For those of you who have been tracking along with our Big 10 series, today we hit the mid-point. We’re now half-way through the Ten Commandments. The Fifth Commandment has to do with mothers and fathers.
“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”
This is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it. If you follow this instruction, then the promise is this: you’ll have a long life in the Promised Land. There is a connection between how they treated their elders and how God blessed them.
This is somewhat of a foreign concept in western culture. We love people as long as people love us. But God doesn’t put conditions on this command. It’s not always easy. Have you ever had a parent who knows everything and, no matter what you say or do, nothing is ever right or good enough? But we are still called to honor the parents that drive us crazy.
When you’re 10, you might have disagreements with your parents that drive you bananas. When you’re 50 years old, you might have life-long issues with your parents that have never been resolved. I’m reminded of a joke I once read:
– When a child is six her words are, Daddy I love you.” – When she is 16 her words are, “Daddy you have no idea what you’re talking about!” – When she’s 26 it’s, “Daddy, you’ve got some good ideas.” – When she’s 36 it’s, “Daddy, I should have listened to you from the very beginning.”
The Bible says to honor our parents, but this is not about domination. Parents, we cannot use this commandment to batter our children and demand obedience. God isn’t talking to minors about how to deal with parents while we’re living in their home. The readers here are adults. God is telling those of us who are grown that we still need to honor mother and father.
But it goes far beyond that.
In Hebrew, the words mother and father go beyond the parental units that birthed us. The words can be used for grandparents and ancestors. It really comes down to the family as a whole. God’s promise to a long life in the Promised Land isn’t about obeying the people who raised us—it’s about creating a culture that honors those who have gone before us. It’s about the entire community sticking together and thriving.
In Deuteronomy 6:1-9, we’re told about what the family is supposed to do:
These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
It’s the responsibility of the family to teach about God and his covenant. It’s the responsibility of the children (adult children, mind you) to say, “I will be a covenant keeper.”
What does it mean to honor parents and family? It can be a vague commandment, but it wasn’t difficult in the ancient world: you don’t curse your parents, you don’t strike your parents, you don’t disobey your parents, and you provide your parents with a proper burial.
Our culture has trained us to think of community in a different way. Instead of family units making up the community, we are now communities of strangers. In the ancient near east, the smallest family unit was the nuclear family. They would live with the larger unit: the clan. The clans stuck together to make up the tribe. The tribes then made up the nation.
Without strong families, the nation ultimately fails. When the family falls apart, the community falls apart. It’s not just about honoring parents because this is a nice thing to do. God tells us that a strong community is predicated on how we honor the family.
In the New Testament, Jesus radically changes the notion of family and community. Instead of flesh and blood, Jesus now makes faith the common bond that unites the new community. In the church, we used to call each other “Brother So-and-So” and Sister such-and-such.” Flesh and blood doesn’t matter anymore because we have a new bond.
We have the same obligation to honor those who have come before us. We have an obligation to respect and listen to our fathers and mothers. Children, obey your parents. Honor your father and mother. Jesus is pulling directly from the 10 Commandments and he reiterates the same principles. But he flips the table on the parents and elders: Don’t exasperate your kids but bring them up in the right way. This is the essence of discipleship! We are all called to help disciple those who come after us.
It’s not enough to go to church and get our spirituality on. We’re called to parent and to raise up the next generation. If the community is going to be strong, it starts with the family unit. When we fail to disciple those who come after us, the community will weaken and ultimately fail.
Parent to child, are we doing what we ought to be doing to establish healthy families? Are we raising our children to be covenant keepers? Are we honoring those who have gone before us—not just our biological parents but our spiritual elders? The church is designed to BE the new family unit. It’s a sad state of affairs when people can go to church and feel completely isolated. It’s time to revitalize the community; the family; the community of God.
When we work on developing the Christian family, we’ll see happier and healthier homes. We’ll see stronger churches. We’ll see stronger communities of faith that actively honor the elders while simultaneously raising up the next generation.
Questions for Reflection
How can I honor my biological parents? How can I honor my spiritual elders?
What can I do to build and foster a healthy family and community?
Chris Linzey is husband to Tené, father to the three most beautiful children in the world, movie addict (seriously, if it’s on a screen he'll watch it—doesn’t matter how crummy or low-budget), and a Navy Chaplain, currently assigned to Naval Air Station, Meridian. Chris has a deep desire to help people live lives of faith where the Bible is more than mere words on a page, but the way we live everyday. His undergrad and Master’s studies were in Biblical Studies and he focused on the New Testament (his mentor was a Gospel of Mark scholar). He went on to get a Master of Divinity (MDiv) in Pastoral Preaching. Follow him at @chrislinzey.