Here’s a picture of the ten commandment tablets, as they are often depicted: what’s wrong with this picture? In what ways would the original tablets have looked different to this? The original two tablets obviously wouldn’t have had Roman Numerals or King James English, they probably weren’t rounded at the top, and they weren’t joined together. They were inscribed front and back (Exodus 32:15). It is most likely that the two tablets were two copies, both exactly the same, a common practice for covenants or treaties in that time period. The original tablets also would have had the introductory phrase which tells us these commandments are given to show God’s people how to live as people who have already been redeemed from slavery. They are not the way for them to earn their redemption.
So far we’ve looked at the first four commandments, which teach us how to love God. The final six commandments teach us about how to love God by loving our neighbour. They first of these is this fifth commandment which is focussed on the family: Honour your father and mother.
Annie Gottlieb wrote this about her experience in the USA in the 1960’s “We believed that the family was the foundation of the state…We truly believed that the family had to be torn apart to free love which alone could heal…and the first step was to tear ourselves free from our parents.” They wanted to radically change society and they saw the way to do that was to tear apart the family, which they saw as the foundation of society. In the ten commandments we see the same thing in the opposite direction, God is telling his people how to live and flourish, and build a new society, and he begins with the family.
As we consider this commandment let’s ask four questions:
1. How can we honour our parents? What does it look like in practice?
a) Children : Obey your parents
Paul cites this commandment when he addresses children: ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 “Honor your father and mother” (Ephesians 6:1-2). Children, one way you honour your parents is to obey them – do what they tell you do to, when they tell you to do it, the first time, without complaining. It’s not easy, we all resist the idea of authority, yet the Bible says this is right, and it’s possible through Jesus. Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
One of the advantages Christian parents have is that we have a basis on which to teach our children right and wrong. If you’re an atheist, you don’t have that rational basis to teach objective morality. Richard Dawkins says that in his view: the universe we observe has precisely the properties we expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. That’s how he sees the universe as an atheist. If there’s no God, there’s no ultimate purpose no ultimate coherent reality, there’s no ultimate good or evil, no right or wrong.
If you’re an atheist and your children say to you why should I obey you? You’d have to say, well there is no right and wrong really, the best we have to go on is what the majority of people think, and most people think that it’s good for children to obey their parents, so you should obey me. If you’ve got a smart kid they could say, yes but what the majority think now is often different to what the majority thought 50 years ago, or different to what the majority will think in another 100 years, it doesn’t seem like a very good reason! What can you say? Smart Kid! As an atheist you don’t have an ultimate basis do teach them right and wrong.
If you’re a Christian, and your children ask, why should I obey you? You can say, because God says – children obey your parents, God made us, he knows what’s best for us, he tells us what is right and wrong, and he tells us it’s right for you to obey him, and it’s right for you to obey me, as I bring you up in God’s ways.
Children, God wants you to obey your parents. It’s not easy, but obeying your parents is one way that you learn to obey God.
Parents, God wants you to teach your children to obey you. Your children need love, they need care, they need discipline, but most of all they need to be taught God’s ways, they need to be taught to obey you.
b) Give weight to what they say
The word honour literally means ‘give weight to’ or ‘regard as heavy’. To honour our parents means we can’t just ignore them, or easily dismiss what they say. Our parents are not always right, yet the Bible says we should listen to them and consider what they say. Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (Proverbs 23:22). Notice how that’s true at any age, even when our parents are older, we shouldn’t despise them, even if we disagree with them, we should listen to them.
c) Care for them in their old age
Jesus refers to this commandment, when he criticises the Pharisees for putting their traditions above God’s word: For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ … But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. (Matthew 15:4-6). The religious leaders were saying you could get out of caring for your parents if you told them the money you’d set aside to care for them you were using for God instead. Jesus said that’s putting your own tradition above God’s word.
When Jesus was dying on the cross: When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19:25-27). His mother by this stage it seems was a widow, with little or no income, and Jesus is ensuring she is cared for.
How we care for our parents in our age with superannuation and various forms of health care, may vary depending on their circumstances and your circumstances, but it is something for us all to think and pray through – how do I honour my parents, and not just come up with excuses like the Pharisees were doing?
d) Speak respectfully to and about your parents
How do you refer to your parents? Whether you are younger or older. How do you speak about them when they are not around? You may not agree with them on some things, you may have been hurt by them, yet they are still human beings, made in God’s image – how do you speak about them, and speak to them? To honour your parents will involve speaking respectfully to them, and about them, even if you disagree with them.
2. What are some benefits of honouring our parents?
a) Learn to honour others
This commandment, comes with a promise: v16 so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you. The wording is almost exactly the same as Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time. (Deuteronomy 4:40). God had rescued his people from slavery, and was giving them a new life in a new land. He told them how they could flourish in that land – by keeping his commands. Keeping his commands would be good for them, and for their society.
A well-ordered society begins in the home, with children being taught to honour their parents. By nature we live as though life is all about us, but being in a family forces us to think about the needs of others. The way we relate to our parents will impact the way we relate to others. If respect for authority is graciously and lovingly taught and learned in the home, you’ll learn respect for authority at school, or in the workplace or in the community. If respect for authority isn’t well taught in the home, or if you experience abuse of authority in the home, it’s often much harder to learn to trust or respect authority outside the home.
The Anglican prayer-book I think puts it well, when it says: In marriage a new family is established in accordance with God’s purpose, so that children may be born and nurtured in secure and loving care, for their well-being and instruction, and for the good order of society, to the glory of God.
