“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). This is the commandment for little kids, right? Wrong! It is for grown ups, as well. The heart of this commandment is the word “honor.” The Hebrew literally says, “make heavy.” The figurative meaning is to give great weight, praise, honor or respect to someone.
To honor or respect someone means to give great weight to their beliefs, opinions, way of doing things, in fact, everything about them. For children that implies obedience. That’s why Paul quotes this commandment after he instructed children to obey their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1). There he also points out that this is the first commandment with a promise. The promise is that if Israel obeys they will remain long in the land of Canaan.
This promise is repeated many times in the Law with regard to all the commands. But it is especially significant in regard to honoring parents. The family relationship, the respect for authority learned at home, the discipline developed through parental instruction, is the key to the success of any society. God warns us that to fail in this command is to fail in all of them in coming generations.
Grown ups are no longer required to obey their parents, but they are still to honor them. This means respecting their advice, seeking their advice, continuing to value their wisdom, and sharing your life with them. This also means providing for them. In 1 Timothy 5:8 Paul, while giving instructions about the care of widows, remarks that if the widow has a family, that family should provide for her. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith is worse than an unbeliever.”
Respect and honor for parents, the fifth commandment, relates to how we treat one another. The first four deal with how we relate to God. But in a real sense, the way we relate to our parents in formative years determines to some extent the way we relate to God. It is also a test of how obedient we are to God.
If we have parents who are unworthy of such honor it becomes a task of figuring out how to honor them for their position without violating boundaries of safety and health. This becomes one of the most difficult tasks a child faces. A child, helplessly dependent on an abusive parent, must learn how to find healthy parenting from God and those God sends his or her way. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me” (Psalm 27:10).