certain ways, a mother can be easier for a child to take advantage of, but God says mothers deserve equal respect. And one of the ways a father leads his family is by honoring his wife and insisting that his children honor her (their mother) as well.
Why was this command given?
Why should we honor our parents? I could come up with a whole list of reasons that parents deserve to be honored. They deserve to be honored because of the sacrifices they make. They deserve to be honored because of the life experience they have. The Bible even goes so far as to say that when a child honors his parents, it's the right thing to do, and it pleases the Lord (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20).
It's not just that parents deserve to be honored; it's also that by learning to honor them we learn to honor authority in general. The Heidelberg Catechism says the fifth commandment requires "that I show honor, love, and faithfulness to my mother and father and to all who are set in authority over me." So when God tells us to respect our parents, by implication he's also telling us to respect government authority, church authority, and even those in authority over us at work.
These are all good reasons to keep the fifth commandment, but the best reason is found right here in the text. It says, "Honor your father and your mother … that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you on the land which the Lord your God gives you." The reason given here is that obeying the fifth commandment serves our best interest. That's why in Ephesians 6:2, Paul says this is "the first commandment with a promise." Maybe God knows how hard it is at times to honor our parents, so he attaches a reward to it.
This reward had special significance for the Israelites. They had just been brought out of the land of slavery, and God had promised to bring them into the Promised Land. God is saying that one way they could keep living in that land as a nation is to honor their fathers and mothers. This wasn't an automatic guarantee that every child who obeyed his parents would live to be ninety. It doesn't mean that people who died young were somehow guilty of breaking this commandment. The words "that it may go well with you on the land" speak in general of the fullness of God's blessing. It means to have abundant life—eternal life. You see, the assumption here is that parents are trying to teach their children how to know and love God. That's the responsibility of a parent. Proverbs says, "My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you" (3:1-2). That's a commentary on the fifth commandment. Do you want life and peace? Then listen as your parents teach you about a God who loves you and sent his Son to die for you. For many of you, the abundant life you enjoy today is a direct result of listening to your parent's instruction.
How does this command apply to us?
But this is not true for everyone. That wasn't true of me. And many of you had parents who were at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. What does this commandment mean for you? Before I answer that question, let me remind you that the Bible is full of dysfunctional parents. It started with Adam and Eve who had a son who murdered his brother. And then we have Abraham and Sarah. He passed his wife off as his sister and handed her over to another man to save his own skin. How about Isaac and Rebecca? She manipulated and deceived her husband to secure her favorite son's future. It goes on and on. Dishonorable parents are nothing new.
Maybe the best example in Scripture of how to handle dysfunctional parents comes from the story of two best friends—David and Jonathan. Consider their story: David and Jonathan were spiritual brothers, bound together early in life on the battlefield against the Philistines. But they had bigger problems than the Philistines. Jonathan's father, King Saul, was an angry, insecure, unpredictable man. During one battle, Saul swore to curse any soldier who ate anything before he avenged his enemies. Jonathan didn't hear his father's oath and he ate some honey. When Saul heard of it, he said to his son, "You shall surely die!" The other soldiers intervened to save Jonathan's life, but that shows the kind of man Saul was—he'd kill his own son over a mouthful of food.
Saul treated David even worse. At first he loved him, but then he became jealous of him. David was becoming more and more famous than Saul, and so one day Saul tried to nail David to the wall with a spear. When he failed, he then tried to get him killed in battle. He even ordered his son Jonathan to kill him, which clearly put Jonathan in a bind. He knew he was supposed to honor his father, but he also knew murder was wrong. So he did the right thing: he honored God by disobeying his father. He warned David of what his father was up to, and then he confronted his father and said, "Why would you shed innocent blood by killing David without cause?" In doing this, Jonathan wasn't dishonoring his father, but he was honoring him by trying to get him to do the right thing. As adults, the command to honor parents doesn't mean that we do everything they tell us to do. We have to honor God first. Sometimes we honor our parents the most by trying to preserve their honor and keep them from doing something that will dishonor God.
David faced a similar dilemma. Although Saul wasn't his father, as king he was an authority in David's life. On one occasion, after Saul had been on a manhunt for David, David had a perfect opportunity to kill his pursuer. David's men saw this as a God-thing. They said, "David, didn't God promise to deliver you from your enemy and make you king? Here's your chance. Go for it!" But David refused. He said, "The Lord forbid that I should put my hand against the Lord's anointed." David was honoring Saul not because Saul was honorable but because he was in an honorable position by the Lord's choice. When Saul found out that David passed on a chance to kill, him he repented and he invited David to make peace with him and return with him. But David refused. He honored Saul as king, but he had learned by repeated experience that he couldn't trust him. The command to honor parents doesn't mean that we never set up boundaries in our relationships with them. Submitting to authority never means subjecting ourselves to violence or abuse. There are times to say to a parent, "Because of how you've broken my trust over and over again, at least for now I can't be in a close relationship with you." You honor them more by doing that than by allowing them to continue in their destructive ways.
