Honor People—Or Dishonor God
The life and legacy of Moses
Dr. Jim Denison
Do you remember the game show Family Feud? 100 people were surveyed on a subject. Then two families, five members each, tried to guess the most popular answers on these surveys. Richard Dawson’s “Survey says…” was the “Is that your final answer?” of the day. The game show aired from 1976 to 1985, was revived again in 1988 for one season, and aired again briefly several years ago. But the title describes our culture even more fully today than it did 25 years ago.
Our relationships need help. Fortunately, God cares. That’s why he gave us the last six commandments. Today we’ll survey more material than one lesson can use, as you select those relational truths which your class most needs to hear.
Honor your parents (Exodus 20:12)
“Honor,” the commandment begins. The word means to respect or venerate. “Your father and mother,” God continues. In a world which relegated women to inferior status, this inclusion is significant. And note that Leviticus 19:3 restates it this way: “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” Here the mother is even listed first.
So that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” the commandment concludes. The first meaning of this promise is that the nation of Israel would be secure in her society and land if she kept this commandment. But there are other meanings as well, as we will see in a moment.
Why honor our parents? Note that God’s word makes the fifth commandment binding for all time. Leviticus 19:3 says, “Each of you must respect his mother and father.” None of us are excluded, no matter the circumstances of our situation. We’ll say more about this in a moment. The book of Proverbs adds, “If a man curses his father or mother, his lamp will be snuffed out in pitch darkness” (20:20); and also this gruesome hyperbole, “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures” (31:17).
The New Testament is clear as well. Jesus renewed this commandment when he told the Rich Young Ruler, “honor your father and mother” (Matthew 19:19), and he severely criticized the religious leaders of his day for not honoring and supporting their parents (Mark 7:9-13). The epistles are clear: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord. Honor your father and mother” (Ephesians 6:1-2); “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20).
We need to keep this commandment for the sake of our souls, our families, and our future. This is indeed how to “live long” on the earth. Perhaps this brief tale from the Brothers Grimm will make the point. Once upon a time there was a little old man. His eyes blinked and his hands trembled; when he ate he clattered the silverware, missed his mouth with the spoon as often as not, and dribbled a bit of his food on the tablecloth. He lived with his married son, and this son and his wife soon decided that they could not have such a distraction at their table.
So they led the little old man gently but firmly by the arm to the corner of the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food in a bowl. But one day his hands trembled even more than usual, and the bowl fell and broke. His son and daughter-in-law, in anger and distress, then made a little wooden trough and fed him out of that. It was terrible to see him eating as would an animal, but that’s the way things were.
One day the couple’s four-year-old son was playing intently with some bits of wood, so they asked him what he was doing. “I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling at them for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”
The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, then they cried a little, then they took the little old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and gave him his food on a plate, and from then on nobody ever scolded when he clattered or spilled or broke things.
We need the fifth commandment, for our lives, our families, and our future.
What about dishonorable parents? But before we find practical ways to honor our parents, we need briefly to ask a hard question: what if our parents are not honorable? What if they try to keep us from following Christ or otherwise doing what is right? What then?
Sometimes we must choose which commandment to break. When Corrie ten Boom’s family was harboring Jews, one day the Nazis banged on their door and asked if they had Jews in their house. Which commandment will they break—the sixth commandment, not to murder, or the ninth commandment, not to lie?
Jesus made it clear that following him would sometimes cause conflict with our family. His own family misunderstood him early in his ministry. And he specifically told his followers, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37).
This tragedy happened often to early Christians who had to refuse their father’s order to reject Christ, even to the point of death. In Jewish society as well, when a son turned from his father’s faith he became dead unto him. I had a student at Southwestern Seminary whose Orthodox Jewish family held a burial service for him when he came to Christ. There is a tombstone in New York with his name on it today.
Ephesians 6:1 is clear: “Obey your parents in the Lord.” Martin Luther had to refuse his father’s wishes that he become a lawyer, to become a minister. Thomas Aquinas’s family locked him in the family castle for a year in their attempt to prevent his entering the ministry. Francis Schaeffer’s father forbade his starting L’Abri.