Some modern people think we can redefine marriage, or redefine the family. There are no perfect families, but society as a whole will benefit where a man and a woman begin a new family, and teach any children God gives them to honour their father and mother.
b) Brings joy to the family
One of the hard realities about being a Parramatta fan is that you learn about suffering, week after week, year after year, coach after coach there’s been much suffering for the last 27 years. But there are small moments of joy. Like Jarryd Hayne scoring the opening try of the first Origin on Wednesday night. A small moment of joy for Parra fans.
Family life can also involve suffering. It can be hard for all sorts of reasons: sickness, grief and conflict are all real. Yet there can be great joy in families too. The father of a righteous child has great joy; a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him. May your father and mother rejoice; may she who gave you birth be joyful! (Proverbs 23:23-25) One of the best ways for children to honour their parents is through living a wise, life, making wise choices. There is great joy for parents who see their children making wise choices by God’s grace. Honouring your parents can bring joy to your family.
c) Learn to honour our heavenly Father
Jesus says 9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11) There are no perfect parents. Jesus in fact calls all parents here, evil – there is a sense in which even the best human parents, have self-centred rather than God centred motives. Yet even imperfect parents can do good for their children. They might do it out of love, they might do it because they have to, because they know no one else will do it.
A parent who does even some good for us, points us to the heavenly father who can do so much more good for us, and who loves and cares for us more than any earthly parent ever could. Learning to honour our parents, can help us begin to learn to honour our true heavenly Father.
3. Why can it be so hard to honour our parents?
a) Imperfect parents
Saul hurled his spear at [his son Jonathan] to kill him (1 Samuel 20:32). It’s hard to honour your father when he’s tried to kill you. David’s son, Amnon raped David’s daughter Tamar. When David found out he was furious. (2 Samuel 13:21). Yet he did not bring Amnon to account for his actions. It’s hard to honour a father when he has the power to address a great injustice, yet does nothing about it.
No parent is perfect. Even the best fail. Tragically, some parents are neglectful, harsh or even abusive. It’s hard to honour parents who are not worthy of honour. That’s one thing that makes this commandment so hard – the commandment is not: honour those who are worthy, it is honour your father and mother. For many that can look harsh, or even impossible.
There are so many other difficult situations we can face in thinking about how to honour our parents: eg I want to follow Jesus, and I can see that Jesus’ loves the church, but my parents don’t want me to go to church: what should I do? I want to get baptised because Jesus’ commands it, but my parents don’t want me to get baptised, what should I do? I want to honour my father and mother, but they disagree over what I should do, how can I honour both my father and mother when they both want me to do different things?
b) Our own selfishness and pride
When I was a young child I often thought I knew better than my parents. That didn’t change all that much when I became a teenager, or even when I became an adult. One reason it’s so hard to honour our parents is that by nature we’re self-centred, we’re proud, we think we know better than our parents and better than God. Isaiah says: we all like sheep have gone astray, each of us have turned to his own way…(Isaiah 53:6). It’s hard to honour our parents, because we want to live our way, and do what we want.
The reality of imperfect, sometimes terrible parents, and our own self-centredness can make honouring your parents seem impossible…
4. Where can we find the power to honour our parents?
Sally is a 28-year old woman. She grew up in a household where she was treated terribly by her father. She became a Christian in high school. “For years I felt that I could never know God as my Father because I had such a rotten relationship with my real father. I thought of God as being like my father: untrustworthy, demanding, merciless, unpredictable. Then I realized that my biggest problem was me, not God or my father. My belief system was all messed up. I was projecting lies onto God and not believing what was true about God!”  Sally realised that what she was believing about God was wrong. She had allowed her terrible experiences to dictate what she thought about God, rather than what God himself said. As she studied the truth about God in the Bible she realised, God the Father is faithful, merciful, consistent. His love endures forever. It was in recognising the truth of what God is like, that she found the power to love him as her Father.
It’s only in the love of our true and perfect heavenly Father that we find the power to honour our own imperfect parents.
No matter what our earthly family is like, through Jesus’ God has made a way for us to come into his family. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12). Jesus is the one person who perfectly honoured his earthly parents, and his heavenly Father. Through trusting in his death we can be forgiven for all our sin, and welcomed into his family.
In the gospels we hear God the Father, saying about Jesus – this is my Son whom I love. We see the love the Father has for the Son, yet incredibly when Jesus prays near the end of his life, for all who will one day believe in him he says to his Father, how he wants them to know you…have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:23). It’s in the cross that we see this amazing truth, that God has loved us, even as he has loved Jesus.
A lot of difficulties in our life can be related to either blaming our parents for what they have done, or seeking in others the love or approval that we feel our parents never gave us. The only hope for both of those situations is to recognise that the answer will never be in your parents. No parent, even the best parent will treat you perfectly, or love you perfectly. Only God can.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells a parable of a son who dishonours his father in many ways: he takes his inheritance, he leaves his father, he wastes the money foolishly, and ends up living in poverty. Then at his lowest point, he decides to go home, not thinking his father would take him back as a son, but hoping he’d take him back as a servant. Instead he finds his father has been watching out for him, longing for him to return, his father runs to him when he sees him, throws his arms around him and kisses him, and welcomes him home with a party.
It’s a picture of the love of the heavenly father, who is longing for his children to come home. The power to honour our earthly parents comes in receiving the love the true heavenly Father has for his children.
(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 26 May 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon here )
 Annie Gottlieb, Do you believe in magic? Cited in PG Ryken, Written in Stone, 117.
 David Powlison, What if your Father didn’t love you? The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Vol XII, No 1 Fall 1993.