We now turn to those commandments that focus on the second part of Jesus’ summary of the law:1 “loving your neighbor as yourself.”2 It is worth pointing out that even though these commandments appropriately follow the ones about loving God above all,3 in a way they work in the opposite way- our response to our neighbor reveals our attitude towards God.
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”4
The Fifth Commandment tells us, “Honor your father and your mother.”5 This commandment is as basic as they come, yet immeasurably profound and beneficial to a society which applies it.
First, notice that it assumes the basic structure of the family, which has served as the cornerstone of our civilization and our nation’s success. Isn’t it interesting that the commandment does not just say “honor your parents,” but it delineates the roles specifically as “father and mother?” The stability and security that comes from that strong bond between mother, father and children has sustained our country through our toughest times. And even though a part of today’s culture earnestly seeks to dismantle that model, its innumerable benefits are undeniable.
Second, this commandment, as the first, follows that sense of hierarchy and order. The great poet William Shakespeare is attributed with painting this mental picture for us: “The voice of parents is the voice of gods: for to their children they are heav’n's lieutenants.”6
This relationship between children and parents actually mirrors that of humanity and our Father in heaven. The importance of this order has been observed throughout history by all religions and philosophies, not just Christianity. Confucius wrote in the 5th Century:
To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.7
“Honor your father and mother” is the only commandment accompanied by a specific promise, “that your days may be long.”8 In fact, the next time the Bible refers to this commandment it goes even further, “that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”
We have seen this exemplified in the lives of many great men, including our Founders.
Think of the beautiful example of George Washington! His heart was set on going to sea, his trunk was already on board ship; when he bade farewell to his mother he found her in tears.
“Go and tell them to return my trunk; I will not leave and break my mother’s heart” he said to his servant.
“George, God has promised to bless the children that obey their parents: I believe He will bless you too.”9
And it came true. The accounts of God’s blessing on George Washington are many.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.”10 John Quincy Adams said, “All that I am my mother made me.”11 And Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”12
But more than just a personal blessing, our country has reaped the benefits of such an honorable attitude. It is this family structure that helps us produce virtuous citizens, such as the Founders, who contribute so much to the well-being of our nation. Thus, laws protecting parental rights, supporting the family, encouraging parental responsibility and encouraging the care and respect of our elderly are vital to our nation’s health.
By contrast, modern efforts to redefine marriage and family, to usurp parental rights and to empower children to violate this commandment will have a devastating effect on our future. Many of the problems we face today have been the result of the deterioration of the family.13
Two more ideas are important. One is that there is no statute of limitations on this commandment. Notice we are to honor our father and mother throughout our lives, not theirs. So we honor them, even when they are gone!
And that brings us to the final point, which is a bit more difficult to grasp but just as true. The commandment does not ask us to honor only “good” parents. Once again, the commandment depends on us and not our parents. Yes, sometimes the best way to honor an abusive parent is to expose him or her so that they are forced to stop the abuse, but the principle still stands.
Those who have forgiven a parent for some painful memories will often talk about how they had to do so for their own sake, not the parent’s: again, highlighting at whom the commandment is aimed.
We are better persons, a better people and a better nation when we abide by this commandment. Its benefits are not only self-evident but also self-regenerating. There is an old Spanish saying my mother used to tell me growing up that speaks of the profound, enduring nature of this reality. She would always say to me: “Hijo fuiste, padre ser.” Which roughly translated means, “a son, you’ve been; a parent, you will be.” At the time, of course, I had no idea what she meant, but as a father of three today well, let’s just say my mother is a very wise woman.
- “Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40.
- Matthew 22:39 (NKJV), quoting Leviticus 19:18.
- Matthew 22:37.
- 1 John 4:20.
- Exodus 20:12.
- William Shakespeare, Double Falsehood, or, The Distressed Lovers, 289 (Brean Hammond ed., A&C Black Publishers LTD 2010).
- Gary P. Guthrie, 1,600 Quotes & Pieces of Wisdom that Just Might Help You Out When You’re Stuck in a Moment (and Can’t Get Out of It!) 70, (iUniverse, Inc. 2003).
- Exodus 20:12
- William Dallman, “Our Father’s Faith, Our Children’s Language!”, Lutheran Witness, June 21, 1893.
- Paul Leicester Ford, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. V: 1788 – 1792 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1895).
- Homiletic Review: An International Magazine of Religion, Theology and Philosophy, Volume 69, 420 (The Religious Newspaper Agency, 1915).
- For more on this topic see Children at Risk by Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph. D., (Transaction Publishers 2010).