To whom does the fifth commandment apply?
The fifth commandment is for children. Children, God wants you to obey your parents. He wants you to speak respectfully to them. He wants you to tell them the truth. He wants you to listen to what they have to say. Your parents may not always do everything right, but they know what's best for you, and if you honor them, your life will be happier.
The fifth commandment is for teenagers. Teenagers, you have the biggest challenge. Your middle school or high school culture tells you that your parents are out of it. They don't get the world you live in. Your job is just to keep them happy, enough to stay out of your business and let you live the way you want. Let me encourage you to rethink that mentality. Do you know God gave you the parents you have? They were his choice for you. Believe it or not, they're what you need. And no one knows you better than they do. So honor them by accepting them and thanking God for them. Honor them by speaking well of them to your friends. Honor them by listening to their perspective. Some of their warnings about who you spend your time with and the choices you make actually might save you from a lot of pain. Honor them by talking to them. A grunt here, a grunt there, is probably not enough. Honor them by telling them the truth. It's no secret that most all teenagers lie to their parents. That's the norm. I challenge you to be different.
The fifth commandment is for young adults. A strange thing happens at around age 20. All of a sudden, parents become OK again. But it's also at this age that you can see your parents more clearly for who they really are, including their flaws and broken places. It's time to extend to them the same grace you need from others. You have major decisions to make about your education, career, relationships, and maybe even marriage. Ultimately, those decisions are yours to make, but you can honor your parents by seeking their counsel and blessing in those decisions.
When I first decided to become a pastor, my parents didn't support me. As a matter of fact, they thought I was a little crazy. At that point I was a disappointment to them. But I felt God had called me, and so that was a decision where I had to honor God first. Jesus said, "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37). Our commitment to obeying God always comes first. At the same time, before I married Lynn, I sought their counsel and blessing. Even though they weren't believers at the time, I found that my parents usually gave me very wise counsel.
Finally, the fifth commandment is for adults. It's for people in their 30's, 40's, 50's, and even 60's. Quite a few scholars believe this command was primarily meant for adults with older parents. Remember, in those days there was no social security system, and several generations would live together under one roof. If their kids didn't care for them, they were sunk!
Honoring your parents means you take responsibility for their care. Surveys show that barely half of Americans think it's their job to care for their elderly parents. When Jesus saw Pharisees refusing to care for their parents because of money they said was devoted to God, he accused them of breaking the fifth commandment. Honoring your parents means you make sure they're taken care of. It also means you continue to give them weight and value in your life—continue to spend time with them, talk to them, and listen to them. Too many people in my generation are just waiting around for an inheritance. This command reminds us that as adults, our primary role is not to childishly take from our parents but to give to them. When we honor our parents in this way, we honor God. Leviticus 19:32 says, "You shall rise up before the gray headed and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God ".
The sad fact is, whether we're children, teenagers, young adults, or in middle age, none of us have kept the fifth command perfectly. Did you ever lie to your parents? Did you ever speak poorly of them? Have you weighed their advice lightly instead of heavily? Have you ever felt as if they were in your way and demanded too much from you? Not one of us has been a perfect child.
Except for Jesus. Jesus honored his parents. As a child, we're told "He went down with them [his parents] and came to Nazareth; and he continued in subjection to them" (Luke 2:51). That doesn't mean there wasn't any strain. As an adolescent, there was tension when he stayed behind at the temple instead of going home with his parents (Luke 2:41-50). Later, there was misunderstanding when he kept preaching instead of stopping to visit his family (Luke 8:19-21). But Jesus honored his parents right to the end of his life. He couldn't personally care for his mother in her old age, but he saw to it that she was provided for by asking his friend John to be a son to her (John 19:26-27). From the manger to the cross, Jesus honored his parents.
But Jesus is more than just an example to us; he's most of all a Savior for us. When Jesus died on the cross he paid the price for our breaking of the fifth commandment. I could come to one of my daughters when they were younger and say, "You didn't do your homework. I told you to, and you didn't do it." After hearing her excuse, which would be lame, I'd say, "I don't care why you didn't do it. I told you to do it, and you didn't." But if I was trying to get her to understand the gospel I might say, "You know, you think you're a pretty good girl, but you're not. God wants you to obey me all the time, but sometimes you don't. How can God accept you?" Now since her father is a pastor my daughter would probably know the answer had something to do with Jesus. And she would be right. Jesus is the answer to that problem. God accepts us not on the basis of what we've done, but on the basis of what Jesus has done. And one of the things he's done is keep the fifth commandment.
Let's strive to keep the fifth commandment, but let's also remember that Jesus is the only One who ever kept it perfectly. Let's give grace to our kids and let's give grace to our parents. Jesus is the perfect Savior because he was the perfect child.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.