“Honor your father and your mother”
One of the greatest temptations faced by spiritual people is to separate devotion to God from how we deal with one another. Sadly, some religious people go to church each Sunday, study the Bible diligently, pray fervently, and contribute generously to the church, but are abusive to family members, tell prejudicial jokes, gossip, and treat others cruelly. Because of their spiritual devotion, they imagine themselves to be saints, but those who watch how such people live have a very different opinion of them.
God opposes such a division between spiritual devotion and integrity of behavior. Therefore the Ten Commandments begin with four commands focused on our devotion to God and quickly move on to six commands that deal with how we interact with others.
These six relationship-focused commands begin with the most basic of all relationships—the relationship with our parents. If we cannot act with integrity in this relationship, it is doubtful that we can act with integrity in any other relationship.
Some Biblical scholars have argued that this may be the most difficult of all the commandments, for this command does not simply tell us what behaviors to avoid. It is often easier for us when we are told what we must not do: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal. If I do not do those things, then I know that I have successfully fulfilled those commands. But this commandment is open-ended and always leaves me wondering whether I have done enough or whether there is something more I should do to honor my father and my mother.
The Hebrew word translated here as “honor,” kabed, has to do with weight or heaviness. Mark D. Roberts suggests, “It might be paraphrased here as: ‘Give your father and mother the weight they deserve in life.’ The opposite of this would be treating your parents lightly, ignoring them, minimizing them, or even mistreating them.”
According to Webster’s Dictionary to honor someone is to esteem that person, to credit value to that person, to treat that person with respect, or to confer distinction upon that person.
This command calls us to look upon our parents as valuable, esteemed and precious—and to treat them that way. Whether or not they were good parents, Jesus looked upon them as so valuable, esteemed, and precious that he died for them. We are called to look upon our parents not on the basis of how good they were to us but to look upon them as Jesus looks upon them.
That which we look upon as valuable, esteemed and precious, we take an interest in. This command calls us to take an active interest in our parents. If we take an active interest in our parents, then we should take time to listen to them.
That which we look upon as valuable, esteemed and precious, we treat in a loving and respectful manner. This command calls us to interact with our parents in loving and respectful ways.
Many years ago, the newspaper columnist Ann Landers shared this letter: “Yesterday was an old man’s birthday. He was 91. He awakened earlier than usual, bathed, shaved and put on his best clothes. Surely they will come today, he thought. He didn’t take his daily walk to the gas station to visit with the old-timers of the community, because he wanted to be right there when they came. He sat on the front porch with a clear view of the road so he could see them coming. Surely they would come today. He decided to skip his noon nap because he wanted to be up when they came.
“He has six children. Two of his daughters and their married children live within four miles. They hadn’t been to see him for such a long time. But today was his birthday. Surely they would come today.
“At suppertime he refused to cut the cake and asked that the ice cream be left in the freezer. He wanted to wait and have dessert with THEM when they came. About 9 o’clock he went to his room and got ready for bed. His last words before turning out the lights were, ‘Promise to wake me up when they come.’
“It was his birthday, and he was 91.”