READ : Exodus 20:12
The way we treat our parents is a self-fulfilling prophecy about our own future.
Welcome to this fifth session of our Ten Commandment series! Let’s remember again how they begin. God loves his people, sees them in their bondage and distress and comes down to help. He brings them out of the house of bondage, lavishes care on them. Only then does he call them to respond with an answering love and to obey his will. So we know that all his commands come from a caring heart and are meant for our good always. His will, as Paul the apostle says, is good, acceptable, and perfect. Now that is deeply true of the command we study today:
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.
This is the bridge command between the first table of the Law and the second. It is the family law. It reminds us that the creation of our race began with a wedding and with a call to have children.
The family is the heart of humanity, the foundation of all social relationships. This command points us to the fundamental institution God has created and blessed. A husband, a wife, children – a family. In these days when the family is so stressed and sometimes its very existence challenged, it’s timely and wise to consider God’s vision of what it is to be.
Right after the restatement of The Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy chapter 5 come these words to parents. Listen:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Deut. 6:4-7 nrsv
The Calling of Parents
That’s the calling of a parent among God’s people. Let’s look at it. There are, first, reminders that the Lord is their God and the Lord alone. And because he alone is their God, they are to love and worship him with undivided loyalty, with all the heart, soul and might. They are to cherish God’s Word in their hearts, keeping it there in musing, meditation and memory. God’s words are to be internalized. They are, in the words of a well-known catechism, “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” all that God says so that it becomes part of them on the inside. Then they are to live it out in practical obedience. That’s the foundation of being good and godly parents, worthy to be honored, fulfilling God’s purpose for a mom and a dad.
And then the calling to share with children comes out beautifully in Psalm 78.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known that our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
Parents are to model God’s Word and teach it untiringly to their children. The church and the Sunday school have their part but the chief instructors of children in the things of God are to be Mom and Dad. That’s their God-given calling. And they are to use, as we’ve just read, every means of instruction, to miss no opportunity, to remind children whose they are and whom they are to serve. They are to embody before their children God’s fatherly love.
When we come to the New Testament, we read in Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are not to “provoke their children to anger but to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” In that passage in Ephesians Paul has just been teaching about the need for believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Only by the power of the risen Christ can they live out this calling.
The first thing said to fathers is a negative, “Don’t provoke your children to anger.” Now how is that done? You know, if children are repeatedly angered, it builds up resentments. If they are repeatedly discouraged, it creates self-doubt. It robs joy. Worst of all it gives them a picture of God as demanding, demeaning and discouraging, definitely not the gracious Father we come to know in our Lord Jesus Christ.
They are to bring up these children in the Lord, always with the awareness that they represent the Lord, always depending on him in what they do, always with the aim that children will come to know and obey him. We’re to be like those parents who brought their little ones to Jesus.
These words “nurture” and “admonition” are similar, pointing to education in a general sense but also to correction and chastisement. The words “bring them up” is a term for nourishing, all that’s involved in helping a child grow to maturity. Let Christian fathers and mothers care for their families as the heavenly Father cares for his.
The Calling of the Child
Now for the calling of the child. “Obey your parents. Honor your parents.” This is where a child learns to be obedient later to teachers, to civil government and supremely to God. Children submitting to the rule of parents is all one with their allegiance to the Lord. They obey the Lord; they heed him, by heeding their parents. Part of their Christian discipleship, their learning and following Christ is this obedience to parents.
And Paul says, “For this is right” as he points again to the fifth commandment. What God wants for children is that they honor their fathers and their mothers. Now this is a calling that all of us have.
Someone asks, “How can I honor a father or mother who has been a wretched person or a terrible parent?” That’s not an easy question. But anyone who has reached maturity owes a lot even to very inadequate parents. We owe our existence to them. We are made in their image genetically. For long years we depended on them to keep us alive. Few indeed are the parents in whom there is nothing to honor.
We are to honor them because they are our parents, not because we see them as worthy of honor. Did they see us as so worthy of honor when they were cleaning up after us and changing our diapers?
Note that both parents are to be honored, not simply fathers in authority. In biblical times a father’s rule was seen as lifelong. For those who leave and cleave, however, it’s not to be obedience in the same sense but surely a respectful attitude and also a caring for parents in old age.
Can we honor parents after they have left this world? I believe we can. You honor them by remembering them and all they did for you. You honor them by thanking God for their contribution to your life. You honor them by seeking to live in a way that reflects well on them.
My dad never taught me about how to treat a wife, but he lived in such a way, showing such wonderful self-giving love to my mom that he instructed me by the way he lived. And it has led me to want to give my best to caring for my wife and sharing the gospel together with her. And I honor both parents by loving my sister and I try to remember that when her birthdays come around and whenever I get a chance to talk to her.
The promise joined to this commandment is beautiful: “that your days may be long upon the land that the Lord your God gives you.” It’s not necessarily a motive for honoring parents but certainly an assurance of the result. It reminds us again that what God calls us to do is always a good path for our feet, a way of blessing and hope. On the other hand, when that command is ignored or defied, parents can expect the same treatment some day.
There’s a searching story in Aesop’s Fables about a man and his wife who had a father in the home who was not, as he got older, very neat. He would sometimes spill on himself. And finally this wife thought her father-in-law was just too messy and so she put him over in a corner in the kitchen and had him eat there. Later when he spilled his bowl and made a mess, she said, “Well, now you need a kind of a trough to eat out of, like a pig.” So she gave him that.
Some time later, their little son whom they adored, only four years old, was working with some pieces of wood, and they asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m making a trough for you when you get older.” That was a searching word, reminding us that the way we treat our parents will some day be the way we are treated.
When We Spurn the Call
When children don’t honor parents, family life disintegrates. Honor disappears. A culture of death arises. Our days will scarcely be long in a land where the family crumbles, where parents don’t lovingly train children and where children no longer obey. Under the communists, the attempt was made to destroy the family. In our free society, we’re letting it happen almost by default.
The Promised Blessing
But where parents are honored, where families have that kind of mutual love, wonderful blessing comes, and whether it’s the land of Israel or whether it’s the land in which we live, family life enriches everything.
We can keep on honoring our parents in memory, in gratitude, in honorable living. A missionary to China once said that the greatest of all missionaries are not necessarily those who go to distant lands amid peril and persecution but rather the devoted fathers and mothers who spend their whole lives bringing their children to Christ. No glamor, no drama, no newspaper copy, yet by far the greatest number in the kingdom of God have entered it by way of such homes.
We can continue in whatever parenting and grand-parenting we may do, to do our best for families in the power and love of the risen Christ. And along with that we can pray, pray for the families to which we and our children belong. Pray for families in need and stress all around you. Pray for others you know who are at risk. May God raise up in our land devoted parents and respectful children that God may be honored and his people may live long on the earth!