In reflecting back on Mother’s Day and looking froward to Father’s Day, I am reminded of the seminal command on how we ought to treat our fathers and mothers. The 5th commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” It is easy for us to think that we are fulfilling this command because it is so familiar to us, and while our basic understanding of obedience is correct, it is also incomplete.
The Ten Commandments are set in the context of a covenant people, and a narrative of God’s redemptive work among and through those people. The people of Israel had received a promise from God of the land, and an identity that marked them as God’s own possession. That Promised Land symbolized a larger promise of deliverance, and with it came the promise of the reality of the presence of God. But that blessing of possession and presence was set in the context of obedience to the terms of the covenant. They were told that in order to be prolonged in the land, and as Deuteronomy 5 adds, “that it may go well with them,” they must keep the core stipulations revealed to Moses. Specifically here, in the first command on how God calls us to live with each other, they were told they must honor father and mother.
This command is not addressed particularly to children, but to sons and daughters. Paul clearly applies the command to children obeying their parents, but first, this command is addressed primarily to adults. As God’s people, we are called to this command to honor, even as it is addressed to Israel. The context is a series of commands for adults on murder and adultery, and this command comes in the context of a covenant in which God is explaining to His people how they are to honor Him.
To honor the one true living God is to honor father and mother. This command is about learning to honor so that we know how to honor God, and learning how to obey so that we know how to obey God. This command is about being a picture of honor and obedience so that our children, and the world around us will know what it looks like to submit to a loving heavenly father. As part of the parameters of His covenant, God told His people of the behaviors expected of them, behaviors that in their very essence point to Him.
From the beginning, the tenor and fabric of the biblical faith is a faith that honors the patriarchs. This is the foundation for the central biblical motif of generational faithfulness. Before Israel is a nation, it is identified as the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The life of Jesus is characterized by the reality of the Son bringing honor to His Father through loving obedience. Honor means to treat someone with the proper respect due to the person and their role. This means to respect, love, to obey, and to respond with obligation to parents. This is the basic pattern of life for those in submission to Scripture. We are to honor father and mother by honoring their name, by our embrace of all that has been given to us as a spiritual heritage. We are to give testimony that it is our great honor to be their children, and to pass down the spiritual inheritance we received from them.
Everything that is true of this command in the context of our physical family is also true in the context of our spiritual family, the church. So, we have not only the responsibility to honor our fathers and mothers, but Paul instructs Timothy and Titus that young men are to honor the older men; in the church no old men die alone and there are no fatherless sons. Older women are to counsel younger women; no one is left an orphan and the wisdom of godly matriarchs is paid forward to each generation. The church is a family being built into a household of faith, honoring both biological parents, and in the same way the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family of faith. We must not receive this as a burden, but as a gift. As the church fails to demonstrate this, by the richness of its multi-generational life as a spiritual family, it dishonors the gospel, and God the Father. There must not be any dishonored father or mother in the family of God.
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and honor them. Though our legacy will be determined by what we pass on to those who follow after us, our patrimony is what we have received from those who came before. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that your God is giving you.”